What’s Different This Year?

Contemplating the year’s accomplishments.Happy_New_Year Clock

At the end of every year each member of my immediate family writes on paper what is important to him or her at that moment in time and what he or she wishes to accomplish in the coming year. We seal these declarations into an envelope and save for the same time next year. Then we open those we’d written the year before.

Younger children quickly see how friendships and desires can be fluid, that what they think is important may not be over time. And they see what is lasting in their lives. Most importantly, this ritual shows how much progress one makes in a year, in little things to the more obvious, from penmanship to passions over a particular movie, toy, or fictional character. One year my son had drawn a Star Wars inspired battle scene on his annual letter, a passion surpassed months later after playing on his first baseball team. A troublesome friendship my daughter desperately and heartbreakingly wished to save had all been forgotten and replaced by ones much healthier. Simply seeing how much better my son became at expressing himself from the previous year, with more accurate spelling and grammar was affirming, not to mention humorous, for him.

Change and growth requires an ability to relinquish one’s ideas about how life “should” go.

This annual exercise always reminds me of the myriad of ways we can grow over time, imperceptible until we step back and take inventory, but no less important than the shiny, sparkly accomplishments for which one can congratulate with a Hallmark Card. And we can continue to change, learn, and grow at any age. Just ask Phil, my ninety-six year old friend who recently joined a gym and hired a trainer to learn a few new moves. The prerequisite to growth, however, is a willingness to be open and willing to change or even just bend a little regarding one’s outlook. Change and growth requires an ability to relinquish one’s ideas about how life “should” go.

Celebrating what may seem like small accomplishments to many of us is how parents of children with serious mental illness (SMI) or disabilities learn to look at the course of a year. These parents learn very early that expecting offspring to adopt a parent’s dreams is never healthy and that setting realistic expectations is the best path to experiencing success. One parent tells her son who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, “Look how far you’ve come in three months, six months, a year!” He once wandered the streets and believed his girlfriend was the Messiah but now he chooses trusted family members to advocate for him and more recently worked a part-time delivery job. A young woman who once had severe depression and spent most of a year on her parent’s couch returned to school and works full-time helping others. A man who spent many years in and out of treatment facilities or living homeless, admits he has mental illness and complies with a bi-weekly shot of his meds.

The act of acknowledging one’s illness and staying on meds, or holding down a part-time job may seem like ridiculously small steps—even dangerously low expectations compared to graduating from high school or college, but not when you consider that living with SMI while symptoms are raging or in early stages of recovery is like the difference between running five miles versus running five miles through knee-deep molasses and barbells strapped to your thighs. Either way, the runner needs to be congratulated.

This time last year, I’d set a goal to bring to completion the first phase of the Behind The Wall project my sister, Elin Abercrombie, and I began. We’ve almost hit our goal. Admittedly, I was beginning to feel a little sorry for myself that I’d not accomplished what I’d set out to do in the timeframe we’d planned. But then I thought about all the intangibles I’d gained over the year through the work that we did complete. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really.

Elin and I have become acquainted with and inspired by some of the most heroic parents imaginable. From these quiet heroes we learned how to be better parents and humans. We heard stories of indefatigable patience and unbelievable strength. Parents we interviewed were once forced to explore the emotional limits of their souls and returned to tell us about it. I learned to hear these stories, and the experience of doing so changed my outlook on parenting, humanity, and life. All this came from a simple act of listening and hearing, a skill I only recently developed, and while there’s more work to do on our project, it has had remarkable personal impact. My sister and I have also developed new friendships, a community, and now understand deeply that no one should have to feel alone.

As the year winds down and we contemplate our ritual, the goal setting and annual review, I will be thinking about the big and little ways each of us has grown. Sometimes, it’s the little things that are most profound.

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As always, we welcome your comments.

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What We Need for the Holidays

Holidays.

I’m not lifting any veil by saying that the holiday season is the most stressful time of year for many, with a close second being tax day. It’s also the time of year that best distills the inequities in life and society. We are bombarded by displays of great wealth, 2013abundance, and overflowing joy in the media, anywhere in public. Retail establishments are festooned with shiny, glittery stuff to remind us how happy and joyful we are. Sparkly holiday ornamentation is sure to guide us into a fantasy world where all is good and kind and sweet.

But for some, these displays only serve to highlight struggles a person may have in their own life—practical, physical, and emotional challenges. It is during the holidays that a person experiencing grief often feels it more profoundly. It’s hard for anyone not to feel as if everyone else is experiencing the holidays in a grander way than we are, and upon passing the homeless person around the corner from the glowing Macy’s window, a Santa’s gift bag’s worth of guilt.

There are many lists now circulating about how to survive the holidays. To one such list posted on Facebook by a reputable mental health resource a person commented, “Get a giant duvet and hide.”

We aren’t going to provide advice here on how to survive the season. What we think is needed most during the holidays is understanding and compassion. Especially this time of year, we can allow one another slack. It’s the least we can do and it could go a long way to a person who feels like they’re walking in molasses.

Whether you are religious or not, there’s a familiar story from which we can draw guidance. It’s the one about the man and woman who’d married shortly after she announced her pregnancy, though not by him, and who were legally required to embark on a ninety-mile trek by foot and camel, across the desert to register for the Roman census. Their weeks-long journey began before sunup with temperatures in the thirties (Fahrenheit), wicked rain, and wind. Because of her condition, they moved slowly along a narrow road that was hilly and rocky, and with many precipitous drops. Wild bears and lions as well as outlaws threatened their safety. The couple moved through the cold days and nights, guided by light from one bright star. Days into the journey and nearly numb from exhaustion, they stayed warm by moving, and remotely optimistic about finding shelter each night.

Even riding their only camel, the woman’s ankles swelled and feet ached. Her groom ignored the pain in his feet shooting into his back, the cold that stiffened his toes. He remained single-minded about finding a safe and warm shelter for rest. Perhaps her weariness subdued her fears of childbirth; she had to depend upon maternal instinct and a man who was neither the father of the child nor an experienced midwife. She had to trust him, knowing he was a good man because it was all she had. If they were frightened about the dangers of childbirth, in a time when maternal fatality was common, neither expressed it. They pressed on, determined.

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As light faded and fatigue invaded their bones, they arrived in Bethlehem. The subtle pre-labor cramping that had begun hours outside the city had become intense and she felt nausea. At the door of the overcrowded inn, they were ready for warmth and rest, only to be turned away. Extra beds were also taken throughout homes in the crowded city. Not a single guest at the inn offered their quarters to the weary pregnant woman.

But the kind innkeeper, seeing a glimpse of goodness in their drawn faces, finally offered shelter in the cave beside the inn where their donkeys and a few sheep were sheltered. The couple settled into a corner, fashioning a straw bed and shortly after, the woman bore a son. And they rested.

Offering humble shelter was the least one could do for this couple and for that they were grateful.