Friday, January 7, 2011

The illusion of honor. Friday, January 7, 2011.

"Whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." –The Koran

On New Year’s Eve, a green car drove up in front of All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, during the holiday service. A few moments later, a bomb inside the car, filled with 100 KG of explosives as well as glass, nails and iron balls, went off. Twenty-three people inside the church were killed, and more than 100 injured.

Details remain sketchy as of this writing. Depending on the news source, the bomb was planted by someone on behalf of Al Qaeda, or not. The man in the car was a suicide bomber, or else the bomb went off prematurely before he was able to get away.

Whether or not this particular act was the work of a suicide bomber, it affects me directly because I happen to have personal ties to the community that was attacked so brutally. And we hear stories every week of suicide bombings all over the world. What happened here on 9-11 was a gigantic suicide bombing, using airplanes. The media quickly spread stories about the perpetrators committing “jihad,” expecting to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins.

It’s not the first time suicide has been used as a war tactic. In 1945, the Japanese – who were losing WWII – began filling planes with just enough fuel for them to crash into a target, and began sending their pilots on “kamikaze” missions. The word kamikaze means “divine wind,” and even today, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. Culturally, the Japanese have tolerated suicide, even encouraged it for reasons of “honor.” Today, unemployment and work stressors are the main reasons for suicide in Japan. “Suicide Clubs,” which people join so they can commit suicide together, are growing as a result of economic hardship.

So it would seem that Islamic and Japanese cultures approve of suicide, even promote it, which is a foreign thought to those of us in America and Europe. But if you scratch under the surface, there’s more to the story.

Japan is largely Shinto, and the Shinto religion allows suicide for a number of reasons. However, the Japanese government recognizes suicide as a major problem it its society. The suicide rate increased almost 35 percent in 1998 alone, to almost three times that of the United States, with people jumping in front of trains and leaping off high places all over the country. “Honorable” or not, these individuals leave grieved families behind, destabilizing their communities.

The Japanese government calls the problem of suicide “very serious,” and has released a nine-step plan, called a “counter-suicide White Paper,” which is intended to curb suicide by 20 percent before 2017. Among the Paper’s goals are a change in the culture’s attitude toward suicide.

And as my Moslem friends will tell me, Islam in general rejects the beliefs of the suicide bombers and condemns the work of such terrorists. “Jihad,” they explain, simply refers to a divine struggle – which can be internal – and in no way promotes the killing of non-Muslims. And while the Holy Bible contains no verses condemning suicide specifically, the Koran has several, including “And do not kill yourselves, God is merciful with you. And whosoever does that (kills self) with aggression and inequity, we will make them suffer in Hell fire, and this is easy for God to do.”

The true martyrs in the Coptic Church bombing were the thousands of Egyptian Muslims who showed up at Coptic churches all over Egypt last night, to serve as “human shields” during Orthodox Christmas celebrations. By attending Christmas services in order to prevent radical Moslems from bombing them, these Muslims put their lives, and their families’ lives, at risk – not just now but for the foreseeable future, and all on behalf of strangers of a different religion.

While the families of suicide bombers are often given financial awards by radical Islamic organizations, these Muslims who protected Christians are on their own. But I believe their sentiments are much more typical of the average Muslim. And I believe they’re a million times more brave than any suicide bomber.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

All in the family. Thursday, January 6, 2011.

“Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.” – Jerome Kegan

My sister-in-law thinks my big brother, Charles, is bipolar.

She wrote me about his extreme mood swings, bouts of anger, anxiety and depression. Moreover, she complains that Charles can’t communicate and doesn’t understand how she feels. She’s frustrated, but she’s also terrified – Charles has been out of work for months, and he’s been mentioning suicide.

None of this should be too surprising. I’m bipolar and our father is autistic. Charles is just acting like one of the family. Obviously, he took after Dad in his difficulties with empathy and communication, and my brother and I are very much alike in other ways.

The interesting thing, though, is that Charles never knew Dad. Charles has spent a grand total of three hours with our father, when he came into town a couple of years ago and had dinner with him. He’s spent a little more time with me – three short visits; in total, about a day.

Charles was born in the 1950s to a teen mom, before Dad ever met my mother. It was the “good old days,” and when the girl turned up preggers, her parents whisked her out of town so she could have her baby in secret. Charles was taken in and raised by relatives. Dad never knew their whereabouts, and back then, didn’t even consider the option to look. Charles and I were adults before we even knew of each other’s existence.

I visited Charles this summer, and even though the visit was short, I was taken aback by how similar Charles is to Dad, and to me. Charles is definitely not autistic, but in so many other ways – his mannerisms, his tastes in entertainment, his sense of humor – he’s a reflection of me, of my Dad, or both of us.

And now his wife writes me about bipolar, which is really weird because I’ve never told her that I’ve got that diagnosis myself. And she’s afraid Charles will kill himself, and she knows nothing of my attempt. She wants him to see a counselor, but there’s no money for that.

Anyone who has had more than one child will tell you that we are born with different temperaments. One’s first baby might sleep though the night and smile at every new face from birth, while the next one screams for hours and is petrified of strangers. It’s undeniable we learn behaviors from our parents, but it’s also obvious (to me, anyway) that we don’t come into the world tabula rasa.

I learned of perhaps the world’s most extreme example of this in college, when we studied “The Jim Twins.” Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were identical twins, raised apart, and reunited at the age of 39:

Both had childhood dogs named Toy. Both had been nail biters and fretful sleepers. Both had migraines. Both had married first wives names Linda, second wives named Betty. Lewis named his first son James Allen, Springer named his James Alan. For years, they both had taken holidays on the same Florida beach. They both drank Miller Lite, smoked Salem cigarettes, loved stock car racing, disliked baseball, left regular love notes to their wives, made doll furniture in their basements, and had added circular white benches around the trees in their backyards. Their IQs, habits, facial expressions, brain waves, heartbeats, and handwriting were nearly identical. The Jim twins lived apart but died on the same day, from the same illness.

I get the chills whenever I read about The Jim Twins. And while their case is extraordinary, it begs the question of what is nature and what is nurture. It doesn’t let parents off the hook – children do “live what they learn.” We have a billion examples of that. But we have, at the very least, tendencies to react to that parenting in different ways.

I’m so sorry my brother is going through this. If I only knew him ...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Temper, temper. Wednesday, January 5, 2011.

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” –John 4:16

Dear God,

I haven’t talked to you much in a long time. Since I went through my really hard time, I haven’t been so sure that you’re there. Other times, I feel like you’re there, but that you don’t really like me.

I pray to you at church, but mostly I just feel sad when I do. I try to pray at work or before bed and my mind just goes blank. I’ve heard of “the dark night of the soul,” but I don’t know how long it’s supposed to last, or how to get out of it. Maybe you can help me.

I’m praying to you now because I feel really bad for losing my temper with my Dad a couple of days ago. You know that I’ve been trying to make arrangements for him to be able to stay in his rest home, and there’s been lots of paperwork and financial stuff involved. You know that he’s autistic, and so it’s been hard to communicate with him all my life. And you know that on top of the autism, he’s developing dementia.

So I promised myself as I was driving over to the home that I would keep his autism and dementia in mind and that I wouldn’t get frustrated with him. After all, he’s a tiny, 85-year-old man in a wheelchair. He’s sharp as a tack in many ways, but in other ways, he’s clueless and can’t help it. You know that, and I know that too.

But Lord, a half-hour meeting turned into a 5-hour, complicated mess, and Dad is resentful of me taking over his affairs. He doesn’t comprehend that I’m trying to keep him from being evicted for forgetting to pay rent, and that I’m trying to protect his health by letting the rest home take over his blood pressure and cholesterol medications. He’s not cognizant of the fact that he is forgetting whole conversations a few minutes after they happen, or that he’s too confused to keep track of his checkbook.

Instead, God, he’s pissed. He thinks the County and the doctors and the rest home are just nosing into his business. One minute, he’s asking for my help and thanking me. The next minute, he’s resentful and angry and he’s shouting at me. Finally, I lost my temper and shouted back. I shouted so loud I’m surprised that the nurse didn’t come running!

I told my Facebook friends about what it was like to have an autistic father. Lord, you know better than anyone that my feelings about my dad are really mixed up. I don’t know if I love him, or hate him, or both.

When I feel angry at him, I’m not just angry at that immediate situation – I’m angry about all the times he hurt my mom and me, even though he never meant to. I’m angry because I learned a lot of dysfunctional things from him, and it’s taking me decades to unlearn them. I’m angry that I didn’t have a “normal dad” who would have been there for me when I needed the reassurance that only a father can provide. I’m angry that I have to parent him when he really never parented me.

Lord, you know all of that – and you also know how terribly, terribly guilty I feel for being mad. My father loved me as best he could, especially when I was a little girl. He provided for me. Unlike many fathers, he never laid a hand on me. And he can’t help being autistic or having dementia. Being angry at him for not communicating or for being confused is like being angry at a rock for being hard.

I have a sense that he won’t be around much longer. Only you know when that will happen, God, but it seems we fight every time we talk, and I’m so scared that he will die and our last conversation will have been an angry one. I don’t want that to happen. I need your help.

I’m going to try to talk to you more often, God. I hope you’re listening. I really miss you.



Monday, January 3, 2011

Good grief. Monday, January 3, 2010.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” –Kahlil Gibran

My dear friend Abrihet lost her beloved mother at the end of September. I wrote about Mama’s unexpected death and about Abrihet, who is the most amazing woman I have ever known. Do I worship the ground on which Abrihet walks? Well, almost. At the very least I see her as one of the strongest, most capable people I’ve ever had the good fortune to have as a friend.

It’s been a hard few months of Abrihet. Her mother lived with the family, and the two were like best friends, so the loss of Mama in Abrihet’s daily life is palatable for her. The first few weeks after Mama’s untimely passing was a study in cultural differences for me. Abrihet and many of her friends are from Africa, where it is customary to put a very public face on one’s sorrow.

As one website on African traditions put it, “Females of the family of the deceased and their friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances they work their feelings up to an ostentatious, frenzy-like degree of sorrow.” One of only a very few Caucasian Americans at the memorial, I witnessed that kind of emotion, and as Abrihet wailed in her native language, my heart was ripped open. I could barely stand it.

Still, it made sense to me – in a way, more sense than our silent and restricted ways of grieving in America. Rather than stuffing their grief, as so many of us do, the Africans let it all out; the bereaved are encouraged to scream and cry loudly to express their sorrow. Americans, in contrast, tend to expect the bereaved to mourn silently and get back to the business of living as soon as possible.

But Abrihet straddles two worlds. She’s lived in the US since she became an adult, and is as “Americanized” as can be. Abrihet is a medical researcher and an emergency room RN. She’s raising four children, and running a non-profit organization raising aid for Africa. Life in America is complex and busy, and it doesn’t allow for mourning time.

For a few weeks after Mama’s death, Abrihet looked positively ashen. Already tiny, she had lost weight, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She could not smile or laugh. As time went on, though, Abrihet began to return to her usual self. Her color returned, she looked less emaciated. Her face began to soften, and eventually I saw her beautiful smile again. Make no mistake: she was a different Abrihet, an Abrihet without Mama. She would never be “the same.” But I began to recognize my dear friend again.

Over the weekend, I participated in a fundraising event for Abrihet’s non-profit organization. Abrihet’s familiar smile and mannerisms were there. But as I was getting ready to leave, she pulled me into another room. She wasn’t doing okay, she confided. She was still crying a lot; she was still having problems sleeping. Mama’s loss was constantly on her mind. A friend of hers had suggested she try antidepressant medication. What did I think…?

Abrihet wasn’t asking a medical question; she’s a medical professional and knows more than I do. She was asking a spiritual question, a moral question, a social question: Is it wrong for me to still be grieving? Is there something wrong with me?
Some people here on FB seem to believe that because I take medication, I believe there’s a pill for every ill.

Let me say once again for the record that I do not believe this is so. I’ve written about the difference between sadness and clinical depression. I’m not in favor of drugging small children or feeding 20 different meds to grandpa. And while I’m no doctor, when it comes to Abrihet, I see bereavement and not clinical depression. They are different things.

In Africa, when someone dies, the family stays together in a room for a week or two and all activity stops. In the United States, we get two “bereavement days” off work if we are lucky. In Africa, death is seen as an entry to another life. In the United States, despite the fact that many people consider it a “Christian” nation, the spirituality of death has been sanitized away. We’re encouraged here to get past the business of death as quickly as possible.

Abrihet is trapped between these two worlds. And while she knows that she cries in private, I know that in public her “self” is on its way back. I don’t see how antidepressants could do anything to help her that her brain and body are not doing naturally already. She needs to be patient with herself as she goes through this transition.

I told Abrihet to speak to her physician about the antidepressants. It’s my sincere hope that he suggests bereavement therapy instead of prescribing medication. Painful as it is, Abrihet is experiencing a good grief, and someday, she’ll be on the other side.