"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Baby Brother

Photo by Sam Christiansen

The baby of our family is, I think, universally adored. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. In fact, as an infant he was so adored his four older siblings once dropped him on the floor during a tussle over who was going to hold him! To this day I remember our horror. Strangely enough, I don’t remember which of us picked him up, thereby claiming victory.
Jonathan is eight years younger than me. Of all my siblings I lived with him the least amount of time, yet my memories of him as a child are very vivid. He's always been his own person, pleasant, yet quietly determined. He most definitely marched to the beat of his own drummer. I don’t really remember him being involved in many of the squabbles the rest of us siblings had. Maybe because he was so much younger he didn’t much care about what we were up to. He seemed very content entertaining himself, and would spend hours in our backyard playing in the sandbox. When he was about four years old he would plant packages of graham crackers in the sandbox, hoping they would grow into a graham cracker tree.
Although he is extremely smart, by kindergarten I think he’d already decided that school really wasn’t his thing. And no wonder, since one of his favorite pastimes as a young child was reading our encyclopedias. Kindergarten must have been awfully boring to someone so well-informed. Once when Jon was in Kindergarten I stayed home sick from school. An hour or so after he and my two younger sisters had headed off to the bus stop, I looked outside. There was Jon, playing in the sandbox! He’d decided to skip school that day and build a volcano in the sandbox instead.

When he was a little older, he went through a military phase. He wore camouflage clothing and hats, and along with his like-minded friend, constructed elaborate military compounds in the garden area out back. They really were amazingly detailed and well thought out, and always included streams and rivers that he would fill with the garden hose.
By high school, he was sporting saggy pants, earrings in both ears and a nose piercing. As his older, wiser sister, I feared for his future. Really. Which is beyond hilarious now. As my daughter has said, “Isn’t it funny that Jon turned out to be the most normal and responsible one in your family?” He would probably dispute the normal characterization, but I understand what she means. He isn’t normal though. He’s extraordinary. His life is a lesson in being true to yourself, living life on your own terms, and not conforming to other’s idea of what kind of person to be, or what kind of life to lead. I respect him for that, and for so many other things. 

By the time he was a junior in high school, he'd had enough of formal education and quit. I still remember the shock and worry that caused my parents, both of whom were teachers.
Photo by Sam Christiansen
Jon and I in Bangladesh
Quitting high school early didn’t hurt him. Not too many years later, after spending time moving around the country, working and enjoying life, he enrolled in college. A few years ago he graduated from Boston College with a Master’s Degree in Sociology. Whenever I read any of his work, such as this article, 'We Are All Workers' : Anarchism and the Narrative of the Industrial Workers of the World, I’m blown away by his intelligence, and also extremely proud. His unassuming way makes it easy to forget about his keen mind.   
Jonathan walks his talk, always. Never in an in your face way, but when he stands for something, you know it. As a Wobbly, as Industrial Workers of the World members are known, he fights for the universal rights of workers. While living in Bangladesh he advocated for the rights of garment workers there. He routinely stands up for the underdog and shows real compassion for people, regardless of their station in life. He’ll respectfully debate almost any topic with anyone. He’s pretty convincing because he doesn’t take a position on something without having thought it out and being well-informed.
Jon at an anti-war rally in 2006
He’s an amazing dad. Hands down, unquestionably devoted to his son Atticus, and has been since the moment he was born. I’ll always keep and cherish the email he sent the family announcing his birth. He also had the good sense to marry Sam (aka Dr. Samantha Christiansen), who is the perfect sister and daughter-in-law, and a much loved part of our family. He’s the favorite uncle (sorry Ryan), always right in the mix with the nieces and nephews, playing like the kid at heart he is. I’m also pretty certain he’s the favorite child, which is completely okay with me. He’s one of a kind. Our little brother, but someone we all look up to. Happy Birthday Jon! I love you. 
Jon and Sam - July 2012
Jon and Atticus, photo by Sam Christiansen

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration 2013

Gillian watching President Obama's inaugural address
This morning Gillian and I watched the inauguration together. Even though she is a normal 14-year old girl and not all that interested in politics and current events, she is at least aware of what's going on in the world around her and understands the historical significance of today. It would be pretty hard for her not to be aware, since there's rarely a day when I'm not talking passionately about something political! 

Four years ago when Gillian was in 5th grade her class watched Obama's first inauguration and were asked to write down their observations. Here are her notes from that day.

I tried to get her to write down her observations today, but she refused since it's a school holiday and she didn't want to do anything remotely resembling school work. Instead, as we watched I asked her questions. We talked about the historical significance of this inauguration being held on Martin Luther King Day, during the year marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Luckily, due to a having a great U.S. History teacher this year, and having also seen the movie Lincoln not long ago, she has a good understanding of both events.

I mentioned to her that Obama took his oath of office on two bibles, one that was President Lincoln's, the other having belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. She seemed most interested in the connections between today and Martin Luther King Jr. In her history class they recently watched a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Children's Crusade. I asked her if she would ever be willing to do what those children did. Would she go to jail for something similar? She replied "I wouldn't have to" which I guess was a young person's very innocent, honest recognition of her white privilege.  A minute later she said, "But I would if I had to for things to change." Phew! I was relieved. One of the principles I'm trying to teach her is that although obeying laws and rules is important and right most of the time, civil disobedience for the greater good is equally important. To me, having strong convictions and being willing to risk personal comfort for those convictions, along with a sense of justice for ALL mankind  is extremely important. Belief in personal convictions and being willing to speak up against popular culture and the majority is something I really value. Because of this I'm trying to raise a child who is a thinker, not a follower. 

Much has changed in the last four years. Gillian is no longer a young child making innocent, non-political observations about our president's inauguration. Today she is more aware of the greater world around her and her connection to it. She's learning about the struggles and challenges in our country and world, and how the outcomes of such struggles impact her. I love watching this process, seeing her learn, watching the light bulbs come on in her head. She's beginning to understand her place in the world, and I hope, the importance of being an informed, active, engaged citizen. This morning was one those gratifying days of parental reward. Two months ago we sat together watching election returns, Gillian seeing me cheer and cry when Obama's victory was announced. Today we again watched history in the making. It was a good day. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Suicide and Guns

Although I try not to get too political on this blog, today is an exception. There have been many things I've wanted to write and share since the tragic school shooting in Newton, Connecticut and the ensuing national argument about gun control. I have very strong opinions on the subject, and personally feel our government leaders need to take immediate, strong action to strengthen gun control laws. My reasons for thinking this way are perhaps different than many others, and are very personal. I work to prevent suicide. Guns are overwhelmingly the weapon of choice in a large number of suicides, including suicides-by-cop and murder-suicides. In an email received the other day from the QPR Institute for Suicide Prevention, its President and CEO, Dr. Paul Quintett, said this: 

"We at the QPR Institute are concerned that the national debate following the Sandy Hook tragedy is veering off course.

Almost no one has noticed that most mass murderers take their own lives or are killed by police gunfire (suicide-by-cop).

So long as America remains uninformed about the role suicidal self-directed violence plays in these tragedies, and in domestic violence murder-suicides as well, our debate will not lead to new possible solutions."

Last week, The QPR Institute was asked by the American Psychological Association for recommendations to reduce gun violence in America. The APA will share these recommendations with federal officials as they discuss new gun violence prevention strategies.  The recommendations, which I fully endorse, are below. My hope is that by sharing them, others will read them and perhaps change their perspective on gun control and the need to reduce gun violence in this country. Gun violence is a serious national health issue, as is suicide. I believe both can be reduced by following the common sense, evidence based recommendations outlined below. 

Prevention Strategies to Deter Mass Shootings and Reduce Gun Violence: Recommendations and Resources

© 2013, Paul Quinnett, Ph.D., President and CEO, QPR Institute, Inc.
(This document may be widely shared, reprinted and distributed without permission.)

To prevent the next gun violence tragedy we believe America needs science-based, constitutionally-appropriate, community-based interventions which are available now for immediate implementation. For each recommendation below, web sites or links to best practice programs are included.

Following the tragedy at Newtown, the premise for these recommendations is the observation that most mass murderers either take their own lives or expect to be killed by police (“suicide-by-cop”) after committing multiple homicides, e.g., Lanza, Cho, Harris, Klebold, and others.  In addition, among the far more common “simple” suicides (those not involving a homicide—approximately 39,000 deaths a year), over half are by firearm.

These evidence-based recommendations target several sectors of our society: the general public, health professionals, gun dealers, gun owners and law enforcement professionals.

For the General Public, Health Professionals, Gun Dealers and Citizen Gun Owners:

1.     Train the general public to recognize suicide/homicide warning signs among their family members, friends, students, co-workers and throughout their social networks.

Then teach them to intervene as follows:
-Clarify the meaning of the warning sign(s) with the person
-If in distress, intervene to get the person immediate help
-Restrict access to firearms, e.g., immediate removal, off-site storage, key gun part removal, locks
-Train all gun owners in the“11th Commandment” of responsible firearm ownership: Keep firearms from distressed persons

2.     Train firearm dealers to recognize distressed persons attempting to purchase guns, how to delay or deny the sale and how to make a referral for assistance or secure a mental health evaluation when warning signs are present.

3.     Educate mental health and health professionals on the overlap of suicidal/homicidal desire and intent, and legally mandate training in how to detect, assess, and manage suicide/homicide risk. This training deficit accounts for many missed opportunities to reduce gun violence and deter mass shootings (http://www.sprc.org/bpr/section-II/preventing-suicide-through-improved-training-suicide-risk-assessment-and-care). In recognition of this potential public health hazard, in 2012 Washington State passed a law “requiring certain mental health professionals to complete education in suicide risk assessment, treatment and management.” http://apps.leg.wa.gov/documents/billdocs/2011-12/Pdf/Bills/House%20Passed%20Legislature/2366-S.PL.pdf

For each of the above recommendations, the following best practice and evidence-based programs are now available:
1.     General public training in suicide prevention
-       http://www.sprc.org/bpr, e.g., QPR, CALM, and others
2.     Firearm dealers, gun safety instructors, gun and hunter club training
-       http://www.sprc.org/bpr, CALM
3.     Health professional training
-       http://www.sprc.org/bpr, Section II “Adherence to Standards” programs

For Law Enforcement Professionals:

1.     Using best practice registered programs, train law enforcement officers in how to:
-       Recognize the warning signs of suicide/homicide and how to conduct a simple 3-step CPR-equivalent emergency intervention
-       Conduct a suicide risk assessment interview using the same methodology used by thousands of mental health professionals, and of particular value to officers responding to domestic violence calls, jumpers and others
2.     Enhance the mental health/suicide/violence prevention literacy and skills of law enforcement officers by providing training about:
-       Their key role in the National Suicide Prevention Strategy 2012
-       Successful violence prevention interventions, e.g., the US Air Force project and means restriction strategies (www.meansmatter.org)
-       The link between mental illness/substance abuse and violence
-       Evidence-based risk mitigation/intervention strategies
-       How to prevent suicide inside the law enforcement community itself
-       How to develop community partnerships with firearm dealers, gun owners, gun safety instructors, hunting clubs and others to enhance gun safety and restriction of access to firearms though teaching the “11th Commandment” of responsible firearm ownership: Keep firearms from distressed persons

To enact these recommendations, the following best practice and evidence-based programs are available now:

Key References:

Barber C, Azrael D, et al., Suicides and suicide attempts following homicide: Victim–suspect    relationship, weapon type, and presence of antidepressants. Homicide Studies, August         2008 vol. 12 no. 3 285-297

Feldman, B. N., & Freedenthal, S. (2006). Social work education in suicide intervention and prevention: An unmet need? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 467-480. doi: 10.1521/suli.2006.36.4.467

Institute of Medicine. (2002). Reducing suicide: A national imperative. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Knox. K.L., Litts, D.A, Talcott, G.W., Feig, J.C., Caine, E.D., (2003). Risk of suicide and related adverse outcomes after exposure to a suicide prevention programme in the U.S. Air Force: cohort study. British Medical Journal. 13, 327 (7428)

Luoma, J. B., Martin, C. E., & Pearson, J. L. (2002). Contact with mental health and primary care providers before suicide: A review of the evidence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 909-916. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.159.6.909

Slovak, K., & Brewer, T. W. (2010). Suicide and firearms means restriction: Can training make a difference? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 40, 63-73. doi: 10.1521/suli.2010.40.1.63

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Gift of Friendship

Aimee and I in Bangladesh, choosing our future vacation cottage.
Yesterday I received an early birthday present, probably one of the best I've received--a check for $3,500.00 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The company my best friend Aimee works for decided that instead of giving client gifts at the end of 2012, they would instead donate the amount of money they would have spent on gifts to three different nonprofit agencies, one of which was AFSP.

Three years ago this month, Aimee and another girlfriend joined me  for a weekend in Colorado to celebrate my 40th birthday along with my sisters and friends there. It was an amazing weekend, full of laughter, fun, dancing, celebrating and silliness, and only a little bit of drama. At that time I thought that weekend was the greatest gift ever. Never in our wildest dreams would any of us have thought that three short years later I'd be accepting a check in honor of Julie, to be used in support of efforts to prevent suicide. It all made me think about gifts, and friends, and gratitude, especially my own. I'm so lucky to have Aimee for a friend.
My 40th Birthday Weekend in Colorado
When we first met each other over ten years ago, friendship didn't seem likely. We'd both joined the Junior League within months of each other. A short time later, we ended up working together on the League's annual Casino Night fundraiser, me as the chairperson and Aimee as my co-chair. Like soldiers who bond over shared trauma, we bonded over the often stressful experience of being unexpectedly put in charge of the League's signature event. We logged many hours together in person, over the phone, and working collaboratively via email and found that we complemented each other perfectly. A friendship was formed. 

During our years together as active Junior League members we logged hundreds, if not thousands of  volunteer hours together, working side-by-side on League sponsored community projects and during two terms as League board members. Most of the time we worked in less than ideal conditions, hot, sweaty, tired, on our feet for hours. None of that mattered though, as we'd keep each other motivated by laughing, joking and talking.
Keeping it real during breaks from working at the
Junior League's Children's Health Connection.

Gradually, our friendship deepened. Aimee even acquired a nickname, Gygi (short for Glitter Girl, another nickname) to lessen confusion due to my sister also being named Amy. She was there during the breakdown of my last marriage, my divorce, and the ensuing craziness of my early single years. She was the person I called when I didn't know what to do and wondered if ending my marriage was the right thing. She listened to my troubles for hours. She was there when I ventured out into the dating world, supportive, and always willing to help me lose a male admirer turned borderline stalker, and then laugh with me about it afterwards. She never judged me for my horrible dating choices, and always agreed with me after, when I'd wonder what on earth I'd been thinking!

We've shared the ups and downs of parenting, being full-time working moms, and juggling husbands, housework and volunteer jobs. She's been my workout partner and together we decided to give running a try. We ran our first 5k together. We pushed, encouraged and challenged each other to meet our goals of running our first 1/2 marathon, which we each did a year apart. While training for a 1/2 marathon after Julie's death, she kept me going when my motivation lagged. I kept training, knowing she was counting on me as she was then training for her first 1/2. We've now finished two half marathons together. 
Finishing the 2011 Ogden 1/2 Marathon.
We've also been there for each other during the hard times. We've cried together, and shared our innermost fears, feelings and frustrations. Aimee taught me so much about grief and moving on, long before I ever knew I'd need those lessons. She too knows loss, and the horrible trauma of losing a cherished loved one too soon. When Julie died, Aimee was the first person I called outside of my family. She's been there for me for the happy times, but more importantly, for my darkest times. She's held me in her arms while I cried and questioned, and listened to me for countless hours as I've dealt with the aftermath of Julie's suicide.

Together, we've traveled to other cities, across the country and across the world. Without her, I would never have had the courage to travel to Bangladesh. We've danced, laughed, played, worked, run, and cried our way through the last decade. We know each other's weak spots, faults, and life moments and choices we regret. Each of us knows how the other one likes their coffee, and our cocktail of choice. Even during the most stressful of times, we always end up making each other laugh. I know that no matter the occasion or dress code, Aimee will almost always show up in a cardigan. She knows that I have absolutely no rhythm and can't dance, but gets out and tears it up on the dance floor with me anyway. Even when we disagree, and we do, we accept each other. Most importantly, she understands my loss, my grief, the great gaping hole that was left when Julie died. Yesterday I was reminded of that, and how lucky I am for the gift of her friendship. Thanks for being you Gygi! Love you. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Conquering Thalassophobia

I ended 2012 with courage, stubborn determination and quite a bit of swearing. 

Mike had decided that during our vacation in San Diego it would be fun to go on a whale watching tour. In kayaks. In the ocean. I'd never kayaked before, and I'm more than a little intimidated by the ocean, so that wasn't exactly my idea of fun. Gillian was up for the challenge and they both spent weeks trying to convince me to face my fears and live a little.

 During the drive from Utah to California Mike gave me his "it's important to get outside your comfort zones and enjoy life" speech. Like I told him, they're called comfort zones for a reason. I'm completely comfortable not kayaking in the ocean! Why should I make myself uncomfortable? Secretly though, I'd already made up my mind to give it a shot. Of course, this was after I'd Googled the number of people that have been killed during whale watching kayak excursions in the ocean. As it turns out, it's a pretty safe activity. Imagine my dismay.

On New Year's Eve, our last full day in San Diego, we headed out on our great adventure. On the ride from our hotel to the beach, I mentally ran through all the reasons I didn't need to be afraid, reminding myself that the anticipation of the unknown is almost always worse than the reality. Still, I was terrified. 

Once we got to the kayak rental/excursion shop things moved quickly, which was good because it gave me less time to think about what I was doing. Waivers were signed, wet suits were donned, and before I knew it we were walking to the beach. After a short training on paddling and how to get past the surf, I grabbed a kayak and drug it into the water, swearing every step of the way. Gillian lucked out and rode in a two-person kayak with Mike. I was on my own. Did I mention I'm terrified of the ocean and don't like being in it past water that's above my waist?
Suited up and ready to go.
I wish I could say I handled it all like a champ, but the truth is I was so scared I wanted to cry. Thankfully, my ego stopped me from bursting into tears, and instead I did the mature thing. Under my breath I swore like a sailor while imagining the many ways I'd like to torture Mike, Mr. Experienced Kayaker, for convincing me I could do this. How dare he! As I swore and plotted, I paddled furiously and very ungracefully past the surf, focused on keeping the bow straight ahead so I didn't get flipped over by a wave. 

After about 10-15 minutes, I relaxed. I'd made it past the worst part. I hadn't capsized, the sun was shining, I was on vacation in a beautiful setting, and in the distance there were dolphins playing in the water. My breathing slowed down and I very intentionally focused on enjoying the next couple of hours. Of course, there was the paddling part. That wasn't super fun. I never did completely enjoy that. 

Soon after my attitude adjustment, we spotted some sea lions in the distance. We paddled closer and stopped. The sea lions came closer too, and dove and surfaced right next to our kayaks, then underneath, popping up on the other side. What fun! 

After that we paddled further out so we could find a spot to sit and watch for whales. Unfortunately, we didn't see any. After waiting as long as we could, our guide told us it was time to head back. More paddling. It seemed like I'd never be done paddling! In reality, in only took about 15 minutes to make it back to shore from the spot a mile where we'd stopped. Only one more challenge left--getting past the surf again.
Amazingly, I made it, catching a wave and riding it into the shore without tipping over. Mike and Gillian weren't so lucky. Yards away from the beach Gillian decided she'd had it and tipped her body completely over to one side, throwing their kayak off balance and dumping them both into the cold water. 

So, there you have it. I faced my fear and lived to tell about it. I ended what was a very difficult year for me in a place of strength rather than fear and defeat. I conquered my own greatest enemy--me--and in the process reminded myself that I am strong, capable and when I need to be, fearless.