Category Archives: mental illness

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

The Eyes Have It

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was feeling kind of guilty about the nun bashing in my last post until I started writing this one about the El Greco Museum.

Lynn and I had seen paintings by El Greco in the Prado Museum, but in Toledo there was an entire museum devoted to The Greek.

The collection was in an old house composed of additions from different centuries cobbled together and connected by ramps or hallways; in some instances you had to go outside to get from Point A to Point B.  Our first stop was a video about El Greco.  It went on at great length about how he was distinguished from his contemporaries by his elongated figures made of long brush strokes.  He was nearsighted, the video said by way of explanation.

In addition, many of his subjects were painted looking heavenward with crazy eyes, and this was thought to be because he used patients from an insane asylum as models.

The nun would have made a great model for El Greco—I’m not saying she was insane, just that her eyes had this same look.

So those are the things that make El Greco a star.  He was so in demand that he had apprentices help him churn out paintings and it’s now difficult to tell who painted what.  I am at a loss as to why El Greco is considered a master while Margaret Keane is not.

But as I’ve fully disclosed before, I’m not a New York Times art critic.

After shuffling along in the museum for a couple hours, we thought a brisk walk would do us good.  On the trolley tour we had spied what looked like giant escalators cut into the hillside, and the narration had said there was a nature walk.  The sun had come out, so now was the moment.

We attempted to find our way out of the city—ha!  Here is a map of Toledo set in the pavement, lest we needed reminding of what a labyrinth it was:

Eventually we found ourselves, quite by accident, outside one of the city gates where we could see the River Tajo.  I grew up near the Mississippi, so my inner Tom Sawyer kicked in and I joyfully crashed through the undergrowth toward the water.

“Where are you taking us!?” Lynn cried.

I ignored her until I stopped short at an orange plastic tape printed with “¡Cuidado!” every few inches.

“This must have been used to section off a path for a marathon,” I guessed.

“A murder, more likely,” Lynn responded.

When most people see things like this, they turn back.  I hopped over the tape and kept heading for the river bank.

“Where the hell are we going!?” Lynn asked, picking her way through the bushes behind me.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I just want to see the river.”  We reached the bank and stood looking at the muddy water.

“Well, just as you suspected—it’s a river,” Lynn said.

“Yep,” I replied, and we turned back toward the city.

There was time for one more museum, the intriguing-sounding Museum of the Visigoth Councils and Culture.  It was housed in the Church of San Romain, which had a small entry door set inside the giant-sized door that many churches have.

I’ve stopped mentioning how much entry tickets cost unless they vary substantially from the typical 4-5 euros.

There was a tiny glass booth just inside the door where an old man collected our €1 entry fee.  He gave us a piece of paper and we made for the exhibit but were commanded by him to stop at another booth three feet from the first one, where another old personage collected the piece of paper, stamped it, and gave us another piece of paper. Whew!  We were legal now.

The museum was worth the entry fee. There was this one display of something beautiful.

The rest was mainly Spanish signage. I have a hard time following historical narratives in English, much less in Spanish, so I am none the wiser about the Visigoths.

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

Creole, Cajun, Casserole

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We had the same conversation every morning:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno.  What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care.  I’m up for anything.”

“Okay then, let’s go!”

I had been to the city before.  One of the most memorable things I had done was a tour of a Creole plantation called Laura.  It was about what you’d expect: a wide lawn, big house, antiques, and vignettes of how people lived 150 years ago.  The house was a different style from Tara, the plantation you might recall from Gone with the Wind:

Oak Alley

This is actually a photo of Oak Alley, another plantation near New Orleans on which Tara was based. I think. Don’t quote me on that.  Anyway, it’s built in the English style, symmetrical and staid.  Built to impress.

By contrast, here is Laura:

Laura

Very French, don’t you think?  Because that’s partly what Creoles are—a people of French or Spanish descent, sometimes with Afro-Caribbean or Native American mixed in.  They speak Creole, cook Creole, and make Creole music.

I was enjoying the tour of the plantation.  Then we stepped out back to the slave quarters and it was like everything turned from brilliant color to grey.  We “toured” a restored slave cabin, but only two or three of us could fit inside at a time.  Meant for a family, it was about half the size of a boxcar, made of rough-hewn wood and sparsely furnished.  Next we gathered outside so the guide could talk to us all at once, and that’s when I happened to turn and notice this behind me:

slave_list

You don’t need to read French to know this is a bill of sale for people.  My eyes welled with tears.  I’m teary right now.  The poor woman at the end of the list is a “lunatique.”  What did that mean?  Was she schizophrenic?  Autistic?  Rebelious maybe? Would someone have bought her because she was cheap?  For what purpose?  Ugh.  Double ugh.

I passed around the brochure about the tour and told Lynn, Molly, and Christine about it.  No one wanted to go.  Maybe I should have left out the part about the lunatique.

When I was younger I would have pressed and wheedled until I guilted everyone into going, because I thought it was an important, historically significant tour.

But I got it.  Lynn and I had spent half a day in the civil rights museum learning about slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow.  Molly is a head start teacher whose kids live in trailer parks and whose parents are in jail or on drugs.  Christine works for Oxfam, which aids people in disasters and wars.  I got it.  We didn’t need to be “sensitized.”  And we were on vacation!

You may be wondering, “What’s a Cajun?” since I wrote about Creoles above.  Cajuns are descendants of Acadians, who lived in eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S.  When the British took over this region, the Acadians, who are French and Roman Catholic, refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the crown.  They wound up in Louisiana, either voluntarily or forcefully exiled, and that was a much better fit for them.  As with the Creoles, the Cajuns have their own food, music, and language.

So there’s this theme in Louisiana of cultures coming together—French, English, and Spanish; African, Caribbean, and American Indian.  It seems like they mostly got along, although that may be because they stuck to their own territories.  In New Orleans, for instance, Canal Street marks the boundary between the old English and French parts of town.

Back at the B&B, we had our own little cultural casserole.  The English couple avoided the Germans, who were sour faced but friendly in their serious German way to the Dutch pair. The French couple seemed anxious about everything while the Scotts and Canadians were outgoing.  I had two free bus tour tickets and offered them to the group.  The Germans recoiled as if I were trying to hand them a rotting fish, while the Dutch couple eagerly grabbed them.

The Grey Lady Stumbles

This is the seventh post in a series that started here.

I left Cuernavaca having learned a lot of Spanish and with a new vocation.  Off and on since then, I have worked in international development.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about causes here at home.  I just think that, as a mission driven person, I do better work if I’m passionate about a cause.  And for many reasons, I am passionate about trying to end poverty and suffering in the developing world.

Before I left Cuernavaca, I booked six more weeks of Spanish immersion through Amerispan.  This time I would go to Morelia, a beautiful colonial city that is no longer an Amerispan choice.  I’m guessing this is due to Morelia’s unfortunate #1 ranking as the city most caught in the drug war that has erupted in Mexico since I was there.

And that’s my transition back to one of my favorite subjects, addiction.

The New York Times published an article a few weeks ago about an alternative treatment approach to addiction.   I read it, cut it out, and was saving it to write a post about.  My initial reaction to it was, “Why not?  Why wouldn’t you try both traditional treatment and AA and this thing, if you could afford the time and money.”  But now I’m having second thoughts.

In a nutshell, the article profiles a psychiatrist who has opened a new addiction clinic that approaches addiction as a chronic disease and treats it with drugs, in place of the Twelve Steps and AA.

At least three people have brought the article up to me in conversation, so it’s causing a stir.

When I revisited it for this post, I noticed it was in the Science section, which implies that the content is scientifically valid.  Plus it’s the New York Times, right?  It’s got to be true.

When I searched the NYT website for “addiction,” I found that all the other articles about addiction are either in the Opinion or the News sections.  So you’ve got news about a big drug bust in upstate New York, for example, and then people ringing in with their opinions on what should be done about the drug crisis and the related problem of mass incarceration.

I scrolled to the bottom to read the comments.  There must be hundreds, I thought, and I wondered how many commenters would hail this as a godsend or criticize it as irresponsible.  But there was no comments, and no way to make comments.  That’s strange, I think.

Among other things, Dr. Mark Willenbring states that 60 percent of addiction is attributable to a person’s genetic makeup.  The NYT adds that this is “scientifically unassailable” but offers no evidence.

Dr. Willinbring, a psychiatrist, is no slacker.  For five years he headed the federal agency that studies addiction.  Coincidentally, he’s a Minnesotan and he opened a private clinic called Alltyr in 2012.  It’s within walking distance from my house.

Alltyr treats addiction as a chronic medical condition.  Its treatment plans include drugs used to treat depression, anxiety, ADHD, or chronic pain; family “training,” and cognitive behavioral therapy—which, as I’ve written, was a worked miracles for me.  Alltyr also uses anti-relapse drugs, and I wondered what that meant.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

A friend and her husband have been struggling with his drinking.  He was on a wait list for Hazelden Betty Ford, one of the world’s premier rehab centers, also within walking distance of my house.  Then he read the New York Times article.  Alltyr got him in the next day, and after pooh-poohing Hazelden, he cancelled his reservation there.   (Despite Alltyr dismissing traditional treatment, I can’t find any evidence in the article that its method works.)

Alltyr put him on two anti-relapse drugs.  I spoke with my friend the next day.  “He must have still had alcohol in his system,” she said, “because he was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed—much less go to work—for two days.  He said it was like all the worst anxiety he’s ever had in his life rolled into one giant ball and stuffed into his chest.”

In Pig’s Eye

I’ve been writing about a road trip to South Dakota that I took for work last week. I can’t say a lot more about it. There were some eyebrow-raising moments which have to remain confidential.

But one of my intentions in blogging is to demonstrate how you can experience adventure close to home—and even in your head. You don’t have to spend thousands on a trip abroad. Your own neighborhood can hold surprises.

I’ve lived in St. Paul almost all my life. It’s not that big of a city—about 300,000 people. I went for a long walk on a Sunday afternoon and found the following things that were new to me.

I crossed the Smith Avenue Bridge, which everyone calls the High Bridge, because it’s, well, high. The High Bridge was new to me. What a view.  I know, my photos are not the best, but they’ll give you the general idea.

Bridgeview 2

Sadly, because it’s high, the High Bridge is one of the preferred bridges in the Twin Cities for people to jump from. There was this tender note from a stranger to a stranger.

Bridge Memorial

There was this makeshift shrine to someone named Teagan. I don’t know if she was the same person to whom the note in the previous photo was written, or a second jumper.

Suicide Shrine

Someone has been thinking about how to prevent suicides from the High Bridge. I don’t know. Would you have the presence of mind to call the number, or would you even see it if you were intent on jumping off a bridge?

Suicide Hotline

Ah, the sun came out, very welcome after being reminded of suicide at every footstep. This is a view from the Wabasha Bridge toward the train bridge.  I don’t know the name of the train bridge; everyone just calls it The Train Bridge.

Bridge View

Now I was in Kellogg Mall, a long strip of greenery between downtown and the river.  I don’t normally read plaques. Because I travel so much, if I read every plaque (and spent time on every portrait of the Madonna and Child, for that matter), I would never do anything else.  But this one said something about Fr. Lucian Galtier, who gave St. Paul its name.

SP Walk Rock

At the base of the rock there was a bag containing a hat, scarf, and mittens with a note that said, “I’m not lost! Please use to keep warm!” Presumably this is for some homeless person who has a preference for pink.

Scarf in a Bag

If it hadn’t been for Fr. Galtier, St. Paul might still be called Pig’s Eye. Pig’s Eye Parrant was a blind-in-one-eye French Canadian fur trader who squatted outside Fort Snelling, near present-day St. Paul.  He made hootch and sold it to the soldiers, then eventually built a shack on the river landing below what would become St. Paul, becoming our first civilian resident. The details are sketchy, but it makes a good myth and we have a pretty good beer named Pig’s Eye as a result.

Pigs Eye Close UP

So go for a walk!  Think how you would tell the story of what you see to a good friend, or to a stranger.  Get out of your rut. Take a different route than the one you’re used to. Take a left turn instead of a right. Follow that path into the woods you’ve always wondered about. Notice things. Snap some pics, or not.  Adventure is all around you if you hold the right attitude of inquisitiveness.