Archive for September, 2018

So Close to Help

amywink September 26th, 2018

This Saturday, I will be walking with the First United Methodist Church-Austin team at the Austin NAMIWalks event. There’s a little irony in this, or perhaps it’s more of a full circle coming around to meet me again and remind me of a moment when my life could have gone a different way, the juncture of two possible directions, to be influenced by chance or fate, or mistake, or simply missed opportunity. I do not spend a lot of time thinking about what “might have been” but this one, this moment, has been coming back to me a lot lately because of the grace I have found at First.

44 years ago this summer, my family moved to Austin. My Dad had left the UMC ministry to pursue teaching and I started, in the fall, at Eanes Elementary School. We did not live in the district, but in South Austin, in a rental house in a somewhat dicey neighborhood. Since my parents did not know what the quality of schools was in Austin just yet, they decided that my brother and I would go to Eanes where my Dad was teaching. I started the 4th grade and met my two best friends, Toni and Leah, who remain my friends to this day–and we have been through a lot together. That Christmas, my mother had a psychotic break during a manic episode. She had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, then called manic-depression, in 1968, and I now understand that the stress of moving, the stress of her father’s stroke, and the dramatic changes in our lives likely triggered the episode. But I didn’t understand all of that until a long time later, until I could look from a long distance and see what happened from the wider range.

At the time, we were new to Austin and did not have a community yet. But my father called for the only help he knew, the pastor of FUMC-Austin, and another friend, a former UMC minister-turned-psychiatrist. The pastor came, as I recall, but I remember little else except the fear and disorientation I felt during this inexplicable experience when my mother became a different person, right before our eyes. I have memories around the fringes of the experience but my memory of what happened is a blank space and I have not gone searching for that memory. I was 9. My brother remembers–he was 12–but his story is his and I can only tell mine. I know our lives were never the quite same after that. I know we are still learning to understand what happened and the depth of its consequences. My father did get help and my mother got better–she always wanted to remain well and was medication compliant– other people with BP struggle with that. And while my experience was not nearly as bad as some people I know, it was bad enough and there was enough damage done. Damage I didn’t understand until later, some damage I didn’t understand until after her death.

In 1974, bipolar disorder was not something we talked about in public. While we dealt with it as a family, sort of, we didn’t talk with anyone else about the experiences. She had been diagnosed in 1968, after, I suspect, her depression and mania were triggered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the stress of being a pastor’s wife, with the unrelenting scrutiny of every congregant. I have a letter she wrote to me from the hospital, telling me, at 3, to pray to God to make her well. That we were moved suddenly by the Bishop from Leakey to Premont, mid-year, also indicates something about what also may have happened, though not why. In 1974, she did not write. I have no idea how long she stayed in the hospital. She got better because my Dad was able to ask for help and able to get at least some help. But we could have used so much more, my brother and I, and my father. We could have used church, if church had been there for us. If we had been able to look to church.

My dad had asked a pastor to come, and while he came, no one else did. We were not members of First and I have no idea if the pastor told anyone we needed help or if anyone would have come. Perhaps he did not himself know what to do. I cannot blame him for what did or didn’t happen. I just wonder what might have happened otherwise because we were so very close to help. The people I know now were there then, and have been like an entire group of church parents for me, now that I am 53, and I think how they would have folded around us then, to take us in when we needed help, to show up no matter what they found. At least I like to think they would have and I think about how very different our lives could have been if that had happened. I like to think they would have come and overwhelmed us by their help if only the call for help had been received. And I wonder if that call for help was ever even sent.

Instead we were left to cope and learned not to talk about this with anyone but certain family members, and not that often. We certainly didn’t talk about it at school or anywhere public. And knowing we were not supposed to talk about it mean we knew that it was shameful, something we had to hide. Shame is a powerful silencer and forces people into isolation.

I’ve thought about that time a lot as I have worked to unlearn some things I learned at the time, things that were reinforced later with other experiences, though they started earlier: how not to ask for help, how to manage on our own, how to take too much responsibility for someone else’s behavior. Even though I have resolved many of these things, I am often struck by understanding now, after my mother’s death, as I lay down the armor I needed to protect myself. I have learned just how much armor I was wearing, because I had to do so. And on occasion, I trace my reaction to the beginning at that difficult time when my mother changed, the moment I learned that people can turn on you, that help is hard to find, that change can be a terribly frightening and completely destabilizing , in a way other people do not understand.

My parents did the best they could and they did get help. And we recovered, and we kept recovering, but we were changed. To be able to reconcile with that difficult past, I have to be able to understand what happened, to know enough about what happened to know who I am because of it. I do no seek to fill in the black space of my memory–I have enough details to discern what likely happened to me, or what I overheard–and I know my brain is protecting me from that remembrance. But I wonder about what might have happened otherwise, since we were so close to help and help did not show up to overwhelm us in our need.

I think of this when I show up for someone. I think on this when I encourage others to ask for help, to be open to receiving help, even if asking is frightening, even if it seems easier to go through the difficulty alone so shame is kept a private thing, because being alone seems safer. I explain how very different my life might have been had things been different in 1974. If more help had come, stayed, and pulled us back to church, so we would not have had to be alone. Show up, I think, because I might be the help that is called to get close. And let people show up, even if they do not have a clue as what to do, if I just ask, I might discover how very close to help I actually am.

My Mother’s Presence

amywink September 19th, 2018

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

I am in the third year after the death of my mother and I have moved through the first year of astonishment at her death, the second year of learning the difficult consequences of her presence in the relief I feel living my new life, understanding how much she had been in the way (though I know that is not always what she wanted), and forgiving her for that as well. This year, I am remembering and comprehending her own complex story of self, her story with me, and my story without her, even though she is present in me, with me, no more shackles on her feet.

When I returned to church, I came because I missed my mother’s music. She had originally been a Church music major when she entered Southwestern, until she discovered she could major in art. I grew up with her church music and also her art. She worked hard to encourage my creativity and though I remember the moment when I decided I was Not Good at Art–the moment she colored so beautifully the carousel horse in my coloring book. It was so stunning, shaded in lavenders and pinks and I thought, at 5, “I can’t do that.” not at all understanding she had learned to do it, and I was 5. — she didn’t make very many mistakes with my creativity. She remembered that too and stopped coloring for me, even though I kept asking. She taught me to have an artist’s eye, to see things deeply, to understand the symbols of our faith, through the artistry that infuses Christian identity and worship in the presence of the Creating Spirit.

I had not thought about this as much, though I have always known a great deal about art because of her, but this weekend, when I prepared our table for the Bolder than the State of Texas project, I found myself accompanied by my mother as I designed our table. I chose a red ceramic fish we’d had for as long as I can remember, a lovely icthus image for our fishing expedition, to hold our business cards, and then a dish I had made of red and yellow glass, so perfectly reminiscent of Pentecost, when my mother and I had taken a glass fusing class together when I moved home.

We often had a lovely time creating together, as long as I didn’t surpass her skill and trigger her jealousy. I had learned to stop when that happened and move on to another creative outlet, writing, photography, in which she did not excel. That’s also a part of our story together and one I remember even as I also forgive. She needed to be The Best at something, or she often felt The Worst, and that, I know, is a difficult way to be in the world. Our last creative project together was the renovation of our kitchen, and we had a wonderful time selecting everything. I still sit in that kitchen and think of what a good job we did together with it. I enjoy her creative presence as I think on that.

So, in this way, in the things I chose for our table, my mother came to church with me last Sunday, just as I went to church to remember her music. She would have loved the people at First and she also would have loved the stories we are gathering, because she loved storytelling. She handed me the stories of our family, which I keep sharing to put flesh on the names of our ancestors, to remember not just the connections, but who the people were and how the stories we tell about them make us who we are today. She held a long grudge against the Methodist church, and never returned to it. But I am here and she is with me and in remembering, I am also forgiving, in what I think of as the practice of redeeming love.