The Invisible Epidemic of Mental Illness

The greatest act of courage – that is how I will remember the way that my father’s life ended. It ended on his terms, releasing him from more pain than anyone should ever have to bear.

My father had terminal cancer in his brain, and suffered terribly for many months before he finally took his life at 56 — but before cancer he had also suffered with depression. He fought valiantly in those last few months when faced with his own mortality, but in the end he had to make the most difficult decision of his life.

Suicide has many faces – some are planned weeks or months in advance like my father’s was, and others seem inexplicably impulsive. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of suicides are precedented by chronic pain – either physical or emotional – and a sincere inability to manage or cope with that tremendous amount of pain.

Suicide is humanity’s cry for help. Millions of people are dealing with mental illness, depression, addiction and abuse on a daily basis. They are your neighbors, your family members, and your friends… and you might not even know it.  It’s a hidden epidemic, borne from nature and nurture. Sadly, the symptoms of this epidemic are stigmatized by our society, keeping those who suffer even more isolated and less likely to seek help.

Meanwhile, this invisible epidemic is exacerbated by unhealthy social paradigms that are quietly entrenched in our culture — through family patterns, through results-driven education, and the media.  Just like the obesity epidemic, we are a culture that is overfed with the wrong kind of stuff – and this affects our often delicate emotional well-being. The result is range of psychological symptoms that do not discriminate based on age, gender or ethnicity. This epidemic affects all of us in some way.

Let’s bring mental illness, addiction, and depression out of the darkness. We all suffer from grief and loss; we all share in the struggle and joy of life. Shining the light on the darkest parts of our human existence – with compassion, courage, and mutual respect- is the only way to bring us all collectively out of the darkness.

 

New Halloween Traditions

I felt like a bit of a Halloween humbug this year. October is a big birthday month for us, so by the time Halloween rolls around, I usually feel pretty over-scheduled. Still, I love the fall season, with the pumpkin patches and all the wonderful fall fruits. I even enjoy the challenge of picking a great costume, even though it will only be worn for about an hour and a half.  I used to love trick-or -treating as a kid, and I also enjoyed passing out candy with a young child who delighted in strangers coming to the door in costume. Now that we’re officially at “trick-or-treating age”, however, I feel very conflicted about this whole tradition.

First we had to cram the Halloween festivities into a school night (and get to bed at a decent hour), and then we had to battle over the candy situation. My son has been pretty willing to give up most of his candy to the soldiers, as we’ve done since he was little –but it’s still a custom that feels foreign to my lifestyle. We never eat conventional candy, and very few sweets, but if we do it’s usually something natural and sort of special, to us. Special can be a tin of peppermints from Trader Joes, from which we take one mint as a “dessert”, or it can be a single piece of really good dark chocolate with almonds (my favorite brand is sweetened with erythritol). Some other favorites are homemade fruit popsicles and wholesome raw foods “sweets”, or frozen yogurt. We eat conventional candy about once per year at Halloween, and it doesn’t sit right with me.

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I guess it’s hard to be completely sheltered from the mainstream traditions (even with all of the effort I make to live a lifestyle that is natural and holistic), and maybe it’s not entirely practical. I recently read an article suggesting that Halloween temptations are a “teachable moment” allowing children the opportunity to learn how to pace themselves in the face of excess. I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

I still feel that it would be ideal to banish the processed, packaged, corporate candies from our otherwise wholesome diet. Thankfully, my son’s teacher bestowed a wonderful blessing on all of the families in our class that makes giving up that precious candy a little bit more magical. My son hopped in the car on the day after Halloween, announcing that he wanted to fill a bucket with candy for the Sugar Sprite Fairy, in the hopes that he could get a hot wheels car in return. I rejoiced inwardly when I heard this, despite the fact that I wasn’t really prepared with a hot wheel car to fulfill his request, so I took a cue from the tooth fairy and put in a couple of dollars instead. He was thrilled, and offered even more of his candy to the Sugar Sprite Fairy the next day.

Even when he outgrows the belief in fairies, which I hope never happens, I’m sure that his enterprising spirit would be willing to trade more of his Halloween candy for a few more dollars toward that next Lego set (nothing beats Legos, so far). It could even be educational if you put a price on each piece and have them add up their whole stash. You could call it bribery, sure,  but unless we relocate to a country that doesn’t embrace trick-or-treating as a cultural norm, I think it might be the best way to enjoy the season, and keep the processed junk intake to a minimum.

Any other ideas?

The Magic of Less Stuff

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I’ve never been a practicing minimalist, but since I became a parent I’ve become increasingly overwhelmed with all of the “stuff” involved in the process.  First came all of the baby gear, followed by the steady stream of toys from birthdays and holidays, and then all the kindly offered hand-me-downs. Though it was all joyfully received, the task of regularly organizing all of this stuff soon became a hefty undertaking.

According to a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century“Each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone.” Co-author Jeanne Arnold says that “the US  has 3.1 % of the worlds children, but buys 40% of the worlds toys”.

An incredible statistic, and I don’t doubt it.  The snowballing accumulation of objects after having a child was unprecedented in my adult life. I spent a lot of time managing it all — or else feeling guilty for not managing it better.

With a relocation in mind, we recently moved out of our big house and unexpectedly ended up sharing a much smaller space with extended family, to offer support during a health crisis. As a result, we left most of our non-essential items in storage. I can’t say exactly how many boxes of toys we have stored away, but it took me many long days to pack them all up. While these boxes of toys sit quietly in the garage, my son now plays with a fraction of the toys he previously had access to.

And how has he survived this major downsizing? Pretty well, actually. After a short adjustment period,  he has happily adapted to his new environment with dramatically fewer toys. Luckily for us, he now has more outdoor space and a variety of pets to play with. His imaginative play has filled in the space, and he can make creative use out of the most unlikely things.

At the park the other day, we found a good long –“but not too long”– piece of yellow rope which quickly became a swing, a rescue rope, and then a jump rope. My son continued to find new ways to use it, later, in our yard.  Like most kids, he has enjoyed open-ended and re-purposed items since he was a baby, but it’s been refreshing to see this kind of play take on a greater role, again.

As for me, I spend a lot less time managing toys and/or nagging my son to do so, and I’m developing creative strategies to keep our consumption to a minimum.

For my son’s last birthday party, we asked guests to bring donations in lieu of gifts, so that we could host the party at a local non-profit wildlife rescue center. It was the most unique party we’ve ever hosted, and instead of coming back with bags of packaged goods, we raised hundreds of dollars for the center — and my son and his friends got to spend the morning interacting with animals from all over the world. It took some effort to plan and coordinate donations, but it was absolutely worth it. And, yes, I did get him a set of Lego’s as requested (a small one).

In my continuing search for  inspiration, I found this wonderful article, “Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids”, much of which I can now testify to be true from personal experience. It may feel radical to reduce consumption on behalf of our children, but this amassing of toys is unique to our place and time, and it’s something we will eventually have to step away from as our “made in China” consumer culture faces the consequences of our long carbon footprints.

What can we do to scale back  the accumulation of toys, especially during the consumer-crazed holiday season? I have a few ideas, but I would love to hear some of yours as well.

1. Re-think “presents”. How can we make the holidays magical without focusing on presents (and can we get the grandparents on board with  this idea)? Speaking of grandparents, how many presents did they get for the holidays? I doubt that previous generations spent as much as we do now. For our family, it’s now limited to one present from Mom and Dad, one from “Santa”, and one or two from the grandparents.

2. New Traditions. Instead of looking forward to presents, what new (or old) traditions can our kids look forward to at this time of year? Baking, decorating, singing carols, and crafting are a few things I remember from childhood — as well as performing in the Christmas recital. For older children it may also involve focusing on the historical/spiritual origins of the holiday season. This doesn’t have to involve any religion, if that’s not your style. The festival of lights at the beginning of winter is something cultures have shared for many generations — a celebration to carry us through the coldest, darkest season of the year. Finding a deeper meaning in the season reminds us why we celebrate and give.

3. Quality over quantity.  Open ended toys that encourage imagination are ideal, but they can also be the most expensive. Rather than spend more, buy less. Quality toys will last a lifetime and can be passed from one generation to the next. Maybe the wooden dollhouse or the elaborate marble run you dreamed of could be a possibility for your little one if everyone chips in for something really special.

Have you come up with any ideas to minimize the amassing of toys and “stuff” in your home? I’d love to hear about it!