One part of my current job is that of a clinician on our Youth and Family Team. School starts here on Thursday, and it seems like many of our young clients are falling apart at the prospect of a new school year.
I remember being unable to sleep in the days before school started, anxious about the excitement and uncertainty. I never had to worry about getting a potentially deadly disease or wearing masks, or worrying if I would be sent home on quarantine. Things are sure different.
The members of my team can’t wait until school starts and thing presumably settle down for our clients. At least we hope they settle down.
What about school starting gave you the jitters when you were a child? What were your most favorite and least favorite years in elementary and middle school?
Early in this blog’s history, we had a contributor who wrote exceedingly well and who was excited about life and his role in the world. His name is Aaron. Aaron was a reader and regular commentator in those early years.
This week, Dale Connelly, the founder of this blog, contacted me and Sherrilee about posting some writing by Aaron’s sister, Jessica. Dale commented:
“Aaron has multiple disabilities and gets around primarily in a powered wheelchair. You may have seen him at some of the State Fair shows back in the day. His family is organizing a Zoom event next Saturday, (August 7) to premiere a short (55 minute) documentary about Aaron and the difficult decisions his family faced when he was born. The event is also a fundraiser to gather money to replace Aaron’s accessible van, his primary form of transportation.”
We thought this was a great topic for a post. I have communicated with both Aaron and his sister, and this is how Aaron describes himself:
Aaron Westendorp is a musician, online variety music show host, and a self-advocate in Hopkins, Minnesota, who uses a communication device. Aaron has a brain stem lesion which causes spastic quadriparesis, a partial paralysis from the eyes down. He still has a independent life and a fun personality.
The following is a heartfelt statement from his sister, Jessica Westendorp:
I could have written a different speech every day this year, that’s how many different feelings I have about Aaron and growing up with Aaron. I have humorous, light, jovial speeches, and dark, scary, cynical speeches that underscore Aaron’s evil side. Just kidding. Aaron doesn’t really have an evil side. That Aaron is a bright light, most of you already know. He has always been a calm being, open and waiting for whatever the next step might be. The only time I can remember Aaron loosing his cool was for a brief period in the 5th grade when math and after school studies pushed him to desperation and low lows. He got angry. In that time there was a moment when Aaron looked at me and sighed and it was if he said to me, “so…this is how it is”. And then, he was fine again, calm, collected, open and ready to keep going.
Aaron is disabled. I know this is news to you. It’s hard to see the disability when there is so much AARON to see. But, in case you didn’t get the memo, he is special, differently abled, challenged, a short bus super kid. Other words that were used on him were Duke, Duker, King of Kids, and because there is only so much wonder and excitement I can allow to follow him around, he is also a bratty kid brother.
Aaron’s disability was large. It was another person in the family always taking all of the resources and lightness out of anything. Trips to anywhere were filled with, “but are there curb cutouts? Can he fit through the door? Are there steps inside? Will we need to ask for special help maneuvering or accessing the bathroom?” And then, the weight of carrying all emergency equipment and healthcare needs with him. The backpack needed to be packed and repacked. He needed help with shoes and jacket. He needed to be loaded into the van and tied down. Then Jill and i would translate his finger spelling, “why don’t we go on more family outings?”
I feel heavy and angry re-living that. It was not glamorous. but, the humor helps. One time, when we were all tired and in a long stint of hard times, Mom and Aaron, and Jill went to Burlington Coat Factory. They got out of the van after parking in the handicapped spot. As my mom walked away from the van someone snarked about her use of the handicapped parking spot. Used to public perception often being askew there would usually be a kind reference to my brother or ignoring the problem. On this day my mom said, in her voice we all know as the “mom is not in a great place voice”, “WE ARE HANDICAPPED!”. “we”. “are”. “handicapped”. We are not, and yet, we are and the clashing perceptions combined with the fatigue of it all was the hilarity. And then, there were the helpers. The nurses and PCAs were there ALL THE TIME. Whether they wanted to be or not, they became part of the fabric of our family. They may remember us as a job. I remember them being in my home, sharing a space, and I remember processing my life in front of them. Like any family members some were super duper cool and others, we’ll say, clashed with our brand of special. But, they were there. They helped support the constant needs. Food prep. treatments, mobility, translation. My favorite of these people were those that understood the need to keep the light, the humor, and the irony alive, even and especially when I could not find these.
This all must have been so different for my parents. They had a childhood, a million years before and now they had the weight of this adulthood that they finessed and juggled and braved with faces of intensity and love. But for Jill, Aaron, and I this was our childhood. The pieces of it leave deep impressions. The shiny medical equipment, the smells of medicine, the short quick pace of a nurse who is tasked all become your normal. I will always be a force of quiet, deep love, forever broken by the immensity of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly struggles that are inexplicable in this speech. I am full of gratitude and am privileged to have learned so much, but due to broken perceptions and realities faced and viewed often, I will also carry a force of anger, always, a deep understanding of disparity and injustice.
Thank you for showing up. Thank you for loving the little brother i worked hard to push and challenge. Thank you for loving this guy who I prayed for, who was surrounded by the light of many prayers. Thank you for knowing that there is no clear narrative here, only people with real needs, hopes, and aspirations all in real time.
Here is the hyperlink to the video regarding Aaron.
Who do you know who has overcome adversity? How did they do it? How have you overcome adversity?
I’m not a math whiz but there is one formula that I know really well:
Yardwork + Verily Sherrilee = A Filthy Mess
When I had the new driveway put in, I also asked them to put in a sidewalk from the house to the garage. For many years, I’ve just had paving stones, which look really good for about an hour after the grass is cut and that’s their only saving grace. Well, that and they were cheap. Otherwise, they’ve been a pain for years. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to just throw them away when the new sidewalk was installed.
YA and I have wanted a little patio under our backyard table for years, so this past Saturday, I decided to re-purpose the paving stones into said patio. And it was pretty clear early on that I would be invoking the Yardwork/Filthy Mess paradigm. You wouldn’t think that a 4’ x 4’ square, 2 inches deep would create so much extraneous dirt; I certainly didn’t and I was quite wrong. It was easier to excavate the space by hand to start with and pretty soon, I had dirt all over myself, including knees, ankles and feet. I had abandoned my gardening shoes early on – too hot. Of course sweat and dirt together meant that I was dirty everywhere else as well.
I was very careful with the paving stones as they weigh quite a bit. As I picked up each one I said to myself “go slow, be careful”. Every single stone (9 of them). I even said this to myself as I wiggled the last one into place. Right before I lost my hold on it and it crashed down on my big toe. I got a pretty good gash and the blood looked really dark as it bled onto all the dirt on my foot.
I was so close to the end of the project – I didn’t want to lose my momentum but I also didn’t want to bleed all over and get who knows what kinds of germs into the wound. Looking down at myself I realized that I was too dirty to go in the house and certainly too dirty to go upstairs to the bathroom where there bandaids are kept.
I had YA go inside and get a couple of paper towels while I hosed off my foot and toe. She came out with a paper towel and DUCT TAPE! That’s my girl. I wrapped the paper towel around the toe first and then liberally applied the tape. Voila – good enough to let me finish up the project! It’s made me realize that while YA can do yardwork without attracting every dirt particle within a square mile, she HAS inherited my feeling that the wrong tool at hand is always better than the right tool that is not at hand.
What’s your favorite cleaning supply? When have you had a filthy mess? When have you gotten spectacularly dirty?
We have rather complicated and supposedly ergonomically designed desk chairs at my work with a myriad of levers and adjusters underneath the seats. Yesterday I was trying to adjust one when I pulled the wrong lever, and the back of the chair flipped forward at an astounding velocity, slamming me square on the bridges of my nose and glasses.
I was slightly stunned. It really hurt. I was in the middle of an evaluation, so I just sucked it up and finished with the client. I then went to see our office manager/risk management person, and asked her if the cartilage in my nose should be so wobbly. She wasn’t sure, but she said it looked like I was getting a left black eye, and the bridge of my nose and my forehead just above my eyebrows looked puffy. She then sent the multitude of forms one fills out in these circumstances. She encouraged me to go to the occupational health clinic that assesses Workers Comp claims. I declined, as my self assessment suggested all I was going to have with this was a black eye and some bruising on my forehead.
I am going to a family funeral in Pipestone, MN on Thursday, and I do hope whatever bruising I have has dissipated by then. I am not hopeful. I haven’t seen these family members for a couple of years, and I imagine I will have to explain multiple times what happened. I should add that I own no makeup, and I have no intention of buying any to cover the bruises. I suppose I could make up some fantastical story of how I was injured, as being assaulted by a chair is kind of embarrassing.
What have been some of your prominent injuries? What have been some of your work injuries? Any Workers Comp stories?
YA and I gave blood last night. I’ve been a blood donor for decades and YA has ponied up a few times herself. Normally when I get an email from the Blood Center, I think “oh I should do this” and then forget about it. However when they call me on the phone and I pick up, they’ve got me; I talked YA into going with me.
It was clear that the nurse assigned to me was at the end of a long shift – she had NO sense of humor. I’ve been in a customer service kind of job for decades and I like to think that I’m pretty good at putting people at ease. When I do encounter someone in a particularly bad mood, it normally doesn’t take much to get them in a better place. But this woman was tough. And it didn’t help that I could hear YA and her nurse in the next room, chatting away.
I didn’t get frenetic about trying to humor this woman but I wanted to be myself, so I made small remarks when I felt like it. Eventually, when we got to the “now’s the time to look away” and I told her I didn’t need to look away, she warmed up. She never got really chatty like YA’s nurse, but she at least responded to comments and asked a few questions of her own. When she asked me what color wrap I wanted on my arm and I said “well, purple”, she smiled and said “of course, what other color is there?” I felt I had scored a small victory. I was her last appointment before they closed so I hope that I lifted her spirits a bit before she headed home.
Are you chatty at appointments? Do people like me tick you off?
One benefit of working as a mental health professional in the middle of nowhere is the opportunity to see people with all sorts of different diagnoses that one wouldn’t necessarily see in urban areas due to the increased specialization there. When you are the only game in town (or a 100 mile radius) you get to see it all. Very few of my urban colleagues have seen Huntington’s Chorea first hand, tested people with Lewy Body Dementia or Korsakoff’s psychosis, and also treated children with PANDAS (Look it up. It isn’t as nice as it sounds).
The recent uptick in conspiracy theories and QAnon reminded me of a case I was privy to decades ago involving a shared delusion. Folie a Deux is a condition in which one person with a Delusional Disorder convinces someone else without a Delusional Disorder that their delusions are real. It usually occurs in couples or close relatives. It is rare. It barely made the last edition of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The case I remember is that of one person in a couple having the delusion that a member of a famous Country Western singing group loved them, and transmitted secret messages to them over the television. The delusional person convinced their partner this was true, and both had to be hospitalized.
I wonder if APA is reevaluating the rarity of shared delusions in our current political climate. It may be more prevalent than we previously thought. I love the French terms for these conditions. Folie a Plusieurs is the term for “madness of several”, which we certainly have observed recently. The treatment usually involves separating the truly delusional from the ones they have convinced about their delusions. Then they can see what is really happening.
What are your favorite non-English terms? Make up some fun and helpful conspiracy theories.
Yesterday morning I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription refill. As the pharmacist was checking me out, I said “I don’t need any of the paperwork and I don’t need a bag.” As I just dump the bag and the paperwork as soon as I get home, it seems a waste. In any other setting, if I just have a few items, I pass on the bag as well. Usually the receipt too. I just don’t need more bags of any kind at my house.
Well, the pharmacist put the prescription right into a little bag, although she didn’t print out all the paperwork about the drug. Probably 25% of the time, even though I have said no bag, I get a bag anyway. It is so automatic. I didn’t make a fuss… what good would come of it … just dropped the bag into the trash on the way out of the store. But I was thinking about how many things we all do almost automatically.
Then YA and I took a big shopping trip to Target. We had a couple of non-food items that we looked for first, so ended up at the END of the food area (dairy) first, instead of the beginning (produce). Even though I’ve shopped here many times and we had a list, it was extremely disconcerting to be going “backwards”. We ended up backtracking at least 3 times when we realized we had missed something. I’m guessing that I would have this reaction in any grocery store that I’ve shopped at repeatedly. I didn’t intend to internalize a direction when I shop for groceries, but clearly I have. Part of me thinks that I should do something about this; how dare the grocery industry mess with my mind. Another part of me thinks it’s probably too late!
Last Friday I was on a MS Teams meeting in a weekly group supervision session I participate in with staff from another Human Service Center. The clinical director of that agency was really amused by the ingenuity of one staff member and the young adult child of another staff member, both of whom accurately self- diagnosed themselves with Covid.
The staff member was suspicious of some symptoms, and took a couple swigs of lemon juice, couldn’t taste it, and went for a formal test at the doctor and tested positive. The young adult was out with friends drinking shots of Fireball whiskey, realized she couldn’t taste it, and went for a test and was positive.
The clinical director wryly suggested that perhaps we all needed to drink shots of Fireball whiskey throughout the day to self-monitor for Covid. Cinnamon flavored whiskey isn’t my drink of choice, but I could think of other strong tasting things I wouldn’t mind monitoring with.
Wouldn’t you know it! Husband has Type II diabetes, and watches his carb intake very carefully. We rarely, if ever, have chips and such in the house. His blood sugar levels are quite stable and in the normal range. He loves to snack on figs, so I order organic Turkish figs for him from a place in New York that sells all sorts of dried fruit, candy, dried beans, baking ingredients, etc.
Husband doesn’t eat much candy at all, but has a love for black Finnish licorice. I really like it, too, and we go through a one pound bag of it pretty fast. The New York connection sells wonderful Finnish licorice, and the last time he ran out of figs, I decided to order three pounds of figs and, to save money, I bought a five pound bag of black Finnish licorice.
A few days after the licorice arrived, a news story emerged about the dangers of eating more than two ounces of black licorice a day. Some guy on the East Coast collapsed and died from heart complications from eating a pound of black licorice a day for months. Licorice root in any form apparently has a compound called glycyrrhizin that lowers potassium levels which can lead to heart arrhythmias. Even licorice tea can increase blood pressure. The guy who died apparently had a really poor diet, and was eating in a fast food restaurant when he collapsed. His potassium level was really low, and caused his heart to fail. Husband’s potasium levels were a little higher than normal at his recent checkup, probably due to figs, which are high in potassium. His blood pressure is in the average to low range.
All this hasn’t stopped our licorice eating, but it sure makes us hesitant to eat too much at once. The five pound bag on the counter might last pretty long time.
How do you respond to expert dietary advice? What favorite snack would be hard for you to give up?
Husband told me out of the blue this week that his three favorite people of the 20th Century were Rosa Luxemburg, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (He has more time to sit and think now that he doesn’t travel for work). I had to admit that I didn’t know who Rosa Luxemburg was, but Husband tells me she was a good socialist.
Given our current situation, I think my three favorite people of the 20th Century would be Jonas Salk, Alexander Fleming, and Tommy Douglas.
Who are your favorite people from the 20th Century? How about the 21st?