Review of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

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Whew! This is one long book! (Although it’s not as bad as it seems–out of 960 pages, the last 259 are acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and the index.) The hardest thing about reading a book this size was trying to get it in a comfortable position. I considered buying the Nook Book but it was $19.99, so I borrowed the print edition from the library. (The hardbound book’s price is $37.50.)

The author, Andrew Solomon, worked on this book for ten years–and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed, almost too much so. I can’t even imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into it.

The best–and worst–part of the book is all the anecdotes from the interviews he conducted. They helped to put a human face on what he was writing about and kept the book from being too scholarly. But at times it was hard to keep track of all the family members and their unique experiences; they sort of blurred together after awhile.

I loved the first chapter, which was basically an introduction. It contained so many thought-provoking comments I just had to copy many of them into my journal. The author states his thesis clearly and gives the reader a perspective that makes sense of the rest of the book. This was helpful because when I saw the chapter headings, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think that all these disparate topics would have a common thread.

Those chapter headings are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. The first six make sense, since they are all usually seen as disabilities of one kind or another. But the last four seem to be anomalies and it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to present his premise convincingly in all of them (with varying degrees of success).

I won’t dissect each topic here, but I will make a couple of comments. Some of the chapters were real eye-openers; I hadn’t realized the obstacles that some families face when trying to raise autistic or severely handicapped, for instance. The chapter on prodigies was my least favorite chapter because the author chose to write only about musical prodigies and the examples got to be pretty repetitive.

I was also surprised that he didn’t choose homosexuality as a topic (transgender is not the same thing!). That could be because he writes about his own homosexuality in the first and last chapters, but he doesn’t go into much detail about how various families deal with a child’s homosexuality. I would have liked to have read about that.

For the most part, Solomon presents a good mix of the experiences of fathers and mothers, but even so he seems to imply that the mother has more influence on how well a child transitions into successful adulthood. Although I don’t deny the importance of mother-child relationships, I thought the view that mothers are largely responsible for raising well-adjusted children had been largely discredited. Apparently not.

I also objected to his use of dialect when writing about families that were less educated and poor. He especially did this in the chapter on crime, making it seem like it is only the disadvantaged who have a problem with crime. Plenty of middle-to-upper-class people commit crimes; they just rarely pay the same penalties for their actions as lower class people do.

Far From the Tree is important because of what it says about families. It illustrates how different parents deal with their children’s differences and how those children respond to their treatment. The main thing I took away from this book was a greater sensitivity for what some parents go through in their attempts to love and raise their children. It certainly made me count my blessings.

Don’t let the length of this book deter you. It’s well worth the time and effort.

Managing Attention Deficit Disorder at Work and School, Part One

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My sister constantly describes herself as “a hamster running on an exercise wheel.” She swears that she has ADD. Whether she does or not, it’s not surprising that she feels that way. Many women, especially married women with children, are prone to feelings of disorganization, lack of focus, difficulty completing tasks, forgetting to pay bills on time, and missing appointments or deadlines.

The difference is that women with ADD do all these things to the degree that they can barely function. This creates real challenges not only at home, but also at work and in school.

A year ago I wrote the post “If You Have, or Think You Have, ADD.” I intended to write a series of posts about women with ADD, but as is typical for someone who has ADD herself, I forgot. However, I figure it’s better late than never (which is something that people with ADD tell themselves, and others, a lot).

The following are common challenges that women with ADD face at work and in school. (Note: These can apply to anyone who feels overwhelmed by their responsibilities, but they’re particularly troublesome for people with ADD.)

  • Finding it difficult to read large amounts of material.
  • Frequently losing things.
  • Forgetting deadlines.
  • Lack of focus when working in an open space.
  • Having trouble following oral instructions.
  • Managing interruptions.
  • Forgetting names and numbers.
  • Tackling boring tasks.
  • Restlessness (in meetings, in class, etc.).
  • Keeping track of paperwork and email.

To successfully combat these common problems, you have to know yourself. What kind of Attention Deficit Disorder do you have, for instance? There are basically two varieties: ADD with Hyperactivity and ADD, Inattentive. The first is the kind most commonly thought of when people think of ADD. It’s typified by physical restlessness and even acting out. The second is a quieter form of ADD, which means that many people with this type of ADD are not even diagnosed as having it. The person with ADD, Inattentive, is prone to daydreaming and not paying attention in class or meetings.

One of the hardest things for all people with ADD is to stay on task, mainly because they get either bored or distracted.

To keep yourself from being bored, break the task down into short segments and intertwine it with other tasks or activities. In other words, take frequent breaks. But not too frequent! Don’t use this advice as an excuse for giving up on a task before you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time on it.

Distraction is probably the most common problem for a person with ADD. That’s why it’s important to make yourself stick to a task for a set amount of time. Obviously in a class or meeting, the time period is pre-determined and usually feels too long no matter what you do. But somehow you have to make yourself pay attention to everything that’s being said. So how do you do that? I’ll cover some suggestions in “Managing ADD at Work and School, Part Two.”

I’m all for tricks and tips to help you concentrate, but I think it’s important to keep whatever you do simple. When a technique is too complicated, a person with ADD often gets lost in the process. There’s no point in using something that requires more concentration than the material you’re trying to master.

Being easily bored or distracted makes it difficult to get organized. Disorganization is the hallmark of a person with ADD. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be organized. But it’s important to find ways to organize yourself that work for you. Not all people are the same, even all people with ADD. For example, some people have to have complete silence in order to concentrate while others like some kind of  “white noise” to drown out other distractions.

For more background on ADD, especially in women, check out an old blog of mine, ADD Women.

How About a Marathon for Mental Illness?

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I’ve never heard of a marathon for mental illness.* We have them for birth defects, breast cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, heart disease and even some “orphan” diseases. But not for mental illness. Not for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other kinds of psychosis.

It can’t be because there aren’t that many people affected by mental illness. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada. (See source below.**) What if it could be treated successfully, or even cured? Just think of all the anguish that could be assuaged, the marriages that could be salvaged, the prison populations that could be reduced and the individuals who could be restored to full productivity. And of course all of that translates into billions of dollars in savings.

So why don’t we do more to alleviate the problems associated with mental illness? There are principally three reasons why we don’t.

1) Mental illness is grossly misunderstood. Most people are confused about what constitutes mental illness. We don’t know how to differentiate between “normal” depression or anxiety and the kind of depression or anxiety that completely debilitates a person, for instance. Not even the medical profession agrees on the causes and appropriate treatments.

2) Crazy people scare us. We are afraid that they’ll do damage to themselves or others. We steer clear of them whenever possible. Sometimes we even act like we think that mental illness is contagious. We joke about it (“Mental illness is catching. I caught it from my kids”), but never treat it seriously. We don’t talk about it in polite company in the same way that we would talk about cancer or even alcoholism.

3) Because mental illness can’t be “seen” in the same way as other diseases, we tend to think that it’s all in the sufferer’s head. It’s a figment of his or her imagination or a matter of learning how to think good thoughts. We don’t believe that it can be a real disability; we assume that the mentally disabled person is just playing the system.

I’m very familiar with all of these reasons. I don’t even understand my own mental illness. And yes, it scares me sometimes. And I constantly doubt whether or not I’m really disabled.

It’s humiliating to admit that you can’t handle things that other people seem to be able to. It’s frightening when you exhibit behavior that others consider to be just plain crazy. And it’s a terrible feeling when you realize that you don’t have control over your own mind.

One thing I try not to do is blame my mental illness for my behavior and personality traits. But it’s hard to draw the line between staying home and feeling sane and putting myself in situations where I get so anxious I can barely function. I try to keep my life as uncomplicated as possible because I don’t handle stress well at all, but even I get impatient about the lack of excitement in my life.  I understand why some people go off their meds: they’re tired of not feeling anything.

The problem is, there is no one effective treatment for mental illness. (Not to mention that there are so many different kinds of mental illness.) And so far there is no cure. I will probably always have to take medication for my depression and anxiety. When I don’t (as I have discovered when I run out of meds or am lax about taking them), I fall apart. Even when I do take them, I can easily tip over the edge. And yet I hate that weakness within me.

But what is even worse is how others look at you when they know you have a mental illness. Some people just flat out don’t believe you. Others worry about you unduly. And still others steer clear of you completely. You become afraid that people won’t want to befriend you, date you, marry you, have children with you, vote for you, or hire you. And often you’re right. Sometimes even you doubt your ability to do these things. And the sad thing is, sometimes you can’t. At least, not without help.

My own children doubt the extent of my mental illness. They think it’s awful that I take so many medications. They think if I had a different psychiatrist I’d be able to overcome them.

Each mentally ill person deals with their condition as best they can. It’s easy to be on the outside and prescribe ways to “get over it.”  But until you’ve suffered from a mental illness, you have no idea what the mentally ill person is up against. She has to use her own mind to deal with things that are going wrong with it. He may not even realize that he has a mental illness. But the main reason why the mentally ill don’t get treatment is because of the stigma associated with it.

It’s obvious that society is not willing to deal with mental illness. Most health insurance plans are woefully inadequate when it comes to mental health coverage. 10-15 visits a year is average; inpatient care has high deductibles, and brand name medications, which are usually Tier Three, are expensive. Hour-long visits for psychotherapy are almost never covered; you’re lucky to get a 15-minute medication check for when you go in for one of your limited number of appointments.

We don’t lock people up in insane asylums the way we used to (partly because the state doesn’t want to pay for mental hospitals any more). But being mentally ill is like being in prison and even when you’re being treated for it, you feel like an ex-con.

When there are marathons for breast cancer the participants proudly advertise that they are or know breast cancer survivors. No one would announce that fact if we were having a marathon for mental illness. In fact, it’s likely that no one would come.

**Read David Schimke’s essay on mental illness from the latest issue of Utne Reader.

Read about the father who has run over a hundred marathons on behalf of his daughter who suffers from schizophrenia. His dream is to organize marathons to help to erase the stigma associated with mental illness. I hope he is successful.

*That’s not entirely true: I did find some information about a STOMP OUT STIGMA  (SOS) marathon to be run in October, 2011 which is sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Greater Chicago. But that doesn’t erase the fact that public support for mental illness is almost non-existent.

The Problem With Fat People

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There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about recent instances of gay teens who committed suicide after being bullied by their peers. But gay teens are not the only ones who are being bullied to the point of suicide (although they are the most at risk for it: four times as likely as straight teens to commit suicide). Salon.com recently printed Rebecca Golden’s account of the bullying she received as a fat child, of her thoughts of suicide by the age of 12 and the continuing cruelty she has had to endure into her adulthood.

The thing is, I know some people are going to read that first paragraph and think, “Big deal! How does that compare to what gay teens go through? And besides, being gay is not a choice but being fat is.” And that attitude makes me crazy. People are fat for a variety of reasons, most of them complex and, without outside help, out of their control. The jury is out on whether or not fat people are more likely to commit suicide than normal weight people. Some studies have even suggested that they are less likely to do so. I’ve even heard it said that fat people have trouble committing suicide because of their weight. (Ponder that for a moment.)

But if the link between obesity and suicide is tenuous, the link between obesity and depression is not, at least not in our society. Fat people know what “normal” people think of them and that knowledge contributes to their depression. Maura Kelly, a blogger for Marie Claire magazine, only came right out and said what most people think when she wrote:

I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.

Kelly caught a lot of flak for her comments and she later apologized in an update. But it was too late: the cat had been let out of the bag. When fat people read her words, they knew that she was speaking for most of the (non-fat) people in America. And it hurt.

It always hurts, no matter how thick your skin. Even when people are well-meaning, their remarks can cut deep. “You can do it. All you have to do is eat a healthy diet and get more exercise.” If it was that easy, there simply wouldn’t be that many fat people. Fast food and hours in front of the television or computer don’t completely explain why people are fat. It’s not that simple. But slim people don’t believe that. And the media merely reflects what most people think.

Continue reading The Problem With Fat People

Women and Depression

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Women are almost twice as likely to experience depression as men are. I don’t mean that they get the blues more often, although that may be true as well. What I mean by depression is clinical, or major, depression, the kind where your mood seriously impairs your ability to live a normal life.

That doesn’t mean that getting depressed occasionally isn’t normal. Most people react with sadness, grief or despair when certain events occur in their lives. But what differentiates normal depression from clinical depression is that the latter comes over you when there is no apparent reason or doesn’t go away within a reasonable amount of time after the precipitating episode has passed.

Many of you reading this will go, “Yeah, whatever,” and stop reading. You either don’t think that it can happen to you or you have an ingrained prejudice against the idea of depression being a mental illness. You think that you, or others who are depressed, should be able to “just get over it.” If that works, then you were probably experiencing normal, or situational, depression. If it doesn’t work, they you may be experiencing clinical depression.

You’ll need a doctor to determine if you’re experiencing a major depression. But there are warning signs. Some of them are:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in your usual activities, including sex
  • Restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism
  • Sleeping too much or too little, early morning awakening
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, or chronic pain

Generally, if you’ve been experiencing more than 3 or 4 of these symptoms for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to book an appointment with a psychiatrist. Your family doctor may be able to treat you initially, or determine whether or not you need further treatment. However—and this is an important point—if your family doctor doesn’t take your complaints seriously, bypass him and make an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist. Tell the doctor’s office that you want an assessment to determine whether or not you’re clinically depressed.

Be prepared to be prescribed medication. Most doctors will try some kind of anti-depressant for at least a trial period. If you’re not comfortable with that, say so, and ask about alternative therapies. But I urge you to remain open to the idea of taking meds, at least for a while. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to “jump-start” your body’s natural resources for dealing with depression and then you can discontinue the medication, but only under your doctor’s supervision. Some medications have withdrawal symptoms that are worsened when you abruptly stop taking them.

There are two other kinds of depression that women need to be aware of. One is manic depression, or bipolar disorder. This is where you cycle between mania and depression. During the manic periods you might experience:

  • Abnormally elevated mood
  • Irritability
  • Severe insomnia
  • Grandiose notions
  • Increased talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased activity, including sexual activity
  • Markedly increased energy
  • Poor judgment that leads to risk-taking behavior
  • Inappropriate social behavior

The other kind of depression is dysthymia. A person suffering from dysthymia will experience symptoms of depression to a milder degree but for more than two years. Although I was never diagnosed with dysthymia prior to being diagnosed with major depression, I’m convinced that I was dysthymic for most of my life. I can’t remember ever not being depressed. I used to wake up every morning with this overwhelming feeling of self-loathing and despair, even as a child. Once I was treated for major depression, these feelings went away. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to wake up and look forward to living!

Sources: Psychology Information Online and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Quadriplegic Mom In Danger of Losing Her Son

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Chicago Tribune photo
Chicago Tribune photo

When Kaney O’Neill became a quadriplegic nine years ago, her first question was “Can I still have children?” But as reality set in, O’Neill wasn’t sure that she could do anything. Now 31, she has had to fight hard to earn the life she has, including being a mother. Read the first Chicago Tribune story about her here.

When O’Neill first became pregnant, everyone was concerned, not only about the pregnancy and delivery, but also about how she would care for the child. But O’Neill had faith that everything would work out. She has a full-time helper, a brother who lives in an apartment adjoining her house and a mother who helps on the weekends.

What she doesn’t have is a supportive partner. The father of her baby, who is now her ex-boyfriend, is suing for full custody, citing the reason that she’s an unfit mother.The case is bringing to the fore the prejudice against disabled people in our society. Read the most recent Chicago Tribune story here.

One lawyer, not affiliated with the case, expressed his concern that O’Neill would not be able to teach her child to write, paint or play ball. Excuse me? How many parents actually do those things, especially all by themselves? Assuming that the father will be involved in his son’s life, why can’t he pitch in with some of the things O’Neill can’t do?

I have one other question: Why didn’t O’Neill’s disability give her ex-boyfriend pause when he was having sex with her–and exposing her to the possibility of pregnancy? Isn’t it a little late and a lot disingenuous for him to be so concerned about her suitability as a mother now?

The case appears before a judge sometime this month. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

For more information, read this Motherlode article in the New York Times.