Faith is important to me., Gratitude, My thoughts about Mental Health, Virginia Pillars

July 11


Two Friends, Two DaughtersGail and I shared high school teachers, high school friends, and over thirty years of experiences. We both started our married lives in 1975. Babies arrived in each of our families in 1976, 1978, 1980, and 1982. As our similar troops of four little ones grew, our families met often. While the children played, the four parents enjoyed some much-needed adult time. We discussed our busy lives and the challenges that came with parenting four young children. We shared laughter, exchanged stories, parenting tips, and partied with mutual friends. But, in 2011, a calendar date became the most important thing that we shared.

July 11, 2011. Sleep had eluded me in the early morning hours, despite my efforts to turn off my brain and rest. I tried my usual trick – I turned on the television, the DVD player, and popped in a movie I’d watched so many times I knew it by heart. Most nights this routine lulled me back to sleep. But that night, my method of insomnia management didn’t work. So, I went to my desk, turned on my computer, and decided to reminisce about another sleepless July 11, thirty-one years earlier.

As the memories tumbled from my brain to my computer screen, I smiled. That morning, I couldn’t sleep during in the early hours, either. Overdue with my third child, I counted the minutes between contractions. I remembered the painless labor, and the quick delivery less than thirty minutes after our arrival at the hospital that gave us our only daughter, Amber.

But, I also thought about the many challenges we (Amber, her dad and I) faced together. In 2004, Amber, stricken with the brain disorder, schizophrenia, moved home with us at the age of twenty-four. Together, Roy, Amber, and I battled against the nasty symptoms schizophrenia imposed on her. After four years, with the help of doctors, therapists, medication, plus Amber’s desire to recover, she resumed an independent lifestyle. I felt so proud of her and her determination to regain her health despite those difficult years when the symptoms had tried to beat her down.

Usually, I did my best to dwell on the positive changes and not the heartache that came with her illness, but sometimes it crept in just the same.

On July 11, 2011, I concentrated on the good memories. As I wrote that morning, I recalled the joy of her birth, and how bright her future looked now that she lived in recovery. Once I felt satisfied with my piece, I settled on the couch in the living room for a quick nap. Success. When I woke, I felt refreshed and ready to take on my day.

After my coffee, devotions, breakfast, and a shower, I walked to the addition of my house where I operated my home embroidery business. I planned to call Amber during her lunch break and sing Happy Birthday to her. My employee arrived around nine o’clock and together we worked on a stack of embroidery orders. We chatted as we worked. Around ten o’clock, the phone rang. I snatched the phone from the wall cradle.

“Good morning. This is Virginia. How may I help you today?”

“Virginia. This is Gloria, Gail’s sister.”

“Oh, hey, Gloria! How’ya doin?” I said excitedly to hear from her and ready to take an order.

“Not good. I’ve got bad news this morning.” She paused. I heard her heavy breaths. “Amanda took her life last night. Gail called me a few minutes ago. Andy found her this morning when he got up to leave for work.”

I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I don’t know if I gasped out loud, but the joy I had earlier evaporated as I inhaled the horrible news,

Amanda, the daughter of my good friend, Gail. Amanda, the same age as Amber. Amanda, my daughter’s playmate from years ago when our two families met for picnics and parties. Amanda, beautiful Amanda, with her ringlets of walnut brown hair, her crystal blue eyes, and a wide smile with perfect teeth was gone. Beneath her striking exterior lurked an unseen invader. A demon that we couldn’t see; one that doctors couldn’t find with a simple blood test, but it picked away at her ability to cope. Hidden from the visible eye lurked the gnarled fingers of mental illness. It had snaked its way through her personality until most of the Amanda we knew had disappeared. Amanda wanted to fit in, to be a good mom and a trusted employee, but her brain disorder gnawed at her strength. Now, a husband, a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, two brothers, and more broken hearts than I could count mourned her exit from this world.

Amanda died after a long battle with mental illness, not just another suicide statistic, but the daughter of a good friend. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I imagine I said a hollow remark like, “I’m so sorry,” or “Let me know what I can do.”

I hung up the phone and attempted to work. I planned to go to Gail and her husband, Nick after I finished work for the day. But, I had put an unrealistic expectation on myself to think that I could concentrate on my job. I felt numb, and shaken, and devastated, and worried about Gail. Only a few hours earlier I had written about my daughter’s birth and rejoiced in her success while at the same time, my friend dealt with the horror of her daughter’s death.

Something that I had feared for my child had slammed into their world without mercy.  I thought about the days when I lived in fear. I lived in a state of constant worry that Amber would take her life – that she would lose the battle against schizophrenia. I knew the high possibility. I knew that 50% of those stricken take their life. As she made small strides toward recovery, I worried even more. I had read this time was the most crucial. It was when the illness subsided, that people felt strongly enough to attempt suicide. I remembered the pain I had in my gut, along with the continual fretful feelings as I scrutinized her every move.

I thought about Amanda and Gail. Guilt set in. Why? Why did my child live and thrive while her child left this world because she couldn’t find the help she desperately wanted and needed? I tried to put myself in Gail’s shoes. I imagined my reaction if it had been Amber instead of Amanda. My stomach churned as the feelings assaulted me over and over. “It could’ve been you. It could’ve been Amber.”

I couldn’t handle my worry and dread for Gail any longer. I sent my employee home, shut off my machines, locked my shop door, flipped the sign to CLOSED, and rushed to the side of Gail and Nick.

The pain in my chest that had been there all day exploded when Gail fell into my arms as I walked into their home. She sobbed as if she’d never stop, and I unleashed my pent-up emotions and joined her. Our anguish mingled through our tears. I wanted my arms to absorb some of her pain. I knew they couldn’t, so I just held her as we cried.

I listened as she shared feelings that no parent should have to face. I knew I had similar thoughts at times in my life, too. They seemed to come with a diagnosis of mental illness.

“You’re not alone with those feelings,” I assured her. The tears that followed didn’t wash away her grief, or my feelings of guilt as we wept together.

Why did my child dwell in recovery, while her child lost her battle? Why did we, two ordinary women get one-way tickets into the world of mental illness? We didn’t want those passports into the heartache. Our daughters didn’t want those badges of pain, so why?

Questions with no answers pounded in my mind and threatened to overtake my resolve to support my life-long friend. I pushed them aside as I chose to concentrate on the grief before me. For the next several hours, I listened and allowed Gail’s memories of Amanda, both painful and beautiful, to flow and seep into an untouchable corner in my heart. I knew that nothing out of my mouth could ease her agony. So, I listened, held her hand, wrapped my arms around her when sorrow, remorse, anger, and the torment of Amanda’s death by suicide sliced at her. As I listened, I picked up the bitter morsels of raw desolation that scattered around Gail.

And then I returned home. I had to allow her private time to grieve in a way that worked for her. I tried to keep in touch after the services for Amanda, but she wanted time to mourn alone. So, I stepped back. It slashed at my contentment to watch from a distance as she withdrew from activities such as weddings, anniversaries, and other joyous occasions. I’m guessing the pain paralyzed her, so I just made sure she knew I cared. I left the door open and kept her in my heart and prayers. I sent her notes on the anniversary date of Amanda’s death, and Christmas cards to try and leave the doorway of comfort ajar for her. But, that doorway didn’t open wide enough for me to come in for a long time.

One summer morning, after several years of almost zero communication, I called her and invited her to meet me. “I plan to take my granddaughters to the aquatic center after lunch. Would you like to join me, bring your grandchildren, and we can catch up?”

My heart leaped when she said, “Yes,” and a few hours later we sat, sipped cool drinks, as we watched as Amanda’s son and my granddaughters splashed in the water. We talked non-stop. Time had allowed her grief to form a scab, but she told me that she kept it guarded – she kept hidden it from most of the world. People that she thought she could trust didn’t understand. They pointed the finger of blame: “You should’ve…” “Why didn’t you…?” “It happened because…” Terrible words that did nothing to alleviate her pain. It only exposed her wound and broke it open again and again. Before long, Gail refused to talk about Amanda.

That afternoon, friend to friend, we compared our scars as we talked about our faith, our trust in God and that one day we will both understand. We shared our hope that Amanda is with our Savior who saw her agony and gathered her to himself. We held hands as we basked in our love for our daughters. We remembered the date we’ll forever share – July 11 – the date when I celebrate the birth of my daughter while she mourns the death of hers. We parted with a hug of support and a promise to meet again. My spirits swelled with gratitude for our friendship and for the chance to talk about Amanda with Gail.

I still don’t understand the why, nor do I expect I will this side of heaven. I healed a little more that afternoon. I know I can’t bring back those who lose their battle with mental illness, but I can walk beside their survivors as they navigate their path of desolation. I can try to fulfill a promise I made myself years ago – to react as the Bible verse Romans 12:15 states.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

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Faith is important to me., Virginia Pillars

Sole business or soul business?


Today is Holy Thursday. The day I dwell on the Last Supper. The day Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Feet. I get why it was important for that time in history but in today’s world?

I don’t like people to touch my feet. I never have. For years I didn’t wear sandals or flip-flops in public. I had ugly feet, or so I thought. The bunions on both sides of both feet had convinced me to keep them hidden. Since I shuddered if someone touched my feet,  I couldn’t stand to touch the feet of anyone else, either.

Four years ago this all changed, as well as my attitude. You might say, I defeated those troublesome feelings when I took over the personal care of my mom.  In her late eighties then, she needed assistance for her shower. I lived close and it made sense for me to offer to do that for her. After all, how many times had she bathed me when I was an infant? So, I gave it a go. We set up a schedule – Monday and Thursday mornings.

Honestly, at first, it made me ridiculously uncomfortable. It didn’t bother me to help her in and out of the walk-in-shower, to help her towel off, to rub lotion on her back, arms, legs, etc. But her feet – I cringed each time I rubbed the lotion into her calloused, dry, feet – complete with bunions. But, I reminded myself of the many times she had to do things she found unpleasant as a mother of eleven children on a farm. And so I powered through with all the pleasantness I could muster.

The first Holy Thursday I massaged the lotion into her feet, I dwelled on the significance of the day. I had planned to attend Mass that night as our parish remembered The Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The scripture passage came to life for me, especially:  I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.    John 13:15

I placed myself in the role of my mom’s servant that day as I dwelt on this passage. Something so personal – a time when she is the most exposed and vulnerable. It had to humble her to admit she couldn’t do this on her own anymore. How would I feel if this happened to me?  A motto of Saint Mother Teresa’s came to mind: Do small things with great love.  I began to view it as a privilege – to take part in the most intimate part of her life.

As I rubbed lotion into her tired, worn feet, I came to the realization that this foot wash/lotion routine helped my “soul” as I softened her soles. The awkwardness disappeared as I found joy in the routine of her foot massage.

It’s Thursday – time to go see Mom. She needs a shower and a foot massage.

One final thought – How can I go into the world as a servant? How can you?

Happy Holy Thursday.

 

ABOUT, Author In Training, Faith is important to me., Gratitude, My thoughts about Mental Health, Virginia Pillars

Podcast on the Curiosity Hour


A huge thank you to Dan Sterenchuk and Tommy Estlund for the invitation to join them for a podcast on the Curiosity Hour.

Unless you come to hear me speak, you only know me through the words I type on Facebook, on this blog, on Pinterest, Goodreads, and comments on Amazon. Here’s a chance to hear my voice.

 

I love to talk about our story, mental illness, and my faith. I speak with libraries, organizations, churches, and book clubs.

Contact me to schedule an event.

virginiapillars@gmail.com

Faith is important to me., My thoughts about Mental Health, Virginia Pillars

Interviews and Reviews


I appreciate all the people who take time out of their busy lives to write their reaction to our story. Until I wrote a book, I had no idea how important reviews are to an author.

It’s nice to know someone read my words, that someone found a worthwhile tidbit in what I said, and now I understand how reviews can lead others to read it, too.

Interviews allow me to reflect on new questions, plus it allows readers a chance to get to me a little better. So I appreciate it when another author, or a radio personality reaches out to ask me questions.  At a recent author fair, I had a request for such an interview by another author, who’s reached out to another segment of our culture –  military families. Of course I said, “Yes!” to Jocelyn Green, the author of fourteen books!

I met this award-winning author many years ago at a christian writers conference when she critiqued my work and gently showed me ways to improve. In addition, I’ve read three of her four Heroines Behind the Lines series set during the Civil War and recently started book four in the series, Spy of Richmond. Jocelyn interviewed me for a post on her website during Mental Health Awareness Week, October 1-7, 2017. I’m grateful to her for her thought-provoking questions and the graphics she included in the interview. The graphic used for this post is from her. (Thanks, Jocelyn!)

I’ve added the link to her website. Interview for Mental Health Awareness Week.

A reminder, broken-brain-fortified-faith-book-cover with Selah SOA winnerBroken Brain, Fortified Faith is on sale from the publisher for Mental Health Awareness Week.

P.S. Share this post to your social media page, let me know where for a chance to win a free copy of this book. (U.S. address only.) I plan to draw the winner on October 8 at 8 p.m. CST.

 

 

Faith is important to me., My thoughts about Mental Health, Virginia Pillars

I hugged a stranger in a bar…


This is almost an oxymoron for me – the words “in a bar,” not that I hugged a stranger. Let me explain.

My body doesn’t handle alcohol well. It causes migraine headaches and so I made the decision years ago to drink water, coffee, milk, and an occasional orange juice. So for me to sit and sip with friends in a bar is an unusual event for me. For the record, I sat with fellow writers in the bar/grill at the Renaissance Convention Center in Schaumburg, Illinois at the Catholic Writers Guild LIVE conference.  After a day filled with new friends, learning, and sharing our faith, we gathered to share food and stories.

Because of the size of the convention center, there were other groups sharing the beautiful facility. By 9 o’clock, the bar appeared to be the destination spot for a large sampling of the various organizations that held their meetings here.

Because I’m an early riser, I knew my day needed to end. I sang “Good Night, Ladies” to the women at my table and squeezed my way through the crowd. I had almost made it to the exit when I bumped into a young woman who grinned at me. “Are you looking for a drink?” she asked.

“No, I’m looking for my room.”

She laughed and the conversation began. I inquired which group she represented. She mentioned the business, and I countered with “I’m with the writers conference.” She wanted to know what I write and of course I brought up my favorite topic – mental illness. And the bump into a stranger morphed into a connection that illustrates a sobering statistic  – one in four families deal with mental illness.

Within minutes I knew about the death of a neighbor/friend to suicide after a battle with depression. We shared grief, hope, and the cultural reaction to it. I understood the pain for I’ve experienced the loss of someone I love who suffered the same illness.

“I want to buy your book,” she mentioned. I happened to have a copy of my book, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith in my tote bag because a fellow writer asked me to bring her a copy. We hadn’t connected yet so she could purchase it. I told the young woman and she whipped out her wallet. I signed the copy as we stood in the crowd. I finally knew her name as I wrote it in the book.

We hugged and parted with a promise to reconnect via e-mail.

This is not an isolated incident. It doesn’t matter where I am, who I’m with, or the circumstances of our encounter, I meet companions on this journey.  At least twenty-five percent of people I meet have dealt, or are currently in a situation that involves mental illness. I meet people in church, at parties, while I shop, and now in a bar. I smile as I think about it. I want to be a disciple of Jesus, to take His love to all those I meet. I just didn’t think it would be in a bar and I smile at the irony. God must have a sense of humor.

And so I continue to open the door to meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. I want to share our common human experience, support others in their struggles, pray for them and their loved one. I want to bring awareness to the epidemic of mental illness, donate to the research we need to understand it more and change the culture of stigma that surrounds it. I want everyone to live in hope, that recovery is possible and that maybe one day it will happen for everyone’s loved one. We’re all in this together.

 

 

 

 

 

Faith is important to me.

Among the thorns – beauty.


But recently, I’ve been called upon to do this. Two friends stopped –  both of them needed someone to listen, and I think both of them wanted a different way to look at the situation that surrounds them.

Before I spoke, I said a quick prayer for guidance. I wanted to use the correct words -conversations to build up, not to tear down. Or to just listen, if that was my role.

As I listened, I heard a plea for an idea – something, anything that each of them could do to lift their spirits on a daily basis. Now, lest you think I used the cliché, look for the roses among the thorns – take a deep breath. I didn’t. First, I had to exam my own attitude. How do I react to the hard things in my life?

Sometimes my mind wants to dwell on the past. The circumstances that destroyed my vision for the future. And then doubt and discouragement swoop in and try to take roost. Was it my fault? What did I do wrong? Could I have prevented it? Could I have done something different? Why didn’t I see it before it was too late? Nag, nag, nag until the feeling of inadequacy tries to overshadow any feeling of confidence.

So how do I handle those memories? How did I handle it twelve years ago? A conversation last night during our evening meal solidified it for me. We talked about an incident from our past.

After supper, I went back through old e-mails in search of a piece of history. I didn’t find the note in question, but I did find e-mails that I’d sent during the worst part of Amber’s mental illness. I read the pleas I made to family and friends for prayers for Amber as we tried to get her help. I relived the discouragement that consumed me as I watched her brain break from our reality.

But tucked in among my words of desolation, I found snippets of hope: she signed the needed paperwork during a few seconds of coherency; we got her transferred to a different hospital; she began to accept medication for her mental illness.

When I looked back, I saw that I HAD found the positive things that happened along with the unthinkable. My faith tells me that this was the Holy Spirit at work in my life. I had begged for help and it came through those around me. When my family and friends did little things, such as send me a note that brightened my day, they became the hands of God for me. As I read the words I wrote twelve years ago, I understood that I had recognized it at the time it happened.

Somehow, during my pain-filled days as schizophrenia unleashed many of the nasty symptoms on Amber, I felt the velvety petals, and inhaled the fragrance of the proverbial rose in spite of the thorns that pricked me in the most tender areas of my life. The more I  concentrated on the positives, the easier it became to find them. And in turn, I offered praise and thanksgiving.

As I read my reactions twelve years ago, I understood the words that I gave my friends earlier this week came from a source beyond me.

I had encouraged my friends to look for the positive things that are tucked in with the negative devastation. Don’t let discouragement or doubt win, I said. I had even quoted Mr. Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

I had also shared my way of finding the helpers. I confided to both of my friends that I try to stifle discouragement and doubt with prayer. Each morning, I begin my day with a cup of coffee and a couple of my favorite devotional books. I also use an app on my phone to listen to prayers as I walk, as I wash dishes, or while I drive. These things help me stay focused and look for the positive things, the people, the helpers who reach out to others in their time of need – for I want to continue to find the roses among the thorns.

Faith is important to me., My thoughts about Mental Health, Virginia Pillars

WOW!


I’m doing a happy dance today because of yesterday, May 24.

Let me explain. Earlier this year I submitted my book, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith to two different awards. One award: the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval (SOA.); the second one: the coveted Selah Award.

What are they?

From the website for the SOA: “The purpose of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval is to help Catholic bookstores and venues in their determination of the Catholicity of a work. This reassurance from a professional organization can assist authors in marketing alogo-color-cwg-soa-copynd promoting their works. Books are also judged by their editorial integrity as well.

Readers can be assured that SoA books will not offend their faith and have a certain level of editorial quality.”

At the end of March I received notice that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had received the SOA.  I did a happy dance!

On May 2, I received an email that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had made the finalists list for The Selah Award. From their Facebook page: “The Selah Awards, which are awarded annually at BRMCWC, are awarded to books within Christian publishing that are considered excellent within their genre.”

Talk about excited!

Last night, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference (BRMCWCSelahs_Seal_WINNER_2017[3098]) announced the Selah awards for the top books in each genre. Since I couldn’t go, I tuned in via twitter which posted as they were announced. I’m glad I was alone during the awards. As I read my name in the twitter feed, “Winner, Memoir, Virginia Pillars — Broken Brain, Fortified Faith (Familius) contd,” I cried tears of gratitude  –  and no one watched.

If you’ve read this blog, you may understand that I didn’t think of myself as a author. I didn’t write much until I hit my 50’s. (Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.) Even as I met with success, I didn’t consider myself in the same category with the award-winning authors. I just didn’t. I’m too new in the world of writing and publishing.

This morning, after I calmed down a bit I picked up one of my daily devotionals. I sat stunned as I read yesterday’s reflection. (I hadn’t taken the time yesterday –  shame on me.)

As I read the words written by Twila Belk in her book, Raindrops from Heaven, I had a feeling of empowerment.

May 24When I work in tandem with the Holy Spirit, powerful things happen. My mouth moves, and messages come out that I didn’t even have in my head. And those messages impact lives. It’s so much fun! Thank you for giving me stories to tell and for the power to get them said.”

“It IS fun!”

Don’t get me wrong, the story I wrote was NOT fun. Anything, but, and I’d never wish the situation on anyone. But happen it did, and to our family. But the second installment of my story is fun. The writing, the publishing, the awards! Now, I truly believe even when I didn’t feel capable to write and share our story, the Holy Spirit guided me. I asked, listened and then moved forward.

If reading our story, or my thoughts in this blog helps another person, then I feel it gives the journey I took meaning.

Rejoice with me. It can happen. And to top it off, the award came during Mental Health Awareness month. Broken Brain, Fortified Faith shares my struggles as my daughter battled schizophrenia. Now, I hope, countless people are aware! Plus, as a final bonus, I get to put award stickers on my book and my press release reads: “Award-winning author.”

Wow! Somebody pinch me.