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Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hunt for GopherZilla

James, my quadriplegic neighbor, passed away.  Saturday morning, there were police cars and emergency vehicles parked outside his house, and now the house seems empty.

I don't think I ever told his family this, but he was one of the people I admired most in the world. Thanks to a terrible accident in a MotoCross competition, he was paralyzed from neck down, and had to have a machine breathe for him, and yet he fought to stay alive, and not just to exist, but also to be spunky and to express strong opinions.

On nice days, James would stretch out in the sun like a happy gecko.  He leaned back in his motorized wheelchair equipped with an oxygen tank. His three-car garage opened toward my small walled front garden.

His pristine and neatly organized garage could have been the subject of a minimalist painter assembling a collection for "Rage for Order."  It was a team effort.  His wife, Holley, made sure their manicured lawn was beautiful and the Christmas lights that festooned their bushes were arranged with geometrical precision.

On nice days, I'd stop by and chat with him. It did not take long before I completely forgot that he was paralyzed. His voice was strong, as were his opinions.  He also had a great sense of humor, and I often left smiling and feeling better all day.

James did not back down from a little bit of controversy. In fact, I sometimes thought he like to stir it up a bit, especially if it meant the neighborhood association would make changes for the better.

Using assistive technology that translated his speech to text, he'd express his thoughts in emails. He was quite eloquent, and expressed himself quite well, always advocating for the overall wellbeing of the small gated community where we lived.

James, Holley, and his three children lived in a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom red brick house with a library, two living areas, a patio, and a three-car garage.  The house had been completed mere months before the tragic accident which almost cost him his life.

I'm sure there is much more to the story, but what I heard was that James was a champion MotoCross athlete, and was competing in Denver when he had a terrible accident which causes severe trauma to his cervical spine, probably near that base of his skull, near C2 or C3. He almost died, but somehow lived, but completely paralyzed.

Many people would have given up, or simply chosen not to live under such conditions. In fact, when I mentioned James to my 89-year-old father, he said he'd never accept living like that. I could see it: he would, like many, refuse to eat and drink and would try to wriggle free from this mortal coil as quickly as possible. At the same time, I sympathize with my father. He has started to have mobility problems, and I know he feels trapped in a body that will not cooperate in the slightest.

It's easy to demand much of the gods, and to insist that if we can't have the best, we don't want anything at all.

But, that's not the way it works. We don't get to choose the "skin and bone bag" we're born into, or the one it becomes after years & unexpected occurrences.

That's one of the reasons I admire James so much. Even without mobility he was able to make a difference in the world. For one, he was there for his children; he could talk to them, listen to them, and share his mindset and his guidance.

You may be reading this and thinking, "Wow, what a great neighbor you were, Susan."

You would be wrong.  I was a terrible neighbor. The only good thing about me was the fact that I was not in town all the time.

Yes, it's true I was nice enough when I talked to James, but all it took to turn me into a whiny, impatient grumbler was for my access from my garage to be blocked. You see, my garage opened in the back to the alley, and to get to the street I had to go cross a part of James's driveway. Occasionally, visitors, workers, or helpers would block it, and I'd have to back up and try to go out the other side. It was complicated, and sometimes the other side was blocked as well.

I was not nice about it. I would jump out of my car and ask the drivers to please move their cars.

The Saturday morning of the annual neighborhood garage sale was particularly annoying.  One particular Saturday, bargain hunters had blocked the James's driveway. The other outlet was blocked by a clothes rack. I was late for a tennis lesson, which made me feel a bit panicky. As I was expressing my dismay at being "trapped like a rat" I looked at the faces of those who observed me and realized I was overdoing it a bit.

Later, after playing tennis (and de-stressing), I was overcome by a sense of shame. I was utterly wrong. What would James have done?  I doubt he would have thrown the hissy fit I did. He'd probably figure out a way to set Spuds and Axel, their two rat terriers on the problem.

It never occurred to me to backpedal a bit because it was the home of a quadriplegic.  Either I was a completely insensitive monster (well, yes, a possibility), or that James was living and interacting in such a way that his physical condition was not first. I responded to his personhood, to the force of the ideas and concepts that flowed out from him, and from his family members.

I'm not proud of that fact that I was a very irritating neighbor. But, my irritating behavior was a kind of respect.

I did come to my senses (finally) and apologized.  Later, I think perhaps we mended things a bit -- or, at least, they were gracious enough to smile at me.

It was embarrassing.

I was not a completely terrible neighbor. I did, at least, help keep the teenage son's secrets.

One glorious fall afternoon, I found a cache of beer cans behind a bush next to the fence behind my house. I thought of my own experiences as a mother, and I could have wagered a bag of dogbones it belonged to James and Holley's teenage son.

Another time, I found a ziploc bag of what appeared to be some sort of herb. I did not investigate. I wasn't sure what to do ... a friend who was with me said he'd take it off my hands. Problem solved.

But, back to James. I could always tell he loved encouraging his sons. For example, he told me about GopherZilla that they were able to capture in the backyard after he coached his sons. Together with Spuds and Axel, they captured the lawn terror, bagged it, and deposited it in their freezer for later taxidermy for posterity.

I first met James around eight years ago. I'm not sure how long he was paralyzed before that time. But, eight years is a long time to live under those conditions, even if you do have the support of people and technology.

Further, it must have been very difficult for his family. My sister and I often discuss how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent.  He's grumpy. We're grumpy. No one wants to face the fact that it's not possible to control everything. I can't even imagine how emotionally wrenching it must have been to care for one struck down in the prime of his life.

And yet, no one in James's family gave up. His son played basketball and James would sit in his wheelchair and watch him practice in the small basketball goal they set up next to the curb in the cul-de-sac next to their driveway and the shared alley drive on the side of my house.

Okay, it's true I complained to the neighborhood association about the fact they put the goal in the street, and that a child could be run over by a car while playing basketball in the cul-de-sac.  But, in general terms, I am always in favor of a dad encouraging his son in sports.

In James's family, no one said that a life that is not perfect is not a life worth living. No one muzzled himself. Instead, James and Holley stood up and said what they believed in, and they also worked together to make sure that the technologies were available for James so that he could write emails and encourage the neighborhood association members to work together for the overall good.

To me, James continues to be an inspiration and a true leader.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Interview with Shawn Alyea, LPC, on Mental Health and the Community

Times of rapid change and uncertainty are often stressful, and there can be challenges to individuals as well as the communities. Programs exist to help support individuals and provide mental health counseling to communities.  Part of what makes them successful is the presence of committed, compassionate individuals who work to identify issues and to create solutions and safety nets. 
Welcome to an interview with Shawn Alyea, Licensed Professional Counselor, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

1. What is your name and your background?
Shawn Alyea.  My professional background is in Counseling Psychology and Special Education. I have a master degree in both and am a Licensed Professional Counselor.

2. How did you become interested in mental health and the community?
I was a special education teacher for students grades 1-12 at various times in my career. I taught in inner city schools. I became frustrated by what I observed. Drive by shootings while students were on the playground, a man shooting up in the streets, and attempted burglary of cars. Young innocent students being sent home at night and on the weekends to broken homes that suffered in poverty and crime. Gangs grooming my students from grade 3 up. For me I needed to do more than teach reading or mathematics. While education is powerful it is a long term way out of what these children faced. I had hoped to become more involved with families in order to assist them immediately, and more directly.

3. Are you seeing any trends in adolescent mental health in the last few years?
Trends in adolescent mental health would be addressing trauma through Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy TF-CBT, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Autism and Transgender issues. Heroin use is on the rise, and many of the students I worked with reported Meth use from an early age. Marijuana has become as common as cigarettes, K2 or synthetic marijuana is of great concern inducing psychosis and damaging body organs such as the heart. Alcohol is easily obtainable and often times abused.

Interview on LifeEdge

4. What are some of the ways that adolescent mental health affects a community?
Untreated mental health issues often times express themselves through symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self injurious behavior and promiscuous sex impacting families, peers, congregations, social organizations, employers and law enforcement; in fact all facets of the community. Untreated adolescent mental health issues serve to weaken the community in general, to damage their own generation by cutting its potential short. Mental illness often times isolates the person who is struggling from others or may be the cause of inflicting damage on others or self. If untreated it will impact proceeding generations by not being in a position to provide support and care for them as adolescents move into adult roles. And more importantly if unsuccessfully treated those struggling with mental illness will be more inclined to fail as they attempt to raise the next generation.

5. What are some community safety nets that are available for youth and their families?
Families, communities of faith, school counselors, teachers, mental health providers, the media, athletics and other organizations give adolescents a chance to belong to something bigger than themselves. They can find a sense of belonging, value and purpose through these resources. They can serve as a safety net for adolescents who are struggling if they are engaged or engaging.

6. What are some of the main issues with an aging population? 
Main issues with the aging population would be financial resources to care for self and loved ones in a comfortable manner, continued vitality cognitively, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Increased need for a broad range of gerontology services. And a need to be able to provide guidance to younger generations. I believe our seniors often times find themselves discounted, dismissed, and disrespected by a youth focused cultural. They often times work hard all of their lives only to have little choice but to spend their declining days in nursing homes that are staffed by people who are paid poorly and provide poor service (not all nursing homes are like this but in my experience the majority are). They are often times forced to liquidate their assets to be eligible for these services as a last resort. As we grow older the fallacy of a youth oriented culture begins to emerge in our consciousness but by then it is often times too late to share that realization with upcoming youth who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear what awaits them.

7. Are you seeing any emerging issues?
Transgender, trauma and Autism Spectrum issues are emerging at this time.

8. How do community health issues in Oklahoma differ from other parts of the country?
Oklahoma has a significantly high rate of Meth use and suicide in adolescents and young adults.

9. What would you wish for if you had a single wish for community health?
Increased respect for all life from the embryo to the oldest of seniors.

Thank you, Shawn, for an outstanding interview.

Note: The opinions expressed are the author's own. 

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