How to Tell If You’re Free

As Americans, our lives revolve around the concept of freedom. It is the basis for our government, our holidays, our over the top news anchors and their scary breaking news. Many people believe the United States is the freest country in the world, and many believe freedom is what makes the United States the greatest country in the world. For all that we talk about it, live in it, exercise it, how many people really understand what freedom is?
The definition isn’t very helpful. According to Webster’s dictionary, freedom means being able to act freely. As Americans, this is a definition we must take for granted. From the time we wake till we go back to sleep, even how and when and where we sleep, is totally up to us. People are so accustomed to acting as they will that any encounter with force or control can meet with resentment, suspicion, and scorn. Children will complain about how parents or teachers ignore their rights because they have to follow a dress code or aren’t allowed to watch a certain movie. Are adults whose lives revolve around a job and whose behavior is determined by their means of income less free than adults who are unemployed and can do whatever they want whenever they want? Of course not, but these are the difficulties that arise when we try to understand freedom.
Another definition of freedom is the escape from imprisonment or slavery. Indeed, I think that this definition becomes the most important definition for our society today. Only by losing freedom can we begin to understand what it meant in the first place. Slavery is alive and well. From the Thai fishing boats that abduct men for years at a time to human trafficking, even today people lose their freedoms and become property of others. People in abusive relationships lose their freedom to controlling spouses. People lose their freedom to incarceration for a number of reasons; some are falsely accused, some are political prisoners, many poor people are convicted of crimes they do as they fight to survive. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, which is a confusing fact for the freest nation in the world. Do we just have more bad people, or is it possible we have more laws to break?
To be owned or incarcerated are terrible ways to learn what freedom really means. For us in this moment, imagining what slavery would be like is as much an abstract challenge as understanding what freedom is. But we can listen to survivors, hear their stories of courage, and know true gratitude for that elusive thing that we have but do not understand.
Addiction is another word for slavery. If we were to listen to the media or the government sponsored anti-drug propaganda, we might believe that all drug addicts die of overdoses soon after they start using whatever poison they’ve gotten themselves into. That of course, is terrible and sad, but it is not the usual outcome for drug addicts. The worst thing about drug addiction is that it forces people to give up their freedoms and become slaves to the drug. A drug addict is not able to act freely, but is always under the control of some desire, a deep, dark need that is never satisfied for long.
My parents have been drug addicts for as long as I can remember. If freedom is defined as the ability to leave the house, to go where one pleases, to say whatever one feels like, then my parents are free. Honestly, they have spent very little time incarcerated in light of the “crimes” they have commit-ted, keeping in mind that many drugs are illegal, and many drug addicts do illegal things to get those drugs. But I define freedom as the ability to make choices, the opportunity to pursue happiness, the capability of protecting and providing for loved ones. Drug addicts like my parents lose all of these things, slowly, as the addiction builds and get stronger. I remember days before my mom was a liar. I remember days when my mom cared about her children. Now my mom is in a prison of her own making. The prison will be with her for the rest of her life, and the only goal she will ever have is getting that one more fix.
There are people who have no sympathy for drug addicts, who want them locked away in a prison, who want to blame the addicts because they chose to use drugs in the first place. My parents have four children. Two of those children got involved with drugs at an early age; one of them had serious struggles with addiction. My parents didn’t have the freedom to teach us right from wrong. They were wholly consumed by their own needs and we had only their actions as our model. How many imprisoned drug addicts only did what they learned from their parents? Is that really a choice?
I know what freedom is because I witnessed my parents lose their freedom, first to drug addiction, then to jail cells and mental hospitals. I watched my sister lose herself the same way. I know what freedom is because I can choose to spend my money on all sorts of things, some wise, some not, but I am not compelled to fork it all over to some creep in a rundown parking lot. I know what freedom is because when I make a mistake, when I tell a lie, when I let someone down, it is because I had the ability to choose things, and I made a wrong choice when I am capable of making a better one. I know what freedom is because my goals change, because my future can hold anything, because I have so much to look forward to; there are limitless possibilities.

Never wait for New Year’s to make and keep resolutions.

I am sure everyone is aware that most New Year’s resolutions don’t survive the first week let alone the whole year. I made about four resolutions last year, and I am pleased to report that one of them has been very successful. I resolved to quit drinking soda. I had been drinking 1-2 sodas (mostly diet) every day. Now it is the end of October, and I think I have had a dozen or less sodas all together. I am going to call that a win, because my behavior has been hugely altered to my benefit.

Today, on the unauspicious day of October 27th, I am going to make two new official resolutions. (I see changes I need to make in my life, why on earth should I wait to make them?)

These resolutions have very little to do with grad school, but have to do with changing my life for the better.
First, I resolve to stop eating food in front of the TV (popcorn excluded).
Second, I resolve to bring food to my grandmother when I go to visit her. I visit my grandmother twice a week, usually, so I am going to start by saying I resolve to bring her food once a week, with an eye on doing it both times I go to her house. I live pretty far from my grandmother so my visits are planned out ahead of time to save gas money.

These two goals are important to me. One will help me lose weight, be healthy, and pay more attention to the important things in my life. The other is something I should be doing to show my love for my grandmother, who is having a harder and harder time.

Money and Love, Love and Money

Men need to listen and sympathize with their partners, instead of just fixing everything for them. This is the advice handed down to us through the media. I remember it as a big part of the plot in White Men Can’t Jump. Modern Family did a similar episode regarding Claire and Phil a few years ago. The moral of the story is that women are adults who can handle their own problems; they just want to vent once in a while.

The media advice is good, I’m sure, but I’m stricken by my exception. When I tell my husband about something I need from the store, he buys it for me. Let’s be clear; not something I want, something I would like, or something that would be convenient. Something I need. Having him step in and take care of it means a lot to me.

As a child, I was neglected, lied to, and burgled. I never valued myself. I grew so accustomed to ill-fitting old clothes that I believed I belonged in them. I would never dream of buying new things for myself. I had no concept of money belonging to myself for my needs.

I came to be quite a cheapskate. At the grocery store, I got the cheapest item on the shelf, carefully comparing per ounce prices from the little stickers. I bought the cheapest cuts of meat, marked down produce, and every dinged up can I could find.

My husband put an end to the cheap food right away. “We don’t live long enough not to eat well,” he says. He hates spending money, especially since we went back to school and have much less income, but “we’re not that poor,” he insists. I have to splurge on extra lean hamburger and chicken breast. A lot of that was for him. He had to show me that I was worth spending money on too.

It gets dark so early now. I ride my bicycle home from classes by myself. I told him it made me nervous. He didn’t commiserate or sympathize. He acted. He bought me a helmet, a head light and a tail light, an expensive one that flashes. He hadn’t thought twice about it. “Feeling safe is priceless,” he said to me. Can you hear my heart fluttering?

When we first moved in together he had been sleeping on the same mattress for at least fifteen years. It was terribly lumpy and there was a hole where a spring poked through. He didn’t mind sleeping on it apparently, but when I complained, he took me to shop for a new one the next day.

Money is certainly no way to buy love and affection, and I hope I don’t sound like some princess who requires monetary devotion. But my self-image made it impossible for me to spend money on myself and seeing my man do it because he believes I deserve it is amazing. It’s refreshing. It’s beautiful.

It’s really what I needed.

Lessons from The Handbook: Suicide and the art of paying attention

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When I was in 6th grade, I told my parents I tried to kill myself. They took me to a psychiatrist who promptly diagnosed me with depression and gave me Prozac. I took the Prozac for a day or two and then stopped. I was eleven. I was not very motivated to get my life together. I had just tried to kill myself after all. My mom didn’t make sure I took the pills. Didn’t ask about it. She didn’t seem to notice she never had to get a refill. You know, because I never told her I needed a refill. Later, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, but eventually I took several of the anti-depressants and several sleeping pills and tried to kill myself again. I took them over the kitchen sink, then walked back to my bedroom. It hit me right away; I was already high as I walked down the hallway.

My mom awakened me for supper. I trudged back out, sat through the dinner, made small talk. My parents chastised me for staying awake too late at night. Yes, mom. Of course. That’s exactly right.

About a year later, in seventh grade, I tried to kill myself again. My mom walked in on me in the bathroom. I was lying on the floor crying, a sleeping pill bottle open on the counter. My parents debated taking me to get my stomach pumped and asked how many pills I took. I knew I had taken over twenty. I hated swallowing pills, and I counted them in my hand before choking them down. She didn’t believe me and sat at the kitchen table counting all the pills left in the bottle.

“It’s a bottle of sixty. I counted 53 and I’ve been taking them so she couldn’t have taken many,” my mother said. That was, of course, the end of that.

My mom didn’t know how obsessed with suicide I was. She didn’t know that last year I carried a bottle of sleeping pills around with me every day at school. There had been two brand new bottles in the medicine cabinet, sixty count each. After pulling out all the cotton, there was so much room left in the bottle. I put all the pills together, carried 120 pills around in my pocket all at once.

There were so many things she never noticed.

They dragged me back to the psychiatrist. Another man with an accent I couldn’t understand. I was so embarrassed to let my mom translate for me. I felt like a racist. He diagnosed me with manic depression. He gave me Depakote and Wellbutrin. I was supposed to take them twice a day. I obeyed for a day. Two. Maybe a third. But no one was around watching me. Making sure I took my medicine. Again, no refills ordered, no one noticing there should be.

I guess she had her own problems, but twelve year olds are irresponsible and easily sidetracked, and I say this having been constantly complimented for maturity beyond my years. Parents have to take responsibility for their children’s wellbeing. Parents do not just care for their children, they have to care about their children, and that means paying attention.

What can we learn from how animals cope?

I talk a lot about the effect of abuse and addiction on children and families. Many times, the result manifests as a mental illness. This is an interesting look at animal mental illness and what humans can learn from them.

ideas.ted.com

Author of the book Animal Madness, TED Fellow Laurel Braitman shares 5 ways in which animals and humans suffer from similar mental illnesses. Anthropomorphism run amok? You decide.

A golden retriever chases his tail every morning for hours on end. In the evening he compulsively licks his paws till they’re bare and oozy. When he’s given Prozac, he calms down and stops injuring himself … After the death of her mate, a scarlet macaw plucks out every last one of her feathers and doesn’t stop until she’s befriended by a cockatoo … A tabby cat who grew listless and stopped eating after his favorite human went off to college is cheered by the arrival of the family’s new pet rabbit, whom he likes to follow around the house.

Is the dog obsessive-compulsive? The parrot struggling with trichotillomania? The cat, once depressed, now recovered?

Making sense of animal emotional states…

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A Letter to a former friend’s mother

To the mother who rejected,

I was friends with your daughter when we were in fifth grade. Breann was nice to me when I was having a hard time at home with my parents and at school with bullies. I invited her to come over to a Halloween party. Before that, I came to your house for a party she hosted. I made a Halloween toast and I used the H-word. I must have left a bad impression because suddenly she wasn’t allowed over.

I want you to know I understand. You felt the need to protect your daughter. When you saw me, maybe you saw a bad influence. Maybe you saw something you didn’t want your daughter to know more about. You had to do what you had to do to take care of your kids.

And I wasn’t one of your kids, so I know you couldn’t take on helping me, talking to me, looking out for me. I’m sure you didn’t have the time and energy to find out why I acted out in the little ways I did.

It hurt to be rejected like that. It hurt to realize I wasn’t good enough for my sweet, kind friend. It hurt to find out I didn’t know how to act appropriately. Obviously I thought my toast was a fun little thing, but apparently it scared you enough to keep your child away from me. It was a little frightening. My sense of normal is just so skewed.

I was having so much trouble at home. My parents were abusive. Most of the time they ignored me.

I know this wasn’t your problem. I know that. And your daughter turned out so well. When I look at the two of us and where we are in our lives, I guess you made the right choice.