Judith: Mentor and Friend

Many women have been important to my life, starting with my mother, who passed away about ten years ago. I miss her and think of her daily.

Isabel B., a neighbor and 4-H leader when I was growing up, was my second role model. I remember Mrs. B. was also active in the Farm Bureau Federation in Wisconsin. The Farm Bureau was, and perhaps still is, the largest organization serving as an advocate’s voice for farmers. My parents were dairy farmers. They also operated a small hybrid seed business (corn and oats), along with raising six children. It was a very, very busy life. So was Isabel’s.

As I look back, Isabel was ahead of her time. She would have been recognized as a career woman today. She was smart, perceptive, bold and energetic, and she made a big impression on me. I wish I would have told her so years ago, before she died.  My memory also reminds me that although Isabel had many talents and accomplishments, in speaking of her the community always appended their judgement:  That they saw her as a poor housekeeper!

I didn’t meet Judith until the late 1970’s. She was a full professor at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison’s college of Agriculture, in the department of Nutritional Sciences. I was employed as clinical instructor in dietetics serving the upperclassmen working on their practicums.  Judith taught the senior class on therapeutic nutrition – that plus her research, of course! – While I located, planned, and coordinated these student dietitians in various hospitals across the county. I supervised the students and Judith supervised me, as dietetics program director.

She also mentored me through the early months, cluing me into departmental politics, advising me when I had various problems with students (or they had problems with me), and critiquing my work.

Several years later, I told her about my past depression.  When work was done that day, we had a heart to heart talk and she invited me to her home for dinner. I was speechless but grateful and moved. Judith made us each a filet mignon, a real Caesar salad, and American fried potatoes. I can still picture our working in her kitchen together. That same night Judith told me that the recurrent depression I had inherited was a disability and only that. She said I could certainly not only survive with the illness, but thrive in spite of it, just as her grandmother had adapted to life with serious arthritis. It was my first encounter with someone who considered mental illness a disability, just as other illnesses and conditions can be disabilities. Her message stuck with me and fortified me.

Years and life have passed by since.

In the 1980’s, my depression reoccurred in a major way. It was interfering with every aspect of my life, work, home, parenting, etc. My psychiatrist and I tried many medications and found none of them effective. He then recommended that I be hospitalized for a work-up in the psych ward to determine if electric convulsive therapy (called ECT; and referred to as shock therapy by many) would be safe for me. I agreed.

I was granted leave from my work. Judith went to bat for me with the University, pulled strings, and saved my job for me. Unfortunately the ECT treatments didn’t relieve my depression. A few months later I was hospitalized again: I was suicidal. Again I was granted leave.

What was most meaningful to me was all the additional support Judith gave. She visited me regularly during both hospitalizations. She made food for my family (oddly, no one else did). I recall the meals were prepared in an electric skillet, already cooked, so that all my husband had to do was plug in the skillet and slowly reheat the food. Throughout this period Jim dealt with long commutes and the normal pressures of work, took care of our children, laundry and everything else, including a visit each night during my hospitalizations.  It was going to be difficult for him to get me to out-patient ECT treatments as well. So Judith arranged for my colleagues to drive me from our home to the out-patient clinic for each treatment, and then return me home as well!

Slowly I recovered and we picked up our lives again.

Time passes. Judith retired and moved to Arizona. We kept in touch via mail and email.

And time has continued: Last year, 2018, I developed cancer in my right jaw and gums. My husband alerted all our families and close friends, including Judith, of my upcoming surgery. Thankfully the surgery went well.  But after recovering from the neck resection, I began six weeks of radiation therapy. While the radiation was aimed at my right neck, rays necessarily passed through my lips and mouth. My mouth erupted in radiation sores; eating and drinking was difficult.

During all these months I had been receiving cards from Judith. The cards were delightful! But one message was different. When I read it I was thunderstruck.  My friend had been dealing with cancer for years. Several surgeries. She had never revealed or even mentioned these illnesses to me!

Judith now told me that she had been through radiation therapy to many parts of her digestive tract. She knew the misery. I received weekly cards from her during treatment, sending me tips for easier eating and swallowing. And, via mail, she laughed and cursed with me about radiation therapy and these damned illnesses. Her favorite repeatable admonishment was “Keep Plodding Along (KPA)”.

The last time I heard from my mentor and friend was the end of October last year: Judith was having another surgery, this time a mastectomy. I continued to correspond, but have not received any replies.

Some people we encounter in our lives are kind, thoughtful and go out of their way to make a difference in our life. Judith is and was that person for me.

Remembering My Father in this Election Year 2016

Picture this, a big table in our farm kitchen covered with red and while checked oil cloth and dozens of clean clear glass jars, standing alert and ready to receive the recently made homemade jam of the month. Perhaps it was my favorite, raspberry jam. Raspberry jam was the perfect complement to my mother’s homemade bread. (It was heavenly in our kitchen when Mom baked bread. The aroma of the baking bread was divine.  She would find a way week after week to fit all 7 loaves of bread/dinner rolls into the oven simultaneously. If we timed it just right, the younger children, would arrive home from school just as the bread finished baking. The big question always was: Which of us would get the crusts?

This past weekend I have been enjoying making fresh applesauce and tasty apple butter. As I write, this it is Thanksgiving week and I hope everyone who will share our holiday feast will enjoy some warm fragrant apple butter with my daughter’s fresh baked dinner rolls. The apple butter is (mostly) made from dark red McIntosh apples which yielded a rich bright pink naturally sweet sauce. The sauce looked good to eat, and it was as delicious as it looked!

I smiled as I remembered these things. For you see, I am thankful that my mother had passed food preserving skills and interest in them to me when I was as young as 9 years old.  I realize that I’ve passed these baking and cooking skills to my daughter and son, who are more gifted with food creation than both my mother and I.

And then I felt sad. Other than my lovely singing voice, what gifts did my father pass on to me?  I thought for awhile and then realized I had let the fact that he had a mental illness blur my sight and my insight. My father gave me something I’m sure to need for today and for these next four years.  He taught me the importance of attending to daily news, especially state and national news, and politics. Dad was attentive to the news, to politics, and to our government. And I was proud of his interest and ability to discuss and debate current affairs.

I’ve never forgotten the image of my Dad reading the daily paper:  The afternoon paper, which was the liberal paper – and in contrast to his in-laws, who always read the morning, conservative, Republican paper. The prime location for reading the daily paper was the kitchen table. He’d sit down in his overalls and cap with a cup of coffee in his rugged hands.  Perhaps the hardworking hands were chapped or sunburned. The paper would be spread out to cover most of the table. We children dare not monkey with the paper until Dad had read the news—you know, the front page and section. We children also did not talk with Dad or fool around in the kitchen when he was reading.

Mom as well read the paper every day. (As a farm wife, she deserved a break every day before we all returned home. It was always reading the paper, sitting at the kitchen table, with a refreshing drink, right when the clock struck three pm.) But Mom read quietly, and kept her views of the news private.

During the 1950’s when times were good for our family, Mother and Dad took me, then 13-years old, and my two teenage brothers on a trip to see our nation’s capital. Two younger sisters both then in grade school were left in the care of a neighboring farm family.  The care and feeding of a dairy herd is a very personal skill, and a task that cannot cease even for a single day.  I don’t know if this expresses how unusual and how risky it was for a farm family to take leave of their farm for a vacation that meant traveling across a considerable area of the United States. We did stop at historic sites too, including Gettysburg.

Why did my father choose Washington, DC? He felt we three older children were at the right age to learn the importance of and to visit our national capitol and the famous monuments, and to hear again the story of our grandparents who had immigrated earlier during the 1900’s from Norway. Both became citizens.  But the biggest push was to meet the congressmen representing Wisconsin.  Fortunately, the elected officials with their busy schedules were available. They were able to spend a brief 5 to 10 minutes each with us. Three future new voters were very impressed with Mom and Dad’s vacation gift and its lessons of people, history …. and responsibility. And we, to the best of my knowledge, have always exercised our responsibility and privilege as citizens of this great land my father took us across.

Even this year.

Communities in Action to Prevent Suicide, part I

Hello spring!  And hello during this National Mental Health Awareness Month.

Last Wednesday, April 29th, 2015, I attended the Communities in Action to Prevent Suicide conference put on by a growing organization I want you to know about, prevent suicide wisconsin, and Mental Health America, Wisconsin.

Reading the preconference materials, I was immediately attracted to one of the keynote speakers, Ursula Whiteside, PhD, a Clinical Psychologist from the University of Washington.  Ms. Whiteside is a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Zero Suicide Advisory Group.  The Action Alliance was launched by former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to champion suicide prevention as a national priority. To quote from their literature, the Alliance champions “…a nation free from the tragic event of suicide.”

DrUrsulaWhitesideI wrote to Ursula before the conference, and to my delight she agreed to meet with me for a casual interview early in the morning, before her keynote. I greatly enjoyed meeting her, learned a lot, and am further encouraged.  She is a suicide attempt survivor herself and also knows and understands the Zero Suicide movement, an approach to suicide prevention that I’ll be discussing with you in my next post or two this week.

Stay tuned.

Chronic Mental Illness: Recovery while (Still) Homeless?

Did you know that among the large population we in the United States have of homeless people, approximately 30% are people with serious mental illness! Yes, at least 30%. Fifty percent, if you count those that also have substance abuse disorder. These homeless, along with those individuals with mental illness in prison and jails, are the forgotten of our world … even at times, forgotten by the advocates of mental health policy and care. They are out of view and out of mind.

Do we assume we can’t do much or shouldn’t do much for these forgotten?
Or do we realize we can end homelessness?

“Providing someone who is chronically homeless with a home first gives them the stability that they need to begin the process of recovery.” – Sam Tsemberis, Pathways to Housing

I couldn’t agree more … recovery is hard enough when you have a stable home!

One of the unique features of Pathways’ Housing First model is that participation in treatment or sobriety as a precondition is not required for housing. [More here]

From Shame – Moving Toward Healing

During the recent half decade I have been so fortunate, as Brene Brown* describes, to have completed the journey from the “not being good enough” shame struggle to believing and knowing “who I am is enough.” Shame from having mental illness has left me. Shame from being related to other people with mental illness has left me also. I have been graced.

I only recently realized I had made this journey. I understand now how much shame – and my growing resilience in the face of shame – had influenced the course and depth of my mental illness through the years.

It didn’t happen, this journey to being shame-free, automatically. I happened to want to do what is recommended for building shame resilience for other reasons; I wanted to help others cope with mental illness. Often, as part of my work, I told my story of family and personal mental illness. I didn’t realize then, twenty five years ago, how much nurturance I would receive from assisting others.  My story of the power of shame and how I arrived at healing from shame follows …. [Read the Full Article]


*   Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW   Audio lecture, 2012: Men, Women & Worthiness, The experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  Available on CD at Soundstrue.com  PO Box 8010/Boulder CO  80306.

What to do, “When Mental Illness Enters the Family”

What do we do now, now that mental illness has entered our family?  Dr. Lloyd Sederer’s video “When Mental Illness Enters the Family”  is a Godsend. In this short, 15-minute video, Dr. Sederer addresses family members of people with mental illnesses and gives them clear and doable tips on how to live harmoniously (mostly) and wisely (usually) with the ill family member. His four main steps to cope with the effects of mental illness are right on target.  I can write this because of the lived experience I have had with two members of my family of origin. One person is still living, a sibling,  and  I work to understand better how to provide this person true support and health needs in an integrated manner without sacrificing my health in the process. The recommendations in “When mental illness enters the family” are a good beginning for people starting out on that road – Helping to care for someone with mental illness – as well as a good review for experienced family members.

Dr Sederer is a psychiatrist who is the medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health –, i.e., Chief psychiatrist for the nation’s largest state mental health organization. He was the  medical director and executive vice president of Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. He is also the mental health editor and columnist for The Huffington Post.

I also heartily recommend readers who have a mental health condition and family members of people with a mental health problem explore NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) website for all the valuable resources and information that are gathered there.

As I worked and volunteered for NAMI on the state and local level for many years (20) here in Wisconsin, I will post a resource article with thoughts about the NAMI website and programs soon.

On Healing and the Caring Community

Recently I have been re-searching the book, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets for more wisdom.

The book’s author is Rev. Craig Rennebohm, founder of the Mental Health Chaplaincy  in Seattle, WA. This UCC minister speaks of the illness experience and how healing can occur even with serious illness. He places the experience of illness in perspective with many other factors in life. He writes,”…. Our illness self, may predominate at any given moment, but is not absolute and does not determine finally who we are. An illness, no matter how grave, is but a part of our larger identity; our wholeness as persons encompass the moment of illness and far more.”

I first heard him speak at the 2013 NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) annual convention held in Seattle that year. I learned although there is no cure for mental illness but there is recovery for many, that I am experiencing healing “…within a larger frame of personal growth and caring community” as the next stage in my recovery.  Continue Reading more on his profound message.