Aug 162010

I stopped watching the weather forecast a month ago.  That is when the weatherman said the dreaded words:

heat dome

In Oklahoma, we know what that means.  It means that a high pressure system is sitting right on top of us.  It means that the atmosphere has a lid right over our heads, a lid that allows the sun’s rays to find their way in but never out.  It means that you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, or cook dinner on your car hood if you wanted to. 

Heat.  Pressure.

His shoulders slumped slightly, as if he carried the world on them.  Quiet at first, but when I asked about his younger siblings, he spoke up, telling humorous stories about his attempts to keep them somewhat out of trouble.  The conversation shifted to his dad, and the quiet returned.  Alcoholic, violent, angry.  When dad was awake, the kids hid.  In their rooms, the garage, under the porch.  One day a neighbor saw the kids playing and brought them some lemonade.  A conversation started.  Over time, they felt safe.  Then one night, when they needed a hiding place, they ran to the neighbor’s house.  There are new challenges now, but no hiding.  No drunken rage.

Some kids feel heat and pressure every single day.  It doesn’t go away when the seasons change.  But it can be relieved when we are willing to be a refuge, a safe place for those around us who need it.

Will you be a refuge?

Aug 062010

It was a balmy 95 degrees on the San Antonio river walk. As the boat drifted along its half-hour sightseeing voyage, I took in the sights, smells, and sounds of a city that was founded a century before the American Revolution. The captain was commenting on points of interest, and then he said something that caught my ear. He said, “Here in San Antonio we don’t like to get rid of things that are old. We prefer to rehabilitate them and make them into something that is new.”

The rest of the tour was lost on me, as my mind’s focus shifted to foster kids. I thought of a girl I met once. At 16, she was used to taking care of herself. From the few stories she shared, I knew that life had been chaos, and I suspected that what she spoke barely scratched the surface of what childhood was actually like for her. Her family tree included generations of substance abuse and domestic violence. I asked how she coped, and she laughed a little. “I used to smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day – started when I was 7. By 10 I was drinking alcohol every day, and by 12 I was on meth. But all that is in the past now – been clean for a year.”

My usual poker face must have failed me, because she laughed again. “How?” is all I could muster. She went on to tell me how most people just saw her as yet another chapter in the old story of a broken family – a kid with no hope and no future. But then she met a teacher who was different. Who paid extra attention to her. Offered to help her after school so she could catch up with her peers. Believed in her. Told her how she could be different from her family history, how she could be somebody new.

I leaned back in my chair, unsure what to even say. The truth is that sometimes I see teens in foster care who I don’t believe are fixable. Who I don’t spend much time with because the yield seems so low, so unlikely to be worth anything of value. Who I don’t love as much as I should because I don’t think it will matter. And yet the truth is, we are not in this field to throw out kids, to deem them as old and useless, but rather to REdeem them, to give them opportunities to be made new and useful.

I need new eyes today – ones that can see what is possible.

May 062010

“He’s having trouble with his schoolwork”. She waved in the general direction of the boy in the room. At 12, he didn’t look particularly worried about her comment. “He doesn’t do his homework – doesn’t even get home with it sometimes. By the time I get there it is late, and he can’t seem to find it. And he got kicked out of school today.” He still looked calm. I hesitated, wanting to escape the room before this got too messy. “And my daughter is struggling too – she is seeing a counselor.” Too late. I sat down. “What is really going on in your life? Tell me the story of your family.”

For the first time in the entire encounter, she looked at me. Eye to eye. As if she wanted me to prove my level of interest. Then she closed her eyes and began to share. Molested as a child. Kicked out of the house at 13. A drug addict at 16. Twice a mom by 19. In and out of jail and rehab and terrible relationships throughout her 20’s.

Clean for 3 years. A stable job and a stable place to live. Night classes to get her associates degree.

“You have been through a lot, but you are achieving some amazing things.” I said. “How did you survive?” She sat up straight and lifted her chin. “You just have to keep walking in the fire – keep moving,” she replied. “You can’t stop or you will die.” Her face looked a little softer now, and there was a touch of pride in her eyes, as if telling the story helped her realize just how much she had already overcome. We talked a little more, and I offered what encouragement and suggestions I had. And she agreed to try them, and to come back in a few weeks so we could talk more. As I watched them leave, I found myself really hoping that she would.

There is still fire, but she is still walking. And now, maybe I will get the opportunity to walk with her.

Are you willing to walk in the fire with someone today?

Apr 302010

At 16, she clearly had more street smarts than I do at 38.  On the surface, she was really kind of a mess to look at.  Her skin bore the evidence of darker days, as numerous superficial scars covered her wrists and thighs.  She had hoped that causing pain on the outside would alleviate the pain on the inside, but it did nothing of the kind.  She also sported a couple of not-very-well-done tattoos, and several piercings that I could easily see.  She grinned a little and mentioned that there were others, but I left that subject alone.  

I just had to know more about her, and she was kind enough to humor me with her story.  Her parents were drug addicts, high on whatever they could buy or steal most of her life.  At age 7, she was living with them in a tent by a lake, and it was at that age that she would sneak leftover cigarettes when her folks were passed out.  By 10 she was an alcoholic, and by 13 had used nearly every street drug known.  At some point she could no longer self-medicate her reality, and she began to think about ending her life.  The thought of death was somehow much more peaceful than the thought of continuing to live.  By anyone’s standards, her life was a mass of shattered pieces. 

Then she met this boy.  A really good boy.  Who told her she was smart.  And funny.  And beautiful.  And who believed in her.

One by one, with patience and care, he began to glue her life back together.  Piece by shattered piece.  Until she was off drugs.  And alcohol free.  And in a GED program.  And thinking about the future, and marriage, and being a mom someday.  “My life is a mosaic,” she told me.  “There are still a lot of pieces, but now they fit together to make a picture.”

Not just a picture.  A beautiful work of art.  A masterpiece. 

There are lots of broken and shattered people living in our neighborhoods, in our communities.  Works of art that are unrecognizable until someone takes the time and effort to glue the pieces together.  Are you willing to play a part in creating something beautiful?

Apr 132010

pro-tec-tor – (noun)  a person that protects; a guardian or defender*

The October sky was blue but there was certainly a chill in the air.  His small frame covered with a thin long-sleeve shirt didn’t offer much of a barrier against the breeze.  He sat on the steps of his home, trying to figure out what to do.  At 6 he was the caretaker of his 3 and 2 year old siblings.  He got them up in the mornings and fixed them breakfast – had an old burn stripe on his finger from touching the hot coils of the toaster.  He knew how to make macaroni and cheese, and to microwave soup and fix sandwiches.  He made sure their noses were wiped, and changed his little sister’s diapers the best he could.  And he tucked them into bed at night.  All the while his mom spent most of the day either passed out on the couch or away from the house, looking for her next fix. 

Most of the time he didn’t mind helping – he knew his mom had a lot she was struggling with, and he wanted to make it as easy on her as he could.  He loved her very much, and as he shivered against the wind, his mind wandered back to days when she read him stories and gave him big hugs.  When it seemed like she loved him.  He hadn’t gotten that kind of attention for at least a couple of years.  And his siblings never had, except from him.  That thought snapped him back to the reality of the porch.  He tried the door again, but it was still locked.  His mom had woken up in a bad mood and was screaming and throwing things at his little brother.  When he intervened, his mom had dragged him out on the porch and locked the door. 

He began to walk down the street, slowly at first, but then with increasing confidence, toward the fire station a block away.  “Can you help me  sir?  My sister and brother are in danger, and it’s my job to protect them – can you help me?  We need a better life than this.  There has to be something better than this.”

Courage is found in many different places.  Sometimes it is even packaged in the small body of a 6 year old.  What about you?  Will you be courageous?

Mar 052010

Have you ever been somewhere that you shouldn’t have been?  Most of the time the outcome isn’t so hot, but this time was different.  On this day, I wasn’t supposed to be at work, wasn’t supposed to be seeing patients.  Didn’t even have my “doctor” clothes on.  But there I was. 

Her mom was concerned she might have a ringworm.  I took a quick glance at the petite 4 year old’s forearm and confirmed that, quickly explaining to the mom how to treat it effectively.  It should have been time to leave the room.  But for whatever reason, I stayed.  The mom looked older than me (at least in my mind :)), but it turned out she was a couple of years younger.  She had 6 kids – the first was born when she was only a kid herself.  They had been in foster care for several years, but were now back with her, and soon DHS would sign off on her as a mom. 

At that point in the conversation, perhaps a normal person with manners and social grace would have just stopped – congratulated her and bowed out of the conversation.  But I couldn’t help myself.  I was compelled to know the whole story – to know HER.  She had been on drugs – painkillers, then marijuana, and finally methamphetamine.  The guys she hung out with were mean, but they supplied her drug habit.  Eventually it caught up with her and the kids were picked up.  She was devastated, but she was also addicted.  For two more years she was unsuccessful in her struggle against it.  Then she began to break free.  Went through rehab – ALL the way through.  Then a half-way house.  Then outpatient counseling.  Then she found a job.  Then she got an apartment.  Then she got her kids back.

What?  How did that happen?  The story doesn’t usually have a happy ending? What is your secret?

My parents believed in me.  My friend believed in me.  My counselor believed in me.  My new boss believed in me. 

When we begin to see people for who they were created to be, instead of who they are on the surface, it is easier to believe in them.  And when WE believe in them, it is easier for them to begin to believe in themselves.  I want to believe in people.  In their potential.  In the possibilities of their lives.  In the awareness that a bad decision is not the same thing as a bad person.  In the knowledge that we all make mistakes and none of us is perfect.  In the hope that the future can be different than the past.

“You are an overcomer!” I said.  Her eyes met mine, and she smiled.  And on the day when I wasn’t supposed to be there, I was blessed enough to witness something miraculous – a family together again.  Hope rising from ashes.  Sure glad I went by the office.

Feb 232010

We are not morning people.  No one enjoys getting out of bed – not even the dogs.  Because of that, getting everyone dressed and in the car is filled with emotion.

Stress.  Anger.  Anxiety.  Frustration. 

In the middle of  that mess, my kids have adopted a morning tradition.  Once the car is rolling, they want to hear music.  Not just any music.  They want to hear “Mighty to Save” by Hillsong.  They want it turned up loud.  And they want to sing at the top of their lungs, even though neither of them can carry a tune in a bucket.  And they want to pretend to be part of the band.  One plays the keyboard, the other an air guitar, and me?  Drums, of course!  I have to keep my hands on the wheel, after all.   Plus by that time I am usually ready to beat on something.  As we sing and “play”, something amazing happens. 

Stress disappears.  Fighting resolves.  Anger dissipates

She was 14, and she really couldn’t have cared less who I was.  She was simply here because her case worker had dragged her in to get a physical.  She gave cursory answers to most of my questions.  She had been in 10 placements over the past year – she was difficult to care for, she guessed.  She could make straight A’s when she managed to stay in school long enough to get a report card.  Yes she smoked – 2 packs a day.  Even though she had asthma.  Yes she drank alcohol, any time she could get her hands on it.  Yes she slept with boys, mostly when she was lonely.  But then I asked something that struck a nerve. “What do you enjoy?”  Her face fell.  “I don’t enjoy anything.”  I didn’t believe her.  “Come on”, I said, “there must be one thing that you enjoy doing.  Even if you don’t get to do it very often.  What is it?  Reading?  Writing stories?  Playing ball?  Watching movies?”.  “Music”, she said.  “Music calms me down, helps me to not get into fights, and not be depressed.  I have had CD’s and even had a boom box before, but I have moved around a lot, and have lost it all.”

The medical treatment she needed was fairly straightforward.  Take your asthma medicine.  Stop smoking, drinking, and sleeping around.  Go to school.  But the question wasn’t WHAT did she need to do to be healthy.  The question was HOW to be motivated to do it.  In the face of overwhelming stress.  When you have been abandoned and are hopeless.  When you have very little control.  The answer?  Music.

We made a deal – come back in a month in better shape.  You can define it.  If you are better, I will get you your music.  Two months went by, and I wondered if she had moved again.  Then, she came.  Stopped smoking.  Taking her asthma meds.  Hadn’t slept with anyone new this month (I counted that as an improvement).  Only 1 new placement in 2 months.  In school, making A’s and B’s.  Her case worker smiled and agreed.  And I went to the store to get her some music.

When you turn on your radio, or plug in to your iPod, pause and be thankful that you are alive, that you are safe, that you have food in the fridge and relationships that are meaningful.  Let music be a gentle reminder that not everyone does.


Feb 052010

Yesterday I talked a little about the impact of childhood adversity on adulthood.  Let me tell you a story about that…

So in the late 1980’s, there was a guy who was an internal medicine physician (adult doc) in California.  He ran an employee health clinic, and spent his time trying to get obese people to lose weight and become healthier.  The clinic helped folks learn about nutrition, gave them an exercise regimen, and monitored their progress.  And, they lost weight.  However, what he noticed was that there were some people who were initially successful, but then reverted back to their old habits and regained the weight.

Can you relate to that? 

Well, this doc didn’t like that one bit (you can imagine what Jillian Michaels would have to say about it…), so he sat down with some of these folks over a cup of coffee and let them tell him about their problems.  At first they talked about the role of food in their lives, but eventually the conversation drifted to the things that we humans use to comfort ourselves – food, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, sleep, withdrawal from relationships. 

If we’re honest, we all use those things or others to comfort ourselves.  For me, it’s chocolate.  And caffeine.  And maybe occasionally a margarita.  With lots of tequila. 

The problem is that you can’t really heal an internal problem with an external solution.  And when the internal problems are a gaping, bottomless pit, all the chocolate or caffeine or alcohol in the world won’t help.  And in the meantime, you get fat.  Or sick.  Or addicted.  Or dead.  In fact, in the population that this doc studied, not only were folks obese, they had high rates of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure (from overeating),  liver disease (from alcohol), lung disease (from smoking), drug abuse, sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy/abortion, depression and suicide. 

Not just a little more.  A LOT more.  In fact, they were dead men walking…

Depressed yet? Hang in there – we will get to some hope soon.  Tune in again tomorrow…

Feb 042010

One of my favorite reality TV shows is The Biggest Loser.  I enjoy the creative competitions, last-chance workouts, and of course the drama of the weigh-in.  But what fascinates me most might be lost on the majority of viewers.  Every once in a while there will be an occasion when a contestant has a private conversation about their weight issues with one of the trainers.  There are usually tears flowing as the trainer probes the depths of the contestant’s soul, attempting to get at the cause of a lifetime of unhealthy behaviors.  In the middle of all the made-for-TV drama, if you listen closely, you will hear them answer.

My parents divorced.  I was molested.  My mom was a drug addict.  No one cared about me.  I was abandoned. 

Now THAT is reality.  Reality is that some kids have a childhood full of pain and loss.  Reality is that some kinds of adversity screw you up.  Reality is that surviving childhood does not guarantee a clean slate into adulthood.

Want to know more?  Stay tuned for the next episode…