Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Easter Bunnies

I've Got The Writer's Block

There was a time, not so long ago, when writing literally poured out of me. Nary a day went by when I wasn't writing something, either here on my blog or for a magazine or newspaper.. But then someone pointed out to me the existence of a website that in large part was devoted to criticizing everything about me - from my looks to my husband and children to, yes, you guess it, my writing.

I thought I had a thick skin. I'd certainly taken my hits online for stuff I'd written. The worst ws the online comments on stories about the overdose and beating death of my son Henry. But this new vitriol was the worst I could imagine. These people on this website would flat out make stuff up about me. How do you respond to that? I mean, if you argue with them, you're feeding the trolls. If you ignore them, you allow them to publish flat out lies online with no recourse.

I decided on the latter,.I have done my best to never look at that site, but just knowing it's there, and that they will mock me and make fun of how I write and what I write about is hard. But one day recently when I wanted to write but somehow felt that I couldn't, I got mad. And a  flip switched in my heart and brain, I've been a  writer since preschool, when my mother says I used to make tiny books. I was editor of my high school newpaper and a columnist for my college paper. I've been freelancing for everyone from The News York Times to Huffington Post ever since. And of course, I am a blogger - something I've been doing for 11 years now and which gives me a lot of joy.

I am guessing that the people who rip me to shreds on that website don't care whether I feel joy or not. That's too bad because making people happy instead of sad is an awesome feeling.

In recent months,I find myself itching to blog again - nasty trolls be damned. I'm just promising myself that I will NOT look at that website. I just won't.

And I will write....and write....and write... Some of what I wrote will be heavy and other times what I write will be frivolous. But I WILL WRITE. I won't let a bunch of strangers take away from me one of the great joys of my life.

Thank you for reading. I love hearing from you in the comments. Thnk you to all of you who have supported me through the hellish last several years..

And now, I will write.



Graduation Day For Our Boy

This weekend has left me alternately giddy and weepily nostalgic. Why? Because my sweet. amazing, delightful and accomplished 18 year old, E graduated from high school today.
Even as I type those words I cannot quite believe them. I tend to alwasy think of E as my baby - which is what he was for a number of years before his little sisters C and G came along when he was 9 and 12 years old respectively. But today it's really hitting home that while he'll always be my sweet baby boy, he is not, in fact a baby, but is instead a young man with an incredible, panoramic future ahead of him.

We started celebrating E's graduation last night when we all gathered at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant, Senor Taco (which my kids refer to simply as "The Taco."). Our party consisted of Jon and me, Elliot's sisters J, C and G, my mother, my brother. Jon's parents plus E's good friend GB and J's housemate RP.

We were a jolly and boisterous group and we managed to scarf down a belly busting amount of Mexican food.

Once we were done eating, the wait staff at The Taco brought out the yummy Magpies cake (our favorite) I'd stashed in their kitchen earlier in the day. The waiters processed around the restaurant playing a drum and cymbals in a very festive fashion before delivering the cake to E. Along with the cake came E's graduation gifts from all of us, which he had fun opening.

We had just a wonderful time.

Here is E with my mama.

And here are E and his good friend GB.

Then today was graduation day at Thompson Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus. My mom, brother and I went out to lunch at the Tomato Head on Market Square before the main event. After we ate, my brother somehow convinced us we should walk to the graduation venue from downtown, even though we only had 30 minutes to spare. So the three of us totally booked it to get to graduation on time. We just barely made it but were still able to get good seats.

I knew that I would be emotional when E and his classmates trooped in during the traditional graduation processional and I was right; the music made me weepy. My BABY is now 18 years old a a HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE. High school really did seem to go by in the blink of an eye and seeing E and the other kids I know from his class take the stage to collect their diplomas left me all misty-eyed and sniffly. I know there's so much wonderful stuff ahead for my boy but I just feel like his chidhood sped by in the blink of an eye. High school in particular feels like it just started yesterday.

After the ceremony, E posed for photos with all of us, and then....just like was done. High school graduation was over after only a few speeches and a few hundred kids trooping across the stage. 

Here are Jon, me, J and E after the ceremony. (We left the little girls with Jon's mom who took them to the Children's reading festival today. We figured that would be more their speed than sitting thru a lengthy graduation ceremony)

And here are J and E after the ceremony today.

And what are E's plans now that graduation is over? Well, he intends to go to the beach withh us week after next, after which he's going to Jamaica on a mission trip with a friend's church. After that he'll be counting down the days until Freshman year begins. He'll be attending the same University as big sister J, and he already knows that he and a friend will get to room together in the dorm he expected to get assigned. His long term goal is law school. 

Tonight I remain nostalgic and I can't seem to stop drifting into reveries in which I remember E at 2. 5. 8. 10 and 12, 14, 16 and suddenly...18. Now that he's 18 he intends to wield his newfound legal adult status to get a tattoo - something honoring his big brother Henry, whom I know would have been so proud to see E walk across that stage today. 

Oh! And in other big news, E was yesterday named All-State in lacrosse. I'm super proud of him,

PART 1: If I Could Turn Back Time

Many if not most of you know that I lost my oldest son Henry, age 18 to a drug overdose and brutal drug-related beating on May 31, 2010. It's hard to believe that it's been six years now. I still hurt just as much as I did in the beginning. I cry almost every day. I feel broken in a way that I am not sure will ever heal. However, the one thing that has changed in the past six years is that I do have more perspective than I did in the immediate aftermath of Henry leaving us.

I have a lot to say on this subject so I will divide this blog post into several parts. Here is Part 1.

Frequently I receive emails and phone calls from frantic parents whose children are suffering in the depths of addiction. Every single time I hear from one of these parents it takes me back to the several years before we lost Henry - years during which he was actively abusing drugs - a period during which I felt helpless and alone. I honestly had no idea what I should do...what I COULD do to stop the runaway train that my beautiful son was on. I believe we did some things right. We sent him away to drug and alcohol treatment for basically his entire 17th year. We sent him to counselors and we sat him down with recovering addicts in an attempt to get through to him. However, in hindsight there are things I wish I had done differently.

The nearly hysterical parents who contact me looking for advice frequently ask me, "what do you wish you had done differently? Is there anything I should be doing that I am not?" After these six painful years without my son, I have come to some conclusions regarding the way I dealt with Henry's drug addiction before it finally killed him. When I speak to these parents I try to make it clear that I am not saying these are not necesssarily the "right" things to do. All I can say is that after some period of hindsight, these are the things I wish I'd done differently and that I believe might have made a difference and maybe, just maybe saved Henry's life.

1. Talk early and often about drugs: I admit it. I did not talk to Henry enough about drugs in his elementary and middle school years. This is because I simply couldn't imagine my accomplished, well-behaved child would ever turn to drugs. The whole concept seemed foreign to me and to our family. I have never used drugs - I've smoked pot twice in my life and got nothing whatsoever out of it, so I didn't even have the kind of experience that would have allowed me to speak to him with any knowledge or authority. But this doesn't matter; I should have found the right people to talk to Henry about drugs when he was 9-12 years old. I didn't do this. I just couldn't believe that drug addiction was in his future and so I chose to sort of ignore the whole issue. I talked to him about so many different dangers that I believed he faced but I erred terribly in my lack of conversation with him about drugs. And guess what? By age 14 my sweet, friendly, kind boy had already started smoking pot.

2. Know exactly what your 'tween and young teen is doing online. As someone who works in digital media you would think that I would have been more diligent in exploring my son's online activity. But once again, his demeanor was so very normal, at least until it finally wasn't that I didn't really worry what he was doing online. I mean, I watched him on Facebook but I had no idea that he was participating in drug-related chat rooms and forums, activity that I didn't discover until after he died (I had a friend hack into his computer for me after we lost Henry). In these chat rooms and forums he was actively discussing drugs and his own drug use as early as age 15 years old. My failure to pay closer attention to the conversations he was having online very well may have cost Henry his life. If I had known - MADE myself know - that at age 15 he was online very frequntly talking with ADULTS about drugs, drug experimentation, and how to avoid detection as a drug user I very well might have saved his life. The three years between age 15 and age 18 when he died were absolutely critical years - years when I still had legal and emotional control over my son. And because I was pretty much oblivious to much of the dangerous activity he was engaged in online, I lost that precious time to try to save him.

3. Be hyper-aware of any possible mental health issues that your child has that might lead him to self medicate. Henry suffered from what I now realize what was painful social anxiety and acute general anxiety for his entire life. Even as early as preschool he would come home complaining of stress headaches. We did take him to his pediatrician several times over the years to try to address what was clearly an anxiety disorder, and his pediatrician referred him for counseling. But not one of the several counselors we took Henry to see in early and later adolescence properly diagnosed him. Plus, Henry would clam up in couseling and so he got absolutely nothing out of these sessions. He simply refused to talk becaus he didn't want to be there. In hindsight, Henry almost certainly would have benefited from carefully monitored, prescribed anti-anxiety medication. But he never received this treatment and as a result, fairly early on he began to self medicate. At one point not long before he died, Henry told me that the first time he smoked pot ate age 14 he thought to himself, "Ah, so this is what normal feels like." Henry shouldn't have needed to smoke marijuana to find relief from the existential pain he was feeling (and which he described in great detail in the journals that he kept during his 17th year that he spent in treatment.) I failed my son in not pushing relentlessly for the top-notch mental health care that he deserved to receive before his self-medication turned into the addictive beast that took him from us far too soon.

Here is PART 2 of this series.

I Know It's Wrong to Covet

But I covet this.

One of these days..

Henry's Story

Several people have let me know that they're having trouble watching Henry's Story on YouTube. Thankfully, the wonderful folks at WBIR have kept the documentary online and you can watch it RIGHT HERE.

Part 2: If I Could Turn Back Time

Yesterday I wrote a blog post sharing some of the things I would do differently if I had the chance to raise my sweet son Henry all over again. Unfortunately, I don't get that chance but perhaps some of you reading what I have to say will find some nugget of wisdom that you will find helpful as you attempt to raise your children to avoid the deadly path of addiction that my beloved boy traveled before his drug-related death on May 31, 2010.

So here is Part 2 of my list of things I would do differently. I want to be clear that I am not claiming to have all the answers to why Henry became so ill with addiction, nor am I suggesting that if you adhere to my hard-earned perspective that your own child will never experiment with drugs or become addicted. There is still so much that we don't understand about why some children and teenagers become drug addicts while others - many from the same family and raised pretty much exactly the same way - do not. But I do believe that the perspective I've gained in the last six years since losing my dearest oldest child has some merit, and I hope you find it helpful in some way.

1. Make it clear that you have an absolute ZERO tolerance policy when it comes to drugs or alcohol and your kids.  You are not your child's friend. You are his or her parent. And even though we all knew some kids in high school who drank or smoked even a lot of weed and "turned out fine," this is not a chance you can afford to take with your own child. We know a lot more about the developing teenage brain than we did even 20 years ago and we know now that for kids who are born with the genetic predisposition for addiction, using drugs or alcohol during those critical developmental years may "flip the switch" for them, igniting a latent addiction that they may never again be able to turn off. This is what happened to my son. He started out smoking pot and for him, it truly was the gateway drug to the opiates that eventually killed him. I am aware that there are many adults who drink alcohol and use marijuana recreationally with no negative consequences to speak of. But teenagers do NOT need to drink or even use what we think of as a mostly benign drug - marijuana. There is just no good reason and there are lots of very bad reasons for adolescents to use or abuse these intoxicants.

Let me be clear that when I learned that Henry was smoking pot at age 14 I did not take it lightly. His father and I immediately got him into counseling (which in Henry's case was a waste of time because he would literally sit for an entire hour without uttering one word, so much did he not want to be there.) But if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I did not take Henry's pot use as seriously as I should have. Why? Because once again, we all knew kids in high school who smoked pot, even on a regular basis and who turned out to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. I so very much wanted to believe that Henry, a polite, friendly and generally well-behaved kid, would "grow out of" what I also wanted to believe was "occasional" marijuana use. This was a terrible mistake on my part. When Henry came to me at age 14 and admitted to me that he had experimented with pot I should have raised holy hell with my response. Instead I tried to be the understanding mom - the mom he could talk to about anything, I also wanted to believe him when he promised me that he would never experiment with marijuana again. These beliefs prevented me from taking the extremely hardline approach that I should have taken when I learned of Henry's earliest drug use.

2. If your kids' friends are changing radically, believe the worst. Before 9th grade, Henry had a solid group of great friends with whom he had attended school since 1st grade. I'm not saying these kids were perfect, but they were polite, accomplished kids who were involved in extracurricular activities like sports and church youth group. I also knew most of their parents and together, we all kept an eye on our boys. Starting in 9th grade, however, this all began to change quite radically for Henry. Leaving middle school for high school marked a distinct change in the peer group Henry with whom Henry began to spend time. Instead of the sort of preppy way Henry's previous friends had dressed, these new friends wore baggy pants, tie dyes and dreadlocks. Henry rarely invited these new friends to our house, preferring to hang out with them elsewhere - places that were hard for me to keep watch over (parks, the lake, etc). These kids reeked of cigarettes and often looked (and smelled) as if they hadn't bathed in days. Now let me be perfectly clear. LOTS of GREAT kids dress in tye dyes and wear dreads. But many if not most of these new friends were NOT great kids - at least they weren't great kids for my child to be hanging around. In 9th grade Henry still had to wear a school uniform but as soon as he got home each afternoon he would quickly change into his own version of what I have come to identify as his druggy clothes. Once when Henry was in 9th or 10th grade and we were visiting my family in Bell Buckle my dear friend Kimi (who raised 4 very well adjusted boys) tried to have a talk with me about the way Henry was dressing. "Katie," she told me somberly, "Henry is dressing like a kid who does drugs, and this 'uniform' is how other kids who do drugs find and identify with one another at school and elsewhere. We wouldn't let our kids dress that way and I wish you would seriously reconsider the way you're letting Henry dress and wear his hair long." But I didn't hear what she was saying. Instead I responded by telling her that I felt it was important for Henry to be able to express himself in the way he looked - hemp necklaces, long shaggy hair, tye dye pants and t-shirts advertising bands known for their drug-fueled concerts. Yes, I let him dress this way at an age when I still had enough control over him that I could have insisted on less drug-related attire. But I didn't. I really did feel like it was important for him to find and hang out with kids who seemed creative to me, and to express his own creativity in the way he presented himself. But Kimi was right; the kids Henry increasingly gravitated to were, in fact, major drug users. And today, a decade later, many of them are dead, some are battling active heroin and pill addiction, and a few lucky ones are in active recovery from their addictions. These kids weren't being creative in the way they dressed; they were putting out feelers to find the other kids in the school with whom they likely had drug use in common. Henry's sudden turn from the friend group he'd hung out with his whole life to this new, sketchy friend group should have been a big, flashing warning sign to me, but I wanted to believe the best about my son - that he was just branching out and meeting new and different kinds of people.

This is all I feel like I can write right now. I'm feeling very, very sad today, missing Henry and dreading the annual anniversary of his death which comes next week. But I have much more to say on this subject - things that in hindsight I wish I'd done differently. So please look for PART 3 in this series in the days to come. And thank you for reading. If I can maybe help even one family redirect their child out of the path to addiction, that will make me very happy.

And remember, you can find PART 1 in the series RIGHT HERE.