Archive for the ‘Delving Deeper’ Category

By Mark E. Smith

In some of our lives, it just follows us. Even if we’re not personally struggling with such a harrowing path, some around us are. And, the challenge that has haunted many of us is in figuring who might be and how to address it?

A common myth is that those who speak of committing suicide never follow through with it. However, this isn’t true. Eight out of 10 people who commit suicide talked about it or gave clues. Anyone with the thought in his or her mind is at risk and such communication must be taken seriously. As one with a family history of suicide, as well as having lost others around me to suicide, I’ve experienced and witnessed its impact since the age of four. Every time it’s re-entered my life, including in the days leading to this writing, I’ve learned a bit more about the causes and possible solutions – as well as the heartbreak when nothing can prevent it.

Many don’t understand why anyone would commit suicide? After all, we all have problems or get down, but the thought of killing ourselves never enters our minds. We intrinsically know that tough times pass, and move forward. Why, then, can’t some people move forward, why is suicide an option at best, or the ultimate solution at worst?

It’s really easy – and too often wrongly done in our culture – to label those who commit suicide as depressed, psychotic, or even manipulative. However, suicide is nowhere near that simple. We know that medical issues like organic brain disease, thyroid issues, and reactions to medication can cause suicidal thoughts. To the positive, when these are properly diagnosed, treatments exist, saving lives.

Yet, what about those who don’t have diagnosable medical conditions? What drives them to suicide? Researchers have found that there’s a certain inexplicable mindset where some simply see “suicide as a problem-solver.”

As troubling as that mindset is, it’s fairly easy to understand. When most of us encounter a problem, we instinctively know it as temporary. It’s actually one of our innate survival skills as humans. For some, though, they have a sort of tunnel vision, where problems aren’t viewed as temporary, but as forever torturous, with no end. And, in that mindset, suicide seems the only effective way to stop the pain because they see no other solution.

So, how can we address those who might be at risk of suicide around us? Firstly, we have to be honest enough to know that we can’t always prevent a suicide. If someone is going to kill themselves, it can be inevitable. But, this doesn’t mean most situations are – and awareness is key. Most who are suicidal don’t truly want their lives to end – they just want the pain to end. The understanding, support, and hope that we offer can be their most important lifeline.

If we know someone who’s struggling, possibly having tunnel vision toward suicide as the only solution – and, again, it’s often hard to define – speaking of other solutions can sometimes help break a mindset of suicide as the only option. It’s not about telling someone to simply move on; rather, it’s about being empathetic and, through communication, hopefully helping one break a tunnel vision mindset of suicide as the only solution. And, being observant to changes in mood and behavior are often emblematic of a medical condition, and guiding individuals toward proper medical care saves thousands of lives each year.

In the end, each person’s path toward suicide is a harrowing one. When we’re fortunate, that path can be changed, an invaluable life saved. For others, suicide is their final act – and the rest of us are left with the heartbreak. Forever.

Author’s Note

Dedicated to Maddie and her parents’ courage to speak about Maddie’s life, love, and suicide. May her struggles save others. Maddie’s obituary 

By Mark E. Smith

My entire adult life, I’ve tried to grow a full beard – alas, to no avail. I was of the ‘80s generation, where George Michael rocked that close-cropped beard, and nothing was more masculine than that, right? Yet, every time I tried to grow a full beard to trim George Michael style, it always came in thin, and after two weeks, I gave up and shaved. I just couldn’t grow a beard.

However, several weeks ago, at this writing, I found a video by chance on YouTube regarding growing beards, and that piqued my interest. After doing further research, I learned that there’s literal anatomical science to growing a beard. While some men have thicker or darker facial hair than others, the universal fact is, all of our facial hair grows at approximately the same rate – 0.011” per day – and it takes one month to grow a beard. Therefore, I’ve learned, it’s not my genetics that has prevented my growing a full beard, but my lack of patience.

Not unlike my previous beard-growing mindset, I recently heard a great saying: we overestimate what we can do in two weeks, and underestimate what we can do in two years. And, on both fronts, patience and effort play a role.

How many of us have wanted to snap our fingers and somehow magically change an aspect of our life? We don’t want to spend a year getting in shape, two years getting finances in order, three years building a relationship, or four years going back to school to advance our careers. Heck, I don’t want to wait a month to grow a beard! Rather, we just want change now!

Yet, change doesn’t happen at the snap of our fingers. Rather, it takes patience, effort, and time. We don’t get into shape overnight; it takes consistent exercise and training. We don’t get our finances in order based on one paycheck; it takes long-term discipline and budgeting. We don’t build or repair a relationship in an eve; it takes constant introspection, understanding, and communication. And, we don’t elevate our careers in a day; it takes an ongoing practice of professional growth.

However, when we have patience and apply the effort needed, not over two weeks, but, say, two years, we accomplish extraordinary growth and changes in our lives. I wish there was a magic pill that allowed change to occur overnight. However, there’s not. We are fortunate, though, to have a formula that gets us to our goals, aspirations, and dreams: patience + effort + time = success.

I’ve applied this principle to many aspects throughout my life, and it’s never failed. Some successes take longer than planned – I recall spending every day for close to a decade learning to tie my shoes based on my disability – but patience, effort and time always pay off.

Along the way, especially when we don’t see immediate results, we’re bound to get discouraged – and that’s a great sign. We only feel discouraged when we’re truly trying, so recognizing it as a hallmark that we’re making progress is vital to growth. Discouragement doesn’t need to be a roadblock, but a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Let it lead us past!

Surely, growing a beard is trivial compared to the many profound areas that we struggle with in moving our lives forward. Yet, the core principles are the same. Let us have the strength to invest patience, effort and time into what we desire – and it is then that our dreams and goals become reality.

By Mark E. Smith

As one with cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair, I’ve been blessed. For two decades, I’ve built a career in the corporate business world. That career has allowed me to fly on hundreds of trips, from Hawaii to Spain, to many destinations in-between. I, like most business travelers, crisscross the friendly skies from event to event, working to support my wife and two daughters, pursuing the success most of us wish.

However, on March 27, 2017, on American Airlines, I saw a dramatically different side to the world of air travel that I’ve long known.

See, I’d finished five days working a trade show in Southern California, and as I waited to board American Airlines Flight 121, departing at 11:30 am, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, all was typical. I had my ticket in hand, my wheelchair was tagged for cargo, and I was looking forward to a smooth flight home. Soon, I boarded, as did all of the other passengers, and as we sat buckled in, the Boeing 737 warmed up for departure.

Seated in row 24, my attention was called away from looking out the window, to a large group of American Airlines’ flight attendants, gate agents and ground crew – a sea of varying uniforms and two-way radio chatter – coming up the aisle. Without speaking to me, they asked the two women sitting next to me to move from their seats, explaining that they were removing me from the plane. I was immediately alarmed, not knowing what was going on, and asked what the issue was? Everyone in the American Airlines group paused and the entire plane was voiceless – just the mechanical hum of the 737.

I looked from one person to the next to the next, and all just stared. Finally, a flight attendant exclaimed, “This plane isn’t leaving without him!” and sat beside me. Her sudden burst of emotion confused me even more. I was then told that communication between the captain and ground crew instructed that he wouldn’t accept me and my wheelchair on the flight.

I was dumbfounded. American Airlines personnel were refusing to transport me because I am a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair. This scene was unquestionably a violation of a number of federal laws, and I was stunned that it was happening to me. However, in that moment, I kept all emotions in check, explaining that my wheelchair was, in fact, airline compliant, easily transported with a compacted size of merely 24” wide by 32” high, that it’s always easily loaded, that I often fly for business. The American Airlines group’s response was simply to continue removing me from the plane in a hurried fashion – Captain’s orders. I knew then that there was no reasoning with this dehumanizing situation. Compliance was clearly my only option, as is often the insidious nature of blatant discrimination.

As I scooted across the seats toward the crowd, having to transfer into a dolly-like chair so that they could roll me off of the plane, all of the other passengers watched, silent. Although many clearly heard that I was being removed because American Airlines didn’t want me and my wheelchair on the flight’s manifest, no one questioned why, in 2017, a businessman with a disability was being ejected from a plane? In that moment, I realized the gravity of it all: I was being stripped not just of my civil rights, but of my humanity. For the first time in my life, in the microcosm of that American Airlines Boeing 737, I was discarded as a human being – literally.

Think for a moment how surreal and painful it was for me in that cabin, where one minute I was a businessman traveling home to his wife and children, to the next moment of being displayed to rows of countless passengers as less of a human due to using a wheelchair. Imagine how emotionally breaking that is.

They rolled me down the aisle, off of the plane, and parked me on the gangway, totally immobile, strapped to a dolly chair, as the plane pulled away. I was discarded cargo.

As I sat there truly helpless, unable to move, not knowing how or when I’d get home – or even where my wheelchair was – I realized that I had to make an emotionally life-saving choice. I could allow American Airlines and its personnel to strip me of my dignity and degrade my humanity. Or, I could take control of my true being. Instead of expressing anger, I could maintain grace. Instead of experiencing anxiety, I could evoke strength. And, instead of external tears, I could hint an internal smile. And, with that, there I sat, deep in introspection, hearing the plane fly away, absorbing the fact that I, based on disability, was deemed less than human by American Airlines and its personnel.

As I waited in the unknown, I was comforted by words I heard long ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

By Mark E. Smith

Profound life change can be hard and scary. However, do you know what’s even harder and scarier? Acknowledging it to ourselves and others. Yet, when we do, that’s when the most rewarding change occurs.

My wife and I were very fortunate to buy our “forever house.” We’d financially striven toward it, and finding it was a two-year process unto itself. It had to be the right house, at the right location, at the right price – and we nailed it. Then, due to my wheelchair use, we did some remodeling, and my wife made our beautiful home even more beautiful with her design skills. People were kind, and the compliments on our home flowed. By all accounts, we were blessed, and as one who didn’t come from much, I never took a moment of it for granted – I was privileged to own the big yellow house on the hill.

Based on renovations and moving, it was a long process getting into our new home. I was satisfied with the accessibility renovations – although slightly different from my previous home of 15 years – and was eager to move in. As moving day approached, I was as excited as anyone.
Once moved in, however, little felt right to me. Although I’d made accessibility renovations, aspects like using the bathroom was physically different and difficult. I had to learn new ways of doing necessities like using the commode and showering. I found myself working hard to learn and adapt to new ways of doing everyday tasks, and it was physically and emotionally taxing.

My wife was phenomenally supportive toward my physical struggles, but I wasn’t being open about my emotional ones. Even I wasn’t clear on what I was feeling because, on the one hand, I wasn’t longing for my previous house, but I was wondering if this struggle was necessary just to have our dream home? I wasn’t to the point of resentment, but close to it. Every time someone complimented our home, I’d smile and think to myself, This house may look beautiful to you, but it’s wearing on me…. It’s an isolating experience pretending all is perfect when it’s not.

Yet, my wife knew all was not perfect. One night as we got ready for bed, she asked if I thought the house was a mistake based on my struggles? I was open with her and explained that I didn’t think about going backward – that is, I didn’t miss the old house – but I was struggling to move forward. Physically and emotionally, I was struggling with all of the changes in my daily routines. The house and all was great, but I was battling through the process of a profound life change, as with the process of battling to relearn my physical independence in this new environment.

That realization – where I wasn’t struggling with the house, but the process of a profound life change, itself – was a wake-up call. I didn’t need to give the house time; rather, I needed to give myself time. See, that’s a key to a profound life change: we need to allow ourselves to admit that we’re struggling with it, and give ourselves leeway to move through the process. It’s too easy to blame something, or run away, giving up on a situation. Real fortitude comes when we admit we’re struggling with change, and give ourselves time to move through it, succeeding on the other side.

I’m not there yet – the commode transfers are still difficult and intimidating, to name one aspect – but adjusting to profound life changes take time. However, I’ve been through this process before and I’m ultimately comfortable with the intrinsic discomfort. I’m tackling the changes and related emotions as they come, and I’m so looking forward to the last part of this period of change in my life: Summer evenings on the porch, enjoying the breeze passing through the century-old evergreens….

By Mark E. Smith

Have you struggled to find the reasons? I have. See, whenever we face physical adversity or emotional trauma – and I’ve faced both – we often struggle to find the reasons. The search for reasons often manifests itself in blame or guilt (and guilt is truly just the word that means we blame ourselves, so it’s all blame!).

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been through adversity or trauma and, in the search for the reasons, blamed someone, some event, or yourself. My hand is raised because when we experience adversity or trauma, going into a state of blame is a natural reaction and coping mechanism. Blame is a way we try to find the reasons for whatever has happened to us.

I remember being 13, in a fishing boat with my stepfather, who had his issues, but genuinely loved me. As we fished on a still lake in Oregon one summer afternoon, he shared with me his struggles with who was to blame for my having cerebral palsy? As he pointed out, on the one hand, the overdose of the epidural during my birthing process could have resulted in my loss of oxygen and, subsequently, cerebral palsy. Yet, my mother was open with him about her having smoked and consumed alcohol throughout her pregnancy, which also could have been the causation of my condition. “It’s just so horrible that either of those did this to you,” he said, fiddling with his fishing line.

It was a fitting conversation because I was at a point where I, too, was looking for the reasons that explained our current life and there was a lot of blame going around in my head. My mother and stepfather loved me, but they were a mess in every possible way. They were drunk, high, volatile and broke. And, in my teen mind, I had a lot to blame, including myself.

From as young as I can remember until her death, my mother swore that my biological father left because of my disability. So, as a child and as a teen, I held in a lot of blame. I blamed my father for leaving, but I also blamed myself for my cerebral palsy causing him to leave, which led to the dysfunctional dynamic of my mother and stepfather, and the scarring chain of events went on and on.

Yet, while I looked for the reasons to blame for my home life, interestingly I didn’t seek blame toward my disability, itself. In fact, I was at an age where I was developing physical independence, and I found that the more I accomplished in spite of cerebral palsy, the more my esteem developed. The adversity of severe cerebral palsy wasn’t detracting from my life, but it was enhancing it. Cerebral palsy proved to be my lifesaver in a youth that was otherwise spinning in chaos. Among all of this, a life truth that many have found over the centuries also revealed itself: cerebral palsy didn’t happen to me, it happened for me. Cerebral palsy, which was expressed to me as a negative, was manifesting itself in my life as a positive.

As I grew out of my teens and into my 20s, my personal momentum stayed on track. However, I continued internally struggling with my parents and upbringing. I was still looking for the reasons, and that process transcended from blame to resentment to disdain.

Then, my daughter was born. I was in the delivery room, and was blessed as the first to hold her. At that moment, all of my issues with my parents, for the most part, washed away. I was no longer concerned with being someone’s child, but rejoicing in being a father.

Friends of mine were also starting families around that time and expressed fear in whether they’d make good parents? I told everyone that I had no fear because if I simply gave my daughter that which I longed for as a child – parental presence, stability, unconditional love, modeled emotional health, and so on – all would fall into place. It was at that point that the truth about adversity again spoke to me: my dysfunctional upbringing didn’t happen to me, but for me. I was a better father because of the adversity I faced in my own family growing up.

I don’t want anyone to experience adversity or trauma. However, when we do, there’s no need to search for reasons or blame. We know the reason: it makes us stronger. We face adversity and trauma because it dramatically improves who we can be. No, it’s not any easy process, and because we may struggle with it doesn’t mean we’re weak. To the contrary, we struggle with adversity and trauma because we’re building incredible strength. It’s the gym of life, where the further we’re pushed, the stronger we become. And, once we get to the other side – realizing that adversity and trauma don’t happen to us, but for us – we have a solace and strength that takes our lives to heights we never dreamed.

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick's Day (except for the beer!)

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick’s Day (except for the beer!)

By Mark E. Smith

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as though you will live forever.”

If today were your last day on Earth, what would you do? The more profound question is, are you doing it?

In my forever learning, I’ve taken to heart both the fragility and power of life. In being a member of and serving those with disabilities, I’ve known many passings. I’ve watched friends die of MS after the span of a decade or more. I’ve had friends with ALS who’ve only lived three years from diagnosis. And, I’ve had friends with quadriplegia who simply didn’t wake up one morning. Even when there seems to be a predictability to death – as with a terminal condition – there’s not. Anyone of us can die at any time, disability, illness or otherwise. And, we do.

Having known so many who have passed away, it’s made me oddly at ease with death. It literally has long been part of my life, just as it’s a part of life, itself. This isn’t to say I’m not heartbroken with each passing, but I’ve learned not to struggle with the reality of death. Grief for me has become less about sadness and more about fond remembrance. My life has been changed by knowing all who have passed, and their wonderful impact on me has never stopped at their passings – it’s carried on with me.

And, there within resides among my greatest life lessons: honor the fragility and power of life, as Gandhi put it, as if we may die tomorrow. What does that really mean, though?

Living as if you were to die tomorrow means deeply recognizing the power in life we all have. For each of us, priorities are a little different, but there are universal truths. Deeply value and express gratitude to those around us by constantly reaching out to our loved ones, friends and strangers alike. Live our dreams now, rather than putting them off. Find beauty and meaning in as many moments as we can, even in the difficult or mundane. Accept what we can’t change, and move on. Have fun! And, as my wise wife puts it, “Every day, do important things.” Life is what we make it, so why not live to a degree that doesn’t just bring joy and meaning into our lives, but to everyone around us?

As for me, I’m not worried about living or dying tomorrow – I’m fine with either fate. I’m just relishing every moment of today. No matter if it’s rain or shine, I’m using my power wheelchair to dance in it all!

perseverance

By Mark E. Smith

I had always intuitively known of it and practiced it simply based on having my disability. However, it truly didn’t become part of my consciousness, in defined words, until the lesson in class that day.

I enrolled in an upperclassmen “winter course.” Winter courses at my college were a tremendous advantage because during the first three weeks of January – typically winter break – we could take a four-day-per-week class, for five hours per day, and get credit for a semester course. Most enjoyed winter break; but, for those of us who wanted to knock off classes left and right like bowling pins, the winter semester was a goldmine.

That particular winter semester, I took a literature course titled, “The American Renaissance,” covering 19th-century American literature from 1830 till the Civil War. If you know of the Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Walden, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you know something of the era. Having a concentration in American lit, I wasn’t concerned at all about blowing through more Emily Dickinson or Fredrick Douglass. Three weeks? Game on!

The first day of class, we began with an enrollment of around 20 students. The same number showed up the next day. It was a sharp group, and at the end of the second day’s class, the professor announced our homework assignment for the night: we were to go home and read in entirety Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and be prepared to present scholarly analysis at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. The fact that Google didn’t yet exist didn’t help, either – we had to literally read the book and pull out every nuance, overnight.

Depending on the book form, Moby-Dick ranges from 500 to 700 pages. Additionally, the professor made it clear that we would not be discussing the plot, but true scholarly aspects. As we headed out of class, many of my peers noted the impossibility of the task and how unreasonable the professor was. I, though, was only concerned with reading the book. I rolled straight to the bus stop, and opened the book. “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” Tonight is going to suck!

I spent the bus ride, train ride, then the entire night reading Moby-Dick, and I used every technique I was schooled in to extract the text, from as mundane as the name, “Ishmael,” and its connection to the book of Genesis to Melville’s assimilation of Shakespeare. By the next morning, I had double vision, but I could tell anyone a lot more about Moby-Dick than the tale of ticked-off Ahab who’s chasing down a whale for biting off his leg.

In class that morning, only six of us showed up. We spent the day dissecting Moby-Dick, and by the end of class, we just wanted to go home and go to bed. But, the professor stopped us.

“I have a confession,” he said. “Today wasn’t a test on Moby-Dick. It was a test on you. Life isn’t about education, intelligence, or skill. It’s about who is willing to persevere. The six of you didn’t do the impossible – Moby-Dick can be read overnight. However, you did what 14 others in this class weren’t willing to do: you persevered. That’s all you need to not only get an ‘A’ in this course, but to be unbelievably successful in life…”

That experience, along with my disability experience, change my life forever. What I realized was that hardship makes us want to give up. Perseverance allows us to rise up. If you want to rise, choose perseverance every time.

Author’s Note

One can’t logically read the entirety of Moby-Dick every night for the rest of one’s life. However, not taking the easiest routes in life is invaluable toward our constant growth. For me, at 46, with cerebral palsy, I put everything I have into working out several times per week. You might say it’s my constant reminder of the perseverance we’re all capable of. No, I don’t have the best coordination, strength or balance. But, none of that matters – because I’ve got perseverance on my side.

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