December 14

Life During Wartime

My parents remember World War II, during which nearly 12 million Americans served overseas.  Out of a population of 133 million, 9% were in the military in 1945.  This caused huge social and economic displacements.  To support them, supplies to civilians were rationed.  Meat, cheese, sugar, and coffee were all rationed, as were tires, fuel oil, and shoes.  The sacrifice of this monumental effort was felt throughout society.

I grew up as the Vietnam War was expanding.   I used to sneak downstairs to peek around the corner and watch the Huntley-Brinkley newscast because I liked the theme music (the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th).  One of my pivotal memories is, at five years old, seeing rows of flag-draped coffins on the black-and-white TV.  I didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t ask my parents because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I knew something really bad was going on.  The Vietnam War, undertaken against our own experts’ advice and badly executed, also had a monumental impact on society, dividing those who served from those who viewed soldiers as symbols of a government’s failing policy.  I was less aware of the Kent State shooting when I was ten years old, but well aware of the controversy over the draft as I entered my teens.

Ironically, it was during this period that President Johnson declared his War on Poverty, which reduced the poverty level by 38% over eight years.  This metaphorical use of the word “war” would affect our society in different but perhaps greater ways.  Since that time, we’ve engaged in a War on Drugs (1971-Present) and a War on Gangs (2005-Present).  We’ve waged war on cancer, AIDS, and obesity.  Then there’s the War on Terror (2001-Present), which has permeated our lives and consciousness for almost 15 years.  More recently, politicians have accused each other of waging War on Women, War on Energy, War on Religion, War on Jobs, and War on Working Families.  Television shows now include “Storage Wars” and even “Cupcake Wars.”

Apparently, we are a nation at war.  But not really.  Even the War on Terror cannot be compared with wars we’ve fought in the past.  About 1.4 million people now serve in the U.S. military, only 0.4% of our population.  Just over 5,200 American troops have been killed in battle since 2001.  That ranks the War on Terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) slightly above the Philippine-American War of 1899.  (Haven’t heard of that one?  I hadn’t either.)  We’re a far cry from 53,000 killed in Vietnam, or 290,000 killed in World War II.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying our soldiers don’t go through hell and make appalling sacrifices discharging their duties in the field.  They do.  I’m saying the rest of us don’t.  There’s been an ammunition shortage in civilian markets caused by billions of rounds being fired overseas, about 300,000 rounds per insurgent killed, causing the Pentagon to buy ammunition from Israel because domestic manufacture can’t keep up. Otherwise, there’s very little effect on us here at home.  We aren’t rationed.  We aren’t drafted.  Taxes are low.

But we’re at war.

We’ve shifted from “total war,” in which an entire nation mobilizes to defeat an enemy, to constant war, in which only persistent rhetoric from politicians reminds us that we even have an enemy.

James Childress warns, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”  We’re being reminded how to hate an enemy, but sheltered from what war really means.  And after 15 years without victory, it would seem that either our leaders don’t know how to win this war, or they don’t want to win it.  Clearly there are advantages to continuing a war that we at home don’t really notice.

But what will the long term cost be?  The power vacuum left  as we destroyed governments in the Muslim world has led to the rise of new and innovative enemies.  ISIS was unknown in 2001, but is now prominent and growing.  Iran has used our intervention to strengthen its presence throughout the region and support other militant groups.  How long will it be before we have a real enemy with whom to fight a real war? And are we really prepared for that?  We talk of being a nation at war, but is that what we really want?  Or can we imagine, now that our major enemies are gone, becoming a nation at peace?

As we contemplate that question, let us never forget that this is what war really looks like after just one battle.  Personally, I vote for peace.

Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where 17,000 American soldiers were buried after the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken in 1945.


December 5

Mental Health and Me – Part 2

I learned to manage my depression without the use of medication.  Meditation, therapy, twelve step meetings, and volunteer work helped keep me balanced.  I put my life back together, remarried, moved from Los Angeles to rural Utah, and began making cheese.  There were periods of depression, and I tried low doses of a few antidepressants, but found that they rarely helped and often made things worse.  I also learned that psychiatrists don’t listen well, and they don’t understand drug addicts.  One told me that I just needed to be addicted to Valium and my depression problems would be over.  Another decided I had ADD and wanted to treat me with Ritalin, a drug I had abused extensively before I got sober.

In general, I managed to get my depressive periods without taking the medications that made it worse.

Last year, a series of events unfolded that changed all that.  After my son was born in May, my wife struggled for several weeks with postpartum psychosis.  It was a traumatic few weeks in which I wasn’t sure at times if I would be raising my child as a single parent in his fifties.  As she recovered, the aftermath left me prone to depression.  Then I got bronchitis.  A seemingly-benign medication to help clear my lungs interacted badly with my triglyceride medication– a reaction for which there was a warning on the drug information sheet and the FDA website, but which was not in the pharmacist database.  Within weeks, I became suicidal.  I called for help, and was told to go to the ER.  There, they found me a bed at a mental hospital in Provo.  It was a very good hospital, I have to say.  But my experience that psychiatrists don’t listen well was once again confirmed.  They put me on an anti-depressant.  I told them of my experience on Prozac twenty years earlier, and they assured me that this one was different.

It wasn’t.  Within two weeks of returning home, I began to lose my mind.  First, I lost my ability to feel emotions.  I couldn’t feel sadness or joy, or even love for my family.  I faked it for a couple of days, but it was quickly apparent to my wife that something had changed.  Then my reasoning began to falter.  What seemed obvious to me made no sense to anyone else.  Finally, I began hallucinating.

It is unsafe to stop a therapeutic dose of antidepressants abruptly.  You’re supposed to taper off.  But my condition was so severe that my doctors recommended I stop immediately, that the risk of the progressing psychosis outweighed the risk of stopping the medication cold turkey.

What followed was a month of absolute hell.  I realized most of the time that I couldn’t rely on my perceptions, nor could I rely on my reasoning to make even basic decisions.  I could converse about things I knew about, like hobbies, but couldn’t make new thoughts happen.  I couldn’t follow complex sentences in conversation.  I told my wife she wasn’t allowed to use sentences that required commas.  My head hurt most of the time.  And it wasn’t getting better.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was suicidal, but not the variety where I wanted to put a gun in my mouth.  Instead, I decided to take all the emergency cash and three changes of clothes and head for North Las Vegas to get loaded.  I didn’t know anyone there, but I was sure I could find the people who had the drugs I wanted.  It would have been a one-way trip.  I figured I’d be dead in a week.

That’s when God intervened.  First, my wife realized what I was about to do and called 9-1-1.  Then two sheriffs deputies showed up and treated me as the potential suicide that I was.  Seriously, can you imagine LAPD taking seriously a hysterical woman who called in and said her husband was on his way to get loaded?  Thank God for the Iron County Sheriff!

They took me to the hospital, and I got sent to the mental health unit in St. George.  There, they diagnosed me as bipolar and gave me new meds.  In three days, I became so agitated and angry that I almost got in a fist fight with one of the male nurses.  My shrink said I was improving.

Up to that point, I’d been planning to jump through all their hoops, and then continue with my plan to use drugs until I died.  But on the third day, I realized that if I didn’t get out of there, I was going to end up in a dark room in a straight jacket for the rest of my miserable life.

I called my wife and begged her to find somewhere for me to go.  She found only one facility west of the Mississippi that was willing to take me without administering medication.  It was in Culver City, CA.  Two days later, I was on a plane to a thirty-day inpatient program, where they helped me get my shattered mind back together.

When I got out, it took me a while to readjust to “real life.”  But I did.  It’s now a year later, and with the help if intensive therapy and weekly DBT (Dialectal Behavioral Therapy) I have returned to a reasonably normal life.

I thank God for the events that saved me from the conventional mental health system and its effects.  It may work for some people, but it nearly killed me.  I am acutely aware of how broken our system is.  Medication is not the answer to all mental illness, and perhaps not even most mental illness.  My DBT facilitator’s slogan is, “Skills, not pills.”  And for that I am forever grateful.

I am mentally ill.  I struggle with depression and anxiety.  I have been hospitalized twice for psychosis.  Yet I am able to live a fairly normal life.  I am not a danger to myself or others.

I also rarely talk about my struggles.  My bio-family only hears about the crises, not the daily struggles.  My friends don’t hear much more.  I remember trying to explain my depression to a friend, who replied that he just couldn’t understand.  “I have bad days,” he said, “but I don’t understand having bad months or bad years!”

This seems to be the way most people with mental illness live.  We don’t talk about it.  It’s taboo.  It scares people.  And the more we don’t talk about it, the more isolated and misunderstood we feel.   When a mentally-ill person shoots up a school, some folks lump all mental illness together and we become potential criminals.

It’s time to break the silence.  When one in four Americans suffers from some form of mental illness in any given year, that’s too many people to have it misunderstood.

I hope you don’t find my confession in bad taste, but if you do, maybe that’s the point.

December 4

Major Media Outlets Need a Fact Check on Guns

Today Rolling Stone published a list of 353 mass shootings so far this year. (The number 355 is what most media outlets are using.)

Click on this link and read carefully. You’ll notice that it includes gang violence, bar fights, riots, acts of terrorism, and plenty of domestic violence. The media has just redefined “mass shooting” to scare the crap out of us!

I agree there are way too many mass shootings. I agree there’s too much violence in general. But this is a factual misstatement worthy of Fox News!!

December 3

The Food We Take for Granted

farmers market 002

How much do you know about your food?  If you’re like most people, you might not even be aware of the price at the grocery store, much less where it came from and how it was created.  I do much of the shopping in our family, so I know what food costs.  I try to be aware of where it comes from, and make intelligent choices accordingly.  For example, I can’t being myself to eat summer fruits produced in South America, because they are air-shipped to the U.S. (unlike bananas, which come by boat).  It’s the only way they can get the fruit here fresh enough.  And it seems wrong to me to buy a peach, for example, that’s taken a plane ride most people in the world will never be able to afford.

Still, I am often surprised.  For example, today while researching selenium deficiency, I read that “the amount of selenium in common sources has decreased in recent decades.”  Selenium, an important trace mineral, is present in grains and leafy vegetables based on the selenium content of the soil it’s grown in.  As modern agricultural practices have tended to ignore soil health, many crops now contain fewer micronutrients than they used to.  According to one study, the decreases

occurred in different countries that share very similar historical farming management strategies, based mainly on the adoption of modern genetic varieties of crops and agronomic practices related to the acceleration of the growth rates of plants.

It’s worth noting that much of the Western United States has soils naturally low in selenium.  This includes Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and large portions of California including the Imperial Valley.  Thus, our reliance of California vegetables may make us more susceptible to selenium deficiency, as may our reliance on mega-farms for much of our food.

We wouldn’t know that, because the USDA in its infinite wisdom tells us, for example, that beef steak contains 33 mcg of selenium per serving.  Actual analysis suggests ranges from about 20 to 70 mcg, depending on where the cows are raised.  In fruits and vegetables, content can vary by a factor of ten.  Rice has been sampled as high as 1.0 mcg/g and as low as .02 mcg/g, depending on geographic origin.  USDA says rice contains .11 mcg/g, so you could be getting ten times more… or 82% less.

We take our food for granted.  It’s supposed to be healthy and nutritious.  But it isn’t as clear cut as we like to think.  Global economics and mega-farming have put even our expected nutritional content in danger.

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