Thursday, April 22, 2021

Could you be a hero that saves lives?

Years ago when I was a member of a young single adult (YSA) congregation of my church, a young man who I will call Mike (not his real name) joined our congregation. Since congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are mostly geographically delineated, it was common for members of our congregation to know each other through school or community associations. Mike was several years younger than me, so I had not attended school with him and didn't really know him.

Nor did I make much of an effort to get to know Mike. Although he had a job and owned a muscle car, Mike had several noticeable disabilities, including some mild cognitive, mobility, and speech challenges. Although Mike made efforts to attend church meetings, he was painfully socially awkward. Few of us made serious efforts to engage Mike. Most seemed to avoid interacting with him. And if I am to be honest, many, including myself, saw themselves as superior to Mike.

Those who knew Mike better were aware that he grappled with mental illness. There was less understanding and acceptance of mental illness back then. It was mostly just seen as scary, so people with mental illness were also considered scary.

Those in leadership positions knew it was socially difficult for Mike to attend church meetings. They assigned people to watch for Mike and invite him to sit with them. Some made outreach efforts outside of church meetings. But none of these well-intentioned approaches evolved into real friendships. Even socially backward people can usually sense when someone truly cares for them as opposed to when they are just another chore to be completed.

One day Mike drove his muscle car to a canyon a few miles away. In that lonely canyon, Mike ended his mortal life.

Looking back on this, I am ashamed to admit that, mixed with my confusion and sorrow about Mike's death was a sense of relief that I would no longer need to awkwardly interact with him. Like many of that era, I was very judgmental about those who attempted or completed suicide, seeing it as a very selfish act.

Another member of our YSA congregation had moved from out of state. Allen (not his real name) was older than most of us but was still unmarried. He was a good-looking, outgoing guy who worked as a first responder. I was more familiar with Allen's brother, who was closer to my age and had lived in our area longer than his brother.

Frankly, I was a little envious of Allen. He seemed to have a magnetism that I lacked. He had a career as a hero, saving lives. He turned some of the young ladies' heads in ways I knew I never could. Allen seemed to have everything going for him. But I was unaware of the inner demons of depression and anxiety that he had grappled with for his whole life. I was unaware that, before moving to our area, Allen had been seriously suicidal multiple times.

Then one night when he was once again suicidal, Allen went to a secluded spot and completed his final suicide attempt.

I felt terrible for Allen's family, especially his brother, who was my friend. But once again, I was very judgmental toward Allen. How could he do something so selfish and so obviously wrong?

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I found myself stunned when my 11-year-old son confided that he was experiencing suicidal ideation. The past decade has taken us on a journey that has resulted in three crisis hospitalizations. While I can't pretend to completely understand suicide, I know a lot more about it than I did when I was more ignorant and judgmental.

Research shows that the vast majority of those who attempt suicide don't really want to die. Many are experiencing some type of horrific psychological pain that most of us can't even imagine. Due to their mental state, they feel like they have run out of options. In those moments, they have no hope of life ever getting better. They become convinced that everyone around them would be better off without them here.

"I didn't want to die," said suicide attempt survivor Cortez Yanez. "I actually wanted to live, but not with the same pain I was going through. That made suicide an option for me." Kevin Hines, who miraculously survived a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, says much the same thing in this riveting video:

Today I can look back and see that both Mike and Allen came to our YSA congregation with mental health challenges. Mike never felt like he fit in and saw no hope of ever finding a place to belong and be accepted for who he was. Allen struggled with anxiety and depression while looking great on the outside.

I don't know if anything any of us in the congregation could have done might have prevented the death of either Mike or Allen. But I do know some things that each of us can and should do to help those we encounter in our lives who might be struggling with suicidal ideation. Good resources for learning what to do can be found at the Church's suicide site and the Suicide Prevention HelpGuide. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 anytime of the day or night.

Perhaps the most important thing the average person can do is to be aware of the warning signs of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. Talking about wanting to die or about killing oneself, or looking for ways to kill oneself should be obvious markers. Other signs might include talking about being trapped, hopeless, or a burden to others; increased substance abuse or other self-destructive practices; exhibiting higher levels of anxiety, sleeping too much, withdrawal/isolation, rage, revenge seeking, extreme mood swings, or giving away important personal items.

Experts agree that the best way to help someone who you suspect might be considering suicide is to ask them forthrightly about it, listen in a caring manner, and help them get the aid they need. Many incorrectly assume that talking about suicide might encourage rather than prevent their death. This has repeatedly been shown to be wrong. Talking about (not advocating for) suicide saves lives.

Those who are considering suicide are often caught in cyclical thinking from which it is difficult to escape without outside help. Your asking whether a person is thinking about self harm or has a plan to harm themselves can provide the ramp they need to get out of their thinking rut and prevent tragedy.

An equally important matter is how to help someone once the immediate crisis is past. We have found through our family's experience that once the person who was suicidal is released from the hospital, they are essentially dumped unceremoniously into a mental healthcare wasteland that has far too few providers who accept new clients, many of whom are inaccessible due to insurance quirks. The message too often seems to be, "We kept you from killing yourself. Good luck staying alive. Bye." This probably requires more systemic change than one person can provide, but helping someone connect with a qualified mental health clinician can be immensely helpful.

The main thing is to really care. That means reaching out to and spending valuable time with people that might not be easy for you to be around. Surrendering ideas of superiority can only help these kinds of relationships. You may not face the kinds of challenges others do, but that does not make you better than them.

Each soul, no matter how troubled, is a beloved child of God. We have the opportunity to reflect his love to others. Some of the most valuable targets for your compassionate outreach might be found among those who seem the least lovable at the moment.

I can't say for sure whether following these ideas might have helped Mike and Allen make better choices that could have preserved their lives. But doing these things certainly couldn't have hurt. And regardless of the outcome of any specific case, it is the right thing to do.

We have come a long way with respect to mental health attitudes and treatments since Mike and Allen left this world. But many things haven't changed. My own son longs to be active in his YSA congregation, but he still struggles to fit and feel accepted, much like Mike did years ago. Few members of my son's congregation likely have any clue how challenging and draining it is for him to attend any of his church meetings, or how much of a difference a little compassion on their part makes for him.

Having compassion for, reaching out to, and seeking to include those who seem awkward isn't easy. It can be, well, awkward. But again, it's the right thing to do. A little effort can have a large impact.

Souls like Allen can be harder to detect. They already seem to fit socially. A lot of their pain is hidden in public. Since we can't always detect the pain people are experiencing, compassion toward each soul we encounter is the best way forward. Granting space for others to be their authentic selves in our presence can go a long way. Demonstrating that they are worthy of your care and attention can help. You may not be a first responder hero like Allen was, but perhaps you too can save lives through something as simple as kindness.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The Puppy Holidays

 "No. No! NO!" I screamed inside my mind while making a vain attempt to keep the incredulity off my face. "We are not getting another dog," I said flatly. We were looking forward to being pet free within the next few years.

A relative had acquired an adorable Sheprador puppy (German Shepherd / Labrador mix) on Thanksgiving from an owner near our home. Being close by, they dropped in with their new puppy for a visit. We were very surprised that our 9-year-old Imo-Inu (Shiba Inu / American Eskimo mix) interacted with the puppy with curiosity rather than animosity. He has a long history of being good with humans but not so good with other dogs.

Later that evening our son who is on the autism spectrum proposed getting one of the remaining puppies from the same large litter. The puppies were only a month old but the mother had stopped giving milk. Caring for multiple puppies that still need milk is challenging, so the owner was looking to sell the puppies at a bargain price.

The whole idea seemed preposterous to me. But I could tell that my objections were inadequate in dissuading our son. The following day we convened a family council, since the addition of a puppy would significantly impact everyone in the home. Many valid concerns were raised, including:

  • Cost.
  • Noise.
  • High care needs.
  • Long-term needs.
  • Wear and tear on the home.
  • Impact on individual and family routines.
  • Impact on our existing dog and interactions between dogs.
  • Etc.
Unfortunately, our son interpreted these concerns as the family ganging up on him. He guaranteed that he would meet all of the puppy's needs, walk both dogs, minimize impact on other family members, and otherwise deal with related issues, or else find a new home for the pup. But I knew he was committing to more than he was capable of actually doing.

After our son left the meeting with the matter unresolved, I realized that he would probably end up bringing a puppy home. Our daughter came to me expressing concerns that everyone in the family would be angry with her brother if he did bring a puppy home. I explained that people would be unhappy, but that it's hard for anyone to remain angry for long when a puppy is involved.

As I prayed about the matter, I told the Lord all of the burdens that would result from adding a puppy to our household. The message I sensed from the Spirit went something like, "Yeah, I know what it's like to have children make choices that increase burdens. It's kind of what I do all the time. You see, there was this night in Gethsemane and this cross on Golgotha. Then there are the constant problems and prayers. ... Let your son do as he wishes and then deal with the fallout. It will be good for him."

So the following day after getting paid, our son brought home an adorable puppy that weighed about 6½ lbs. whom he dubbed Charlie. While everyone loved cuddling with Charlie, the weeks of puppy urine and nighttime forays into the yard soon brought us to reality.

The moniker Charlie gave rise to a variety of nicknames, such as Prince Charles, Chuck, Chucky, Chuckles, Chuckles the Pup, and Lieutenant Chucklebucket.

The puppy still needed milk for the first couple of weeks. We ended up feeding him unpasteurized goat milk from Sweet Deseret Farm. But he soon craved solid food. We followed the directions of an expert to soak puppy kibble in goat milk, but Charlie soon made it clear that he disliked soggy kibble. He liked crunchy kibble and he would also go crazy for real meat.

Interactions with our senior dog, whom I dubbed the Commodore or King Nui, were relatively safe but less than sanguine. The Lieutenant constantly wanted to engage in playful interaction with the Commodore. The corpulent old man, who suffers with arthritis and currently spends most of his days sleeping, was generally unwelcoming of the Lieutenant's exuberant overtures. Low growls and occasional sharp barks became common.

Prince Charles also wanted to do whatever King Nui was doing. He wanted to play with King Nui's toys, eat King Nui's food, sleep in King Nui's usual haunts, and go outside whenever King Nui went outside—much to the chagrin of the old codger, who tolerated the pup but generally responded with a "Hey you rotten kid, get off my lawn!" attitude.

Mind you, the Commodore has been our only pet these many years, so he has ruled the roost. The introduction of the Lieutenant into the Commodore's space really shook things up for the old man. He was more than a little jealous. He took opportunities to demonstrate dominance, brusquely telling the pup to keep his distance and often taking toys away from the little tyke.

Our son tried to keep his puppy promises, but he soon discovered that the critter's needs frequently exceeded his capacity to deliver. The puppy slept in a crate in our son's room, so he was the one to tend to the puppy's needs at night. There was no sleeping in for our son either. He had to get up when the puppy got up.

It turns out that Shepradors are very active animals. They are also social and crave lots of family interaction. One expert suggested that Shepradors typically need two hours of high activity and close interaction daily or they become bored and destructive. They also need plenty of room.

Charlie was smart. Shepradors are also pleasers, so he quickly learned his name and he learned several commands such as sit, up, wait, and come. He did OK with go potty. We later worked on off and down. But the puppy was taking a toll on the whole family. Everyone groused about having to puppy-sit, having to take the puppy outside in all kinds of weather, and constantly guarding person and property from playful teeth and claws.

Finally about a month into the puppy project, our son came to me and admitted that he could not keep his promises concerning his dog. He was feeling defeated when he admitted that he was ready to find a new home for Charlie. I told him that this was perhaps the most mature decision he had ever made. He should see it as a victory rather than a defeat.

Concerned that selling a puppy a couple of days before Christmas might be more likely to lead to an impulse purchase by someone who isn't really ready to care for a dog, we waited until after Christmas to list Charlie for sale. We found a willing buyer right away who had grown up in a family that bred and raised a certain dog breed. We were relieved that the new owner was well versed in puppy and dog care.

Due to circumstances, Lieutenant Chucklebucket boarded with us for another week before going home with his new owner. During that week we started calling him by the name selected by the new owner. Throughout the week, our son gradually distanced himself from puppy care duties as he grieved for his dog's departure. When I later asked him what he had learned from the experience, he let me know that it was too soon for him to go there. He needs time to process emotions first.

Roughly 48 puppy free hours have passed in our home since the Lieutenant's departure. The first afternoon and evening, the Commodore collapsed and spent 4-5 hours lying in one spot. He has since reclaimed many of his former haunts that the Lieutenant had commandeered. The old man seems much more relaxed.

So do our other family members, for that matter. It's almost like climbing off an exuberant theme park ride and then standing on firm ground in a quiet corner of the park. Part of me keeps expecting the Lieutenant to scramble around the corner and attack my shoelaces. Still, our oldest son echoes what other family members feel when he confides that he misses the puppy, despite the fact that his ear is still bleeding from a puppy scratch.

We sold the puppy's crate, toys, bowls, playpen, food, and other supplies with him. We still have some temporary fencing to sell that I used to protect outdoor HVAC equipment. So the story isn't quite complete yet.

While the Commodore was generally uncomfortable during the five weeks of puppymageddon that spanned Thanksgiving through New Years, he does seem to have learned some canine socialization skills that he has lacked until now. King Nui has been regularly prompting me to walk him to the nearby dog park, where he actually chooses to enter and greet other dogs with surprising calmness. He doesn't do much with them other than to simply greet them. And he soon lets me know it's time to leave. But this behavior is so different than it used to be BPE (Before Puppy Era) when the Commodore hated the dog park and didn't know how to behave around other dogs.

Personally I am very relieved that Lieutenant Chucklebucket has gone to a new home. Pretty much every concern that was raised in our family council weeks ago played out precisely as I had anticipated. But I wouldn't say that the burdens we bore during these weeks have any significant comparison to the Savior's atonement, notwithstanding the Spirit's whispering on the matter.

Our son has discovered that, while the desire to nurture another being was good, he wasn't in a position to do it very well and it distracted from other goals that he realized were more important at present. He is nursing some natural emotional pain as he moves on. Perhaps his development is the most valuable outcome from the holiday weeks of the puppy.