Happy Bday, Dad: A Legacy of Breath Mints

I have long wanted to write a thoughtful blog post about my dad, but I never seem to have the time that I think it will take to make the post what I really want it to be. And now, tomorrow– June 23– is his birthday, and I am still fumbling over whether to just say, “HBD, Dad!” or to write some eloquent tribute.

Maybe it will just be a little in-between thing.

How about a story? About breath mints and a legacy.

certsThe story actually starts with my Uncle Bob. To this day, I’ve never met someone with so much joy and mischief and love in his eyes, and I doubt I ever will. Uncle Bob, my dad’s older brother, was an incredible backbone of the Sommers family– hilarious, kind, joyful, talented, one of those special souls that, if you are lucky enough to encounter one, you will never be the same, and you will always seek out that spark for the rest of your life. Uncle Bob has been gone for many years now, and one of the things I remember so well about him was that he always had Certs in his pocket.

The Certs (to me, at least) were a part of his identity.

Later, my dad picked up this habit.

tic tacsIt started with Certs and eventually morphed into Tic Tacs. My dad always made sure to have them with him on Sunday mornings, and all the church kids knew it. One, when she was very, very young, started calling him “Tic Tac Tom,” and for Christmas, Dad brought this little girl her very own packet of Tic Tacs. Then he took another out of his pocket. Then another out of his other pocket, always acting like he was surprised to find yet another one. I remember her, her little hands not even able to hold all 10 or 12 packs at once, looking so overwhelmed but also happy.

My dad is something else. So special. The king of both quiet generosity and of vociferous attention. A man everyone wants to be around. He has been, for me and for many, a bridge to solid ground and the solid ground. Smart and funny, joyful and the life of the party, he’s a storyteller, which he passed onto his daughter. Like Uncle Bob, my dad also has incredible eyes; dad’s tell of happiness, hard work, and hope. He has unique passions– the Indy 500, Disney World, Secretariat, his card collection– and he loves them with such a diehard enthusiasm that I can’t help but love them too. Dad draws people into his world, and everyone wants to stay.

And, of course, the Tic Tacs.

When my dear friend started having children of her own and my heart fell so desperately, hopelessly in love with them … I started buying Tic Tacs. It is one of the first things they ask me whenever they see me; they dig around in my purse for them. I have grown accustomed to the sound of clacking as my purse bounces on my hip. My kiddos and I explore new flavors (big, big fans of Strawberry Fields and cherry cola; less so of spearmint). I had no idea that there would come a time in my life when I would go to different stores based off of which color and flavor of Tic Tacs they kept in stock, but … there you have it.

It’s a weird legacy, right? But it’s mine.

I miss you, Uncle Bob. Happy birthday, Dad. You are the best men I know.

Jackie’s Team

Back in January, I met for life and writing advice with my college writing instructor, the brilliant and beautiful Judy Hougen. Although I didn’t blog about it at the time, one of the things she encouraged me to do was to pull together a team of people who would support and encourage me during the crazy rollercoaster publishing journey.

I did that.

teamI have a hidden group on Facebook with carefully selected members, and they are absolutely my team.  These people (who span five states and two countries) hear my prayer requests, calm my extreme panic, celebrate my victories, help me process decisions, dialogue with me when I get stumped while writing. They do it all.

I can’t tell you how much my team means to me and to my sanity. Yes, of course, I had/have each of them individually, but to cull them all together into one secret platform where I can vent and complain and cry and fear and rejoice has been unbelievable. They have allowed me to be completely unmasked and vulnerable with them so that I can maintain my composure in front of the rest of the world.

This post goes out to the members of my team. Thank you, all of you, for everything.

 

Image credit: Dawn (Willis) Manser

 

Family Traditions

My sister Kristin is the Official Tradition Enforcer in our family.  She likes us to do the exact same things from year to year, and when we change things up, she freaks out.  It’s kind of adorable.

Right before Christmas, our family bundles up and goes out “light looking”– looking for the best Christmas lights displays in the area.  We also stop at a couple houses and sing carols, which is a bit hilarious because no one would call our family a musical one.  From there, we would usually end up getting chicken McNuggets and eating them with our own bread from home.  This last carried over from the days when we were young and Dad and Mom were too cheap to buy anything more.  Now it’s kind of a joke, but one that we love.  Our friends get a kick out of it too.  (“You bring your own bread??!”)

We eat pizza for Christmas Eve.  We usually try to watch both the main injury sequences from Home Alone and Home Alone 2.  We go to a service at the church where I grew up.  We take pictures with the Magnuson family, and we are the last family to leave (every. single. year.).

We read from the book of Luke and pray together before we open presents.

Oh, and Santa still comes to the Sommers house.  I said to my Mom last month, “Santa’s been very good to me.”  She wryly replied, “Yes, she really has.”

Haha!

Happy Birthday to my Favorite Sister!

My delightful sister Kristin turns 29 today!  (Whoa, how did that happen?!)

I have watched my sister grow from a shy little violet who refused to speak (no, really, she didn’t talk until she was about three– after lots of speech therapy) to a fun, amazing, Christ-loving, devoted, loyal woman who won’t stop talking.  Haha!

Kristin, I have a lifetime of great memories with you, but some of my favorites are singing “Princess Pat” while hanging upside down off our opposite beds, all our weird inside jokes like the Janet Jackson dance, how you think all my suggestions are stupid until you take them and then realize I was right (books, movies, etc.), your commitment to family traditions, how you would “ice skate” around the living room and how the family became so used to it that we hardly noticed it anymore, your ongoing story “Moving” that you worked on in some form or another for years and years, the Story Society, when you’d play “Molly and Ashley” with Amber, playing library with you, going to the actual library with you every day after school to use the internet and email you-know-who, praying every morning on the way into school, when you wanted to be a STATUE when you grew up and how I could not get through to you that that wasn’t a real job, the other job you always wanted– being a bus driver so that you could operate the lever that opened the doors (LOL), how faithful you are in reading your Bible, the way that you always lead our family into sessions of “what we like best about each other,” and so many more!

You’re my favorite deetie, Deetie!  Happy birthday!

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Related posts:
Meet My Sister Kristin!
Hanson: Reliving my Youth
Childhood Creativity
Jackie’s Family

Christian Culture’s (Sad) Response to Mental Illness

It’s in the Title: Mental Illness is an Illness

Salads and sandwiches and a shared mental illness, all of it on the tiny table between us.

“There is help for OCD,” I told her.  “The most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Between that and my medication, I got my life back.  I know you can too.”  (The evangelical zeal I have for this particular therapy reminds me of the way I love Jesus: both took me from darkness into light, both make me want to throw parades in their honor.)

“Oh, I don’t know,” said my friend, poking at her salad with a fork, sounding hesitant.  “I think before I take any extreme methods, I want to just pray about it more.  I know that God can bring me through this.”

I wanted to say, But you have been praying about this for years!  I also believe God can bring you through this—and I am telling you how.

There is a pervasive and unhealthy attitude in the Christian culture toward mental illness.  Many believe that one should be able to “pray away” a disorder.  Some think that mental illness is, quite simply, spiritual warfare; some think it’s the result of unresolved sin issues.  One of my friends has said before that a real Christian can’t be clinically depressed.  I saw a Facebook status once that read, “Depression is a choice.”

These sentiments light a fire in me, especially for the way that they marginalize a group of people that are often already more susceptible to guilt.  I know that in my OCD hey-day, I felt continual guilt and severe shame; for someone to intimate to me that these feelings were the appropriate ones would only mean that my Christian brothers and sisters were siding with my disorder—and against me.

Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. 

friendsGod and Satan can work through them just the same way as they could through, say, cancer or diabetes.  All issues are spiritual issues, simply because we are spiritual beings, but it is not helpful to label a chemical issue with a giant term like spiritual warfare.  To say that a Christian cannot be depressed is like saying a real Christian can’t get the flu.  To say that depression is a choice is like saying strep throat is a choice.

If you break a bone, do you get it set in a cast?  If you learn you’re diabetic, do you take insulin?  If cancer steps into your body, do you pursue chemotherapy?

The answer is usually yes.  Yes—and pray.  (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for prayer!  And for medical innovation!)

That is why I am unashamed of my OCD, my depression.  Instead, I am proud of my God for seeing me through a therapy as difficult as CBT and for being my strength through five years of side effects in the search for the right medication.

Unfortunately, my friend left the sandwich shop that evening feeling obligated to “pray away” a spiritual flaw instead of feeling empowered to fight illness, in spite of my best efforts.  My voice is being drowned out by the multitude of louder voices of the Christian culture, a culture that should be supporting this demographic, not alienating it.

“Coming Out” as Obsessive-Compulsive

whisper7Recently on Facebook someone asked, “What about your experience talking to people about your symptoms before you were diagnosed– what was that like? Did you get rejection from people? Sarcasm from people? How was your diagnosis received?” and it made me think back over the years.  This is my OCD “coming out” story.

Growing up, I knew that I thought about things far more deeply than most of my friends– and that’s not a slam on their intelligence or depth.  I just extrapolated one million miles further than everyone else my age, and I worried about things that no one else seemed to be worried about.  This was the case for a lot of childhood and high school and even college.  “You think too much!” was a common thing for friends to say to me.

After college, things spiraled out of control, and before I knew it, OCD had backed me into a corner of paranoia.  I had had this “realization” that I couldn’t truly know what people were thinking; my obsessive-compulsive logic prompted me then to believe that my so-called “friends” actually probably didn’t like me … maybe even hated me … in fact, maybe they weren’t even human, but they were demons, and their whole goal of “befriending” me was to trick me into hell.

I was a mess.  And whom could I turn to?  I half-believed I was surrounded by demons.

I took a risk and talked to Judy, my college mentor, who insisted I see a therapist.  The therapist insisted on meds, and the psychiatrist I met with finally used the words “obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

To be honest, I was a little shocked.  OCD?  Not me!  Obsessive-compulsives were those neat-freaks who had to touch doorknobs forty times and stuff like that.  I didn’t do anything like that– or so I thought– and my bedroom was a pit.

And yet, it was freeing to have a name attached to it.  Naming steals back power.

I told my closest friends and family.  I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say that they were relieved– relieved that whatever-it-was had a name and that I was meeting with a psychiatrist and a therapist and turning things around.  My dad was not particularly happy about it, though; he comes from a background where you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and he used to have a hard time understanding how I could be so depressed.  I did, after all, have a wonderful life.  I just also had OCD and that cancelled a lot of things out.

I didn’t go public with my diagnosis until a couple years later– the summer before I turned 25– and boy, did I choose to go PUBLIC.  I decided to share that I had OCD while I was sharing my testimony with a group of summer campers and counselors.  I had struggled with this in preparation for it.  I was going to be standing up front asking the campers to be real and vulnerable with me that week– and I just knew I couldn’t do that with integrity if I wasn’t willing to share my own story with them.  So I decided to go for it.  I was terrified, but I practiced and practiced until I pretty much had my talk memorized, and I thought I was ready to go.

I wasn’t ready to go.  I did it anyway though.  I was shaking as I stood in front of the camp, reading my once-memorized talk, and when it was over, I walked from the front of the room all the way straight out the door and wept.  I knew that there was no going back after I let them know.  I think what I was most scared about was having others treat me differently.  I thought that maybe they would baby me or talk down to me or tiptoe around me (since now I was camp’s resident crazy person).  I thought they would smile placatingly and treat me as if I were going to shatter.

Instead, what happened is this: almost immediately afterward, a longtime camp friend of mine, who was also a counselor that week, asked if we could chat.  We went down to the dock, and there he told me that he also struggled with OCD.  In fact, he had checked the door at his parents’ house so many times that he broke the handle.  He had never told anyone about his struggles at that point– I was the very first person he’d admitted this to– and I know I was given that honor because I spoke up first.

It gave me courage.  A tiny bit, at least.

That fall, as I recruited at Midwest high schools, I asked for opportunities to speak to the student body, and what I shared with them was about my OCD, about being real with one another, about how freedom begets freedom.  And the reactions were almost always positive.  Students would come up to me afterward and share with me about their struggles– me, a stranger!– because I’d shared first.

So I started sharing closer to home too.  When I’d meet up with someone for coffee, I’d drop the letters OCD into our conversation.  When I’d be on a roadtrip with someone, I’d say the words.

And people started to share back– about their struggles, their problems, and sometimes their own battles with mental illness.

The more I shared, the more others shared.  It was like I was finally living in my true self, and it was drawing that out of others.  It became almost a game to me– I couldn’t wait to tell people that I had OCD!  Who knows what they might need to get off their chest, and I would be opening up a path for them to do so.

It is easier to say, “Me too,” and that’s an advantage I want to give to others.  That’s why I blog about OCD and HOCD and questions I have about God.  That’s why I share about my own self-doubt and the rollercoaster of my life.

Because I want to give people every opportunity to say, “Me too.”

I feel blessed.  I and my OCD have been well-received by most people.  The hardest issue I have to face is the ignorance so many people have about OCD.  But I can gently (or forcefully– ha!) educate them that OCD is more than being clean and organized, that OCD is an illness like any other.

I’m incredibly grateful for my marvelous support system.  I’m indebted to God for my life and my rescue(s).  I count it a privilege to share what once were my secrets, and if that sharing allows even one person to say, “Me too,” then I am blessed.

Jackie’s Family

Random 5 Friday is a weekly meme over at A Rural Journal.

Today I want to tell you five random facts about the Sommers family.

1) My parents, Tom and Ronda, are still deeply in love after 33 years of marriage.  The older I get, the more I realize how lucky/blessed I am to have had marriage modeled by two people who are best friends who are crazy about each other.

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2) I am so proud of my sister Kristin and brother Kevin for the way that they love God and people.  I could not have asked for two better siblings.

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3) When the five of us are together, we inevitably will end up around the table, playing cards.  Kevin will start to sing something completely random, and the rest of us will join us will join in until he changes tunes or we all start arguing or laughing or yelling at each other for holding out on that seven of clubs.

This is me, biting my brother's shoulder.  I don't know why either.

This is me, biting my brother’s shoulder. I don’t know why either.

4) I grew up on a hobby farm in Kimball, Minnesota, a town of 700.  Sometimes we had pigs, sometimes chickens, usually cows.  Plus a dog and about 40 cats, who lived in the barn.  The ones born in the summer would be tame and loving, and ones born in the winter would be wild and frightened of us.  Today, the old “hog house” is remodeled into a living space for my brother.  We like to tease that he belongs in the old pig barn.

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5) My family is hilarious and loud.  The boys tease me all the time for being a “loser” since I love to read and write … but I know they’re very proud of me and very supportive.

My dad and brother are basically the same person, just 33 years apart.

My dad and brother are basically the same person, just different ages.

OCD and my family

Before my life-changing round of exposure and response prevention …

Me: Sad, guilty, full of continual anxiety and doubt.  I had this amazing family, friends who deeply loved me, and a college degree in a field that I loved … but I was a soul in anguish.

Dad: Upset, frustrated, reluctant to discuss anything OCD-related.  He couldn’t understand how my life could be so good and yet I could be so sad.  I think it was hard for him to see his daughter suffering from a pain he couldn’t fix.

Mom: Sympathetic, sorry, and wondering if she was to blame for this disorder that was ravaging her eldest.

Sister: Confused and scared.  Sharing a room with me, she had fallen asleep to the sound of my tears every night for– literally– years.  And now, all these years later, she feels guilty that she had listened to me when I asked her not to tell.

Brother: Annoyed.  Why couldn’t his oldest sister just be normal for once instead of a nutcase?

OCD affects the whole family.

I am so grateful that God led me to the exact right doctors to help me!  My psychiatrist got me onto the right cocktail of medication and referred me to cognitive-behavioral therapy, which changed my whole life!

These days, my whole family revels in my rescue!  I just got off the phone with my brother, and he said, “I can really only remember the good things.”

I am glad.

© Images by Marguerite

© Images by Marguerite

Barnabus

I am so glad that my spiritual gift is encouragement.  It is such a fun gift!

I love targeting a friend and sending an email full of the things I like about him or her.  I systematically go through my phone to send encouraging texts– just a little 140-word pop! of joy or gratitude, or something to make a friend laugh.  I do this on Facebook too sometimes– click on “Friends” and write on the first dozen or so people’s walls with just a little something.

I try to do this for strangers too– you never know when it might make their day.  I compliment strangers in the hallway and send “WOW” messages to Etsy artists I will never, ever meet.  If I am on a website that I like, I’ll take the extra couple seconds to email the site owner.

The reason for this post is not to praise myself– but to share how much joy this gives me.  I am so grateful to God for giving me such a fun and delightful and life-giving challenge to make people understand how loved they are– how beautiful– how talented.  I never have to lie or invent a reason to encourage someone– there is so much to love in each person.

I also love to buy gifts for people– some fun little present, a scarf they’ve admired or a book I know they will love– but my main gift is words.  They matter so much, and anytime I toss a line of Truth into the darkness, I am reminded just how much words shine.

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I am thankful for

the sacrificial death and mighty resurrection of Jesus Christ | my parents and siblings and the fun we have together | being rescued in my life over and over and over again | CBT | the writing life | my roommate Desiree | Nutella | my little sweeties Emma, Ava, and Elsie | Northwestern College | my co-workers | my bestie Eir | The Chronicles of Narnia | Silas Hart | the gift of creativity | all my dear friends* | great books | great opportunities | the Holy Bible | lunches with Elyse | Facebook | online shopping | Friday nights | Trinity City Church | Pine Haven | sliced apples | Etsy

And you?

*It’s always hard to name names in something like this because I have a million people that I adore, and I know I will always leave someone out.  That said, I will say that I am grateful for coffee dates with Ashley and internet chats with Kristin Luehr.  I love being a total nerd with Dora and meeting up with Anna to write.  I love Tracy’s sense of humor and Cindy’s deep way of thinking (and all the writing feedback!).  I miss Megs’s infectious laughter.  Des, I love being your roomie and friend, and I am so grateful for all the chats we have before your early bedtime!  Eir, you are a true delight.  Elyse, a ten-hour conversation wouldn’t be long enough.  Cait, our unfiltered friendship is totally weird and wonderful.  I am so blessed to know Brooke and Lauren and Stacey and Mary and Jessica and Brittane and my writing group and all my lovely former roommates.  The Voye girls are like a medicine to me.  And everyone else who wasn’t mentioned by name, I love you too!  God has truly blessed this writer with an amazing and encouraging community!