Saturday, June 15, 2019


Starling murmuration photo by David Kjaer

The anxiety group gives me more anxiety.
Jesus, please 
do not let me sound like some of these people—
mumbling, droning. 
Hollow and pathetic. 

I should show empathy. Pain is ubiquitous
And it’s not a competition about who feels worse, or why.
I will try to be nice. 
In my thoughts and in my deeds. 
But there is still so much that I have failed to do.

What are they panicking about? 
A boss who doesn’t like them or a toddler not eating his peas.
I have real panic. 
I think—and always have—about serious existential questions.

The world is reaching a boiling point; Late-stage capitalism
Is destroying us from within; The president is a criminal;
And the normalization of prejudice is returning in an unprecedented state.
I am very unsure that we will survive, or will want to endure,
the painful death knells 
of the patriarchy.

Meanwhile, this one over here recently tried to kill herself
for saying something stupid.
She took handfuls of pills and waited to die.
Then, when the pills did not work, she went to the hospital 
where she had to stay for weeks 
and weeks
before they would let her out.
She had to play the game. The three-times-a-day group therapy game.

Now, she is obsessively coloring with pencils 
and not making eye contact.

Pills are such a wuss move, I think. 
Taking pills almost never works: 
No one has enough, and no one has the right sort of pills, either. 
Tylenol isn’t going to cut it. 
You’d have to take a trillion milligrams of Benadryl to die.

I don’t want to be the cliché in the group, 
the angry button-pusher character from every movie set in a psych ward. 
So I say nothing 
about pills.

Another tried to hang herself—with a cell phone charger cord. 
She passed out in the process.
You will poop yourself, she informs us--I guess in case anyone has a similar plan. 

I laugh out loud, surprising myself with the sharp burst 
of my guffaw.
Then everyone laughs for several minutes.
We are all thinking about poop.

Maybe we shouldn’t discuss suicide methods, 
one nervous college student says, interrupting the laughter,
wringing her hands 
and looking 
aggressively pained.

Not talking about suicide is exactly what you’re not supposed to do.
I know this because my own child 
has tried to commit suicide.
You have to talk about it.
You have to ask for specifics about methods and plans and attempts
even when talking about it feels dangerous, 
acutely uncomfortable. Even dead wrong.

I say this, all of this.
The group leader nods. 
He is otherwise mostly useless, but sometimes he nods.
Nodding is an easy way 
to seem 

But I refuse to discuss my own suicidal ideation 
because I will gladly, eagerly die 
before I will ever go to a psych hospital. 
There is no point to hospitalization. 
I’d lose my job. Then I really would wish that I were dead.

I have seen 
the uselessness of daily group therapy.
I have seen 
my own child in a few different behavioral health hospitals.
None of them made her better. 
Each hospital stay then required its own recuperation. 
And the “steps” down? 
Forget it. 
It’s a racket; it’s months of this pointless shite. 

Everyone I talk to 
going to the hospital.
One, who signed herself in after realizing she was in serious crisis, 
was forcibly cavity searched. 
It was traumatizing, humiliating. 
I won’t let that happen to me.

There is one young man here, the only guy tonight. 
He had been drinking too much and thinking about killing himself 
all the time, he explains.
Girl trouble. 

He tells us about this girl. She sounds…not good for him.
He assures us she is perfect.
“We still text. So I texted her, ‘Can we get back together?’” he says.
There was no response from the girl.
This pisses me off. I am pissed off for him.
But he really should not be texting, ‘Can we get back together?’ 
That is awkward as all Hell.

He just spent a month in the mental hospital. 
He and this girl were apart for several months before that.
After a long break in a relationship, especially this kind, I don’t think you should lead 
with Can we get back together? 
If they were to magically click again, it would have to happen organically; 
that’s the only way. 

She did not respond to his earnest question. It has been days. He has been waiting.
Typical, I think. 
What should I make of this? he asks, waiting to hear our answer. 
All the women in the room glance quickly at him then look at the floor. 
There is a lingering, stifling silence. 

Finally, I speak, because no one else volunteers.

I tell him, first, it troubles me that this woman, this love interest, did not respond. 
(I don’t want to be a downer, but I am not optimistic.) 
I say, she should know and respect how fragile you are. 
(For Christ’s sake, she could have responded.) 
I can only imagine that she didn’t know what to say. 
(Anything, any words, would have been better than nothing, 
so I can actually imagine much worse about her than simple, 
how do you say, confusion.)

This young man has a perfect aquiline nose 
and beautiful skin that I can see despite his beard.
(I have a weird beard phobia.)
But if I feel anything, I feel maternal.
Nothing seems wrong with him except this gnawing 
neediness, this perseverated longing 
for a girl who can’t be bothered to return a text 
from an ex-boyfriend hanging on 
by his neatly trimmed abalone shell fingernails 
to life.

He nods, thinking.
“We’ll see,” he says, nursing an ember of hope, 
or perhaps reliving 
the bittersweet memory of this on-again/off-again love. 
He steps outside for a smoke.

A train screams in the near distance.

Meanwhile, I need something.
Medicine? Anything.
I cannot get a psychiatrist on the phone to save my life.
No one ever picks up when I press three, the 
menu number for 
It’s the only reason I’m in this group--access to the p-doc.
(And this is why people go to the hospital: it is the fastest way to get meds.)

Another young man appears the next night.
His face is pale and waxen. Both of his legs
Continuously bounce.
I am a huge ball of anxiety, he declares.
I am a total fucking mess; I can’t even sit here.

I so, so get this.

What have you taken for the anxiety? He is asked.
Antihistamines. That’s what they give me: antihistamines.
(He should be sneering, but instead, he is merely forlorn.)
Or antipsychotics.

But not anything for anxiety, I interject.
Exactly, he replies. Nothing for the actual problem.
His legs are bouncing so much I can’t believe he isn’t airborne.

Why are the benzos suddenly verboten?
It’s like the passive voice in writing: sometimes that’s what you truly need.
Nothing else will do quite the same thing.
This new No Benzo Protocol is doing more harm than good.
Which boardroom of schmucks came up with it?

I feel a new drop in my hopelessness quotient.
A lurch in my stomach.
Later, I suck on a vape in a too-small bathroom stall.
This processed yellow oil is probably doing nothing
but at least it thrashes my lungs
as a reminder, however bleak, that I am still alive.

I soon realize that most of the people here 
were court mandated to attend after their release from the psych ward. 
A further judicial humiliation 
when what they need is care, and love, and rest.

I am voluntary,
but when I miss a few meetings because I have to work in the evenings, 
and also because sometimes I just can’t sit here for three hours, 
three long, ass-numbing hours 
for a sum total of five minutes of helpful words,
I am threatened with being kicked out. 

The irony of this makes me laugh again.
The utter irony 
of how being here, in this room, makes me feel even more suicidal
with the bleating train right outside 
the window; 
the screeching of the brakes; 
the roar 
of the wheels. 

This is probably the best place to do it, I decide. 
I can just go out the door, 
cross the parking lot, 
climb over some weeds and walk onto the tracks.
The window isn’t high enough to jump from.

That is mostly what I think about during group therapy: 
The proximity of the train tracks. 

                                                                        --E. Collins 2019

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Surreal Nightmare of Donald Trump's plans for the presidency

We are living in a state of surreality here in the USA. Down is Up. Moving Backward is Moving Forward.

Absurdity is the new Normal.

How? Why?

Well. The nominees our President-Elect, Trump, has named for prime Cabinet positions are all avowed detractors of the very departments that Trump has asked them to head.

Financiers, billionaires, former generals, super rich people Trump owes a favor to: these people will lead America right into the very swamp Trump vowed to drain.

At first, I assumed Trump was just an idiot being played by extreme right-wing "advisors." Then, I realized that Trump must be specifically picking the worst possible candidates he can, as a way to hasten the decline of America.

After all, Trump crowed (on the record) years ago that complete destruction of the U.S. economy and culture was the only way to start fresh and "make America great again." Which means: revert to 1950s America when men ruled everything, when no one was transgender, when women stayed in the kitchen and had a million babies.

Don't believe me?

The Department of Education secretary wants to see public education dismantled, and has said so publicly many times.

Education under DeVos will be laughable (and decimated). This nominee is a woman who has absolutely no experience in education; she's just rich. If she gets this important post, watch out! Poor kids will have even shittier schools, and "affordable college" ain't never gonna happen.

The Department of Energy may have a secretary--Rick Perry, a goofy but affable dude, definitely not the sharpest crayon in the box--who publicly vowed to eliminate this department (though, to be fair, he couldn't even remember its name).

For our nation's financial future, who better to lead than the Villains of Wall Street? You know, the SAME callous con artists from Goldman Sachs who engineered the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis? The exact same white-collar criminals Trump himself derided during his tacky rallies? Those same guys.

Ironic, isn't it? (Or, predictable.)

If Jeff Sessions is named Attorney General, watch how many new civil rights the man destroys.  Marijuana? "That's not something good people do," Sessions once said. Buckle your seat belts: everyone will be targeted (and not protected) under Sessions, who hates gays, blacks, women, etc.

And what of our potential new Secretary of State? Every day, it's a novel nightmare.

Pick the flat-out most inappropriate candidate for SoS, and I'll bet you (and I'll win) that Trump has already floated that person's name.

Jeff Bolton--former Ambassador to the U.N. ? (he was asked to leave because he's such a combative a-hole and is in no way diplomatic); Ben Carson (what??); Rudy Guiliani? (ugh) Now Rex Tillerson? (puppet of Russia).

Can it get any worse? Not really.

Trump is also threatening climate change scientists. He wants their names. He will take away their funding.Trump has promised to back out of the Paris talks.

In a year when polar ice has melted at twice the rate scientists expected, climate-change denier Trump wants to make it worse by gutting the E.P.A., and by supporting more fracking (aka raping) of our land while taking away clean air and clean water safeguards.

After all (to a Republican), regulations stifle business! And we can't have that. Money is all that matters--not people. Not life! And certainly not the future we will leave to our children--sucks for them, but as long as the top 1%  and old white men continue to hold 80% of the world's wealth, we're good, the Cons say.

I heard on NPR today, however, that much of the bluster Trump is blowing can't even be done, and actually, deregulation (after regulation) is very confusing for businesses that have already adjusted to the regs. So...Trump's plans will be more annoying than the regulations were.

What else does Trump want to de-fund? He hates the Arts...and promises to slash arts funding. The man who called Hamilton "overrated"--yet saw Evita six times, because the story of a dictator is right up his alley--doesn't read or care for theatre. But reality television? Why, of course that will be safe!

It would not surprise me in the slightest if Trump allowed cameras into the White House to film his every move for a future show.

I have been despondent over Trump's election, though I had moments of "maybe it won't be so bad..." Those moments have ended. But I'm not hopeless.

As one of my FB friends said today, "We aren't mustangs trapped in a box canyon." We can RESIST.

There is a way out; there is hope--raise your voice and be heard. Protest Trump. We can NOT allow a potentially traitorous, surely dangerous would-be dictator to assume the presidency and undo all the progress of past decades.

 #Resist. #ResistTrump.

Tell Congress that we, the people, demand it do the right thing.

Keep Trump away from power, or else we are surely doomed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Press Needs to Report the Truth About Republican Ruthlessness

The press is coming out full force against Trump now, and that's amazing to see. But why couldn't the MSM have dared to call Trump out on his egregious lies several months ago, even years ago, when the lies began?

Why did the media run so many annoying fake-news Benghazi accusations and tiresome "Hillary's missing e-mail" stories without even trying to refute the accusations or disprove them?

I read a piece yesterday about the remorse a major newspaper editor now feels for not daring to let reporters write, "These are lies," about the Republicans', and Trump's, accusations about Hillary.

Why was the editor afraid to let his reporters call BS? Because the papers never want to be accused of political bias.

A few weeks ago, when The New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton, many people wrote angry comments that read--no joke--"How can a newspaper endorse a presidential candidate? That's terrible; that's biased, you liberal scum!"

Never mind that newspapers have endorsed candidates since forever; we have to be so careful with delicate neocon minds. They get offended if we call it like it is, like it's been for years now: a morass of insults and baseless lies, the deliberate demonization of Democrats.

Someone has to speak up and try to stop the Con-sponsored madness. Apparently, that "someone" is not the media.

WHY, I have to wonder, did Hillary just sit on her stool at the last debate and let Trump threaten her with jail? Was there another option? Could she have put a stop to it, or is this just a no-win situation for women, for Democrats?

How many times have Republicans walked around company parking lots, making note of cars with Democratic bumper stickers and demanding that those flaming liberals be fired? Too many times to count (this actually happened to me).

I even had my front lawn set on fire in 2004 because I had a sign for Kerry. I have no signs on my lawn anymore.

If Karma is really a thing, as I hope it is, then I hope that Trump supporters get a taste of it soon. Fire any idiot who has a Trump sticker, perhaps. It would only be fair to see it come back around.

Much is coming out now about abuse and bullies and gaslighting because of Trump. It's like people suddenly woke up and realized, "This is real--political harassment is real. And we can talk about it."

At any rate, I hope we are now witnessing the end of the savage right wing.

P.S.  It's sick how this entire situation with Hillary is a foregone conclusion, after the way she was able to suppress Bernie Sanders, but no one talks about the truly scary machine behind George W. Bush, ensuring his unjust election. During the hanging chad debacle, Republicans were protesting outside the VP's mansion, screaming "get out of Cheney's house." Barbara Walters thought it would be in poor taste to actually report that, after Gore's kids told her the story. 

And during the RNC in NYC (2004), anyone walking near the convention was thrown into an open air prison for days. Random people walking home from work were locked up in "Guantanamo on the Hudson." Not a word about this on the news. Why?? 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An article, a book, a life-changing conversation

This  article from The Atlantic was one I assigned to my students several years ago--merely as an extra piece to read toward the end of the year, a time when we were done with the usual curriculum.  

I enjoyed Emily Esfahani Smith's piece, "There's More to Life Than Being Happy." I got a lot out of it, and I hoped my students would, too.

They did. 

The article started a huge, school-wide conversation about the reason we're alive.

I've now taught Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, which this article refers to, for several years. This book changes lives. Honest.

Viktor Frankl, famous psychiatrist
At the end of the year, half the supply of paperbacks is always missing; no one wants to return this book. That's how powerful it is.

Share an article with your students--maybe this article. Start a conversation. See where it leads. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

World MS Trend Day 2016

Today is ‪#‎WorldMSTrendDay2016‬. You may notice a flood of social media posts with ‪#‎curems‬ or ‪#‎MultipleSclerosis‬.

I have MS, unfortunately (I think I got it because I had a particularly beastly mononucleosis infection as a teenager; there may be a connection).

So I’ll do my part today to spread awareness of what MS is and what it does, and why we aren't getting a cure (hint: money). And then? I will try not to think about MS--because doing so, I find, is a downer.

What is MS? Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a real disease, and a real and increasing problem. Its name refers to numerous scars on the brain that occur when myelin, which is the outside coating of the pathways between neurons in the brain, is eaten away by an overzealous immune system. Scars, or lesions, of worn-away myelin can result in spasms, pain, trouble walking, speaking, seeing, swallowing, using one’s hands, etc. MS usually flares when lesions are new and active, and subsides as other lesions heal.

MS is a neurological illness—and neurological illnesses are particularly frustrating because they can make us feel pathetic, helpless. After all, our brains control us, so we are SOL when our brains betray us, as we realize when MS, or ALS, or Parkinson’s, or any other neurological disease strikes.

Alarmingly, MS is increasing: stats have jumped from 400,000 people worldwide with MS in the 1990s to nearly 4 million now. Most MS patients are from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the northern USA, but more people from all regions are getting MS now. No one knows why.

No cures or even good medicines exist for MS. New meds have been released in recent years, making it seem as if progress in treatment is being made. In reality, however, these meds are almost all old, re-purposed drugs with their price tags jacked up 5,000% to take advantage of the desperate MS market, or else these meds are interesting new poisons—very expensive poisons: $65,000 a year for near-constant fatigue, nausea, etc.

Maybe that's the point of these MS awareness and calls for a cure days: we need to be aware that Big Pharma rips off niche markets like MS patients…and Parkinson’s patients…and cancer patients…and diabetes patients. If you can fight the power, please try to do so.

We also need to be sure that, in our upcoming elections, we vote in ways that will protect health insurance coverage for people with chronic illnesses. Thank God for the ‪#‎ACA‬ (Obamacare); it is the reason why I have health insurance that pays for my MS treatments. Seriously!

Although all chronic illnesses deserve our attention and awareness, MS can be an especially difficult disease because it’s usually not obvious to outsiders, except for vague symptoms that may appear to be other problems. Example: I’ve been bumping into some walls lately, as I walk around corners, because my proprioception is off: my brain isn't correctly perceiving distances between my body and nearby obstacles. I’ve also been occasionally tripping and falling for no reason whatsoever. And lately, I have had a few speaking issues that really embarrass me, and, I fear, make me look stupid, which I am not. All of this is MS--not drunkenness (I don't drink) or slow-wittedness.

The good news is that all MS symptoms are usually temporary or fleeting. So, for me, a few days a year, MS is horrible; many days, I can actually believe I don't have it at all; and the rest of the time, MS is just slightly annoying background chatter, invisible to anyone but me.

I’m doing pretty well, all things considered, and in comparison to many others, so I should feel grateful. "You look so good!" is what neurologists tell me.

Nevertheless, I am just about to start a new MS drug. I wish I could say that I am hopeful that the medicine will make me “better,” but in fact, I am worried that it will make me feel worse. Still, I have to try it, just to say that I did, so I can show that I've tried the protocol treatments and so that I can be eligible, later, for the new chemo-type drugs, immune system-blasters, or stem cell treatments that are risky but that may actually be cures. (I'd like a serious treatment that will stop the threat of progression, which always looms, like an ominous shadow.)

So there it is. Only a few days a year are MS awareness days, but people every day are coping with MS.

If you’ve read this, now you might know a little more about MS—for whatever that’s worth. Don’t worry that MS will come after you next, but do consider, perhaps, how precious your brain is. Protect it. Cherish it.

Also, if you're an American, be sure to cherish and protect health care coverage for yourself and for your fellow citizens.

Keep healthy and be well,

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer Reading: Think Like an English Teacher

It has begun: Summer reading...and, for me, summer tutoring.

I have lots of new clients right now, all of whom are juggling their summer reading demands with other summer activity schedules such as work, sports, camp, trips, etc.

Their summer reading books, I am happy to see, are not the same-old, same-old fare, but include lots of world lit, and contemporary lit, and balanced mixes of fiction and non-fiction. (It always makes me happy to see teachers revising their book lists, keeping current, and branching out--while helping their students do the same.)

My job is to help my students stay on track, and learn how to read more effectively (and, perhaps, read more quickly) and to remember what they've read, taking useful notes.

But the most important thing I do as a summertime tutor is to help my students learn how to think like an English teacher. That is, I try to teach my clients how to anticipate what their regular English teacher will want to hear and read from them about their summer reading.

English teachers, I explain, what to know what students were left with after reading their assigned book(s). What did students think about and learn during and after reading? This question applies to both content (themes, historical and current connections) and to the author's writing style.

Whenever we read--as I've said before and will likely say again and again--we should ask ourselves, what is this book saying about human nature, about how people lived, and/or still live? 

I'm really asking, what fundamental truths can readers consider and grasp after reading a certain book?

ALSO--if we're thinking like an English teacher, here--we must ask ourselves, how do these books COMPARE? 

All students should expect some essays to write just as soon as school reconvenes in the fall. What will the essays be on? Summer reading, of course--either the books separately, or compared to one another.

To get ready for the early fall writing/testing onslaught, students should:

  • Keep notes on major themes in the books they read. 
  • Notice how characters complement each other (protagonists and antagonists). What does each character (if we're talking fiction) want, and why?
  • Pay attention to time period and setting.  This can have an important connection to the theme.
  • Do some light research, as well: Google the questions you are being asked to answer, but don't just copy some Yahoo Answers response; read a variety of sources, both lit crit and reader blogs or reviews, and synthesize to create your own, more meaningful and nuanced answer.
  • Conduct some quick outside research (I emphasize "light" and/or "quick" so as not to scare kids off; I also model how easy and fast it is for me to do this sort of research, thus teaching my clients how to do it themselves next time), This can also go a long, long way to helping refresh students' memories in the late summer or early fall; plus, this research is also a great way to come up with interesting, meaningful points for discussion at the point when students are discussing or writing about summer reading assignments.  
  • Note questions that came to mind while reading. Contributing questions to a class and explaining how s/he found the answer (whether in the book itself, or through outside searches) models intellectual curiosity, and is a great way to participate in and energize literature discussions.

Teachers (especially English teachers--but also History teachers) LOVE when students can contribute serious, insightful comments in class.

What better way to make a great first impression on your new teacher than to raise your hand and have something interesting to say that both helps the teacher conduct a lively class and helps your fellow students understand another layer, another reason why we read?

Summer reading should first be enjoyable, however. Read just to read, I tell my clients.

Then, we'll go back and we'll get the answers to the list of questions you were given. Or, we'll prepare for deeper thinking and future writing assignments.

Anything we truly want to understand needs to be read more than once, of course.

Happy summer reading!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why We Read; Why We Write

English teachers are often asked by book-weary students, "Why do we have to read?" or, "Why do we have to read this book? This book is depressing." 

We also hear, "Why does everyone die in every book that we read? Can't we read a book with a happy ending?"

These are interesting questions because they let us address the fundamental reasons why people write and why we all should read.

We read in order to understand and process the human experience. 

Here are two examples (there are millions more):

Reading a novel such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini helps us to understand life in Afghanistan, as well as how it feels to live with guilt, and how we may atone for this guilt, for the wrongs that we've done to others. 

Reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel helps us to understand the era of the Tudors in medieval England, and when we read this historical novel, we realize that people have always been--at heart--the same. We are and have always been political animals, giving to get, trying to protect ourselves and our families in dangerous times.

It's true that characters usually die in fiction and in drama.

Why is this? 

Maybe because we are all going to die in real life. Death is inevitable, the ultimate shared human experience. 

Thinking about death is useful because it helps us to think about life. It's yin and yang--we can't have one without the other. If we didn't die, we wouldn't know how to cherish and make the most of our lives, now would we? Similarly, if we didn't know evil, we would never be able to recognize good.

We write about people and death and love and sin and good and evil in order to communicate, to share ideas and experiences. 

Writing helps us to find common ground or to persuade others to consider life they way that we do. 

For writing to hold our attention, it usually needs a story,  an anecdotal experience we can relate to.

Story is essential; stories are the basic framework through which we consider life and the world.

The primary subject of our writing is often our own story (after all, the individual usually finds him or herself to be the most interesting subject; that's just natural, even if, deep down, we know it's not always true). We know, or think we know, ourselves. 

Sharing our stories helps us see how the personal is also the universal.

And that's what it's all about: realizing that we are connected, no matter where or when we live, or how we live. We share common human stories. 

Life is not perfect; usually, it's pretty hard. But if life weren't hard sometimes, we would not be able to appreciate when it's easy.

Life, while you're in school, is indeed comparatively easy. Enjoy it--even if you have to read that depressing book.