Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Shame on all of us for not stopping bullying

By Monica Vest Wheeler

How many headlines does it take for us to fully examine our personal behavior?

How many more children have to kill themselves before we regain our civility as a society?

Saddened, disheartened, heartbroken, angry, downright pissed … that's how my gut rolled when I read the story behind the obituary of an 11-year-old boy … a Peoria boy who committed suicide after relentless bullying.

It was inexcusable. It was devastating. It IS unacceptable.

Eleven years old.

Shame on all of us for not stopping bullying … at all ages.

Shame on all of us for not standing up to kids who bully.

Shame on all of us for not standing up to the parents who let their kids bully.

Shame on all of us for not standing up to adults who bully.

And stop making excuses for people in power who thrive on bullying. They're not leaders. They're bullies and cowards. Every one of them.

Bullies love to show off how big or important they THINK they are.

They aren't big or important. They're weak and spineless.

Parents who don't teach their kids manners and respect are lazy and selfish. Yep, I'm saying it.

I've witnessed it in person. My son was bullied in middle school. It was heartbreaking. But I took it to the parent of the bully, and she was stunned to learn of his behavior. He tried to squirm out of it, but finally admitted he had emotionally and physically attacked my son. I do give her a LOT of credit for taking a stand and demanding her son apologize to my son.

I took a stand. I held someone accountable.

And he never bothered my son again.

Do YOU take a stand when you see something "bad" going on? When was the last time YOU spoke up when you witnessed cruelty? Or were YOU afraid of what people might say?

Is vanity or pride more important than YOUR God-given conscience? Where are YOUR priorities?

I've also witnessed the tragic consequences of apathy and selfishness by looking into the eyes of Holocaust survivors around this nation. They witnessed the murder of family and friends by hateful, cowardly bullies who ruled by fear.

The Nazis targeted a group of people just because they were Jewish. They executed children in front of their parents. They herded and shot them line by line falling into pits on top of each other's bodies. They stripped them naked and forced them into gas chambers where unimaginable panic and terror likely consumed them before the gas finished the job.

Six million Jewish men, women and children murdered. Six million.

Six million. Say that aloud or does it scare you too much? Say it anyway!!

Six million.

I've been to Germany and seen the buildings full of forms documenting murder and sickening habits of daily lice counts and so much more. I've been to the Auschwitz death camp and walked upon the ashes of victims. I've cried with survivors and been forever transformed by the experience.

I've been involved with the Peoria Holocaust Memorial since 2002 and am proud to witness its relocation to the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

I dare YOU to take a stand and be part of its dedication, its rebirth, at 2 p.m. Sunday April 23, in downtown Peoria. I dare YOU to stick around and listen to one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors who will speak afterward in the museum auditorium.

I DARE YOU to look within those glass stars and triangles and remember that every button represents a life brutally ended because someone else didn't speak up and take a stand. Would you have been one of them?

The bigger question is: who are YOU today?

Do you talk badly publicly OR privately about blacks, whites, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans OR any other population that aren't PERFECT like YOU?

If you do, you're a bully. You're a coward. You're weak. You are NOT perfect. And neither is anyone else.

I will NOT tolerate intolerance any more. And I mean it.

You want more reasons why? I've got two presentations I'd love to share with your group or community. Contact me at info@copeandsurvive.com or 877-267-4640.

• For high school and teen audiences: "Tolerance is NOT a Joke": This presentation ties in the lessons of the Holocaust and how the most horrific chapters of human history exploded out of hatred and intolerance. It includes stories that illustrate the message of how tolerance is respect, kindness, an attitude, takes practice and much more. Young people are encouraged to think before they speak, text and post online and how bullying is reportedly leading to more teen suicides. The overriding theme is that each person — no matter their age — has the power to destroy or save the world.

• For general adult audiences: "Look at YOUR Level of Tolerance in the Mirror": Building upon the above program, this goes into more depth with harder-hitting questions about personal behavior and responsibility, the increasing brutality and insensitivity of social media, and the examples we set for our children.

And lastly, I want you to look into each pair of eyes pictured here.

They're lives cut short all because of bullying, intolerance and hatred …

Let me know how you sleep tonight if you didn't speak up today. 

PLEASE SHARE … your experience of being bullied, no matter where or when or by who, and how you were affected physically, emotionally and/or spiritually. Drop me a line at info@copeandsurvive.com because I want to keep educating the world on the impact and danger of bullying. You can share your story anonymously, if you wish. We can only stop it together. Let's collectively turn our empathy into action.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The cure for pain may be close at hand

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Pain is a royal pain, isn't it?

The frustration of not being able to fully convey something only YOU can explain, AND someone else getting "it," is maddening and saddening … especially when it comes to the issue of individual pain … no matter its source.

We're not all created "equal" … in our pain tolerance.

In my countless hours of being with and serving individuals confronted with the deeply personal challenge of REAL pain — whether the cause is visible or unseen bodily discomfort, or the physical ramifications of emotional and/or spiritual aching — I've heard every description and witnessed so many tears of loss and anger. Some people suffer in silence … some proclaim that agony loudly …

No, we're not all created "equal" when it comes to pain.

I tell the following story NOT out of seeking comfort or sympathy, but to share what I've learned about pain recently.

I tumbled on the ice in Indiana, two days after Dad passed away unexpectedly. My left knee took the whole force of the fall. I told myself I had no time to be down. My bonus mom and the rest of the family needed me as much as I needed them to get through the real tragedy … losing Dad, NOT my bad ice walking skills.

I hobbled through the following days emotionally and physically. By mid-February, the knee pain intensified, and I had my doctor check it out. I was referred to a specialist, but the earliest appointment was six weeks away. I got myself a Velcro brace to ease those fearful moments of it giving out, and drove to Las Vegas and Louisiana for my beloved camps serving stroke and traumatic brain injury survivors and caregivers. (Thankfully it wasn't my driving leg!)

When you focus on and care for others, it does take your mind off your own discomfort. One of the best treatments in the world for what ails you! I highly recommend it!!

Then I'd wait for a private moment to cry when the temporary waves of pain were overwhelming … before getting back to work again. And that was okay.

During my visit with the physician last week, he said he didn't see anything other than arthritis and inflammation in the X-rays and MRI. He was very nice but he couldn't understand why I was experiencing so much pain. When he felt around the knee, it hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. My husband Roger also explained that while I have had an incredible tolerance for the chronic pain of fibromyalgia for nearly 20 years, I also have a very low threshold for sharp pain.

Yep, I passed out once after dropping a book on my foot.

Yep, I passed out once from getting blood drawn after being poked too many times.

Yep, I passed out once trying on contact lens. (Imagine that eye doctor's surprise!)

And there are several other sharp pain moments that sent me to la-la land …

When the doctor administered a numbing injection before the real thing, the pain was very real, prompting several "ow ow ow!" though I tried visualizing being anywhere else. He encouraged me to relax, and my tears then rolled in silence … because I didn't want to be a pain.

No, we're not all created "equal" when it comes to pain … because we're all wired differently.

Some have high tolerance or are great actors to hide it. There are some who say "ouch!" when you look at them "the wrong way."

There's also no clear understanding why some individuals opt for a declaration of pain only to get attention. Or those folks who need some redirection to stop focusing on it, real or imagined.

I remember my dad-in-law complaining about pain as he became somewhat of a hypercondriac in his dementia. I'd try a few things before determining if we really needed to see a doctor. When I redirected him or changed the subject, he forgot his pain mantra 99 percent of the time. Then when I asked how his leg or whatever ailed him earlier was feeling, he said he was fine. I'd touch the area in question or ask him to move it, and he was fine.

There is no one answer or cure for everyone's pain. Our economy now runs on it.

What I remembered too late during my own experience was that the most basic human connections do help ease physical and/or emotional pain. So many times I've offered a hand to hold to a loved one or friend who was in pain or afraid, and I was either comforting or distracting. They'd often thank me later for that gesture.

I didn't think I needed it for myself, but I should have asked Roger to hold my hand. I didn't because I didn't want him to be in the medical staff's way. We know that now and going forward that I need a hand in more ways than one, so they'd better make room.

You have a miracle in those God-given tools … and a responsibility to give and receive these drug-free doses of human compassion.

Yes, the cure for pain may be close at hand.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Yep, you're a real piece of work

By Monica Vest Wheeler

You’re a real piece of work. You know that, don’t you?

You’re a patchwork of people, sewn together with many colors and textures and strengths of thread. Your DNA isn’t your only claim to fame of uniqueness. It’s also the people who have walked alongside, behind and in front of you that make you one of a kind.

Every January and February, I get a little, well, okay, a lot sentimental about one of the individuals who carried a big needle and helped sew parts of me together in ways that I didn’t fully appreciate until after she had left this earth far too soon.

After losing my dad in December, I thought about the power of my mom-in-law, Janice, who celebrated her birthday every January the day before her oldest child, Roger, my husband, marked his big day. And now I remember February 12 since she passed away in 2000 from a long-term disease that robbed her of physical vitality, but never her true and spunky spirit.

I’ve often told Roger that I wouldn’t be who I am without him and his mom who took me in as one of her own from the moment we met when I was only 16 and had never been kissed by anyone other than her son. Janice is the person who taught me the gift of one-on-one conversation because she loved to talk. Oh, that woman could talk about anything and everything, and her voice still echoes clearly and loudly in my soul for all of eternity, along with her spontaneous laughter.

With the loss of a parent, I guess that serves as a time of reflection and examination of the core of our very existence. That is where that patchwork quilt of life comes in. I’ve revisited not only memories of my dad but of Janice as well, remembering her folksy sayings and life lessons served with love and respect and deep insight.

Janice gave me a special sense of confidence and reminded me how much my parents loved me, even at those times when I couldn’t understand them. In the quarter-century that I knew and loved this woman, we never had a cross word or conversation that put any distance between us. I only made one strict request of her through the years: don’t smoke around my baby. She obliged, at least in those early years … as it was the one nasty habit she never could kick, even to her dying day.

She was a one-of-a-kind mother-in-law who vowed to take me in the settlement if her son and I ever divorced. And she reminded me many times that I didn’t follow through on my promise to give her my son since I wanted a girl so badly. Well, I had to give the kid a chance …

I like to think that Janice has continued to mend me in countless ways from her beachside seat in heaven. I’ve even suggested to myself that her death probably saved my life when I fell apart and finally acknowledged the depression that had been gnawing at me for so many years. Sometimes all the parts of us have to crumble before we can clearly see all the pieces individually and reconstruct the puzzle as a whole.

Who are the people in YOUR life who have provided the textured fabrics that make you who you are? What did they give you? Where would you be without them?

I am comforted by the vision that Janice was among the welcoming committee for my dad when he arrived in heaven in December. And now he’s getting to know her even better and they're creating an even more amazing patchwork of love up above …

Monday, January 23, 2017

Why I marched … toward human dignity AND reality

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Did you ever feel the need to just walk, to exercise your rights, to do something you've never done before? I did that Saturday, January 21, for the first time in my life, taking part in the Peoria, IL, version of the Women's March that swept this nation and various pockets of the world.

I did not take this decision to walk lightly, and for me, it was NOT political. I created my own poster, "It's all about human dignity and compassion, caring for caregivers." My friend Genny urged on her poster for parents to raise their sons to respect women and to raise daughters to earn respect. Her message focused on education and behavior, a powerful one that constantly needs to be reiterated.

I don't consider myself a protester, but rather someone who is not afraid to speak up about the often overlooked needs of a growing number of individuals and families who are dealing with serious injuries, illnesses and diseases, and the ongoing challenges of caregiving. Yes, women make up the bulk of family caregivers, but there are more men AND children joining these ranks every day.

It's not just a woman's issue: it's a human issue, the need to focus on human dignity and compassion for those who are affected and those who care for them. Family caregivers provide billions of dollars worth of unpaid service, and the financial toll grows larger every day. I witness every day that society and government are ill-prepared for the demands of caring for individuals with brain-related conditions, from traumatic brain injury to stroke to Alzheimer's to autism to mental illness and more.

And that doesn't include an endless array of other health conditions. The need to provide 24/7 care for Alzheimer's patients alone could very easily bankrupt this nation. And this doesn't even touch on the emotional and physical toll on caregivers.

We need to work smarter, not necessarily harder, in every corner of this nation. We need to make some personal sacrifices for the greater good. We need to learn to give more and take less. We have to face new realities that the world has changed, that certain markets and industries simply don't exist anymore.

Lamenting the past only prolongs the regrets and self-pity and blame. We must look forward. 

Therein lies the beauty of putting our imaginations to work for that greater good, to reinforce the notion that lifelong learning is a joy and responsibility, that there is endless human potential and ideas that will create new markets and industries, that service to others can enrich us emotionally, physically, spiritually AND financially.

We do not and must not live in isolation.

I abhor those who resort to self-serving vandalism, violence and vulgarity. It's criminal, greedy, selfish and hateful.

I equally admonish those who lie, those who cover up, those who steal from the less fortunate, those who push their own selfish agendas without regard for the human toll. We must hold those individuals accountable and never relent on the path to truth.

That gathering Saturday was filled with sunshine and hope. I see the beauty and potential of healing and lifting. The enthusiasm and passion must be constantly reignited if we are to survive as a community, a nation, a world.

When we serve with sincerity and compassion, we cannot be stopped. When we lift others, we cannot be ignored. When we look beyond ourselves, we will not be forgotten.

Forget the politics. Shame the politicians who put politics above the human condition. Speak loudly against those who only care about their egos and bank accounts.

Now, give me a little while to think of my own movement to keep the momentum going …  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The time we choose not to lose

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Did you ever fully consider the terms "passing the time," "passing the buck" or "passing the butter"? The latter two symbolize passing along something to someone else. The first is something you can indulge in solely or collectively, but its consequences are yours alone to ponder … and accept.

I've not been obsessed by the topic of time since my dad's sudden passing a month ago, but I have been consumed by his watch that I wear all the time everywhere, except in the shower. Now, whether it was my dad's doing or a defect in the watch, it's running two days ahead on the date setting. We unsuccessfully tried resetting it and then finally decided not to waste any more time on it.

What I have found interesting is this sudden need to be planning ahead. Is it the watch? I've also found myself thinking more before speaking. Is it the watch? I've also been more "present" in the time I give myself, which has been considerably more of a focus on my own health in the past four and a half weeks. Is it the watch?

The greater discovery is that I fully comprehend that I have a choice in how I spend that time. It's always been there, but I didn't completely grasp it until recently. Is it loss? Is it age? Is it common sense finally kicking in after all these years? I'm placing my bets on the last possibility since my brain is a little quirky at times …

We all waste or pass the time at times, because our brains do need an occasional break, but I find myself increasingly baffled by the folks who toss aside time like it's an endless commodity and dilute the value of their own lives.

I cannot understand people who spend endless hours playing computer/tablet/phone games in isolation … instead of playing games face-to-face with abandoned children and forgotten seniors who would give anything for a playing companion.

I cannot understand people who lounge on the couch in front of the TV for eons and cheer for strangers thousands of miles away … instead of cheering on the local heroes and becoming heroes in their own right by extending a hand to those less fortunate.

I cannot understand people who are consumed by a poverty or self-pity mindset … and refuse to see or accept the bounty of life and solutions around them, the gifts of love, comfort and care extended to them, all because they're so wrapped up in their own hopeless world.

Remember this: we have the time we choose not to lose.

Not a moment was lost as I attended a visitation Monday afternoon … and talked Monday night to a dear friend who got a cancer diagnosis earlier in the day.

Not a moment was lost as I misplaced some sleep to compose this essay.

Where's your time you're choosing not to lose today? 

Monday, January 9, 2017

The twisted journey in search of personal freedom

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Do you find yourself frequently searching for something you can't quite define?

Is it happiness? Is it love? Is it fulfillment? Is it simply the meaning of life?

It kinda reminds me of the chorus from that song on the old country comedy show, "Hee-Haw," something I watched every week as a kid:

"Where, where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over,
And thought I found true love.
You met another and
Phht! you were gone."

Whether it's love, happiness, fulfillment, the meaning of life or something else … just when you think you've captured what you've been searching for, you've heard that "Phht!" blowing in the wind right in your direction. Yep, I've been "Phht"ed quite a few times over the years … and that can be as icky as Superman spitting into the wind …

In search of that elusive something I've had trouble defining most of my life, I've crisscrossed this nation more miles than I can count and have been to Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Israel … the high lands, the low lands, and my own back yard.

I just figured I'd know it when I saw "it," which is what I tell salesclerks when they ask if they can assist me. "No, thank you, I'll know it when I see it."

In the many moments of soul-searching I've accumulated in recent weeks after the sudden passing of my dad, two words finally spoke to me and connected all the wayward corners of my life, from personal to professional and everything in-between. Two medium-sized words that I had not married nor fully comprehended until now:

Personal freedom.

Now, go ahead and stare at me like I'm a little crazier than usual, and I'll wholeheartedly agree. I'll break out my purple pom poms and start my cheer: "Give me a P, give me an E …" and you can join me at any letter you like.

I really thought I had it all figured out when I declared the true meaning of life was love. Yes, you can take my definition to the bank and go dancing in the streets, climb every mountain and ford every stream …

I've adopted this new mantra of "personal freedom" to address the self-imposed limitations so many humans bear. My eyes have been opened to what has held me hostage and what I've been afraid to let go of. And it's not only a question of "what" but answering a bigger challenge of "why." I thought I had conquered it before, but I was mislead by my own interpretations.

For far too long, I subscribed to Scarlett O'Hara's philosophy: "After all, tomorrow is another day." (Google her if you don't know who she is!)

Yeah, tomorrow is another day, but I woke up a few days ago with the unwavering resolve that I WANT TO LIVE NOW.

My newly defined personal freedom relies on dedicated focus, writing, photography, reaching out and within, speaking up and more often, and so much more … putting to use all those talents God has given me and that so many individuals have accepted and nurtured along the way.

Embracing those two words has opened my life to so many new emotions and opportunities and connections and conversations. Even my tears serve a greater purpose in nourishing a new seed in my soul … and my laughter has all my cells vibrating in harmony, even the ones that sing off-key …

Where, oh where, does YOUR personal freedom hide?

Share it with me … share it with the world … we're waiting with open arms and hearts …

Monday, January 2, 2017

Talking to my pets as I figure out what to say to people

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Do you subscribe to the theory that life is NOT a dress rehearsal? We get one chance … but that doesn't mean we can't practice a little along the way … with the animals.

Though I never saw the movie "Dr. Doolittle," I didn't need a degree to talk to the animals. I'm a cat whisperer, dog whisperer, horse whisperer … whatever of God's creatures will lend me an ear. I talk to them in bed (my cats Gabriel and Bling), at my friends and family (dogs and cats), in a field alongside a country backroad (the horses … only because I can't have one of my own …)

For much of my life, I've had this deep fear of "bothering" people when I really need them the most. My journals overflow with endless entries on how I wish I could reach out to someone at a particular moment, but I always came up with a reason on THEIR behalf why I shouldn't bother them … they're too busy, they've got too much on their plate, they don't need one more problem (me) …

I didn't have pets as a child, so my stuffed animals became my confidants. When I got married and my own home, I finally adopted a cat and have been addicted to them ever since. It took me a lot longer to seek the consolation of dogs after being bitten by a neighbor's bulldog when I was a little kid. I still remember my dad throwing me up on his shoulders to save me … And now I love dogs, too.

After my dad unexpectedly passed away in Indiana before Christmas, I was away from my cats for nearly nine days. When I returned to my own bed, my babies curled up with me as I tearfully whispered how my life had been shattered in an instant. I confided:

"I just don't care anymore. I have nothing left to give anyone. Babies, does that make me selfish?"

"Listen, Mommy," Gabriel said, "you are not selfish. You just need time to heal."

Bling chimed in, "Remember what you tell all those caregivers, that they need to step away for a little bit and focus only on themselves. It's not selfishness. It's necessary for their own survival. They need to hear that, and they listen when YOU tell them because you believe it. You teach them how to believe it for themselves. And you need to tell yourself that you deserve to survive, too, Mommy."

I shook my head. "I don't want to be strong anymore. I'm too tired to be strong."

Gabriel nuzzled my nose. "You tell those survivors of stroke and traumatic brain injuries how they can and will pick themselves up because they're much stronger than they'll ever give themselves credit. You know it's true because you've witnessed their strength and triumph after tragedy and disappointment."

Bling said, "Yeah, Mommy, you're a cheerleader and not a fakey one."

Wiping tears, I looked at my little girl. "Did you just say flakey?"

She tilted her head. "Well, you are flakey at times, but you're not a fake. No one believes in the power of the human spirit more than you do. You know people can recover and come out stronger if they look beyond themselves, even at their weakest moment, when they give themselves permission to truly embrace life."

Gabriel's paw rested atop my hand. "Don't forget that you're only human, Mommy. You don't have to be superhuman. There will be losses in life, but you have to go on. That's what life is. You tell others that they don't have to go through the pain alone. You help them. It's time to take your own advice. You're NOT a bother."

Bling added, "It's okay to tell someone you're hurting. And that's how you heal by revealing the pain. You know it's true. You can't heal when you bottle up the pain and fear. You've seen those people who destroy themselves and others by putting up walls. Look at how many walls you've knocked down all because you've asked the right questions and simply listened."

Her brother peeped, "You need to feed souls and hearts and minds because they're hungry for the truth of life. Your daddy is right here beside you and his cheers are echoing in heaven. I can hear them. Can you? Oh, I forgot that we cats have special hearing."

Bling said, "You can go on. You will go on. You have so much more work to do."

I smiled. "It will be better after I get some sleep."

Gabriel stretched. "Before you go back to sleep or feed anyone else, can you refill our food bowls first?"

Yep, I'll work up the courage to tell all this to human beings … soon, very soon …