Happy Trails to You

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers

After someone you love dies, you may discover some things about the person that you didn’t know. My Mom loved to sing. Because her generation (the “Silent Generation” 1928-1945) was different than mine (“Generation X” 1965-1980), the songs she would sing at breakfast (a normal occurrence) and in the evening were oldies. Breakfast was usually “Mockingbird Hill” (When the sun in the morning, peeks over the hill…).

When Mom was diagnosed in July of 2021, my siblings and I began to hear from her former students on FaceBook. As the ALS progressed and began to take away basic functions, we would read to her what her former students were saying. It was all good and brought many smiles and happy tears. While she could still talk, she would relay some story about the student that posted and it was as if she took us by the hand and walked us back to her teaching days. Mom was defined by what she did, a teacher. It was her real joy and privilege to teach for over thirty years.

One recurring theme from former students was that she would sing the first few stanzas of “Happy Trails” as they left class at the bell. Though knowing this song was a favored one, we were still shocked to learn she sang in public too!

I have been teaching now for 28 years. I have taught middle school, high school, and college-aged students. Having heard from so many of Mom’s former students since her diagnosis and subsequent death, it got me to ponderin’ — “what would my students have to say about me?” “Would they even remember me?” (Mom had been retired for 16 years at her passing).

Yesterday was the first in-person convocation we have had at Anne Arundel Community College since 2019. A recurring theme of the various administrators was to remember that the smallest things could make a difference. Even a taped message from the incoming SGA (Student Government Association) president reminded us that the “small things matter”.

I am a big believer in the difference “small things” make. For you see? It has been small things each and every day that have encouraged me to continue hiking that trail. My trail is not always happy, but it is a scenic and worthwhile hike.

People with disAbilities often express their concern that they do not matter anymore. Or perhaps they feel that with their disability, they can no longer make a difference. Many of you already know these things about me, but let me summarize some of my own challenges:

  1. Late-deafened (25 years on)
  2. Post Concussive syndrome (TBI as a kiddo and 11 concussions since)
  3. Meniere’s disease
  4. Vestibular disorder
  5. Mental health diagnoses (Panic Disorder and PDD)
  6. 65% blind in my right eye (concussions)

If I had a dollar for every time I considered giving up, I could retire now! I’m no super hero. I’m not anything special. What I am is persistent and determined. Stubbornly resolved to connect at least one time each day with someone who needs encouraged, loved, high-5’d, heard, or acknowledged. Notice that none of these things require being an abled person! I know that many of my readers are people with disability or chronic illness. MANY have expressed to me the dismay they feel in being disabled, by NOT being able to make a difference. Their physical or mental health diagnoses have meant they have learned coping skills or learned a new way to do things. However, many still FEEL disabled because they feel as if these diagnoses take away opportunities for them to MATTER.

My friends? Please do not ever discount the difference it makes for you to be kind to the cashier at the grocery store. Smiling and saying a kind thing or two to the delivery person may completely turn their day around. Being kind and friendly to that young wait staff person can make a day that is crushing them seem not so burdensome. Send an encouraging email or message to someone you know is struggling. It can be life-changing for them. Make a phone call to someone you know who feels isolated. Take advantage of the way social media platforms “level the playing field” for those with disabilities through CONNECTING them with others. One small comment can make a difference.

I know this for a fact! I know because the

Deborah’s, Wendy’s, Kellie’s, Lisa’s, Candice’s, Sara’s, Stephanie’s, Kyersten’s, Felicia’s, Kimberly’s, and SO MANY more have taken 15 seconds to type me a message that encouraged me and rekindled my desire to keep on keepin’ on. I’m not saying it is EASY. For some, it may mean real “spoons” are used up (The Spoon Theory).

ALS is a horrible, terminal disease. My Mom suffered and died a terrible death. I’m still dealing with the fall out and likely will for the remainder of my own life. But do you know at the end, Mom could only roll her eyes, grin, and wink, but she did that as her hovering children did their best to love and care for her? She could speak some, but it was a real chore to understand, even with picture, word, and alphabet cards to assist while she could still point. Yes. There were days with tears and “why God?” conversations. Yet while DYING she continued to make a difference. These past 12 months cemented an already steadfast “heart beat” for me. NO MATTER WHAT, I can make a difference to someone. In my work as a suicide prevention and awareness advocate, one of my favorite sayings is “Your voice is your power”. Use it.

Choose to sing “Happy Trails” to someone upon departure. Choose to smile and say, “I truly hope you have a great day!” Sign to someone “happiness is a choice”. Send that email to a struggling soul, “I’m thinking of you today”. You have a purpose. It doesn’t matter how many disabilities or challenges you have. You still have the power to make a difference. This is your super power. Use it. It matters. Happy trails to you…

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

  1. Thank you for your comment Ewelina. I needed your words today. I suspect Google was trying to connect you to…

  2. I found your blog today by googling “why fireflies butts glow”. It’s not exactly what I was looking for, but…

  3. Denise, Thank you for a powerful, uplifting blog on grief and caring for loved ones and strangers. I’m part of…

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

2

What do you care, right?

Oh I care, believe me…

#ResolutionRENEW

I’m a co-advisor for a campus student club/chapter of Active Minds. One of the things we talk about in our meetings at LEAST once a semester is that using the right word does matter. Check out this great (short) video that emphasizes some of the things we share with our students: MUST SEE VIDEO

Two words I habitually say are “CRAZY” and “INSANE”. Truthfully, I had achieved a point where most of my verbal language (well… and SIGN for that matter) had eliminated these two words. I don’t know if it was the break between semesters or what – as I’m certainly not making excuses. To my dismay (with a little bit of HORROR thrown in) I discovered that these words were back — being used again as a common descriptor in my everyday language.

As a matter of fact when my epiphany occurred, I was actually having a Zoom meeting with the co-advisor of our much loved club, Active Minds. At least twice I said something about how “CrAzY” something was in regards to the total and normal OVERWHELM that accompanies this ongoing pandemic. My friend and colleague (to her credit) didn’t call me on it (though I wouldn’t have minded if she had), but y’all? American Sign Language is my second language! Therefore, facial expression, body language, posture, etc. are something I just pick up on as a normal part of any kind of communication, including verbal. So she tensed and her eyes popped wide; she calmly agreed with what I was saying but used better words like “disappointing”, “frustrating” and so on. I left that meeting determined to get back on track with using better words. Words that do not have negative connotations and stigma attached to them. It’s a “speech rule” that is important to me, so renewing this pledge to do better was also important to me.

Other Kinds of Poor Choice Phrases

This past week I was painfully reminded of other types of habitual words and phrases that are shockingly an eye-opener to the receiver. These are the kinds of phrases that make me WINCE – and I’m not always good at hiding that wince. I have a student in one of my face-to-face classes that says “what do you care, right?” and sometimes “what do I care, right?” It is very obviously a verbal habit because it rolls off the tongue almost like it is “filler”. For this student, I can only guess that it was habit, but self-fulfilling prophecy, Pygmalion effect, and abuse are likely culprits of using a phrase so frequently and out of context.

To explain how tragic this repeated verbal phrase is, we’ve only had two classes so far this semester and yet I know for a fact that I and others have noticed. Sure, the phrase was verbalized along with an eye roll, a self-deprecating chuckle, and failure to make eye-contact. It was not difficult to register the

PAIN

FEAR

LONLINESS

S.O.S.

in this oft-uttered phrase during our 10 minute after class “chat. Trust me. I’m no conversation guru nor interpreter police. However, I do pick up things like this because I *do* pay attention to facial expression, body language, posture, hand shapes (tense fists) and more when I communicate because I hear with bionics. I need those other cues for total understanding and clarity.

PERSONAL GOAL: Somehow, some way, let this student know during our semester together that I do. I do care. I care a great deal.

Check Yourself

I would like to put out a challenge to every person reading this post who also lives with visible or invisible conditions or disability.

DO YOU FREQUENTLY AND HABITUALLY USE ANY LANGUAGE THAT UNDERMINES WHO YOU ARE?

It may not be words or phrases you even say out loud. Perhaps you only THINK these words that are ultimately harmful to who you are. You may need some help with this challenge. Ask someone else if you ever habitually utter negative words or phrases. Maybe even ask them to get back to you on it so that they can think about it. (BONUS: Perhaps they will also discover that they do this as well!)

If you are like me, we have been saying these things (or thinking them) so long that they are firmly entrenched in the way we respond and communicate with others. One of my siblings constantly smacks their head and says, “stupid, Stupid, STUPID” to themselves. Yup. That one is obvious.

Maybe (like me) self-deprecating humor is a way you cope or “deal” with your disability. Heck, many diversity champions and comedians use this means to educate and advocate. But y’all? You and I know when we are in advocate mode or bad-habit negative talk. Having a balance disorder, I am a klutz. I am constantly tripping, stumbling, and weaving my way around campus. For a very long time I would laughingly tell a concerned member of my “village” that “GRACE is not my middle name“. That is mild negative response really. However for ME, it started to fester a little. Every time I said this after an awkward stumble, I felt…

less.

Now when I “skid around a corner and clutch at Finn’s vest while correcting my sliding right foot and over-compensating for a bounce of my shoulder off the nearest doorframe” (I kid you NOT), I simply say, “Whoa. That was a close call”. That’s enough for me now. I don’t feel less when I say it. Saying NOTHING does not work because I will be bombarded by well-meaning people in my “village” who ask if I am OK. Acknowledging my “close call” for some reason reassures everyone that I really am OK. “I’ve got this”. Recognizing negative language and learning to use BETTER words really does make a difference. It impacts self-esteem. Choosing BETTER words strengthens diversity advocacy and pride.

Words matter. Self-talk matters. You matter.

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

2022 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Just Being Totally Honest Here…

Mom, Diane (my little sister from Texas) and Me 2021 Thanksgiving Day

One thing I’ve often written about here from the viewpoint of someone living with disabilities, is that one of the hardest things to cope with is simply all the “normal” life experiences EVERYONE deals with, but dealing with it with disabilities.

I have a large network of peers who also write and advocate on behalf of the disability community. You would think God in His infinite grace, would allow people already dealing with a lot to be cut some slack with other kinds of challenges. That isn’t how it works though. “My people” often testify and share how hard life has been for them recently. People with disabilities still face the loss of loved ones, sickness (flu and COVID – aargh), break-ups and relationship implosions, job loss, traffic tickets, power outages, and running out of toilet paper! We don’t get a pass on tension headaches, occasional stomach upset, stubbed toes, or WIFI troubles.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m the first to stand on a soapbox and shout to the world how wonderful and worthwhile LIFE is. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t sometimes very hard, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work. If people with disabilities have one advantage over those who do not live with challenges, perhaps it comes down to these two things:

  1. Experience has us recognizing our limits much quicker and more reliably than those who do not live with disability.

2. We are more likely to ask for help.

Today, my Mom took a fall (or two) just trying to do some normal daily activities. ALS is an unforgiving disease and it is always progressive. Mom has bulbar onset, which means early on it impacted her speech and fine motor skills. It is now impacting mobility as well, however. Hence, the falls today while doing normal everyday activities. My little brother texted while a little freaked out and I calmed him down. Then I proceeded to freak out myself.

Immediately after finding out about Mom’s fall and trying to get a grip on next steps, I went outside to my back porch. We are having very un-December-like weather and the dogs were romping in the yard. The sky was blue and there was a nice breeze. This place is usually like an oasis to me. Instead of enjoying the moment, however, I marched to the edge of the porch, looked up and stuck my finger at the sky while semi-shouting,

“Stop it! Pay attention! My Mom is getting hurt!”

Had a neighbor been watching they may have thought I’d lost my mind. I didn’t care and HE knew Who I was talking too with a little stomp to my foot, with finger pointing somewhere in the direction of where I imagined His face, and shouting about the injustice of it all. God knew I was fussing at Him.

After my little conniption fit and about five minutes of bawling my eyes out, I realized how silly it was to talk to God about what is “fair”. I mean life just IS NOT. We were never promised a life of FAIR experiences.

We are able to learn from experience, and what I have learned is that reaching out for help makes a difference. So I called my little sister in Texas and I texted my Mom’s sweet Monday-Friday caregiver, Sarah. It helped. We have a plan. It gave me a little hope and encouraged me.

My friend, don’t be afraid to rant to God. He can take it and frankly if anyone knows about Their loves ones suffering and things not panning out in a “fair way”, it’s God.

Don’t avoid reaching out for help. The reality is that we are allowing others to be a blessing to US and to help. I tell myself that by not reaching out, I am robbing someone of that opportunity to make a difference in my life that day.

Just being totally honest here, but I yelled at God today. I survived because He gets it. He really does.

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

2021 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

I am NOT your Lent Project

Perfectly content in my own skin

On February 17-19 I received 2 messages from people I only know through social media. One sent a message through FaceBook, and one sent an email. I thought the short messages were strange but began to piece it all together when I received second messages from both individuals a few days later. I also received a brand new message from someone that I also only knew in a round-about way.

Somewhere, a number of someones, have Lent messed up in their heads and hearts. The third actually only knew me through “Hearing Elmo”. We have probably only communicated three or four times in the eighteen years since I have been blogging. It seems some sort of challenge went out to strive to make a difference in the lives of under-represented, and diverse populations. Notes of encouragement, secret gifts, and words of affirmation were supposedly the goal in brightening the life of a person different than you.

I may be different than you, but y’all? I am plenty BRIGHT. There is just so much wrong with this way of thinking. Let me start with the obvious.

What is Lent?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends before Easter Sunday. Lent is all about doing WITHOUT. In choosing a sacrifice of some sort, an individual may concentrate on other things that they do not normally spend time doing. Things like meditation, prayer, self-examination, and much more. One can choose to observe Lent by doing without food like Jesus did in His own 40 day fast detailed in three of the gospels (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). In today’s world Lent has become a sacrifice of perhaps “unhealthy foods”, things high in sugar, starches, or choosing to go “alcohol free”. One can also choose to examine what you spend a lot of your life doing and “fasting” from that during Lent. Perhaps that is watching television, or spending time on FaceBook or YouTube. You do not simply “do without”, you replace it with these life-changing new habits. At the end of Lent you may go back to some of things you choose to “do without”, only perhaps with a new mindset and new appreciation for quiet, reflective, purposeful thinking.

What Lent is NOT

Lent is not:

  1. Revealing the underlying and unacknowledged level of PRIVILEGE you have.
  2. Choosing someone to “bless” – someone with whom you never interact with at any other time of year.
  3. Dehumanizing another by making them your project. (A project denotes something that needs work or fixed)
  4. Assuming that your “new focus” is welcomed or necessary for a person you have determined is “in need”.

The fact that one individual who set out to “bless someone who is disabled” (revealed in a flurry of Q&A emails with me trying to determine WHAT THE HECK?) did so by finding me and my email address through this blog. I would love to put it out there for anyone who needs the message that…

I’m OK exactly the way I am.

Oh sure! Like anyone, people with disability, invisible conditions, or other challenges, may certainly appreciate genuine, heartfelt encouragement and affirmation from individuals who have a RELATIONSHIP with us. However, that boost is not given because we have a disability. It’s given because someone loves us and cares about us. It is provided by way of a positive relationship being lived out. Just as unsolicited advice is not welcome from someone you hardly know, unsolicited “feel good messages” are also not welcome.

Please understand that I am not saying you should not do nice things for other people. I simply ask that you be genuine about it. Please don’t make them a project.

L. Denise Portis

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2021 Personal Hearing Loss Journal 

Support

I first saw this Willow tree in “all its glory” when we first moved here in 2015

I really love living in Anne Arundel County. When we first moved to our “forever home” in 2015 (worthy of this auspicious title because we finally found an affordable and accessible home), this Willow tree was huge! Located on a nearby farm that I drove by every single day, this tree shaded a large area of pasture that 10-15 cows called home. You can tell by the size of the original trunk how massive this tree was in its prime.

I do not know if my admiration and affection stemmed from the fact the tree was simply beautiful, or that it bordered this idyllic version of a small farm reminding me of my childhood. Regardless, I became really attached to this tree. I passed it on the way to work and on the way home from work. It was hard not to get distracted by which cow or calf was scratching its bovine butt or shoulder on the trunk of this tree as I drove by each day.

One day I noticed that the owners had added some wooden supports on one side. I had noticed the tree had a slight “lean” to it all along and was curious about the farmer’s attempt to provide assistance against the “lean”. After twenty minutes of “googling” Weeping Willow trees, I discovered that their shallow root system can mean a tree can be at risk in high wind areas or areas with high water tables. I was actually surprised the farmer chose to do this as the effort provided support, but certainly was not aesthetically pleasing. It was the only provisional shade in the pasture, so perhaps the owners sought to prevent a problem before it happened. In this way, the farmer insured necessary relief from the heat of the day for the small herd.

Wouldn’t ya know, last Fall “something” happened to this tree. I didn’t see it happen so could only guess as the trunk was split and the vast majority of the tree lay in pieces on the ground. It made me very sad. Don’t ask me why, but I was a little weepy about the broken Weeping Willow! Over the next week I noticed branches being cut and hauled away. I was surprised to see the core trunk of this once stately giant with graceful crown of “weeping” branches still intact. In fact, it continued to be supported.

I like to think this survivor tree held some kind of sentimental value to the farmers. Perhaps it was a more pragmatic reason such as Willows grow quickly and it provided necessary shade to protect the cattle on a day with unforgiving heat and humidity. Still, I prefer thinking it was for heartfelt reasons they chose to do what they could for this “little engine that could” tree.

I watched all winter. Each day I drove by and thought this tree is DEAD and DONE. Much to my surprise, this Spring the tree began to grow again. It looks a little awkward and perhaps even unsightly with the obvious man-made supports in place. Yet it sprouted new branches with blooms and then leaves. I have a feeling this tree is going to surprise us all.

Anne Arundel Community College, like other schools nationwide, was forced to move all instructions online this Spring. Is it because I’m late-deafened that I really prefer interacting with my students face-to-face? Maybe. I know plenty of instructors with normal hearing that were dismayed by the daunting task of providing an engaging learning environment.

Many teachers provide a little blurb in their syllabus and perhaps a “3 minute mention” about accessible options, assistance and supports, and disAbility services. I realize it is likely because my heart beats within the chest of someone who lives with disAbilities and chronic conditions, but to me the issue should not be mentioned once and then never again. For one thing, there are numerous conditions that do not classify as a disability yet students still benefit from support. There are mental health diagnosis and physical chronic conditions that may make it difficult for a student to be “all in” during classes.

This is why I talk about it… WEEKLY. I remind students to come to me if they need support. Perhaps they need a face-to-face meet in my office. After quarantine, it may mean they needed a Zoom call so that they could talk. Prior to the social isolation restrictions in place, I used the ‘RED PAPERCLIP‘ system. My students have nameplates that they toss in a folder at the end of class. If the red paper clip on the back of their name plate was moved to the top, I contacted them via email and we set up a “text meet”, office hours conference, or FaceTime call.

After Spring break turned into a 3-week long, panic-filled transition period for instructors, I thought long and hard about what to do in place of my “RED PAPERCLIP‘ system so that students could still let me know they needed my support for something. These “somethings” included things like:

  1. A 2-3 day extension on a due date
  2. A pep-talk
  3. A listening ear
  4. Further information about the details of a project if the written instructions alone were not enough
  5. Resources and/or connections to virtual mental health practitioners (I’m a teaching psychologist and not a counseling psychologist).
  6. Resources for food, shelter, etc.
  7. Advice and discussion about transfer decisions
  8. Extra credit opportunities
  9. AND MUCH MORE

So what to do if I didn’t have nameplates turned in after class and a visual check of red paperclips? Mid-semester I could only come up with staying in close contact (every couple of days) via email, reminding them of my availability and desire to assist. Do you know during the last 8 weeks of the semester, I received a half dozen texts from students who only sent a picture of a red paperclip? I received OVER a dozen emails from students with “red paperclip” in the subject line of their email. It made me smile. Well… it was a weepy smile, but a smile nonetheless.

For whatever reason, the farmer down the road from me, decided to support this willow tree. Will it ever be self-supporting again? I can’t answer that. Yet with support, this weeping willow provides something needed and necessary to a small herd of cattle. It is growing back quickly. Who knows what it will look like next year? Perhaps it provides some sentimental value to the owner as well. What I can tell you is that without the man-made supports in place, this tree wouldn’t have had a chance at a comeback.

My students know that I get “having a bad day”. I don’t allow them to abuse it but they know they can email me for some additional supports or “course grace”. I am also very transparent about my own good days, bad days, and having to push through ON a bad day. You see? I want to model good self-care. I also want to model the strength required to ask for assistance. Heck, I am “fiercely independent” using cochlear implant, captioning apps, service dog, and cane. However, I have learned there is no shame in asking for assistance. In fact, there is strength in asking for assistance and support.

Do you have people in your life right now who need support? If you don’t, you aren’t looking. We all need some support at different times in our lives. It may be a small “help”, but it can mean the world to someone at a time in their life when they just “need a little something”. I also encourage you to learn to ask for support. I assume many of you who are long-time readers of “Hearing Elmo” have disabilities or chronic conditions. Having extra challenges doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of helping others. It also means that you may need a little support from time to time. Learning to ask in a cheerful, matter-of-fact way goes a long way in positive advocacy. I have learned that many friends, colleagues and even total strangers do not know HOW I need support unless I inform them. It may sound like:

“Excuse me, could you pick up that credit card that I dropped? My service dog has trouble with that unless it is on carpet”.

“The automatic door button doesn’t seem to be working. Could you open and hold the door for me?”

“My fingers are particularly numb today. Do you mind picking up the papers at the end of each row?”

“The elevator in this building is not working today. Can you walk a few steps in front of me as I descend?” (Finn, my service dog, does all the work. However, I need a visual peripheral block to keep from feeling wobbly).

“Can you talk into my phone so my app can caption your voice? There is so much background noise in here I cannot hear you”

“Do you mind carrying my tray from the register to a table? With leash and rolling bag in hand, I cannot manage carrying that safely”.

I have never NOT had someone willing to help.

So keep an eye out for leaning willow trees. Pay attention to any “red paperclips” on the face of or in the body language of someone you meet. In small (and sometimes large) ways, we can make a difference.

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2020 Personal Hearing Loss Journal 

 

The Right to Die (Part 2)

Please review Part 1 as an introduction to this post. Thank you!

This is one of the most difficult posts I have ever written. I wanted to provide some background prior to providing both opinion and scholar resources.

I am an adjunct faculty member in the psychology department of a local community college. I teach 4 classes a semester, am a faculty advisor for 2 student clubs, am active in the Social Justice Collaborative, and provide internal professional development workshops on campus. I currently serve as the chair of our county’s Commission on Disability Issues. One of the student clubs I represent is actually an active chapter of Active Minds, a national organization whose mission is to raise awareness and work towards suicide prevention at a grassroots level by educating college-aged students. I say all of this not to “toot my own horn”, but to make it clear that to melife is precious. I have worked and continue to work hard to do my part in preventing suicide and helping to erase the stigma associated with mental health illnesses.

Therefore, it may come as a surprise to you that I am also passionate about right to die issues. I have a very focused viewpoint on that, however, and I appreciate your seeing me through to the end of this post. I apologize for the length but I want to give you all the information I have so that you can make an informed decision about your own stance. Rest assured, if you disagree with what is provided here, you may feel free to comment at length in the comment section. I value your input and opinion.


If you follow this blog, you know that I have repeatedly shared how visible and invisible disability and chronic illness go hand-in-hand with mental health diagnoses such as mood disorders (Major Depressive Disorder and Dysthymic Disorder) and anxiety disorders (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, OCD, PTSD, etc.). You can view some of these posts at the following links:

Try to See Each Other Out There

We Are Not Given a Good Life or a Bad Life

A Prisoner of Stigma

Sometimes it Takes Work to Stay Positive

If you watched the HBO video link in Part 1 of this series, you know that one of the stories followed the choice to “die by choice but with dignity” of a lady with a lifetime history of mental health illness. As a person who acquired disabilities later in life, I have been open and honest about my own struggles with panic attacks and depression. There were times in my life where suicidal ideation was an everyday challenge. I have been on medications for nearly a decade and have seen a counselor on and off most of my adult life. It is not my belief that people with mental health diagnosis be allowed to die by choice. With a “whole person” treatment plan to address hopelessness and depression, an individual may  recover from mental health illness, or at least manage the symptoms to provide a happy and successful life. Perhaps they aren’t “cured” but their Dx can be managed . I am not in favor of providing end-of-life measures to these individuals.

I am so glad someone was there for me to dissuade me from a poor choice at a low point in my life. Life is precious to me. My life is precious to me, because I recognize the unique opportunity I have as a psychologist and person with disability, to help others discover their own value. Suicide prevention and erasing the stigma associated with mental health illness are important issues to me. It is the beat of my heart.

Having said all of that, because of my work in the disability community I have discovered a subset of this population that deals with a different set of challenges. These are people who live with chronic and debilitating pain, with no cure and no medication that completely alleviates their suffering.

When I get a headache, I take a pain reliever and my PAIN IS RELIEVED.

My mom had hip replacement surgery in August and December of 2019. The worse pain she experienced was treated with prescription opioids and later ibuprofen and HER PAIN WAS RELIEVED.

My 3rd service dog was neutered this week. He was given a post-surgery pain reliever and it appears HIS PAIN IS RELIEVED.

My point is that many people deal with chronic pain. Many of those individuals take pain relievers to alleviate or manage their pain. Some take medications that can be addictive and must weigh the variables of potential addiction to remain pain free. Some people resort to a still somewhat controversial choice of medical marijuana (although why anyone would be judgmental of that is beyond me).

Let us think about a subset of chronic pain sufferers. There are people who live with chronic, excruciating pain who have no options for real pain management. These folks have tried it all. Legal and illegal pain management options have been exhausted. Because of the nature of their disease and diagnosis, they still live with terrible and debilitating pain.

There are numerous studies that tell us that these individuals are at high risk for suicide. Some studies suggest that in the U.S., 1 out of every 10 successful suicides are an individual who lived with chronic pain (Petrosky et al., 2018). It is tough to study suicide in chronic pain sufferers, as they often have comorbid mental health diagnoses as well. (This topic has been covered by Hearing Elmo extensively… see links above). Sometimes the drugs used to treat chronic pain have side effects of depression and mood swings. In a comprehensive study, Racine (2018) found that chronic pain IS a risk factor for suicide; however, although mental health issues can be treated, pain may not be managed well at all.  Sullivan (2019) a researcher in pain management and suicidal ideation, suggests that those with pain not managed by medication, corrective surgery, or holistic therapies also struggle with sleep disturbances as they may find it difficult to relax to the point of being able to sleep. Pain + depression/anxiety + sleep deprivation = a high risk for suicide. Doctors are not only tasked with helping patients discover “what is causing my pain?” but also the request to “please fix my pain” (Sullivan, 2019). What is a doctor and patient to do with the latter cannot be addressed?

This next paragraph or so I may lose you if you haven’t watched HBO’s “Right to Die Debate” episode. Again, I request that you view this video above at the first link. I think very few people argue within the “Right to Die” battlegrounds against those who are living in pain and have a terminal disease. Some of these individual’s stories were highlighted in the video segment. Less understood (and I argue that we are less likely to support someone) is the argument of individuals who are not terminal yet living with chronic pain.

I have heard the arguments of many who continually refer back to the fact that LIFE IS PRECIOUS. Many of us have bounced back from very low points and now enjoy life and participate in our communities. I have no answers for those who ask “how can we support anyone’s efforts to deliberately end life if we view life as valuable?”

I have a friend who is like a sister to me that is currently awaiting SSDI appeal and lives with debilitating pain. I have talked with her when stabbing pain robbed her of the ability to speak or sit up straight. This is only evidence of the acute pain that hits her without warning. She lives with chronic pain always and I only notice because the overall fatigue and helplessness is a constant shadow in her eyes. She has seen numerous specialists.  Not just in her county and state, but seeking help from specialists in renowned hospitals across our country. She has a pain disorder that has been dubbed “The Suicide Disorder” because of the large number of people who have unsuccessfully tried to manage their pain and simply chose an end to a battle they could not win.

Do I value my friends life? Of course I do. Does she value her own life? I have never met anyone who appreciates and values life as much as she does. It is evident in her own struggles and perseverance as well as her art (she is a photographer). She has struggled with the desire to end her pain in a dignified and supported way. She hasn’t stopped fighting. To date, she continues to fight at great sacrifice.

My goal in writing this 2-part series on this heavy issue is simply to motivate you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I am not advocating easy access to life-ending means for MOST people. I do believe we are naive to believe that all pain can be managed successfully. I think we are ill-informed if we believe people can live this way long term. I do not pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that we should be discussing these issues and allowing individuals living with chronic pain to facilitate these discussions. Respect them, love them, and honor their choices. Can we value life and do any less?

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2020 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

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Petrosky, E., Harpaz, R., Fowler, K.A., Bohm, M., Helmick,C., Keming Yuan, M.S., and Betz, C. J. (2018). Chronic pain among suicide decedents, 2003 to 2014: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2018(169) 448-455. doi: 10.7326/M18-0830

Racine, M. (2018). Chronic pain and suicide risk: A comprehensive review. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 87B(20) 269-280.

Sullivan, M. (2019). What do we owe patients with chronic pain? Pain Medicine 20(5) 878-881.

The Right to Die (Part 1)

I want to handle a sensitive topic and do so with some open and honest dialogue. Before I do that, I highly recommend watching the following video (captioned). Yes… yes, I know! It is nearly 30 minutes long but that is why I am splitting this topic into two posts. The first, a video that I believe does a terrific job of pointing out all of the arguments. Next week I will write about this and provide my 2 ¢ as well as provided peer-reviewed research on this important issue.

For now, please watch and take notes. Please feel free to comment as I never fail to learn from you as well.

 

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2020 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Darn it, I am STRONG

 

I’m no Super Hero, but I am strong!

You have “stuff”. I have “stuff”. Y’all? We all HAVE “STUFF”.

I am — who I am — because of “my stuff”. Your own “stuff” may not define you but it certainly shaped the person you are. It is a wee bit aggravating, however, when someone says “You are such a Super Hero or an inspiration” because of who I am as a person with disABILITY. It’s not that I don’t want to inspire someone. I hope my adult children and grandchildren think I am worthy of imitation and example. I also want to instill in them (and others) their special value because of who they are all because they are here,

on earth,

within our community,

making a difference where they can.

This Doesn’t Mean…

I am not grateful for all God has allowed in my life to make me the woman I am. I want to encourage. I want to be a good example to others. I want to make a difference. This does indeed mean that I am grateful for my disABILITIES. My hearing loss has taught me about communication and about visual cues about the soul of a person. My balance disorder has taught me to take special care, that every step and turn should not be done impulsively. My cane has taught me to lean on something sturdy to provide a 3-point foundation. My service dog has taught me to pay attention and to have confidence in something with far keener senses than I have. I am grateful for my disABILITIES. Yet, I want to inspire, encourage, and don super hero capes because I am a strong woman.

Your stuff may not be disABILITY. Maybe you are a member of a diversity group and the challenges that has presented has strengthened once weak character muscles. Advocacy and inclusion awareness activities have broadened your scope and influence. You are strong because of it.

Maybe that you are a single parent, a survivor of a serious illness, domestic violence, recovered addict, or live with other invisible or chronic illnesses, have made you the strong person you are.

I’m currently staying with my mother who is recovering from a 2nd hip replacement. A North Carolina sister-friend contacted me and we were to have lunch today to catch up. It’s raining, like… a LOT. This means my balance is wobbly, my tinnitus is roaring, and I’m feeling particularly shaky. My friend texted me early (knowing the state I am likely in right now) and suggested a (quite literal) raincheck for lunch.

Does this mean that I’m weak… today? No. I may have to make smart decisions to keep myself safe and avoid likely falls and concussions, but this does not make me weak. I am still strong. It simply means that today my strength is manifest in my practice of good self-care. I can wobble and be strong by making smart decisions to take care of myself.

Challenges not Limitations

Each of you have something that makes life a challenge. Whether it is something physical, spiritual, emotional, or cognitive, we all have challenges. I don’t like the word “limitations”. I prefer to think I am not limited in any way. Instead, I have challenges that exercise my muscles to make me strong. It might mean different choices. Perhaps it means a “raincheck”. I may have to ask for assistance from my service dog or even a person. I am not limited. I simply have challenges. These challenges make me strong.

This post began with exposing something everyone already knows. We all “have stuff”. Your own “stuff” presents challenges, but those challenges make you strong.

This doesn’t mean that you may occasionally feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the fact that at times, you just want to give up. That’s where the rest of us come into the picture. We need each other. We need to support each other. We need to celebrate with each other. If you haven’t seen the now viral video of Miss Nigeria going bananas with genuine glee at the “win” of her friend Miss Jamaica, you have missed out. You can view it here.

I want to be the kind of support and help to YOU, that I don’t hesitate to respond with questions from people who follow my blog or who know about my work in the disABILITY community. I want to celebrate every win you have. I also want to assist when you do not win, and I want to stand in the gap for you when you simply need someone to care. Blogs, vlogs, online support groups, and social media platforms have become a valued network and access to “Miss Nigerias”.

Hey… I totally get feeling all alone on my own little island, crippled by my MIND about my own disABILITIES. It happens. We buckle, hole up, and lick our wounds. Friend, please don’t stay there. Look for the resources and help easily found in a vast array of fully accessible environments. Indeed, we all have “stuff”. We also need each other.

L. Denise Portis

©2019 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Use the Freaking Microphone

Gotta say, I’m so grateful for being late-deafened in 2019.

I realize much of the reason I am grateful is that I have access to a great number of “first world technology”. I “hear again” with a cochlear implant. I have apps that caption speakers if they are within 6-10 feet of me. My hearing aid and cochlear implant are bluetooth compatible so (for example) using the GPS in my car, Siri tells me where to go (ahem) in my own head and it doesn’t bother anyone else in the car.

I have super cool devices to clean, dry, and care for all my hearing assistive technology. I have volume controls, fire alarms with strobes, and captioning on my television. I speech read at about 45-47% accuracy (which is actually pretty high but I credit it to teaching others how to do so in workshops, etc.). I can make doctor appointments online, and my home phone (Google voice) sends me an email transcription of every message left. I text like a pro and rarely have to knuckle down and actually phone anyone. My calendar and alerts sinc with my Apple Watch so my whole wrist vibrates when I need a reminder. I can order online, bank online, and renew my service dog’s insurance online. I definitely live in the right day and time, in a first world country, where even “middle class” I enjoy a host of perks that make being late-deafened, not so very bad.

Do you know the #1 pet peeve that happens to be very low tech and low cost, is the fact that no one wants to use a microphone?

I do pretty well in groups of 10-15 or less, sitting around a table so that I can see everyone, and everyone is polite and speaks one at a time. Put me in a room with more people than that, or people sitting in rows and spread out, and I really struggle. I may get 50% of what is said. You might be thinking “what does that mean?”. Please allow me to clue you in.

  1. 50% doesn’t mean in a 40 minute presentation or workshop that I received and understood the first 20 minutes.

This means that I get very little take-away. If I’m hearing 50% of what is being said while it is being presented and spoken, I am actually missing much more than that because of lost comprehension. Think about it this way.

If I read aloud a paragraph to you and dropped 50% of the words randomly, would you understand ANY of the paragraph at all? Even if you are hearing 50% of the words, you’ve lost the context and have very little understanding of what I just read.

2. 50% means my frustration level is high and my fatigue has ruined me for the rest of the day.

If I could burn calories by struggling to hear, comprehend, and communicate effectively, I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and never work out for the rest of my life. When you tack on the fact that my primary issue is a balance disorder and not the hearing loss, when the latter contributes to fatigue this increases my chances for wobbles and for falls. I have left meetings where people refuse a microphone and seriously put myself in jeopardy the remainder of the day because my brain became mush.

3. 50% means more work for other people.

I work at a college and am a valued member of the psychology department in spite of my adjunct status. After meetings or workshops where I get my 50%, I have never EVER been turned down by colleagues after requesting a follow-up email with a copy of the PowerPoint they used, a summary of their talk with major points highlighted, and any pertinent questions asked by others (that I didn’t hear at all) and responses given. I work with good people. People who care, who are inclusive, and frankly are all about social justice issues like accessibility.

So… if people were simply using the freaking microphone:

  1. My comprehension goes to 80-90%
  2. I expend the same amount of energy a hearing-abled person expends to attend a meeting or workshop.
  3. No one feels compelled to send me copious notes about what they just covered.
  4. I am included… not just in the meeting, but because I will be hearing questions and responses from the floor. I will feel comfortable speaking myself because I know what is going on in the meeting.
  5. Other people with “normal” hearing, actually hear better. Speakers who use microphones are more likely to face the room/audience, speak more clearly, and not cover their mouth or faces with hands, fliers, etc. (Tidwell, 2004).

Having experienced good hearing/comprehension environments, imagine my frustration when I cannot hear and there is a microphone available that someone refuses to use. I have had workshop speakers decline microphone use, college presidents and vice-presidents, and TFO constituents. I have experienced county executives, politicians, pastors, graduate and residency doctor/teachers refuse to use the microphone. From the perspective of someone with hearing loss, this hurts y’all. It also pisses me off. (Jus’ sayin’)

“My voice carries, so I’m not going to use this” (points to microphone).

“I walk around a lot so I’m not going to use the microphone. I have a loud voice” (Note: most microphones are mobile).

“Can everyone hear me? I have a big voice. I’m not going to use the microphone… because everyone can hear me, right?” (while ignoring my wildly gestured hand-waving negating their statement).

Folks, volume ≠ communicating well. Raising your voice (your volume level) distorts your voice (Ardon, 2019). If you use a microphone and use a normal tone and volume because the microphone is doing the work, your words are understood by more people. The quality of your speech improves when using a microphone. You aren’t having to remind yourself to “speak up” so the people in the back of the room can hear you.

This post isn’t about any frustration about not hearing well when a microphone is NOT present. (Although as I continue positive advocacy, I work to have more and more microphones available in meeting and workshop venues). I simply want to remind folks to use the microphone when it IS THERE and IS AVAILABLE. Not using it tells me that I don’t matter… that anyone with any level of hearing loss doesn’t matter. (NIDCD reports that 15% of all Americans over the age of 18 have hearing loss. That number goes way up if your audience is 40 years old and up) (NIDCD, 2019). Even in small meetings, the number of people who benefit from a microphone in use goes way up. Present are people with hearing loss, auditory processing issues, ADHD, and folks who do not speak English as their first language. Please… use the microphone.

For all of us who want to be included, thank you in advance.

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2019 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Ardon, F. (2019). Your voice carries… use the mic anyway. Neuroamazing. Retrieved

December 15, 2019, from https://neuroamazing.wordpress.com/2019/10/09/your-

voice-carries-use-the-mic-anyway/

National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (2019). Quick statistics

     about hearing. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-hearing

Tidwell, R. (2004). The ‘invisible’ faculty member: The university professor with a hearing

disability. Higher Education 47(2) 197-210. doi: 10.1023/B:HIGH.0000016421.25286.e8

Careless Words

As a person with disABILITY, like any within a diversity group, I have experienced harm from words. Before you stop reading and think I’m going to blast the abled population, let me just say that people with disABILITY are often the worst offenders.

If I asked every person in the world to throw up their hand if they have experienced words that have…

hurt them

demoralized them

made them wince (inwardly and outwardly)

caused a “hitch” in your breath because of the unexpectedness

made you cry

made you SWEAR

caused you to “shut down”

forced you into isolation

triggered you to “fight back”

or scarred you for life…

… the sudden uplift of hands worldwide would cause a major shift in wind currents and likely tilt earth off its axis. Seriously. We’ve ALL experienced this.

I use the phrase “experienced words that have…” intentionally. Not all of us HEAR well and many who do hear well don’t listen well. The damage of careless and mean words is not something simply heard or speech read on the lips of fellow human beings. The words are EXPERIENCED. This experience is why damage is done. We take it in. We stew on it. We watch those words ping-pong back and forth in our brains and hearts like a pinball machine, drawing blood and causing wounds from every “hit”. We are scarred.

When my children were younger I would remind them that human beings can FORGIVE but we cannot FORGET. Our words have such power – it’s just freakin’ scary! I am an impulsive speaker. I say things without thinking through and that impulsivity causes regret more times than I can count.

People have told me things before that I needed.

Perhaps I was being a butt-head and careless with my own words. They put me in my place. Maybe it hurt but it was a disciplinary kind of hurt and I walked away wiser and un-scarred. (By the way, all of us have people in our lives whose very positional relationship with us allows them this power).

People have given me true (heartfelt) constructive criticism. This means the intent was clear, precise, and helpful. I am sensitive enough that even this at times can be hurtful, but it doesn’t WOUND.

Those types of experiences can hurt… but they aren’t spirit-murdering (a new word I learned at an Anne Arundel Community College workshop this week). I would like to argue that CARELESS words are never EVER helpful.

The word itself means, “not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm or errors”. Careless words can be both intentional and direct. They can also be unintentional and “oopsie” moments. Either way they hurt. They wound. They leave scars.

At the end of the semester a handful of students were sticking around to chat after the final. They were lovin’ on Finn, my 3rd service dog in training (SDiT),

… and just “messing around”, hangin’ out, and talking. One of my students muttered something and *I* (emphasis on that I, for I am deaf – grin) heard the collective indrawn breaths. So…

I nosily asked, “what just happened”?

The student said, “Good God, did you hear what I said?“, acting both horrified and astonished.

“Well, no,” I replied, “but I heard y’all’s REACTION”.

Her eyes filled with tears and she admitted, “I said something contradictory and stupid and then said, ‘GAWD that was bipolar of me'” She then slapped her hand over her mouth and looked around at the group with big eyes. The group all immediately patted her back and assured her that “we ALL say stupid things”, and “we knew what you meant”. She vehemently waved all their support aside and said MUCH louder…

“No, NO. You don’t understand! I AM BIPOLAR. I just slammed myself!”

At this point, the floodgates opened and she was sobbing hysterically. It was contagious… of the 8 students standing there, five of them were in tears within minutes!

Do you know they stuck around for another 20 minutes and discussed the power of words and stereotypes? I just stood there in awe watching what I hoped was a little bit of my teaching rubbing off as they expertly dissected and dialogued about intent, carelessness, and harm.

OWN It

You are gonna spew careless words. Whether you speak with your voice or your hands, you are going to speak before thinking. Or… maybe you speak AFTER thinking but you simply don’t care about the damage you are unleashing.

Own it. If you care, if you want to minimize the damage, if you want to do better, if you are the kind of human being that understands the power of words, OWN IT.

Apologize if needed (and mean it)

Make amends

Strive to do better. Vow it!

Practice

Call it (when appropriate) when you see others do it

Follow up and use all five apology languages IN WRITING.

This last one I have learned the power of this conscious decision to OWN it by following up with a note. Whether it is a handwritten note, an email or text, etc., writing down a follow up with a person I threw careless words at is so important.

It becomes this tangible, concrete evidence of my regret and promise to do better. The injured party can re-visit it if they want. It may act as a future means of measurement to them about how far I’ve come in using words as weapons. For me, it acts as a literal pivot point from which I can measure my own growth, my own practice of intentional, encouraging communication.

Next week, I want to discuss how one goes about admitting and voicing that “ouch! that hurt”. If careless words can injure, we are all wounded warriors. What do you do or say if someone hurts you?

Have a great week y’all!

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

© 2019 Personal Hearing Loss Journal