The Persistent Stigma of Mental Illness

Deliberation-Mario Sanchez Nevado

"Deliberation" by Mario Sanchez Nevado

I’ve struggled with whether or not to pursue this task, this endeavor, to write about this subject of the troublesome and at times tormenting thoughts that inhabit the minds of those that suffer from [a few of] the forms of mental illness or behavior disorders—most particularly schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, told from the “insider’s point of view.” Pondering the challenge of approaching discussion about these illnesses in a way that might become meaningful to “normal” people—those that don’t suffer from these often thought “peculiar” or merely “overly exaggerated quirks”—has caused me great pause.

One thing I’d like to make clear, first off, is what most of us consider to be “thoughts” are those workings of the mind over which we have control, instigate, or entertain intentionally. That’s not what I’ll be talking about here, for the most part.

What I will be touching upon briefly are racing thoughts, imagery, sounds and, yes, even voices that daily run the minds of many individuals…all against their will. Much if not most of the time, these goings-on in the minds of people that suffer from one of these fairly common illnesses are unceasing; obliterating the ability to concentrate, create, or even carry on a regular life. Ironically, sometimes this cacophony of the mind, which can give way to remarkable expression, is often beautiful and, typically, heartbreaking.

In a world where so many people declare to “be” or “have” ADHD or BPD, and even claim these as some badge of distinction, those that actually bear with these maladies would do pretty much anything to be rid of their affliction. Interestingly, our society has largely remained indifferent to mental and behavioral disorders in general; fear and/or disdain are still very real and very much the widespread view. Even still, much of our population balks at the validity that such illness truly afflicts individuals in a measurable way. And, if general, public ignorance isn’t frustrating enough for these individuals, more and more lazy people that simply don’t want to work and contribute to society are asserting some disorder for their “inability” to hold employment, but to draw government subsidies and welfare. It’s true a few bad apples can spoil it for all. It seems you’ve got to appear “crazy” if you want to be lazy in today’s society!

Arguably one of the cruelest ironies that remain in a society that decries prejudice and intolerance is the perpetuation of outdated and exaggerated stereotypes by the entertainment industry. There are quite a variety of comedies or dramas that depict sufferers of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other behavioral or mental diseases with such atypical characters that continue to distort public perception in a way that only nurtures the apathy I’ve mentioned previously. And don’t underestimate the powerful influence the media—news or entertainment—has over public perception and belief.

The drama, Black Box, starring English actress, Kelly Reilly, visits the life and mind of Dr. Catherine Black, a talented brain specialist, with bipolar disorder. Dr. Black’s brilliance, in part, is attributed to her regular disregard for medical prudence by discontinuing her own prescription drug regimen in order to “experience her BPD unmasked” and maintain some sort of on-going sensitivity to her illness at its very core. Of course, her history of non-compliance with her psychiatrist’s orders causes Dr. Black major other problems in her life all around. The TV show, Perception, starring Eric McCormack, centers on a—you guessed it—brilliant neuropsychiatrist who is a “highly functioning schizophrenic,” using his own, personal history of schizophrenia to aid the FBI in solving cases. In Silver Lining’s Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper both gave very convincing performances of two individuals living with BPD, the disruptive nature of manic-depressive mood swings that accompany the disorder, and how this relatively common, chemical, problem can significantly dishevel a person’s life and even the lives of his or her loved ones; but how well did this film effectively raise public awareness toward real understanding tempered by compassion?

This is not to say the general public—at least in part—hasn’t grown in awareness of bipolar disorder, ADHD, ADD, or even schizophrenia, or even increased in sensitivity; these have almost become buzzwords in their own right. But when one delves deeper into these all-but-ignored mental illnesses, one can easily ascertain for his or herself such alertness is superficial at best and only serves to make light of a very serious problem within our society.

Sadly, the prevailing attitude of, at least the American general public, seems to be one of apathy. Most people just don’t seem to care: don’t care to know or learn about it, don’t care to deal with it, and don’t care to make accommodations in their lives or communities for “crazy” people. At least this has been my observation.

The truth is the knowledge or awareness of these and other more complex mental disorders has existed among our population for generations. However, their incidences have long been regarded as oddities better left hidden or not spoken of except in psychiatric institutions or some other “appropriate” seclusion where the risk of their coming into light can be kept at bay. Many have frequently ascribed mental illness to “chemical imbalances” in the brain; this vague, even noncommittal, assertion has fallen under much closer scrutiny.

Modern-day brain and medical science have confirmed what many psychiatrists have long suspected: namely, that mental illness is highly hereditary—not at all unlike cancer. The growing theory among the psychiatric community is there are viruses dormant in everyone of us—kind of like the virus that causes cold sores—that bring about or cause mental illnesses but tend to manifest in only a relatively small percentage of the population. Oddly enough, this theory has been around for more than a few decades.

Now, I neither want nor intend to come across so preachy; that’s really not my aim here. But what I do want to do is safely invite you inside the minds of a couple of individuals that live—and deeply struggle—with thoughts that control and beguile them toward self-destruction. I often think of this kind of brain disharmony as being like temptresses of self-destruction, seducing these victims—prisoners—of brain chemistry to seek seclusion or even death in order to escape scorn and the psychological pains of what is truly, for the most part, inescapable torment.

So, how do we gain empathy for someone suffering from an affliction that is alien to us? How do we acquire even an inkling of what it must be like to “walk in the shoes,” of someone who is mentally ill when mental illnesses are so elusive in nature? How can a person do this without spending a great deal of time researching how such persons live, struggle, and survive?

One way, I feel, a person that is open to broadening his or her mind and understanding what it’s like to live with mental illness is for that person to “see” into the mind of individuals that have expressed some of those tumultuous thoughts that lead to or accompany radically fluctuating emotions and behaviors.  In the interest of time, I have included the thoughts of two individuals I’ll call John and Tabitha. These expressed thoughts and feelings are brief, not narrative. These are typically blurbs, if you will, that have been jotted down in an effort to gain some sense of focus or control over the jarring, racing thoughts and their resulting feelings. Many of them might seem odd or nonsensical to you; but I urge you to open your mind to comprehend and your heart to feel. John and Tabitha’s names, here, of course, have been changed to preserve their privacy.

—-

John, bipolar disorder patient.

“It’s the never-ending pursuit of that elusive something or someone, which always seems to have just barely slipped around the next corner…and the equally persistent—yet evasive—hope that I’ll catch up, and the apprehensive chase will come to an end.”

“Evasive Hope”

“I feel like there’s got to be someone that I can talk to about my feelings and that by so doing the persistent-yet-evasive hope can or will be relieved. I feel this almost constantly, but I get caught up in day-to-day activities and “forget” the apprehension for a short period of time…and when I pause, the pressing urgency of that evasive hope returns.”

—-

“It’s not just about anxiety, but it’s also about agitation. Sometimes it’s almost as if I’m trying to suppress an explosion; siphoning off pressure bit by bit.”

—-

I’ve been hearing music in my head. Not like what happens when you get a song “stuck in your head,” but audible music, as if coming from just the next room. It can be quite maddening. I guess I should enjoy it. It’s better than when I hear voices. Fortunately, the times I do hear voices, they’re not taunting me or telling me to do things. It’s more like echoes from the past; coming back around from somewhere in space. I can’t really understand conversation or anything, but I do hear different voices—and they’re not my own.  Trileptal has helped with these disconnected thoughts a fair amount.

—-

“My life feels like a neuron misfiring to a phantom limb that’s never been there …where success, can never be reached, just like that limb that can be felt and yet doesn’t exist.”

[[Author’s note]]: Notice the lucidity of John’s next comment:

“The most troubling aspect about anxiety disorder is how absolutely convincing of their accuracy do the feelings of pointlessness and hopelessness manifest…to the point of seeming undeniability…coming dangerously close to victorious conquering over caring for, or preservation of, self.”

**********************

Tabitha, MDD and schizophrenia patient.

“Each of my days is an non-stop back and forth between glints of promise that would give me hope, and crushing hopelessness. I see other people living apparently normal, productive lives, and I momentarily feel like I, too, could have that…only to be “knocked back” by that hopelessness “volley” again and again…”

—-

“A Thousand Loose Threads”

I have this very real fear I will always (subconsciously?) be unable to carry out any admirable pursuit in life, because I have somehow been deeply conditioned to make a detour somewhere along the way; a detour that never leads back to the path from where I departed. A thousand loose threads; none of which are connected… except to me.”

—-

Hijacked Thoughts
“I don’t know if I’m getting worse or it’s just that my meds have become less effective, but it’s getting to where my thoughts get away from me. Ex: I’ll be praying (silently) and next thing I know I’m talking about something odd and unrelated; not even praying anymore. But this happens in other circumstances, too. It’s like my thoughts are being hijacked.”

—-

Depression especially strong this morning.

“What a terrible trap this is…a prison really.  I can’t escape.  I can’t simply leave.  My presently pointless existence apparently is integral enough for my sudden departure to inflict undue pain on a select few.  The other day, ______ said the reason my (former) best friend (diagnosed ADHD) no longer wanted to be my friend was because of my frustrating ways and personality. I don’t blame anyone or place any fault. Still I wonder how I could be so misplaced. I don’t belong here.”

—-

In the essence of time and space, we’ll need to allow these few examples suffice in order for you to get at least a glimpse into some of the discord that is very characteristic of the minds of sufferers of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder. I hope this article has sparked in you a degree of compassion and understanding in you that could change your point of view of how you perceive and regard people that suffer from these very real illnesses.

You know? It’s ridiculous to think, with all of the sickness and disease the human body can acquire, the brain would somehow be exempt from illness. And it’s especially ludicrous—and not to mention downright ignorant and boneheaded—to think people that suffer from these psychological problems are somehow deserving or at fault.

You wouldn’t tell a friend or other loved one with cancer to “just deal with it,” now would you? Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other such mental disturbances are just as real…and yes…just as serious.

[all material is protected under strict copyright laws]

Safety In Shadows

The following is an actual and true event.

Safety In Shadows

The banging of the hickory stick was the only sound to be heard, emphasizing the stillness of a night cloaked in fog. The hardwood ponk ponk dissipated into the damp air.  He beat the sledgehammer handle against the rock wall with irregular rhythm.

Even now, I remember that night all too well. It was early summer, 1976, Palos Verdes, California. My best friend, Greg, and I sat on the wall. It was close to midnight. He had come over to my house to spend the night, and we were enjoying the rush of having snuck out past our curfew. I was thirteen and Greg, fourteen. In our quest for adventure, we ended up sitting on a high, stone wall that was about a mile from my house. Even so, we were making the most of our juvenile elation, proud we had escaped detection; and, despite our boredom, going home was not an option.

I could smell the brine of the South Bay. I yawned and a breeze gave me a chill. The salty air, the late hour, and the fog-enshrouded streetlights all created an ideal atmosphere for our adventuresome state of mind.  The spooky ambiance created an intoxicating elixir for our teenage imaginations.

A car emerged from the fog just up the hill from where we sat.

Like viewing a slow-motion movie, we watched a dark-colored Datsun B-210 approach from our left, passing in front of us, and turn onto a nearby street to our right. Greg looked at me and shrugged. A minute or so later, the car reappeared from the street it had turned onto, and crept back up the street in front of us.

“I don’t like the looks of that car,” Greg said.

We both kept our eyes on the tail of the Datsun. The red lights faded up the hill into the fog.

“Me neither,” I said. “Here, give me the club.”

We both seemed to hold our breath as Greg handed me the sledge handle, our eyes in the direction the car had vanished. We relaxed; relieved the suspicious car melted away into the heavy mist.

I had just looked in the other direction, when the sound of a revving engine, pulled my head around with a frantic jerk. Glaring headlights reappearing from the haze. The car moved into the lane next to the sidewalk, and accelerated down the hill towards us.

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed.

“Let’s jam!” Greg yelled. We moved like we’d each been stung.

Our legs swung us around, and we jumped off the backside of the wall, tumbling down an ice plant-covered hill into someone’s back yard. Our pursuer’s tires screeched to a halt as we hid behind some shrubs. My pulse pounded in my ears while I lay motionless, obscured by the foliage. I held my breath so as to listen for the chaser getting closer. A few long minutes later, a vehicle door slammed and the car sped away.

“Sounds like he’s gone,” Greg whispered. He rose up, cocked his head, and listened before deciding it was safe to get up. He motioned to me.

“Come on! Let’s move!”

Greg led the way as we cut through the homeowner’s side yard into whose we’d tumbled; and came out on the street the guy had first turned. We stayed in the shadows for what must have been fifteen or twenty minutes. We scanned every direction, straining our ears for any sounds of oncoming cars, but we neither saw nor heard any signs of the mystery car. Greg ventured to the middle of the street where we first saw the Datsun. All was quiet.

“Guess he was just trying to give us a scare,” I said feeling relieved, even a little exhilarated. I twirled the club with mock martial arts finesse. Cocky. I was almost to Greg’s side when he turned to me. His eyes were wide with fear. He motioned his eyes over his left shoulder, hissing.

“Behind me!  That pervert’s waiting for us!”

Fear swept away my exhilaration as I glanced past him to a small side street, and saw the silhouette of a man standing next to a parked car.

Greg spun me around, and led a sprint to the shadows from which we had emerged only moments before. I glanced back. The silhouette was gone. A car engine screamed to a start. Shrieking tires pursued like demons intent on consuming us.

Along the street where the driver had very first turned, the city had been digging trenches to install new gas lines; I jumped into one of these ditches. Greg had just found cover in the low boughs of a tree when, within seconds, the Datsun careened by; the revved engine fading into the ever-present fog. For a moment, we were glued to our respective positions. When I was confident the car was long gone, I climbed out of my grave-like hole, darting over and into the same tree where Greg was better hidden.

“What do we do?” I asked Greg, as I found refuge on branch adjacent to where he was sitting.

“Hell if I know,” he said. “But we can’t stay here all night.”

After another fifteen or so minutes, we heard an approaching engine downshifting, descending the very hill we needed to ascend. My mouth was dry. The sound of my heart beating in my ears seemed loud enough to give away our position. The car now hesitated at the corner a few yards from us.

Through the branches, we saw the Datsun had been equipped with a police-type searchlight, with which this hell bent motorist flooded the yards. He sat idling for several minutes, as if he were an animal trying to sniff out our location. Eventually, after what was, for us, an agonizing duration, he turned and raced away down another side street.

“We better haul ass to your house before he comes back!” Greg said.

“Come on!” I said, dropping to the sidewalk. I still clutched the sledge handle as we ran, side-by-side, up the only street that could lead us to my home. On periodic occasion, sound or headlights to evidence an approaching vehicle prompted an immediate dive or tumble into a patch of ivy or shrubs. These well-founded flits of panic only served to impede our progress to get back to my house. After awhile, given our hurried pace, we had to slow down to catch our breath. We were nearing the top of the hill, walking in the street, close to the gutter line.

About one hundred feet from the summit, a beaming light blinded us, backed by squealing tires. Like a halfback running a play, Greg ran around behind me and up the sidewalk in the direction of the on-coming lunatic. The maniac veered the Datsun into the driveway, slamming on his brakes in an attempt to hit Greg. Greg, who had always been agile and light on his feet, spun around, never breaking stride as he sprinted up the sidewalk, and disappeared into someone’s side yard. I would later find out the stalker’s fender had clipped Greg’s ribs, leaving a large and rather nasty bruise.

So Greg had managed to slip past our night terrorist. I, however, was trapped.

I couldn’t run up the sidewalk, as the pervert had it blocked and I didn’t want to pass behind him for fear he’d back into me. Holding the sledge handle in both hands, I thought for a fleeting moment of running over and smashing out the creep’s windshield. Instead, I took my chance and ran far around the backside of the Datsun. The car didn’t budge until I had cleared the rear end of the vehicle; but I soon heard the racing engine behind me as I B-lined for the sidewalk.

I could almost feel the heat of the searchlight on my back, my shadow dancing before, me as I dashed up the concrete walkway. For some strange reason, I found myself laughing as I ran. The scream of the Datsun engine and the wailing tires were like hells minions at my heels. I darted into the side yard of the nearest house, and moved toward the back. I wondered where Greg was, but didn’t dare call out to him. I heard the sound of the chaser’s car fade away, and so I moved back to the front, where I had entered the yard. I tried to move with stealth, but I stumbled into some metal trashcans, making a loud crash that caused dogs to bark. I moved into the driveway of the residence.

A woman’s voice called out from a darkened bedroom.

“Who’s out there?”

I stood in the woman’s driveway and explained our predicament. She offered to call the police, but I declined, telling her I lived a few blocks away. Within seconds of my having told her this, I heard a car coming back up the hill. I dove into a hedge by the woman’s driveway. I peered out as the Datsun drove by at school zone speed. In the streetlight, the car appeared either dark blue or green, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t make out our night stalker’s face due to the streetlight reflecting off his closed window. He had his search beam off. After he had passed, I leapt out of the hedge.

“See what I mean?  That guy has been after us for over an hour!”

Again, the woman in the darkened house asked if I didn’t want her to call the police. I declined and told her I thought I could make it home. I moved to stand in the street and whistled for Greg, but I heard no response. Thoughts of him dead in the pervert’s trunk flashed across my scared, young imagination. I spent several minutes whistling and banging the hardwood club on the street for Greg to hear. He never responded.

With some reluctance, I started to jog, but then I sprinted down the long hill that led to my street. Whenever I heard a car or saw lights coming my way I would dive into ivy patches that were then common to the streets of Palos Verdes. Once I got home, I stood in the shadows by my driveway waiting for Greg. Minutes later, our phone rang. I ran to answer before anyone woke up.

“Hello?”

“Charles!” Greg’s voice was good to hear.

“Where are you?” I whispered. “I thought the pervert got you!”

“Some man helped me. I told him what happened and he’s going to give me a ride to your house. I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.”

“Okay. Hurry!  Bye.” I went back outside to wait for Greg. A few minutes later, a car pulled up. Greg got out, and the car drove away.

“I didn’t see where you went after that pervert almost ran you over,” I said.

“’Almost’?  That bastard hit me!  I think he mighta broke a rib!” Greg winced, holding his side. He lifted his shirt to show me, but it was impossible to see much of anything under a dim streetlight.

“You were only one yard over from me,” Greg continued. “I called to you, but I guess you didn’t hear me.”

“No,” I said, “I was too scared to call out. Man, I wonder what that guy’s trip was.”

“Hell if I know,” Greg said, shaking his head.

“Wait ‘til everybody hears about this,” I said.

We stood in my driveway for a few more minutes, marveling on the singularity of the event. We determined the whole encounter lasted almost two hours.

When we did tell our tale to family members or friends, most scoffed at us, saying we had made it up. Only after much insistence did anyone believe us, and even then we were accused of some wrongdoing to instigate the chase.

It’s been nearly four decades since that night. Greg and I have remained in contact over the years. In all of our reminiscing, one of the most prominent memories—no, mysteries—that has continued to perplex and nag at our curiosity has been that strange and dangerous night when some seemingly crazed madman stalked and terrorized a couple of teenaged kids on the dark and foggy streets of Palos Verdes, California.

Book: Work In Progress

I’m still working on my book. I can’t remember if I mentioned that in my last, brief, post! Also: I still have two (2) semesters to finish out my degree [English], which I’ll “use” in a variety of ways to further myself [for those of you that don't believe in degrees :-) ].  I DO have a plan…but that’s all I’m going to say on the matter!

In the meantime, I’m going to share some excerpts of a piece I’ve been writing; another work in progress! Ha! Actually, though, it’s one of those “self-indulgence” pieces writers are known to…er…indulge in from time to time!

I’m posting the first excerpt NEXT! I hope at least one or two of you read these! :-/

CP

How to Show “Less Is More”

Less Is MoreIn my last few pieces, I went into some depth about how to teach children metaphor, all with the emphasis on shedding light on the old, favorite utterance among English and Creative Writing instructors alike: “Show me, don’t tell me.”

And, since I assert most teachers never really stop to think about how to explain what that odd phrase actually means [nor can they—usually—do it very well, themselves], I thought the subject needed to be explored some more, and then broken down into parts we can all understand, enabling those of us who find ourselves teaching children better qualified to make “show don’t tell” actually make some sense!  And, hopefully, I was able to stimulate your minds enough to help you teach such concepts, in regards to writing, to your students or your own children.

So now, I come upon another phrase often thrown around in writing—and other creative—classes, and that’s the phrase:

Less is more.  The phrase, evidently, is 19th century proverbial phrase, first found in print in Andrea del Sarto, 1855, a poem by Robert Browning.

But what, exactly, does it mean?

We grown-ups can understand the meaning easily enough, but how can we teach such an abstract idea to children?  To a child, however, it’s a nonsensical thing to say, and trying to explain the meaning can be tricky.  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve come to a determination about why less really is “more” when it comes to creative writing or story telling…er…storyshowing.

The phrase less is more is usually applied to the creating of a scene, description of something in a narrative, or other similar instances.  So why is less more, and what does that mean?

Well, when describing…while storyshowing…we want our listeners or readers to feel like they’re “there”, as much as possible; we want to show and not tell them what’s going on in such a way as to excite their imaginations, right?

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about less is more:

When we give too many details or too much description, we actually [in my words] sort of steal or rob people’s imaginations of the privilege of filling in details, in their minds, from past experiences; doing this makes the story less intriguing [at least for adults], and even to a large degree for kids, because our imaginations are usually more vivid than even the greatest description.

The thing is, it’s not so important your reader or listener “see” the details exactly the same way as the writer has first imagined in his or her head [what writers who use too much detail typically are trying to do]; so long as the reader gets the important details to complete a picture in his or her mind, this makes for better storyshowing.

Here are a few examples:

Too much detail:

John was all muddy.  His once white, Nike shoes with the electric blue stripes and matching blue laces were now covered in mud two inches thick, with little bits of grass sticking out here and there, and the mud was up past John’s ankles, so that his socks were just as muddy as his Nike’s, and the mud had spattered his legs, white shorts, and white T-shirt, with globs of mud and spots of muddy water stains made his shirt look kind of like a Dalmatian.

Notice how you “see” all of those details but, like misdirection in a magic trick, your imagination is focused ONLY on those details, and “misses” the bigger picture?  That’s what too much attention can do in just about any circumstance of life.

Now fewer details:

John looked like he’d stepped on a mud bomb.   What made it worse was he had been dressed in white; white shoes, shorts, and T-shirt.  Now his clothes looked kind of like a Dalmatian and he stank like the swamp.

See how the image of “…like he’d stepped on a mud bomb” allows your imagination to picture a mud “bomb” “explode” beneath some kid?  The remaining, few details give you just enough to complete a picture that will be uniquely your own; you might even have someone in mind to “be” John.

The greatest novelists are known for their skill in using sparing, sketchy details when it comes to description, respecting the reader’s imagination as the most important element in storyshowing.   Children, in their excitement while writing stories, often overload with details, and most adults are probably just about as prone to this [natural] inclination.

If you can effectively teach your students to always incorporate LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, in their own creative writing [I like the idea of making a poster visible in the classroom], as well as getting comfortable in using some basic simile and metaphor, they will quickly pick up on how to skillfully “show and not tell” and even do so by using less to make their stories more engaging.

How to Show Using Conventional Metaphors

Teaching children metaphorIn my last piece, I talked about teaching children how to “show not tell” using visual metaphors.   In this piece, I wanted to jump right into teaching children how to show using conventional and creative metaphors, but upon further review of the two types, I think we should stick to conventional metaphors, as creative metaphors are fairly abstract, and do take more mature minds to comprehend.

But here are two quick definitions:

According to About.com, a conventional metaphor is:

“A familiar comparison that does not call attention to itself as a figure of speech.“

Here are a few examples of conventional, just to help us know where to start:

• “His temperature went up.”
• “The work keeps piling up.”
• “I’m a night owl…she’s an early bird…”
• “Life is a journey.”
[For kids, you could say “Life is a field trip: Have fun, stay together, and don’t get lost.]

Notice how these metaphors call attention to themselves, meaning, they’re OBVIOUSLY figures of speech, and no one—not even children—would think a person is really a night owl, or that life is a journey or field trip!

Contrast with creative metaphor, just to show you how bizarre they truly can be, I’ve included three examples so you know I’m not trying to get out of teaching creative metaphors. Ha!  Creative metaphor is defined as:

“An original comparison, which does call attention to itself, as a figure of speech.”

Here are a few creative metaphors to look at.  I took these straight off About.com’s examples page, as I couldn’t think of any of my own; perhaps you can create some of your own after reading these:

“Her tall black-suited body seemed to carve its way through the crowded room.”
(Josephine Hart, Damage, 1991)
“Fear is a slinking cat I find, Beneath the lilacs of my mind.”
(Sophie Tunnell, “Fear”)
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”
(Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”)

See what I mean? Weird, hunh?

Now…to teach children how to show using conventional metaphors I, of course, assert it’s best to begin using metaphors the kids are likely to have heard many times before [again, with blatant explanation of how they make sense, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND.  Let’s stick with the examples above and build on those.

Let’s take a variation on “his temperature went up”, which meaning could be confused meaning he got a fever, and say…

Jim suddenly got hotheaded.

[Some coaxing here, to direct kids’ thoughts might be needed.

You could say…

“Have you ever watched a cartoon where, say, Daffy Duck, gets really mad and his face turns red and steam comes out of his ears?   That looks like his head is getting hot, doesn’t it?   So let’s pretend this man or boy, Jim, gets mad suddenly, so we say his head ‘got hot’, okay?”

You then might want to help kids realize people do things like clench their teeth, stomp their feet [they’ll know this], slam things down, or throw things, or yell when angry.  Invite them to list things they might notice people doing or happening when they get mad.

So with that image in mind, your kids can “LOOK” [picture in their minds] Jim with a red face, jaw muscles flexing, nostrils flaring, etc.  So let’s show, in steps, how Jim could “be” and angry bull, for example:

Jim was an angry bull.
Jim was breathing and grunting.
Jim’s nostrils flared with his loud breathing.
Jim paced back and forth.
Jim looked like he was ready to charge at someone
.

Jim was an angry, snorting and panting bull, pacing back and forth, looking as if he was about to charge at someone.

Then, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, your kids can build upon the elements there that will make up their stories.

ONE WORD OF GENTLE CAUTION TO ADULTS/TEACHERS/PARENTS: Don’t worry about kids coming up with ridiculous “reasons” to satisfy LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND; so long as they give reasons to explain—the most important thing—they’ll eventually come up with realistic, feasible, and engaging reasons that make for good storyshowing.  For now, we want them to become familiar with what metaphor is, and then be able to create some basic metaphors of their own, or at least be able to identify metaphors easily.

Next up: How To “Show” “Less Is More”

How To Show With Visual Metaphors

How to Teach Visual Metaphor

Life as a visual metaphor

Hopefully, by now, your students are beginning to gain at least a smidgeon of confidence in storyshowing—or showing not telling—using simile and Dead Metaphor.   Let them use all of the corny, hackneyed metaphors their young minds care to pull out; they can refine their skills over time.  I don’t see any point in explaining about tenor and vehicle, the two aspects of metaphor, until, perhaps, high school.

Now let’s explore Visual Metaphors and get some practice using them and hopefully begin to use a few in creative writing.  Another fun approach is to challenge your kids to try to use metaphor in their day-to-day conversations; perhaps, 3 times within a week, or once a day.  As they begin to become familiar with using them, their understanding of the concepts will grow exponentially.

A technical definition of a visual metaphor is

“The representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.”

So let’s jump in with teaching “show don’t tell” with visual metaphors, shall we?  Your students aren’t likely to have the benefit of actual pictures in their stories—we’re hoping to teach them how to “show and not tell” with words, after all—so encourage them to continue practicing LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND.

Here’s a refresher on LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND:

• LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
• ASK why things are the way they are.
• DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
• FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense.

Some examples of visual metaphors could be…

• A sports car with a cheetah lounging on the hood, suggesting the “wildness” and speed of the sports car is comparable to the cheetah.
• The image of a “family tree.”
• A white dove associated with Peace.
• The symbols on your remote control indicating Play, Rewind, Fast-Forward, and Stop, are all visual metaphors.
• One your kids are probably familiar with is the cartoon character looking angry, a dark cloud overhead.
• Everyone is familiar with the image of a light bulb, lit up, over someone’s head as representing that person having just gotten a “bright idea” [“bright idea” is a visual metaphor in word form.]
• The red octagon without the word “Stop” printed across the color field is a visual metaphor that has become pretty much universal for that action [Stop] along roadways around the world.

Let’s take one of those and see if we can’t “show” and bring about understanding that conjures up vivid visual imagery in our minds.  I like the cartoon character example for our development study; it provides a captivating image to begin with, to keep kids interested, and there are lots of details we can borrow from nature that children should be able to comprehend.   Again, I suggest creating with simile first, keeping LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND…in mind.

Simile: Jim’s mood was like a black, threatening rain cloud.
Simile: Jim’s thoughts were like a thick, dark forest at night.
Simile: Jim’s attitude cleared up like the sun breaking through the clouds.
Dead [Visual] Metaphor: Jim’s face brightened.

Now let’s improve that metaphor a little bit at a time.  Get your students to imagine—in this instance—a boy [named Jim] with a look on his face like he was unhappy, but then suddenly something happened to make him happy.   Then, have your students apply LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND; you might turn the LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND steps into a poster that remains on your classroom wall so students can readily go over the steps until they become second nature to them.

LOOK for Jim’s Secret Story.  What might his face look like BEFORE he gets his idea?   Maybe Jim could look perplexed, bored, frustrated, or sad.  ASK questions to explore possibilities.   DECIDE what Jim’s Secret Story is, and—in this case—what’s causing his mood.  Reaching these conclusions will greatly assist your students in FIND-ing words to describe what they will write.   You might also need to help them with ASK-ing probing questions to discover (or create) the depth of Jim’s Secret Story.

So Jim’s Secret Story might be revealed something like this:

1. Jim’s mood was a gathering storm.
2. Jim’s eyes were heavy thunderclouds.
3. Jim’s dark expression brightened.
4. Jim’s stormy mood blew
away.

That’s probably enough for now.   Let’s combine those elements for a vivid image that really shows.  And since we’re graduating our students, so to speak, from simile to metaphor, why not incorporate some simile in our “finished product” to help out with our storyshowing?

Here’s what I have thrown together:

Jim’s frustration was a dark haze gathering into a threatening storm; his eyes were like heavy rainclouds ready to burst. But then, all of the sudden, the thick fog seemed to lift, the thunderclouds in his mind were burned away by a bright thought, like the sun breaking up dark and frightening thunderheads.

This example should cause your students to ask even more questions; the most logical being, what thought did Jim have to change his mood so suddenly?  I don’t expect kids to come up with something so…intense as this, but I just wanted to show how various, observed [FOUND/DECIDED] upon elements can be included in the showing.

You might want to get your kids started on this by showing some common, visual metaphors—maybe even display some posters or other pictures—and then help them think of as many as possible; drilling on these will awaken an awareness in your students, and they’ll begin to notice metaphor(s) all over the place!  Children are intelligent; they just need some stimulation to get started!

Next up: Conventional and Creative Metaphors.

How To Teach Children Metaphor (Part Two)

Dead Metaphor

"She's a Flower" is an example of Dead Metaphor

I said, in a previous post, metaphor is coming right out and saying something IS, versus simile, where we make a comparison using the words “like”, “as”, and “than.”  So to get your child or students started, you’ll want to begin with some simple metaphors, preceded by familiar similes, with much explanation, of course.

First of all, let’s read a “textbook” definition of metaphor.

About.com’s definition of a metaphor is:

“…a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something important in common. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek word meaning to “transfer” or “carry across.” Metaphors “carry” meaning from one word, image, or idea to another.”

But isn’t that definition about as easy to understand, for a kid, as when their teacher first says, “Show me, don’t tell me”?  We have to start by giving examples, and getting kids to think about WHY the seemingly NON-apparent things in common or similarities make sense.  LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND will be very important during these moments of discovery.

So…one example could be:

Simile: “Jennifer is as pretty as a flower in my garden.”
Metaphor: “Jennifer is a flower in the garden of my life.”

It shouldn’t be too difficult to get kids to understand a pretty girl can be thought of as being “as pretty as a flower” without actually looking LIKE a flower, but to explain how Jennifer could BE a flower in the “GARDEN” of someone’s life?  You have to initiate understanding of abstract concepts into kids’ minds by getting theme to associate a little bit at a time.  So to do this with the above example, you might create an interaction something like this [again; this just an example of a plausible exchange, not intended to be a script to follow, so please bear with]:

“How can a pretty girl ‘be’ a flower in a ‘garden’ of someone’s life?   Can a person really BE a flower?  Well, not really, of course, but the person is comparing his or her LIFE to a garden.  Garden’s have ALL SORTS of things in them, don’t they?  There are beautiful things and there are not so beautiful things.  There are flowers to enjoy, fruits and vegetables—sometimes—to eat, but there’s also dirt and bugs and wasps, gophers that damage the garden, and sometimes snakes, too right?  The bugs bother us.  The wasps can sting us.  The dirt can get in our shoes, or under our fingernails.  The snakes can scare us, or if they’re dangerous, they can bite and harm us, right?  Well, life is also filled with things that ‘bug’ or bother us, or hurt us, like a bite or a sting, or get us dirty, or cause other problems, right?  Life isn’t just made up of all pretty, fragrant, enjoyable or delicious things, now is it?  Well, in a similar way, a garden can be compared to a person’s life, which has all sorts of THINGS in it—some good, some not so good…even some bad things, like gophers that cause problems we might not see right away, or snakes.  Now imagine how a pretty girl—perhaps a man’s daughter, to him—could be LIKE a flower, but instead of saying ‘she’s LIKE a flower,’ he says she IS a flower, in the garden of his life.  He doesn’t really mean she’s an actual flower, but he is speaking in metaphor to make a comparison!”

I realize that’s quite an elaborate explanation, but we’re talking about kids here.  If your students are particularly precocious you can trim it down as you see fit to suit their ability to grasp the concept of metaphor in this regard.

In an effort to keep these posts shorter, I’ll approach the remaining three of the four, basic metaphors I mentioned in Part One, Visual, Conventional, & Creative in another post, since I’ve already touched upon the Dead metaphor here [Dead metaphors, I think, are good practice for helping kids to understand they’re familiar with metaphor, but might not realize it].

Just remember: our goal, here, in teaching children metaphor is to help them to learn how to use the device effectively to “show not tell” in writing.

Until next time!

[Next Up: How To Show With Visual Metaphors]

How To Teach Children Metaphor (Part One)

Speak Metaphorically

How Do We Teach 'Metaphor' to Children?

[This piece was originally going to be titled: “Mom? What’s a ‘Meta’ For?” but I’ve decided to change the title of this portion of my series to a more practical—and search engine VISIBLE—one. ]

Teaching children how to “show not tell” using simile wasn’t so terribly difficult.

It’s really a matter of “thinking like a child” or paying attention to the things they say, the way they observe life, and then helping them think of examples that make sense.  Then once they get the hang of it and, after practicing LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, they can begin to incorporate simile into their creative writing more regularly.   The use of the literary device, simile, really does aid in training children [or adults] to learn how to “show and not tell.”

But approaching metaphor with children will take more time, requiring more thought, and you’ll have to draw on many examples, because there are so many variations or types of metaphors [13 that I know of] to learn—many of them complex and abstract—and it will take years of using metaphors—consciously—to gain a real, functional skill in weaving them into one’s writing or manner of speech.  I say functional, because we all actually speak metaphorically almost every day, in life, without realizing it.

Here are a few examples:

1. The face of the mountain.
2. She broke my heart.
3. Life is a roller coaster.
4. I’m at the end of my rope.
5. He wore me down.
6. The daily grind.

Yes, those are ALL metaphors.  We usually call them “figures of speech,” but even I hadn’t thought of them as metaphors…until I started researching for this series, that is!

One quick note: I don’t think it’s a good idea to attempt to teach too many kinds of metaphor, at first; not until, at least, your student or child displays adeptness at coming up with metaphors that work well [there are abstract metaphors I’m STILL scratching my head over!]

So let’s start with just a few.  I’ve paraphrased definitions from this About.com piece: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Metaphor—The Different Types of Metaphors.

Here are some basic metaphor types.

1. Dead Metaphor.  Those that we’ve used “to death” and have lost their impact or even meaningfulness.   The examples above are all dead metaphors.
2. Visual Metaphor.  Represents a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.
3. Conventional Metaphor.  A familiar comparison that doesn’t call attention to itself as a figure of speech.
4. Creative Metaphor.  An original comparison that DOES call attention to itself as a figure of speech.

I’ll start with the first one, Dead Metaphor; the other examples I’ll save for another day, and I’ll write shorter posts for #’s 3 & 4 in a separate lesson on ‘show don’t tell’, using those kinds of metaphors to accomplish good storyshowing.

Okay, let’s “take a stab” [metaphor!] at the first dead metaphor example for showing versus telling, and see if we can’t bring it back to life, and see if we can’t get your students’ thoughts in the right frame.

The front of the mountain was like the face of a monster. [Simile].
The face of the mountain was a terrible, grimacing monster breathing down on the village. [Metaphor]

Granted, the use of metaphor tends to call for more words and description, but you end up with a more vivid image, don’t you think?

Now for #2…

She broke my heart.  That’s a metaphor a child will probably have heard, so the correct, non-metaphorical statement would be…

She hurt my feelings, and made me very sad [since a person can’t literally break someone else’s heart, not without killing that person, right?]  And so once your students understand and recognize “she broke my heart” is a metaphor, but a dead—and NOT creative or original—metaphor, at that, you can help them DECIDE on a more creative, more “showy” metaphor (or simile) to use.  The verb ‘broke’ is kind of weak, too; plus, we’re not sure if ‘she’ intended to break the heart, or if she was unaware of what she’d done.

Let’s try something else that’s not only more dramatic, like…crushed or stomped on—or both—but also that answers questions about intent, and thus revealing more about her Secret Story:

She crushed my heart, like a dried leaf on the sidewalk, under her shoe.

Now let’s improve that and ‘show’ more with something like…

My heart was a dried leaf, on the sidewalk, on her walk through life, and she stepped on it, crushing it to dust.

Of course, with such an example, you’ll have to help kids “see” the reasoning behind why/how these make sense by maybe saying something like:

“Have you ever walked along the sidewalk, during autumn, and stepped on dead leaves?  They get crushed under your feet, don’t they?  And sometimes we don’t even notice it happen, do we?  Well, maybe this girl was so busy thinking about her own things, she wasn’t paying attention to the boy’s feelings, and ended up hurting his feelings—kind of like accidentally stepping on a dried leaf, and HE felt like she ‘crushed his heart’.  Maybe that can be their ‘Secret Story’ for you to tell.”

After a while, they’ll get the hang of thinking up metaphors all on their own; just keep them practicing.

I never said teaching metaphor to children would be a breeze, but my point is young kids—say, 3rd to 5th grade—CAN learn metaphor, and you CAN teach kids how to effectively “show, not tell” by taking on the challenge of understanding some simple metaphors, and using them in their writing.

Great Customer Service

Great Customer Service is in March

GREAT Customer Service "in March"

[A local story]

I know, I know…is there really any such thing as “great customer service” anymore?  Our world today touts the importance of self and “looking out for number one”, that it seems even businesses act like they’re doing YOU a favor by existing for your convenience.  Have you noticed?  I have; and I have also noticed how virtually no one goes the extra distance, for the customer, to provide customer service.

Until today, Wednesday, April 7, 2010.

A while back, a band on one of my watches lost a pin that holds the band on, and I took it into a place in Northeast Mall, in Hurst that supposedly “fixes jewelry fast.”  I think you might be able to guess the name of this hole-in-the-wall place I’m talking about.  They wanted $19.95 to put in a new pin [something that HAS to cost, like, 11 cents], PLUS they wanted to charge me an extra $9.95 to clean my watch band [it’s steel] in their “sonic cleaner.”  Can you BELIEVE that?  YIKES!!   NO THANK YOU!

Well, I had jewelry in high school, and we used a sonic vibration cleaner, which used water and ammonia mixed, and vibrated at a high pitch. So, I declined the $30.00 gouge for a supposedly “fast fix”, went home, submerged my watch band(s) [I have two steel banded watches] in a plastic bowl of ammonia and water, turned on my Sonicare toothbrush and put it next to the bowl, and VOILA!! Within 2 to 3 minutes, the bands were clean, as I knew they would be.

So ANY way…

I went to JC Penney to hopefully get a new battery put in one watch, have the band tightened, and have the long-awaited [long sought-for in Wal-Mart and other jewelry departments around town] band pin put in, only to find out JC Penney only sends off watches, taking two days, and they ONLY put in watch batteries.  SIGH.

But the nice gal at JCP gave me the business card to March Jewelers, located at 1335 W. Pipeline, Hurst, TX 76053.

The guy said it would be $5.00 to put the pin in, tighten the band, which was loose and had kept coming unfastened, and to check the battery.  So I sat down on their nice, leather sofa, and waited.  Within a few minutes, he passed my watch to a nice lady and she told me, “He said your watch battery is still strong, and so he cleaned the contacts and put in the pin you asked for, so it’s five dollars.” When I pulled out my credit card [I had no cash at the time], she said, “Tell you what; just catch us next time.”

How nice was THAT?

I got great customer service, for FREE, expecting to pay somewhere between $5.00 and $15.00, as I thought I needed a new battery, and they got a new–and probably loyal–customer!

So if you need GREAT treatment for any kind of jewelry or watch repairs, stones set, or whatever in relation to jewelry, and you’re close to the Northeast Mall area, give them your business; they were all really nice people.  They’re located next to Movie Trading Company, just behind [south of] McDonald’s, on Pipeline Rd, there on the corner of Pipeline and N.E. Mall Blvd.  The Jewelers is next door to Ogle Beauty School, there on N.E. Mall Blvd.  You’re sure to get great customer service and treatment if you do.

Show Me a Smile…er…Simile!

Use Simile to Show Not Tell

How To Show Simile?

I don’t recall what grade I was in when I first heard about simile or metaphor.  I’ll be honest, I’ve pretty much neglected—up until recently, that is—seeking a better understanding of metaphor, and perhaps, in part, because it’s always been easy to remember what a simile is.

I’ll get to metaphor some other day and, suffice it say [in my opinion], metaphor is very similar to simile, but instead of comparing by saying something is “like”, “as”, (or is similar too; you can also throw in “than”), we flat out say it IS [something it really isn't.]

But please be patient; I’ll get to some simple metaphors next time.

In school we were told, “Simile is a device in literature used to compare two things that aren’t alike, by using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’”

Most of us can rattle off similes without much problem.

A few quick examples would be:

• She runs like a gazelle.
• He wiggles like a worm.
• He’s as sharp as a tack.
• Thoughts flowing like/as water.
• Bigger
than a bear.
• More powerful
than a locomotive [recognize that one?]

I say simile is the first real step to storyshowing [not a recognized word, by the way] we can readily teach to our children or students, because it’s easy to use the experience association inherent to simile.  What I mean is, we can’t compare something, using simile, if we haven’t made the observation ourselves, through experience, or at least had someone point out the similarities to us; kids will make their own associations and, when teaching “show don’t tell”, it’s best to build on those associations you know kids will have made rather than something an adult would.

Simile, in my estimation should be easy to teach to kids, because kids naturally use simile in their day-to-day speech, which they learn, of course, from mom and dad, friends, classmates, and teachers:

“You look like a princess!”
“Your house looks like a castle!”
“Eww! Your feet smell like rotten eggs!”
“You’re as smart as scientist!”
“She’s as pretty as a movie star.”

In truth, kids do pick up such expressions, mostly, from adults or other kids who picked them up from adults!  But sometimes, kids come up with their own, cute, quirky, and often humorous expressions of simile of their own:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”
“When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

Aren’t those more vivid than “The man had big feet”, and, “When she spins, her pigtails stick almost straight out!”?

And since it’s not necessarily hard to get kids to come up with examples of simile, it is important to get them thinking about WHY we make such comparisons and WHEN to use them in creative writing [or speaking].

And keep in mind: gaining these skills won’t only benefit your kids when they write or speak creatively while in school and such; having skills like these will greatly assist them throughout life, and achieving excellence in these will build confidence that will fuel all of your children’s life endeavors [hopefully, of course, only for good.]

So how do we teach kids how to effectively use simile in storyshowing?  Again, let’s not over think things, and just apply those same principles I covered in my previous posts on this subject.  But if you have yet to read those and don’t want to click away, here’s a brief synopsis:

• LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
• ASK why things are the way they are.
• DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
• FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense.

Now…onto teaching kids how to use simile to “show instead of tell.”

In my other posts, my examples were still—admittedly, for the most part—examples an adult would be more likely to use than a child, so I’ll use one of the quirky “child” examples I used above [I actually thought them up, trying to think what a kid might say]; you can write down those you hear the children in your life say, and build on those, using these exercises.

So here goes:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”

Now, maybe, in real life, a man with such humongous shoes is also very tall and there’s probably no real “secret story” to discover, but in creating stories, it’s okay to imagine one.

Maybe this man had an emergency foot transplant, and the only feet available were from a clown who had been killed by an elephant that sat on him!  There…we’ve just covered LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and we’ve begun to FIND words to explain how your child’s decisions are reasonable [again…for fiction; stories don’t have to always be truly reasonable].  So let’s take my peculiar scenario here and come up with a bit of vivid imagery.

The man’s feet looked like they had been taken from a clown whose feet had been run over by a steamroller.  The look on the man’s face, when he walked, made it obvious he was in pain, and as I noticed the bloody bandages around his ankles I wondered if he had had a foot transplant and ended up with giant clown feet instead of the right size for his body.

I admit my description, here, is pretty ridiculous, but that’s okay; you WANT to encourage zany, far-fetched thinking when teaching storyshowing!   Let’s embellish the next “kid” example:

When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

So what might be Nastassja’s secret story?  You might say Nastassja has had ballet lessons or figure skating experience.  Those are pretty good, but let’s really let our imaginations run wild.  Perhaps Nastassja is really the daughter of a once-famous, Russian, ballerina mother, and has been taught ballet since she could walk.

Notice how I’ve created a secret story for Nastassja that almost immediately takes care of LOOK, ASK, & DECIDE?  It appears that way because I have practiced LOOK, ASK, and DECIDE for many years, and I only recently identified these “steps” for the sake of these exercises; it’s not like I’m some sort of genius, here!  So let’s jazz up Nastassja’s story a bit more.

Nastassja looked like a ballerina or ice skater when she twirled.  Her swirling pigtails reminded us of a golden halo or helicopter blades that swished the air, and her face was almost as blurry as hummingbird wings.

Do you see how the use of simile here calls up more vivid imagery in your mind than the first sentence?  Of course, my description, here, deals only with Nastassja’s twirling and her pigtails.  If you were writing more about the girl, you could encourage your child or student to think more about Nastassja’s secret story: what does Nastassja’s voice sound like?  Does she have an accent?  Be careful encouraging kids to get TOO descriptive, though; experienced book publishers will tell you a few, choice phrases often do more to ignite readers’ imaginations, rather than giving SO much detail the reader’s mind has no fun in completing the mental picture!

Remember, when teaching kids the use of simile in storyshowing, to use comparisons that make sense, too.  For example, you wouldn’t say, “The man’s feet were as big as throw cushions.” People wouldn’t normally make such a comparison, would they?  Even kids tend to make comparisons that make sense [to their minds] because the comparisons that come to mind makes sense to them and remind them of something else.   Also keep in mind, when teaching children the use of simile in creative writing, to “borrow” from experiences of their own—it will make for much livelier storyshowing.

Next up: “What is Meta Phor?”