It always feels good to do good, from homeless to a home in southern Colorado

Around a year ago, my brother-in-law drove down to Sedona Arizona to pick up my brother John. He didn’t drive and he was at the point where he could no longer live in a lean-to near Oak Creek. The weather was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, and the creek came up so high sometimes that it was too deep to get across for him to get into town. John has a bad case of emphysema and terrible lower back pain. He thought he would move up here to take care of my Mom after my Dad died last year.

A few weeks after moving in with Mom, he realized that that arrangement would not work long-term so he called me in Walsenburg. As luck would have it, a close friend had a house in La Veta that was empty for the winter, so John moved in to caretake. When spring arrived, my friend decided to rent that house out so John had to move, but where? He didn’t want to live with us. We have a thing about “being a burden” in our family, so he found what he thought would be a temporary place in a local motel. Being the perfect renter, the management of the place soon wanted him to act as night manager, but John wasn’t interested in that. He just wanted a small place of his own.

After he moved to Walsenburg we made sure he signed up for affordable housing asap, but were truly surprised when they found him his own apartment this past month. It is clean, quiet and extremely affordable, but had no furniture. Soon after that we ask our friends if they had any extra furniture. In no time John had a recliner, a couch, a nice rug and a bed. John is a humble man who does not expect much from those around him. He just wants a nice place out of the rain and snow to listen to NPR and play his guitar. Now he has that for the first time in years. We couldn’t be happier and we almost got him to smile!

Early radium & X-ray use and later cancers

It wasn’t until around 1920 that we realized some control over the use of X-ray and radium were necessary. The best example in American history of our lack of understanding of the dangers of radioactivity, was the extensive use of radium in luminous paint during the First and Second World Wars.  This paint was used to illuminate the faces of watches and U.S. army issue compasses. The radium-activated paint was applied by brush and the painters, mostly young women in New Jersey and elsewhere, found they could work faster by tipping their brushes with their lips, thus ingesting large amounts of radium.

The Radium Girls hard at work painting watch faces and compasses

In those days, very little attention was paid to the safety of workers. Dial painters were irradiated from the paint which contaminated their workplaces and from the inhalation of radon.  The hazard was first recognized in 1924, when a New York dentist identified a new disease which he called “radium jaw” which he found regularly in patients who were ex-dial painters.  The first bone sarcoma was recorded in this group of women in 1923 and one third of them eventually died of various cancerous malignancies.  The data derived from the experiences of these unfortunate young women eventually helped to set new radium tolerance levels.

Despite the realization that radium could be used to kill malignant cells, the public became besotted with radium as a general panacea for many illnesses.  A number of potions were sold containing radium, the most famous being Radiothor. Four hundred thousand bottles of this quack remedy, which was said to cure a range of maladies from stomach ulcers to impotence, were sold between 1925 and 1930. 

My grandfather was a very early adopter when it came to X-ray technology. Like so many, he felt that this new technology could solve a lot of problems. In fact he took a correspondence course in using X-ray on humans probably in the 1940s, and then traveled around providing X-rays where needed. Although little was really known about radiation risks from the 1930s to the 1950s, American shoe stores supplied shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, which allowed customers to see the bones in their feet, a gimmick to ensure “a proper fit.” The practice ended in the 1950s when it was determined to be a risky practice due to the radiation, and shoe clerks had no formal medical training in using X-ray technology.

When my grandmother developed major problems with her periods in the early 1960s, my grandfather decided the best solution was to use X-rays to radiate her ovaries. In the mid-1980s my grandmother developed stomach cancer and died soon afterward. Gee, I wonder why that cancer developed in the exact same region as the earlier X-rays?

Early chest X-rays used constantly with little regulation

In addition, two women I know well, including my own Mom, received annual chest X-rays in grade school to check for tuberculosis. Both of these women developed breast cancer in their thirties. How many more women were exposed to unneeded radiation in grade school?

Back then, X-rays were used to treat ringworms, acne, menopause discomforts, mental patients and even facial hair removal in beauty shops. These were largely uncontrolled misuses of radiation because there were no specific legal regulations governing radiation safety at the time. One has to wonder how many cases of cancer decades later were at least partially caused by our unwise confidence in X-ray as a cure for all ills.

To learn more about the Radium Girls’ tragedy go here to read an article published in History Magazine in October 2007 by me.

Why am I here now? Family History!

Somehow, all of the happenings in my family right now are stirring up many questions for me about my family background. The death of my father in 2020, the dementia of my Mom now and the birth of the first member of the next generation of our family has me wondering how all of this came about.

Why am I here? What and who participated in the creation of our family and why?

Top: Photo of my parents’ wedding in 1951 in Kansas City, Kansas

Luckily, my Mom spent a few years searching for the answers to these exact questions back in the early 2000s and produced a detailed family history called: Generations: Our Grandmothers for all of us to learn from. So this week I decided to sit down and read it cover to cover. It also included many family photos I had never seen before. What a gold mine of genetics and social history from a family whose roots go back to farming in eastern Kansas in the 1800s and railroad development in the Kansas City Kansas area.

Top: Great-Grandma McGrew on her wedding day in 1907

What struck me first was how large families were back then, and how “romances” developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the case of all of my great grandparents, they met because so many lived in boarding houses where family members mixed. In the case of my Great-Grandma McGrew, she was sent to live with a different farm family to help out, because her own family had too many mouths to feed. She ended up marrying the only son in her adopted family. The McGrews greatly valued education, so even though the closest high school was ten miles away, they made certain that their only daughter, my grandmother, finished high school. She taught elementary school for two years and then ventured out to the big city to expand her horizons in business school. She then secured a job as a secretary in Kansas City where she soon met my grandfather.

My Mom describes our Carter background this way: “If there is a unifying “track” to the story of the Carter family, it would be the Santa Fe Railroad and its development over time as the history of railroads was unfolding in the West.” My Grandpa Carter, his father, and most of his brothers worked on the railroad their whole life, but Grandpa was determined that his two sons would not. He also believed strongly in education as the primary path to a better life, and my Dad and uncle’s lives certainly proved that point. My dad and Uncle Bob were the first Carters to not only finish high school, but also finish college and graduate school. My dad swore by the advantages of a good education and it worked out great for him and his kids.

Developing your mind and allowing it to go wherever it wishes, opens up so many doors and windows on life! It also allows for so much freedom in determining where we go next. I cannot even imagine how different I would have been without my love of learning…

Can we let go of a lifetime of pain & suffering?

I’m now witnessing first hand a concept from psychology that I have always believed and yet still wondered about. I am observing in those near death what seems to be an endless outflowing of anger and bitterness at the end of life. Both of my parents were what I would call uptight people. My Dad was definitely an angry controlling person and both of my parents could be called obsessive about getting everything ‘right’ and keeping up appearances for others. Everything had to appear ‘proper.’

Instead I observed that my Mom took mountains of criticism from my Dad throughout their nearly 70 year marriage. She rarely got angry or even replied to this barrage of constant critique. She would drink quite a bit of wine, complain to us, and then simmer in bitterness and rage, while she continued to devote her entire life to helping him reach his goals. The tension in our home was palpable. As you might guess, his kids were collateral damage, each absorbing their share of criticism, anger and love that was always quite conditional.

“Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.” — Stephen Levine

Where does all of that bitterness and anger go in the long-term? Can we resolve these tension in some way before we die? I am wondering about this for my Mom, who is extremely depressed and confused at age 88, after the death of my father last year.

At this point I will yield the floor to Stephen Levine, an American poet, author and teacher, well-known for his work with the terminally ill and/or those deeply affected by loss. Stephen chose to work with this population because they were most ready and even sometimes eager to confront their own deepest misery and, by doing so, heal life-long burdens of self-disgust and punishment. Stephen found that by first acknowledging our deepest levels of pain and suffering and then confronting it with love and compassion for Self and others, most found a way to finally let it go. What a marvelous burden to release before death. In a few cases, Stephen found that this gigantic release of emotional pain was so healing that his patients found remission from their cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

He felt that our minds fight with our hearts, fear versus love, but by accepting all our past pain and suffering, the sensation in our heart may be that it will burst.

To this Stephen responds: “Let your heart break. Let go of the suffering that keeps you back from life. Now your heart is so open and the pain right there. You are doing now just what you need to do, feel so much compassion for yourself and what you are going through…”

Stephen Levine died in 2016 just south of here. To learn much more about him and his work please consider reading his books. My favorite is “Healing Into Life and Death.” Here is a link to his webpage and his wife’s words at his death: https://levinetalks.com/

My experience has been that unless we commit to major emotional change in ourselves, all of the hostilities and suspicions we have held down within our psyche for our entire life, do come out in the end. Sometimes in some awful ways. For me, this type of emotional healing has taken some great re-parenting therapy through counseling and decades of learning and re-learning deeper levels of self-love and acceptance. This process continues as my parents leave behind their earthly presence.

Sometimes being with my Mom is too much for me, and I must respect my feelings about this. My Mom seems so lost in the contradictions of her life. Feelings of love, anger, pain and dementia confuse and overwhelm her such that she can see no way out. I just wish she could have come to some resolution and healing with Stephen by her side.

American drinking: Do you drink to feel good, or to take the edge off of feeling bad?

“From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy…” — “Alcohol-related deaths increasing in the United Statesby the National Institutes of Health, January 2020

“The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up.” — “Drinking Too Much in America” in The Atlantic

I was raised by two serious alcohol drinkers. I have always wondered if my Mom’s tendency to drink to deal with her anxiety and depression led to breast cancer at an early age. Her brother died of alcoholism. I admit it, after watching my parents drink so much, I developed an aversion to that level of intoxication. I have never found it attractive or funny, perhaps partially because I don’t get drunk, I just fall asleep.

As a part of my counseling training, we spent time learning about alcoholism and addiction. At the first meeting I raised my hand and said, “I only have one question. I cannot get drunk, I fall asleep instead. Why is that?” There I learned exactly how genetic alcohol addiction is. Certain genetic groups can tolerate far higher levels of alcohol and therefore can drink more to achieve intoxication. The normal response to alcohol, which is a depressant, is tiredness and sleep.

Yes, I know. Some of us now us THC products to deal with anxiety and depression. I am one of them, and I see no reason to argue about which is better for you. But I would argue that THC kills a lot less Americans than alcohol, and yet drinking is also one of our favorite topics to joke about. To me, alcohol addiction is not funny. It’s deadly to both the alcoholic and those around them, especially on the highway.

Studying addiction and counseling was my first choice as a new college kid at Colorado College. But then the discussion always comes up, do you have to be a addict to help addicts? I still have no answer to that one except to say few of us aren’t addicted to something, even if it’s sugar, salt or something else. That’s how our brains work.

This fascinating article looks at why we drink as an evolutionary adaptation to stress, and why American drinking has increased quite a bit, especially since 9/11: The Atlantic: “Drinking Too Much In America”

What is happening with Mom?

Be the most ethical, the most responsible, the most authentic you can be with every breath you take, because you are cutting a path into tomorrow that others will follow.” — Ken Wilber

I remember when our class met up in the mountains above Boulder at Ken Wilber’s amazing home built into the stones at the top of a flatiron, while I was at the Naropa Institute studying Transpersonal Psychology. I felt a real connection with his mind & perspective on life.

My siblings and I are now dealing with my mother’s slow descent into dementia in the most ethical, responsible and authentic way we can. As many of you know, this can be quite the challenge, further complicated by my Mom’s refusal to get tested by a neurologist. We see memory problems every time we see her, like asking the same questions over and over again, questions like “What time are we meeting?” Or “Am I supposed to bring anything?” She has always been a great cook, but not so much anymore. In fact she usually cannot remember what she had to eat today and prefers eating ice cream all evening. (I know, who wouldn’t?)

She complains of boredom and loneliness since Dad died last March, and we worry about her being alone and falling, so we are now in the midst of trying to convince her to move into an assisted living situation, one where she will be around other people (she lives alone now), be fed good meals, and have access to lots of different kinds of activities with others.

It’s so hard to know when to start telling her what she needs for her own happiness & safety… 

Mom fears her future. Who wouldn’t in her circumstance? But we are slowly realizing that we will now need to make some decisions for her. That is tough as a kid whose Mom used to have all the answers. She mourns so many things, the loss of her past, the loss of her things that remind her of her past, the way her world is slowly shrinking around her. Amazingly, she’s still a great driver, something she has always loved. Going out to dinner is her favorite pastime. She just forgets that she’s not hungry until after she orders food…

We have no diagnosis, we just worry about her a lot. What have the rest of you done in this kind of circumstance?