The Neighborhood Witch-Hunt
Elizabeth Johnson Lee

Our former neighborhood seemed like a dream come true until the “McDermotts”, who did whatever they could to manipulate and control me, moved in next door. I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and I’ve since studied how such bullies lacking in compassion or conscience think and how they operate. My family’s Earth-based religion, and my disability, were used against me in what turned into a neighborhood disaster.
I have Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition where my brain sends signals to my body, including my vocal cords, to move against my will. Onlookers unfamiliar with the syndrome sometimes misinterpret those noises and movements, called “tics,” as disruptive or intimidating. Even though my Tourette made me an easy target, what happened to me could happen to anyone. Only the victims of bullies understand what they’re really like. Bystanders don’t realize the truth until they too become victims. By then money is lost, reputations are ruined.
My nine-year-old daughter, “Janie”, played for hours everyday at our old house with two neighborhood girls, “Carol” and “Nonie”. When they were hurt or upset, I comforted them and helped smooth altercations. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I explained to the kids and their parents about my tics and asked for their understanding. Janie and I shared with her friends some things about our spirituality. I felt grateful for having such wonderful neighbors.
Then “Bruce”, “Suzy”, and “Dora”, after having lived elsewhere, moved back in next door.
Dora was a 10-year-old girl who was so charming, as she shared stories about her life, that she seemed too good to be true.
Then, in an instant, she changed. She insulted kids, lied, and refused to follow rules for respect in our home. Often as I moved about my house, she stared at me. It was unnerving.
Most disturbing of all was Dora’s finding the pain she inflicted on others, whether emotional or physical, funny. One day I gardened in my front yard. Dora walked up, obviously in her charming mode, and shared how she was caught lying by her parents about stealing money.
“Then I told them the truth about taking it,” she said, “but they punished me anyway because when I admitted it, I laughed.”
“Yeah,” I said, “when you laugh at people when they’re upset, it hurts because it seems like you don’t care how they feel.”
“I know,” she said, nodding. She wandered off. A minute later, as I bent over to plant a rose bush, I heard a loud scream. Looking up, I saw Dora sticking her foot out in the path of her older brother on his skateboard as he hurtled through the air and onto the ground in what looked like a painful wipe out. Dora laughed.
Another time Carol came into our house crying because Janie and Dora wouldn’t let her play their game. Janie and Dora came in, ignoring Carol’s tears.
“Hey,” I said, “you two apologize to Carol.” Janie looked at me and then down, contrite, but Dora laughed. Carol cried harder, and as she did Dora laughed louder, until it was hysterical, uncontrollable. I stared, speechless. It sounded sadistic.
Dora’s parents believed that kids should work out their own issues without parental involvement, an opinion I thought sounded like an excuse to not hold Dora accountable for anything or take responsibility for her actions. When they first moved in, we carpooled the kids to school. Things seemed to go fine until one morning when Janie pleaded with me not to make her ride in the same car with Dora because Dora had been teasing her. Not wanting to upset Dora’s parents, I hesitated, but Janie cried and pleaded until I finally gave in.
That afternoon Dora played on our front yard, which had become the neighborhood playground, as if nothing had happened. “Dora,” I said. “I’m sorry I excluded you this morning when we drove to school. Janie said you were teasing her, and she was very upset about it. Could you both please tell me more about what’s going on?” Both girls aired things, and just as we were resolving them, I heard Suzy’s high, whiney voice.
“Dora, could you come here please?” Dora ran off, and a moment later Suzy walked over to Janie and me. “Don’t talk to Dora about problems!” She yelled. This can’t be happening, I thought, looking in shock at her furious, reddened face. Hadn’t Dora told her I’d apologized? “If you have a problem with Dora, you come to me! You think everything’s always Dora’s fault!”
“No, that’s not true—” I began, shaking my head, but Suzy cut me off. She yelled and yelled, saying that if I was mad at Dora, it was my problem, and that kids should “figure things out on their own”.
“From now on when you have a problem with Dora, you come to me!” She turned and walked off.
I asked “Maddy”, Carol and Nonie’s mother, about Dora. “Dora has a disconnect,” she said, saying that Dora was unable to understand why other kids’ got upset when she was mean, or why she got punished for it; She had no understanding of such cause and effect relationships, nor did she have empathy. “Her teachers have had trouble with her at school, and she’s always in trouble with her parents.” Maddy also said that Dora took after Suzy. “As much as I love Suzy, she’s self-centered.”
One day Janie came to me in tears because Dora told her I was creepy and worshiped the devil, a comment that was a direct insult against our religion. Carol and Nonie had joined her against Janie.
I told the kids to leave, to not come back until they apologized. “I can play here any time I want, and you can’t make me leave,” laughed Dora from the upper branches of our magnolia tree. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally convinced her to come down and leave. Twice during the next half hour, we caught her playing in our yard. The third time, I yelled, telling her again to leave. Let Suzy come yelling, I thought. Did they expect me to be a saint? I had to let Dora know I meant business.
Suzy was back. “You were in her face a year ago, and now you’re in her face again!”
“This is the only time I ever yelled at her.”
Leaning her face within inches of mine, she said, “That—is—a—bunch—of—crap!” Feeling threatened, I stumbled backwards.
For five months, Janie became a whole different child. She gave up biking and rollerblading and wouldn’t go outside because she was afraid of Dora. She withdrew inward, defeated, and complained of stomachaches and headaches.
I asked the police if there was anything we could do. They suggested a restraining order, and asked to talk with Dora’s family. I refused unless there was another incident, but there wasn’t because Janie wouldn’t play outside. In order to quell any rumors, I told a few neighbors. “No wonder I never see her playing outside anymore,” they said.
Trying to be positive, I smiled and waved whenever I saw Dora. One of those times she looked away and went behind a car. Wanting to reassure her she didn’t need to fear me, I went over, peeked behind the car, and again smiled and waved to her. She quickly walked away. Feeling discouraged, I left. I would later regret what I had done.
Dora’s harassment of Janie continued at school and my husband, “Scott”, and I complained to the principal. He met with the girls and emailed all four of us parents. Rather than investigating past problems, the principal said, he asked them instead about their current relationship, saying that both girls denied current problems. His misleading statement led to an ordeal I’ll never forget.
The next morning Bruce came to my door. “I was wondering if I should take legal action against you,” he said.” Legal action, I thought, for stopping their kid from bullying my kid? I felt instantly on guard. “We doubt your claims of harassment are true.”
“They’re true, but Janie hasn’t had any problems with Dora since we reported it to the school.” A month later my words would come back to haunt me in the most twisted, distorted way.
Scared and not knowing where to turn, I did what would later be considered an unforgivable act:
I spoke with Dora’s teacher.
I wanted an advocate, some support, and if the McDermott’s really did take legal action, I wanted information. After school let out, I waited until five minutes had passed. Then, thinking that Dora had left by then, I entered her classroom. There, with the teacher and two other kids, was Dora.
Smiling, I approached and greeted the teacher, asking, in a quiet voice, to speak with her alone. She told the kids to leave, and I waited until they’d gone to speak. “Did Dora admit to harassing Janie?” I asked
“Have any other kids in your class had trouble with Dora?”
Looking suspicious, she hedged, and I realized that she couldn’t share that information without breaching confidentiality.
“It’s just that,” I said, my nervousness growing, “they’ve threatened to take legal action against me for reporting Janie’s accusations of Dora’s bullying to the school, and I’m so frightened.” She looked at me as if I was the one to be frightened of instead, and I realized that Dora’s parents had probably told her they believed that I’d made everything up too. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep our conversation confidential,” I said. Thanking her, I left.
That afternoon the principal called me, upset. The teacher had blabbed. Dora’s parents had threatened me for protecting my daughter, and the school was mad at me? Bruce and Suzy showed up at our door, also angry. Someone had blabbed to them too. Later the doorbell rang again.
It was the police.
The officer told me, as my family gathered nearby and my mouth went dry with fear, that I wasn’t to talk to Dora’s teacher again, nor was I to approach Dora anymore and make intimidating gestures. “They can get a restraining order,” he said.
“But officer,” I said, “I haven’t been trying to approach Dora and intimidate her. What’s that about?”
“They said you have.”
“Once when I walked my dog while she was playing on the street, I smiled and waved to her, and she hid behind a car. Is that what they meant?”
The officer looked away to the side and then down, as if I’d taken all the oomph out of his momentum. “It’s obviously been a misunderstanding,” he said.
The next morning Scott received from Dora’s parents a multiple page vindictive of things they claimed I’d done to “harass” them, imploring him to make me stop. He pointed out Bruce and Suzy’s description of my “intimidating gestures” from when I’d sat alone in a chair thinking no one was watching me at a block party, six months before: eye rolling, head shaking, intentionally dramatic frowning, and mouthing words. “These are your tics,” he said. I looked down at the printed page.
“Hey, you’re right. They are. They know I have Tourette syndrome, and they’re trying to use it against me.” Other accusations included:

*That all my complaints of Dora harassing Janie were only figments of my paranoid imagination, a result, they claimed, of my having been bullied as a child and my resulting identity as a victim
*That the principal had investigated everything and claimed Janie said that Dora hadn’t harassed her
*That I’d told Bruce that Dora hadn’t harassed Janie
*That I’d loudly complained about Dora to her teacher in front of Dora and other kids
*That I seemed psychotic and was stalking and harassing Dora
*That I had an odd fixation on Dora and they were all afraid of me

They, afraid of me, I thought. But we were the victims, not them.
If they didn’t receive a signed letter from me agreeing not to complain about Dora again by the next morning, they said, they’d file a restraining order against me.
I was aghast. That’s blackmail, I thought. Ron, a lawyer who took my case, said it was obvious they had twisted the facts around, exaggerated them, and taken them out of context. He advised me not to write them such a note.
Two weeks later, after I’d decided they were just bluffing, a process server served me at my door with a subpoena/restraining order. A sharp pain stabbed my gut. “They did it,” said Scott. “They actually did it.”
At the court date, Bruce, Ron, and I approached the judge. Bruce clutched declarations that he’d collected from others to use against me. There wasn’t enough time for the judge to hear our case, so we had to reschedule. The judge refused to accept the declarations. “I’ll take those,” said Ron, snatching them right out of Bruce’s hands.
They were damning.
Four of them were from neighbors who, at one time or another, had confided in me about messy neighbors or difficult husbands, and my feelings of betrayal were overwhelming. Two neighbors didn’t say anything about me, but their descriptions of Dora’s superficial charm made her sound like the second coming of Christ. It was obvious from their wording that every neighbor believed the McDermott’s twisted version of events was true because they’d known them for decades. Maddy said that Dora seemed like a “normal” kid, an exact contradiction to what she’d told me before. A friend of the McDermott’s said that Dora had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a condition that explained all of Dora’s behavior problems.
I felt attacked, and my dream of a happy childhood for Janie came crashing down around me in tiny fragments. It felt like a conspiracy; a Witch-hunt.
The next court date was a month away. I was supposed to stay thirty feet away from the McDermotts, their vehicles, and their pets at all times. It was impossible. Dora played in front of our house, their cat came into our yard, and they parked their vehicles in front of our house. When I picked up Janie from school, I had to walk around the playground and then circle back to get to her classroom.
One day I came face to face with Dora.
After staring at her for a second in horror, I hurried away. Would the police be there to meet me when we got home? They weren’t, but the stress was unbearable. Everyday I cried. I could barely eat, and sleep was almost impossible.
Ron asked if there were any neighbors I could ask to testify for me in court. All the ones I knew best had sided with the McDermott’s. Any others, I feared, might also do the same. “Uh—no,” I said. I gathered my family and friends to come to court and testify.
The next court date finally came. “What a big crowd of people,” the judge said when my group, 11 in all, entered the courtroom. The McDermott’s group, including Maddy, numbered five. Again the judge didn’t have enough time to hear our case. Bruce and I approached the judge again. My heart hammered in my chest. Bruce yelled on and on, complaining about all the alleged hardship I’d caused their family. When he said I’d made up all the bullying complaints, I spoke up.
“Excuse me your honor, but my daughter told me that Dora had been bullying her.”
“Oh come on,” Bruce said. “We both know nothing happened.” He continued his rant, saying, “I don’t want Liz mouthing words at Dora.”
Again, I cut in. “Excuse me your honor, but he’s referring to my palilalia, one of the symptoms of my Tourette syndrome.”
“I can’t give anyone an order saying they can’t look at someone,” said the judge. “When you live next door at the end of a cul-de-sac, sometimes a restraining order isn’t the best solution.”
That took all the wind out of Bruce, who, smiling apologetically, requested mediation.
The mediators explained to the McDermotts that it was unlikely the judge would grant them a restraining order, and they dropped the case.
We’d spent thousands of dollars defending me against their discrimination, and my neighborhood reputation was ruined. We moved out of the toxic environment, sold our home and switched Janie to another school. Word of what had happened to us spread, and two parents told me about their own experiences of dealing with the difficult principal when their children had also been bullied. Two teachers told me my confiding in Dora’s teacher had been the right thing to do. Surely, said one, the principal had been reprimanded for violating our confidentiality. He was later transferred to a different school and then resigned and left town.
Many parents and kids confided in me about Dora’s bullying, saying that she’d been reported to the principal again and later expelled for drug possession. Janie had a difficult few years adjusting and making new friends, but she is now an active, happy girl again.
I studied bullying, narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy; anything I could find that helped me better understand the McDermotts. Seeing their behavior described in those disorders was the only thing that brought me peace.
I knew that sooner or later the McDermotts would target someone else. A former neighbor told me that four families from the cul-de-sac had problems with them after we left. Their kids no longer played with Dora. “That’s what the McDermotts do,” she said, “is look for people to go after with their power, or the power they think they have. We witnessed Bruce and Suzy, for five to ten minutes, repeatedly kicking Dora around their driveway.”
They had targeted their own daughter.
I called the police and reported the McDermotts to Child Protective Services. Their karma had finally caught up with them. At last.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is the author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2
Children in Public Places

I got varied reactions from others to my baby’s presence; it seemed there was always some irritated person wherever we went who objected to having him around. Because Dale was so active, curious, and verbally expressive I felt forced to pick my battles with bystanders.
“Hearing your baby crying, even though you brought him outside, brings up traumatic memories for me and I don’t think you should bring him to meetings,” an upset woman told me at a self-help meeting.
“Could you please take your baby outside?” a woman asked politely during a speech at a church function. I was standing with Dale in the back of the room while he held on to a chair, smiling, bouncing his peach fuzzy head up and down and cooing softly with delight. “He’s distracting us.”
The same thing happened during another speaker event, only this time the room was much larger and I stood against the back wall hoping that no one could hear Dale’s soft “a-a-a-u-u-”s and his “mama-a-a”s from where they sat. One woman did, however and she turned around and gave me the evil eye. After the talk was over she confronted me.
“Don’t bring your baby to church events again. Can’t you find someone to babysit?” She pinched her lips together as and her eyes pierced me like lasers.
“No, “ I said. I was a single parent, subsisting on public assistance because I took maternity leave and was not given back my job. My parents only babysat grudgingly. If I asked them, I’d better have a darn good reason.
“Did Susan tell you not to bring your baby?” another equally angry woman, who was also a single mom asked after Susan walked away. Oh god, I thought, not her too. By now I was so intimidated that all I could utter was a weak, breathy “yes.”
“Oh, she makes me so MAD,” she said, turning around and striding off toward Susan. Relief flooded through me. At last, a kindred spirit. “People think we single moms can just DROP our kids off somewhere whenever we want to go out and do anything,” she said, looking at me over her shoulder. She whipped her hair back around and disappeared around the corner of the chapel, no doubt to tell Susan off.
Another time I went to a church service but the childcare person couldn’t take Dale because she had too many kids to watch. I took Dale into the service, where he made his soft, happy noises and played with my car keys. Perhaps I was used to tuning out Dale’s noises better than others, for a few days later I received a letter from one of the church’s reverends telling me never to bring Dale to a service again.
People glared at me in restaurants and coffee shops. The only public places where I felt welcome with Dale were local parks and grocery stores, but even they presented problems. One day Dale and I played at a park and he attempted to pet a German shepherd lying on the grass next to a play structure. “Don’t let your child come near my dog,” the dog’s owner, a woman, said. “He doesn’t like children and might bite.” I asked the woman if she could take her dog away since the park was teeming with children. Surely she didn’t want any of them to get bitten.
“This is a public park, we were here before you and we have every right to be here,” the woman hissed at me.
“Oh lordy, lordy,” an old woman said when Dale had a howling tantrum in a grocery store. She looked at us in disgust as she rolled her shopping cart past.
Those incidents didn’t happen everywhere we went, and for every person who complained there are a greater number who delighted in his irresistible smile, responsive laughter and bright, gleaming eyes. But the negative incidents happened with enough regularity that I realized our society was divided into two camps: Those who either had children or liked them, and those who didn’t.
Being one of the former, I’m biased. Whenever someone gave me an annoyed look or asked me to leave because Dale uttered any sound, however quietly, I thought that they had learned to tolerate adult’s occasional cough, throat clearing, shifting in seats, and laughter. Why then couldn’t they tolerate the same subtle noises from a contented baby?
To get more perspective on that, I looked at websites about people who are “childfree”, or who hate children. The childfree people wrote about being okay with children in general but just not wanting any of their own, but the child-haters—my god. They wrote about kids as if they should be wiped off the face of the Earth. They called mothers “breeders” or “sows”, fathers “sperm donors” and kids “sprigs”. They seemed to believe that kids shouldn’t be allowed anywhere accept home or school, or maybe park playgrounds, where anyone with a child-biting dog had priority.
One day years later when Dale was six and I was pregnant with my daughter, I waited in a restaurant for my husband to meet me with Dale. A middle-aged couple came in, and the man said to the hostess, “could you please sit us at a table that’s not near children? We don’t DO children.” The hostess led them to a table right next to mine. I told them that my six-year-old was arriving soon, so they were seated elsewhere.
People seem to have the mindset that parents need to keep their kids away from everywhere to respect everyone else, rather than the mindset that kids are part of society. They are people who have the right to be out and about just like everyone else. Perhaps we should learn to not be so sensitive to everything or stay inside ourselves.
I’ve heard from acquaintances that Mexican society is far more accepting of children. “You Americans are anti-children,” a Mexican man I worked with told me.
“This is my daughter,” a Mexican woman announced to our class in college. “In Mexico people take their children everywhere and they are welcome, and I will be bringing my daughter to class with me often.”
Remembering how boldly this woman stood up for herself, I often asserted myself with others. “I cannot agree to never bring my baby to self-help meetings/church functions/church services again. There are no rules against this and I can’t help how you feel toward children.”
I really didn’t want to bother people. I always brought Dale outside when he cried, except for that time in the grocery store (hey, everyone’s gotta eat) and once when I was right in the middle of a bank transaction, but every time we went anywhere and he got grabby, restless, shook his rattle, started to fret or coo or laugh or make ANY sound at all, my blood pressure rose and I thought, o-o-o-oh, please don’t let anyone get mad. Some days, badly shaken by the latest person’s protestations, I hid in my house. Then, my courage renewed I ventured forth again with my beloved fledgling monster, ready to handle the next onslaught of reactions from bystanders.
Feng Shui and the Chinese Pantheon


Elizabeth Johnson Lee
Copyright 2008

Feng Shui is the art of living in harmony with time and space where you live and work for more harmonious relationships and increased health, wealth and happiness. By arranging one’s surroundings in ways to maximize the lucky sectors of one’s space and minimize the unlucky one’s, the chi, or energy is allowed to flow in a free and balanced way.
There are two parts to this report. The first is a basic description of feng shui and the Chinese pantheon. The second is a personal story of how I’ve applied feng shui to my life.
The three main forms of feng shui are traditional, the Black Hat Sect and intuitive/modern. Traditional feng shui is based on either form or compass directions and includes the bagua, flying star and eight mansions formulas. The Black Hat Sect is a combination of Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism and traditional feng shui. Intuitive/modern feng shui is an adaptation of traditional feng shui to modern Western decorative styles.
Some of those philosophies contradict each other and not all practitioners agree on everything. Some believe that the flying star method is more effective than the bagua and eight mansions methods for its power to cure problematic areas and activate lucky ones. The Chinese have goddesses, gods, and enlightened and/or wise ones whose images can be used to cure and enhance.
According to feng shui, there are five elements from which everything in the universe is made. Those elements and everything that corresponds with them in turn are considered either yin or yang, and yin and yang forces must always be kept in balance. Yin and yang each contain a part of each other and neither can exist without the other. The five elements each correspond to their own direction/s and colors. The elements and their correspondences are:

Fire—south—yang—red, purple, dark orange, pink

Earth—northeast, southwest, center—yin—brown, yellow

Metal—west, northwest—yin—white, silver, gold

Water—north—yin—black, blue

Wood—east, southeast—yang-–green

There are three cycles in which those elements interact, called the productive, the controlling and the weakening, or exhaustive cycles. The order they’re listed above shows them in their productive cycle, where the one before it produces each element in a continuous circle. The controlling cycle is fire, metal, wood, earth, and water as if drawing it in the shape of a five-pointed star. The weakening cycle is the productive cycle going backward in a counter-clockwise circle, where fire exhausts wood and so forth.
In the flying star formula, the power of the stars’ positions affects the energy of buildings and land. Depending on the direction of your front door, which direction your house faces the street or which side has the best view (here’s some of the ways people disagree) the stars affect nine sectors. One must use a compass and consult a flying star chart in order to figure out which stars are in the nine grids of their home or office. Since the stars positions change from month to month, year to year, and in twenty-year periods one must be vigilant of where certain stars fly in and out and arrange their homes and businesses accordingly. Lucky stars are one, four, six, eight (the best) and nine. Unlucky numbers are two, three, five and seven. By using appropriate remodeling, furniture placement, elements and their corresponding colors and images one can create a more energetically balanced space.
In the bagua method there are eight sectors of every house or apartment and within every room in the house. Starting in the South they correspond to fame, romance and women or matriarch, children, men or patriarch, career, education, health and wealth. As in the flying star method luck can be enhanced by the use of remodeling, furniture arrangement, elements, colors and images in the right areas, both inside and out.
In the eight mansions formula there are eight sectors of a building that correspond with romance, success, bad luck, total loss, five ghosts (troublesome people), health, six killings (danger) and personal growth. As in the other two methods the lucky and unlucky sectors can be enhanced or diminished by the use of remodeling, furniture placement, elements, colors and images.
Fuk, Luk and Sau are the gods of health, wealth, and prosperity, respectively and Sau is also the god of longevity. He is an old man with a large forehead and is often shown holding a staff with a wu luo, or bitter gourd hanging from it. Sometimes there is a deer or a pine tree in the background and Sau is often holding a peach. The wu luo and peach are also symbols of longevity. Sau is the most popular Taoist deity and symbolizes a smooth life and a happy old age surrounded by children and grandchildren. Other wealth gods are Tsai Shen Yeh and Kuan Kung.
Zhong Kuei is red-robed and protects the home from harmful spirits and people. He carries a sword in his right hand and a flask of wine in his left. He has a fierce countenance.
Mo Li Ching is the guardian of the East. He has a white face and carries a spear and a metal sword to control the wood element of the East.
Mo Li Hai is the guardian of the West. He has a blue face and carries a mandolin spewing balls of fire to control the metal element of the West.
Mo Li Hung is the guardian of the South. He has a red face and holds an umbrella which, when opened causes total darkness and when closed causes earthquakes and tidal waves. The waves control the fire element of the South.
Mo Li Shou is the guardian of the North. He has a black face and carries a pearl and a snake. Sometimes he’s shown with a white rat and an elephant. He is also the guardian of wealth and the king of the wealth gods.
The eight immortals are Taoist deities who ate the fruit of immortality at the Queen of the West’s Paradise Realm. Each corresponds to an aspect of life’s aspirations. Their names are Lan Tsai Hok, Ho Hsien Ku, Lo Tien Kuai, Tsao Kuo Chin, Chang Kuo Lao, Xhong Li Chuan, Han Hsiang Tzu, and Xiu Tung Pin. Their images in the home bring the eight types of luck mentioned in the bagua, including long life.
Kuan Yin is the goddess of Mercy and a Buddhist bodhisattva. It is she who came up with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.
Last, of course is the Buddha who is shown either in meditation, or in the form of a fat, bald “laughing Buddha”.
Some other auspicious images for the home are the dragon, white tiger, tortoise, phoenix, rooster, horse, all the other animals of the Chinese horoscope, wind chimes, Chinese coins and countless others.
Through the use of the flying star, bagua and eight mansions formulas of feng shui one can help balance and harmonize the energy flow with appropriate remodeling, furniture placement and use of elements and colors. Also by displaying the images of powerful goddesses, gods, animals and other images in their home or business.

My Story

When I was single I lived in an apartment with my young son, Dale. My fondest dream was always to marry and raise a family as a full-time mother, but the exciting kinds of men to whom I was attracted made abysmal partners while I found the successful, stable marriageable types boring. I bought a book about the bagua formula of feng shui and arranged my home accordingly. Soon I met and eventually married an exciting and stable first generation Chinese man named Elgin. When Dale and I moved in to Elgin’s condo I felt feng shui had done its job; I let my interest in it fall by the way side.
Elgin and I now have a daughter, Rowan. We moved into a house in a cul-de-sac and, for the first year and a half my life felt like a dream come true. My neighbors were friendly and Rowan had friends to play with right across the street. Dale’s best friend also lived nearby. No more having to arrange play dates. No more hearing neighbors moving around on our ceiling or through shared walls. I could plant whatever I wanted in the yard, and we got a dog.
That dream came to a halt when another girl, “Dora” and her family moved in next door. Rowan and Dora were friends at first but Rowan complained more and more of Dora being mean to her. Dora was mean to the other kids, too. When they cried she laughed at them, and I once watched as she tripped her brother on his skateboard and laughed when he screamed and crashed on the pavement. Dora’s parents insisted that that’s just the way kids are and that parents should stay out of their conflicts and let them figure things out themselves. Rowan decided not to play with Dora anymore, and for months she was afraid to play outside.
Dora’s family ostracized us. The other kids’ family did too because the two families were close friends and sided with each other. Even though Dora’s family’s actions hurt, the ostracism of the other family especially stung; I had trusted them to stay out of it and remain friendly toward us, but they didn’t.
The bullying continued at school and we asked the teachers and principal to intervene. They did and I thought that we could finally put the whole mess behind us.
I thought wrong. Dora’s parents filed a restraining order against me, claiming that I had made the whole thing up and that my complaining to the school was “harassment”. I have Tourette syndrome, and they claimed that my tics were attempts on my part to intimidate Dora. They also claimed I put a Buddha in my front yard to intimidate them. They listed other allegations that were exaggerated, taken out of context or false. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
I asked Higher Power, call it God, Goddess or whatever for help but it didn’t seem to make any difference. When I’d had trouble with people in the past, such as neighbors or my in-laws I wrote their names on pieces of paper, put them in bags of water and put them in the freezer. All those neighbors moved away and my in-laws died, but day after agonizing day my current neighbors remained. I felt forsaken and powerless.
What am I supposed to learn from this, I asked the goddess? I’d practiced a form of Japanese Buddhism years ago, and I’ve never forgotten one teaching in particular; hendoku iyaku, or change poison into medicine. How could I turn this around to my benefit, I wondered?
Weeks went past and at two court dates the hearing was postponed. I wanted my neighbors to be brought to justice and I struggled to restrain myself from cursing them. Seeking solace, I pulled out my old copy of the Tao De Ching deciding that I would open the book to random pages and read a chapter a day. When nothing is done, all will be well, one chapter read. I determined to be non-reactive.
I called a friend, Lynn who I’d avoided telling my problem to because I feared she wouldn’t want to get involved. My fear turned out to be wrong. “There’s the flying star feng shui formula,” she explained, telling me about how it worked.
“That all sounds too complex and complicated for me to understand,” I said. “I think it’s beyond me.”
“The legal problems with your neighbors seemed to just come out of the blue, didn’t they?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “they did. That’s what’s so weird about the whole thing.”
“That’s how problems with our homes can affect us. It’s not that hard to figure out. Let me take you out to lunch, I’ll bring my book and we’ll fix it.” She was very persuasive and so we agreed to meet.
The numbers that corresponded to the sectors of my house, we discovered over tacos and enchiladas were startling. The number three corresponds to quarrels, legal problems and litigation. I had a three in three rooms of my house, including the front entryway, the worst place for one as well as my back door, another bad place. “Kids running back and forth through them can activate them worse,” Lynn said. My front door also had a nine, which activates all the stars in its sector. The number seven star causes accidents, and my house had three of them. Several months previously Rowan was hit by a car and broke her leg. Not long before she’d also recovered from a broken arm. My house had three twos, which cause sickness. Dale had trouble with frequent colds, flues, and sinus infections due to having had Epstein Bar virus, as well as asthma and sleep apnea. In addition, according to the eight mansions formula the five ghosts sector corresponded to five different types of troublesome people. At my last court date, five people in all, the couple and three friends of theirs had come to testify against me.
It all seemed like too much to be a coincidence. Even more coincidental was that I discovered, after using a compass and looking up my houses’ chart that my house had the exact same chart as Lynn’s apartment. I bought three books on feng shui and dedicated myself to reading them instead of anything else until I’d cured as many areas of my home that I could.
Mean while, my husband and I decided to move. We’d decided to move months before, actually but the latest problems got us motivated to get his parent’s house on the market and sold so that we could buy another house and move in before selling ours.
Elgin’s parents’ house was filled with three generations of junk. Since Elgin was busy working the only way to get it cleaned out was for me to do it alone. For hours I sorted through countless boxes and bags of stuff. Lots of it was old bills and junk mail dated as far back as the sixties, as well as old letters, empty bags and gift boxes, gifts they received and never opened and bag after bag with nothing more than a few buttons or paper clips.
Buried among the useless junk and scattered throughout their house, however were Buddhas, red scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, beautiful red silk brocade fabrics, antique Chinese vases, decorative roosters, other auspicious animals and other items I now recognized from Chinese philosophy as being useful for feng shui. On a dresser in the master bedroom was a large, glass-encased figure of Sau, the god of prosperity and longevity. In a glass cabinet in the dining room was a collection of ceramic figures that I had never taken the time to notice before. When I opened the cabinet to pack them, there, arranged in a half circle were the eight Taoist deities. Everything, even my decision to write this report on feng shui and the Chinese pantheon seemed like too much to be a coincidence.
The cure for the number three star is the color red, which symbolizes fire. I went through my home looking for all the red things I could find and tacked, taped, hung and otherwise festooned the afflicted parts of my house with red. I lined red shoes in front of a bookshelf, put red toys Rowan no longer played with and red squeaky toys our dog had chewed in front of the books. I covered a plant container with a red Christmas letter my uncle had sent and hung a red apron on the back doorknob. I hung red scrolls over the front and back doors. They clashed with the pink and green Victorian floral decorating scheme I so loved, but I no longer cared. I just wanted to be happy and keep my family safe. I wanted to make my problems go away.
After decorating my front entryway, I wondered if I had put up enough red and what other red stuff I could find. According to the bagua, the South side of the house or any room in it where my doorway was corresponds to one’s reputation. My next-door neighbors had collected letters from six of our other neighbors to use against me in court and so my reputation needed a wee bit of a boost. The enhancer for one’s reputation, or fame sector is also fire and the color red.
The number four star, corresponding to happy marriage and romance was also in our living room where our front doorway was. Good images to put in that sector are the dragon and the phoenix, which symbolize happy marriage. Where could I find a picture of a dragon and a phoenix?
Then it came to me. On our wedding day, my in-laws brought an embroidered red silk square of fabric and had all the wedding guests sign it. I ran to the drawer where I’d left it and rummaged around. There it was, folded again and again so that, when I opened it and held it up it was creased and rumpled. There, embroidered above the signatures were the dragon and the phoenix!
I ran and tacked it on my front door. It was perfect. Another red, embroidered skirt had yet another embroidered dragon and phoenix, I tacked it on the South wall next to the door below a William Waterhouse print called Casting the magic circle, of a witch casting a circle around a cauldron of fire. Over the print I hung another red embroidered square of fabric. Outside I planted flowers and set up a fountain beside my front door. I hung wind chimes as cures in the sectors with twos and put metal containers filled with dirt from my garden in the sectors with fives (five of those) that correspond to death.
My front doorway also had a lucky eight, which I activated with my favorite Chinese vases, crystal items including two cups, a candlestick, a rat (my birth animal), a metal Buddha and a freestanding, battery operated wind chime. I sometimes turned it on when I left my house so that it’s delicate tinkling could be heard over the bubbling water of the fountain on my porch.
It’s giving me hope, I told myself. If nothing else, it made my place look nice, distracted me from my problems and helped me feel better.
One afternoon I arrived home from school with Rowan. Across the street was “Carol,” one of the girls who wouldn’t play with Rowan anymore after our problems had mushroomed over Dora. “Hi Carol,” Rowan called, waving to her. Carol responded, and Rowan walked over to talk to her.
Wow, I thought. It had been months since they had spoken or played together, and Carol’s mother had arrived with my next-door neighbors to testify against me in court. It was a surprise to see them speaking again.
I carried my things into the house, and a minute later Rowan came in and asked if she could go play at Carol’s house. I told her she could. A little later they both came in and asked me to make Top Romen for them, something they had always done before. Whenever I grocery shopped I always made sure to stock up on it. I found the last package in the back of the cabinet, and they sat down at the table as I served them. They talked and laughed as if nothing had happened. Carol’s sister came over later and, at their father’s request, I even babysat them for a while. Later their father came for them and thanked me, also as if nothing had happened.
Miracles, whether due to feng shui or other means, do happen.
As luck had it, we sold our house when the housing market was at it’s highest for a great profit and then moved into a larger house we bought, six months later when the market was at on all time low.
Two of the neighbors who had ganged up against me with Dora’s family apologized. They told me that Dora’s family had targeted five other families in the cul-de-sac since our move, including them. Dora was expelled from two schools and then put in juvenile hall.
The use of feng shui not only gave me hope and helped me benefit in the face of adversity, it also helped me create the wonderful family and happiness I enjoy today.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2 (order at She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper. Her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at, or visit her at
Etiquette for Planning Kid’s Birthday Parties

I glided along on the ice with my third-grade son, Dale before his skating lesson. There were many more kids in his grade at school than usual frolicking on the ice, along with their parents watching and socializing beside the rink. As I turned the corner near the picnic tables and saw why, it was like a blow to my gut. Another third grader, a girl we’d recently had at Dale’s birthday party was having a birthday herself and hadn’t invited him. The girl’s mother, who had seen us there before when our kids had been taking lessons stood to one side taking pictures. The fact that Dale had a hard time being accepted by his peers and was rarely invited to other kids’ parties made it even more painful.
On my next pass around the rink as I wondered how I would endure the next hour and forty-five minutes, I probably looking as horrified as I felt. I looked at the girl’s mother just as she turned and caught my eye. Embarrassed, I looked away and decided that no human should ever have to endure such social humiliation.
Dale was having better luck with the situation than I was. “Margie invited me to join her birthday party,” he said, smiling eagerly as he skated toward me. I felt even better when, a moment later a boy we knew who was an invitee also asked if we’d like to join them. Leave it to eight-year-olds to try to fix an awkward social situation, I thought.
Dale stepped off the ice and headed toward the festivities; I hung back, unsure of my welcome. “Come,” said Margie’s mom, waving me over as she walked toward me. “Please come join us. I’m so sorry that we forgot to invite Dale. We invited Margie’s whole class and a few other kids but Dale isn’t in her class this year and so somehow got overlooked...” She looked flustered. “We always try to reciprocate,” she finished. I wasn’t sure I believed her.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a smile. “Thank you for letting us join you.”
Another time we had one of Dale’s best friends, Stephan over for Dale’s birthday celebration. Two months later I happened to run into the boy’s father. “We sure had a crazy time at Stephan’s birthday party last week,” he said with a laugh. “All these kids running around wild . . .” He looked at me as if thinking that surely I could relate, while all I could do was wonder why he was telling me about it when they hadn’t invited Dale. Not wanting to embarrass him, however I kept my disappointment to myself.
On yet a third occasion my two-year-old daughter, Rowan was the uninvited one. I found out about the party when the birthday child’s mom e-mailed a list we were all on, mentioning her toddler’s party and how fun it had been. Then another mom in our social network told me about it as well. I felt the same hurt and rejection as the other times, especially since she was the person in our social group with whom I felt I had gotten to know the best. Are we the only people in the group she didn’t invite? I wondered.
When the birthday child’s mom later told me in person about her toddler’s party, I finally spoke up. “You might consider,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “not talking about your party with people you didn’t invite.”
“I know, it’s impolite—I didn’t invite you,” the woman said with a frown, looking away. “We know a lot of people-—we couldn’t invite everyone,” she said in her defense.
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” I said, even though I was, “but you might want to keep what I said in mind in the future to avoid hurting people’s feelings.”
That type of experience, especially occurring threefold brought home for me the importance of parents practicing proper birthday party etiquette. The following are tips to follow when planning your child’s next big bash.
* If you don’t plan to invite your child’s entire class, preschool section, playgroup, or other social crowd always mail the birthday invitations. Never hand them out in front of others or place them in kid’s cubbyholes where other children and parents will see them. My kid’s nursery and elementary schools both forbade it. The same goes, obviously for e-mail. Don’t mention your child’s party on an e-mail list unless you invite everyone else on that list. Be discreet.
* Invite any other kids who had your child at their party. If this means planning for a larger group than you originally had in mind, consider keeping it simple and less expensive. Instead of having the party at a public place like a bowling alley, ice rink or other location where they charge by the head and probably have a maximum number allowed, have it at your house, apartment or a nearby park. If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses hire a clown or magician or have a piñata. Once the kids have smashed it open with a baseball bat, pass out bags for the kid’s goodies.
* If your child doesn’t want to invite someone who’s party she or he attended because your child says they’re “weird”, don’t give in. Even though kids often play musical friends, take advantage of an opportunity to teach your child the importance of reciprocation and resolving conflicts with their peers. Many kid’s groups have one youngster who, because they are physically or learning challenged doesn’t learn social skills as well as the other kids. The easy thing to do, of coarse is ostracize them. The other kids and their parents probably do just that, but you don’t need that on your conscience. Be compassionate and include them. If you’re worried about a certain child’s behavior, enlist the help at the party of that child’s parents, if possible so the child can attend. If the child is shy or a target for teasing, never let the other kids name-call, bully or reject them from a group activity.
* Never, ever invite your child’s entire class or other social group except for one child because their family is in any way different. Their parents may have a different sexual orientation, religion, culture, be green space aliens or (gasp) {insert your least favorite political party here}, but don’t succumb to bigotry. Always include them.
* Never mention your child’s birthday party to children or parents whom you didn’t invite. You may not think you know each other well enough for them to be offended, but don’t risk hurting their feelings. The same goes for another child’s party that your child attended. Again, be discreet.
* To avoid other awkward situations, don’t plan a party in a public place where it is likely there will be other kids and parents present within your child’s social group(s) that you didn’t include.
In summary be discreet, reciprocate, help resolve peer conflicts and differences and be inclusive. With a little forethought and planning, you can create meaningful memories for your kids, their friends and their parents that last a lifetime. Have a fun party!

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at, or visit her at
Abusive Palo Alto Unified School District Teacher Causes Lifelong Trauma

This is rather a confession, you see, because for years now I’ve held these memories in and told no one. Recent attention about abusive teachers reminds me of when I was in 2nd grade at Palo Alto’s Greendell Elementary School in 1968, and about how much things have changed since then. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, and minor details have been fudged for the sake of brevity. We don’t want to think that something like this could happen in a Palo Alto school, but it did.
Our teacher was “Mr. Griffin”. Whenever boys got too obnoxious, he grabbed them over his lap and spanked them.
The spankings were bad, but the worst incident by far happened one morning when Mr. Griffin was playing the piano. A short, skinny boy made disruptive noises. Mr. Griffin jumped up off the piano bench, strode over to the boy, hoisted him up under his armpits and shook him back and forth so hard and fast I’m surprised his neck didn’t snap. Mr. Griffin stopped and yelled something so loud I couldn’t understand his words, followed by, “DO YOU?!” Getting no response from the terrified boy, he shook him again. That shake/yell sequence went on for a minute until the boy managed to sob a response. It must have been the response Mr. Griffin wanted, for he dropped the boy back in his seat, strode back to the piano, muttering, “Excuse me” and finished playing his song. I stared in shocked silence.
Mr. Griffin never got physical with the girls; for me he had different methods. I have an eye condition called strabismus divergent, otherwise known as “lazy eye”. Unless I consciously forced my eyes to focus, my vision went double. After focusing for extended periods of time, however, a dull ache set in, followed by a headache so that doing schoolwork became difficult. Being the girl with the eye patch, everyone knew I had a lazy eye, but no one knew how it impacted me. I also had learning disabilities caused by Tourette syndrome, but no one knew I had that either. Wondering why I struggled in school, my parents had me assessed. For days, I met in a room off the office with a psychologist who put me through a battery of tests.
They discovered that I had a high I.Q., way higher than expected for such a mediocre student. As a result, Mr. Griffin got extra tough with me. One day when I had difficulty reading aloud, he scolded me in front of the other kids.
In fourth grade, I started out with an easy teacher. Life was good, and I rode home from school one day feeling a sense of well-being. When I got home, however, my mother broke the news:
She’d switched me to Mr. Griffins’ class.
“Please, not Mr. Griffin—” I cried and pleaded, but she wouldn’t budge.
I lagged behind all the other kids in math. I hated math. Who wouldn’t when the numbers seemed to move on the page from one place to another? Giving up on assigning me the same work as the other kids, Mr. Griffin tore off a stack of addition, subtraction and multiplication problems, stapled them together and handed them to me. I had to do them ALL as quickly as I could, he said, and hand them in when they were done. For days afterward, that horrid stack of math problems ruled my life. When I finished them and handed them in, thinking I was finally free, I almost cried when he handed me another stack. More followed.
One day, he ordered me to stand in front of his desk, with all the other kids gathered around behind me. For what seemed like forever, he balled me out. “Even the third graders are doing fractions,” he said, referring to the younger kids in our combined third and fourth grade class, “but you’re still only doing multiplication.” In his mind, he thought he was motivating me. He knew I was smart, and he assumed that if I only tried harder I’d be the Einstein that they expected me to be.
But that never happened. A friend I sat next to, who was actually a “frenemy” never let me forget it. “You’re half retarded, you know”, she said. “You know that? You really are half retarded.” At that moment, I believed her.
Other kids became Mr. Griffin’s victims. One day in fifth grade a girl in Mr. Griffins’ class sat on the bench during recess, crying. “Why is she crying?” Some of us asked each other as we played on the grass.
“Oh,” a classmate of hers said, “ Mr. Griffin gave us a spelling test, and he recited the words so fast that no one could keep up.” I remembered how upset I’d been the year before when he’d done that. In big letters, I’d scribbled in my yellow children’s diary, the kind that locked with a small gold key, “I hate Mr. Griffin!!!”
Another Griffin victim was a friend named “Ted”. The bane of his existence, Mr. Griffin gave Ted an especially hard time one day in ways I knew only so well. Sitting on the grass during recess, he’d put his glasses on the grass in front of him as tears poured down his face. Several kids stood nearby, picking on him. He didn’t relate to kids his own age, he’d told me, and preferred the company of adults. But he and I got along, and I liked him. His social inadequacy made him an easy target for Mr. Griffin.
Apparently, anyone who was someone wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Ted. One day the phone rang. I answered, and that same “frenemy” said, “There’s something for you on the telephone pole in front of your house,” and hung up. Going outside, I found a note. It said: “Ted and Liz, TRUE LOVE”, with a big heart drawn around the words. Although I didn’t think of Ted that way, it didn’t deter me from being his friend.
Ted confided to me how he’d dreamt he’d built a robot that had one purpose: chasing Mr. Griffin. No doubt, many of Griffin’s students also wished they’d had such a device, but the image, seared into my brain of him shaking that terrified, defenseless boy like a rag doll haunts me to this day.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and can be reached at, or visit her at
Three Surprising Things About Tourette Syndrome—Do TV and Movie Dramas Get it Right?

Tourette syndrome is a genetic neurological condition that always manifests in childhood. It is caused by an imbalance in the brain of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. That imbalance causes the brain to send signals to the body, including the vocal cords to move against the person’s will. Those involuntary movements and vocalizations are called “tics”. Tics are more common than people think. An estimated 60,000,000 people in the U.S. have had tics at some time during their lives, and one out of two people knows someone who has had them.
People with Tourette syndrome have both vocal and motor tics that wax, wane and change over time. The most common are eye blinking, coughing, throat clearing, sniffing and facial movements. Tics can be simple, single sounds or movements, or they can be complex, involving multiple noises, words or movements involving different parts of the body. There are often other symptoms as well, such as learning disabilities, OCD, ADHD, impaired fine motor skills and impulsivity. There is no known cure.
My realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2, about a mother, and her son whom both have Tourette syndrome was inspired by my own life; my grown son and I both have Tourette. My symptoms started when I was six-years-old as soft, high-pitched squeaky noises that I felt the urge to make until I felt “just right”. No one else noticed them at first, and I passed as normal. When I was nine, I became obsessed with parallel lines. I looked pairs of parallel lines, and whenever I found them I had to knock the sides of my upward raised fists together twice. It was kind of like a game, except that I had to do it. When my friends and classmates noticed me doing that, they thought I was weird and made fun of me. That was when I realized that no one else had those “urges" but me.
When I was 11 I had the urge to knock my knees together. I knocked them together so much that large bruises appeared on the insides of my knees, and they hurt. It was when I rode on a bus during a class field trip that I realized the only way to stop the pain and the bruises was to stop the knee knocking. With nothing else to distract myself, I forced myself to stop, and the urge to give in was overwhelming. I succeeded at not giving in, but it was one of the hardest things I ever did.
It was when I was twelve that my tics really exploded. Whole body jerks overcame me so that heads turned as I sat at my desk at school. Adolescence is usually the worst time for a kid with Tourette, and I had it bad. No one, including my parents, knew what I had and so I endured years of bullying and rejection. It was especially painful when the mother of one of my best friends got her daughter reject me because of my strange “habits”, and I struggled with learning disabilities. Mercifully, by my mid teens my tics calmed down, and I was able to make new friends.
I first learned about Tourette syndrome while watching an episode of LA Law. One of the lawyers had a client with Tourette whose main symptom was coprolalia, otherwise known as the “swearing tic”. That character was exactly like me, the main difference being that the only time I swore a lot was when I felt angry or frustrated. Therefore, I thought that I did not have Tourette. Many other media also portrayed Tourette as being just coprolalia, which brings us to the first surprising fact about Tourette: Only 10% of people with Tourette have coprolalia. That’s right, just 10%.
The media sensationalize Tourette in movies and on TV by showing the most shocking cases, misleading the public into believing that all people with it have coprolalia or other extreme symptoms. That brings us to the second surprising fact: most people with Tourette just have mild cases. Those misconceptions lead to mislabeling and misunderstandings by parents, teachers and many other individuals in all walks of life. Since the disorder manifests during childhood, many children are blamed for their symptoms and punished because their parents or teachers believe that they can control them, when they cannot. Even parents who understand Tourette and how it affects their children struggle to convince teachers that their children are not being deliberately disruptive.
My son Dale’s tics started when he was two. I still had not figured out what we had, and I was mystified. During that time, I studied for my state board licensing examinations for my Marriage and Family Therapist license, and I kept coming across the diagnostic criteria for Tourette in the diagnostic manual, the DSM III. Whenever I read it, I panicked.

Diagnostic Criteria for 307.23 Tourette’s Disorder

“ . . . motor tics . . . vocal tics . . . causes . . . distress or impairment in social or . . . occupational functioning . . . clicks, grunts, yelps, barks, sniffs, snorts, and coughs . . . associated symptoms . . . distractibility . . . social discomfort, shame, self-consciousness . . . depressed mood . . . learning disorders . . .”

The description on the page sounded exactly like me, irrefutable proof in my mind that I was a raving, abnormal crazy freak. Horror washed through me like freezing ocean water. I didn’t want to have that bizarre, unattractive disorder. It couldn’t be true. I do not have this, I argued with myself. But every time I opened the DSM III to study, that diagnosis lurked within the pages, daring me to read it again. I avoided it at first, but the tension increased like a heavy weight pressing on my chest until I was drawn to the page with a strange, morbid fascination.
One day as I sat at my desk staring at that awful diagnosis, I felt my denial drain from me, in its place flowing a warm, peaceful sense of surrender. I could no longer deny the truth. I had Tourette syndrome, and so did Dale.
“Grunts, yelps and barks—ha ha!” my husband laughed one night while I studied as he read the diagnosis over my shoulder. He didn’t have a clue that I was the one he was laughing at. Oh God, I thought. I could never tell him. Although being able to name my and my son’s mysterious affliction was a relief, I felt like a gay person hiding in the closet, and I told no one. Just like that 11-year-old girl sitting on the bus resisting the urge to tic with ironclad determination, I suppressed my tics around others in desperation to be normal. I wasn’t always successful at it; even my husband wrote off my strange quirks as just part of my zany personality, and it became my deep, dark secret.
One night over dinner with my family, with my father, sister, husband and then five-year-old son, I disclosed to them my diagnosis. It took courage, and I felt relieved to have an explanation I could offer for my lifetime of weirdness. Their reaction was not what I expected.
“You’re just nervous,” said my sister. “Besides, you can’t diagnose yourself. That’s stupid.”
“We can’t be sure that’s really what you have,” said my husband.
My dad, never one with a high radar for sensitivity, looked annoyed. He admitted later, however that his sister had had symptoms like mine, as well as himself when he was a child.
Wanting to be taken seriously, I went to a neurologist to get a formal diagnosis. “I have Tourette syndrome,” I told him as I explained my symptoms. “I just need you to concur so my family will believe me.”
“There’s no other diagnosis it could possibly be,” he said with an amused smile. Scribbling “Tourette syndrome” on his letterhead, he handed it to me. “You can show that to your family, and I’ll make a plaque for them with those words on it, too.” We looked at each other and laughed. He also gave me a prescription for medication, but I never filled it, which brings us to the third surprising thing about Tourette syndrome.
The medications prescribed for tics (as well as anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD and psychosis) often have side effects that are worse than the tics themselves. People with Tourette cannot just pop a magic pill and have all their symptoms disappear. Each case of Tourette is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution; one medication may bring some relief to one person but wreak havoc with another. The medications prescribed for Tourette are often ineffective, and it can take years to find the right medication and dosage with minimal side effects. In the mean time, many people become obese, have decreased sex drive or sexual response and/or cognitive dulling that makes them feel like zombies. Other unpleasant side effects include blurred vision, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, sleepiness and tardive dyskinesia, the latter, which is permanent.
There is controversy in the Tourette syndrome community over whether or not to medicate. Some believe that all people with Tourette should take medication; others believe that there are natural alternatives to medications that in most cases are preferable to pharmaceuticals. As an adult with Tourette and the mother of a grown son with it, I am in the latter camp. All the adults I knew who had Tourette said they did not want medication. Adults who were medicated as kids said they would have preferred that their parents had accepted them the way they were rather than trying to force them to be “normal”. Most people agree, however that if tics are so severe that they cause a child bodily injury, medication may be the lesser evil.
The diagnosis of Tourette syndrome for a child can be devastating to a parent, and they may feel they owe it to their child to help them to be just like other kids. Many kids with tics are bullied, and so their parents want to protect them from being victimized. While it is understandable why parents medicate their kids for tics, many mistakenly believe that their children prefer enduring unpleasant side effects to having tics.
I find the following strategies crucial for managing and coping with Tourette syndrome. Even if you do not have Tourette or another tic condition, we all have something that we are embarrassed about, so you may still find some of those strategies helpful.
* Advocate for yourself by explaining your condition to others, if needed, in a casual, self-accepting way. I explain my Tourette to groups of parents at school events, to flight attendants on air planes, and to anyone I think might otherwise freak out, “I’m just letting you know that I have Tourette syndrome, so if you notice any unusual noises, movements or mannerisms about me, it might be my Tourette so please just ignore it.” Then I switch the subject so as not to make a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be. When I explain my Tourette to others with confidence, I am reassured by how supportive people usually are. Some say they had already figured it out; others say they never noticed my tics. People often ask why I am not swearing. One woman joked after a group meeting that I didn’t turn into a vampire.
* Habit-reversal therapy is where a trained therapist teaches a child to substitute a disruptive tic for a more socially acceptable one that still brings some relief. The child needs to be self-motivated, and many adults figure out how to redirect their tics on their own.
* Provide a safe place for you or your child to release tics, anger and frustration without judgment or censure. Some people with Tourette are easily angered, and if that is the case it is imperative that they have a safe place to release it.
* Join the Tourette Syndrome Association, find out if there is a local support group and attend meetings. Talk with the people there, and read everything you can about Tourette. Knowledge is power. If there is no group in your area, consider starting one. I find that groups that allow parents to bring their children are the most successful. The Tourette syndrome Association’s contact information is Tourette Syndrome Association, Inc., 4240 Bell Boulevard, Bayside, NY 11361-2820. 718-224-2999; Fax: 718-279-9596.,
* Develop a network of family and friends to call for support when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.
* If your child has Tourette, educate yourself about it as much as you can, how it affects your child and what accommodations she or he needs in school. Be firm, assertive yet diplomatic with a teamwork approach to working with school staff.
* Do not let Tourette define you; develop confidence and build an identity instead based on your interests and character.
* Do what works best for you or your child and family, whether or not it is what works well for others.
* Having a condition like Tourette weeds out prejudiced people fast. Learn to accept yourself regardless of whether or not others do, and know that if someone does not accept you because of your Tourette, they are not worth knowing anyway. The flip side is that those who stand by you are the true compassionate souls we all need.
* Exercise. Nothing calms down my tics like a good vigorous workout. My favorite physical activity is bike riding.
* Meditate. Stress can trigger tics, and retreating to that quiet place within is a great way to relieve it.
* Seek out other alternatives to medication. A complete list with explanations is beyond the scope of this writing, but I offer a free list to anyone who purchases my book The House at 844 1/2. Just email me the receipt, mention USA Today magazine and I’ll email you a copy. See my website below for purchasing information.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the critically acclaimed book The House at 844 1/2—a realistic fantasy about a mother and her son whom both have Tourette syndrome. In October 2003, the Bay Area Parent published her article Tourette syndrome: Bay Area Mother Helps Child to Succeed. She is a contributor to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and has spoken at Tourette Syndrome Association events. Elizabeth lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children and their hyperactive poodle.


Jun. 4th, 2013 12:24 pm
Parents and Educators Should Always Intervene When a Child is Bullied, and Here’s How

By Elizabeth Johnson Lee, LMFT

Bullying is defined as being intentional, being verbal or physical and involving an imbalance of power.
Boys are more likely than girls to use physical aggression. Girls, who are expected to be “nice”, resort to “relational aggression” including teasing, exclusion, spreading rumors, cyberbullying and all other nonphysical kinds of meanness. Aggressors choose victims who are smaller, less popular or otherwise less powerful than they are.
3.7 million kids bully every year, and over 3.2 million are bullied, resulting in running away from home, 160,000 class cuts, 10% of school dropouts and 30% of all child suicides every year. Bullying can cause life long psychological damage and lead to loneliness, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and eating disorders.
Bullying is not necessarily “normal” childhood behavior. It is normal for toddlers to pee and poop their diapers, but they are potty trained. It is normal for kids to not know how to read and write, but they are taught. It is normal for kids to grab toys from other kids and cut in line, but they are taught to respect others and show common courtesy, or so we hope. When adults excuse bullying by saying things like “kids will be kids”, or “stick and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me”, kids miss out on teachable moments. Moments to learn how to show empathy for other people, to stand up for themselves and understand that, in the long run, they are more likely to get what they want from people when they are nice to them.
Just as adults can complain to their supervisors if they are harassed at work, or call the police if they are mugged on the street, kids, who are more vulnerable, need and deserve protection too. Yet 30% of teachers report seeing nothing wrong with bullying and so only intervene 4% of the time.
Signs of being bullied include bruises and torn clothes, missing money or possessions, an absence of or loss of friendships, somatic complaints, depression, aggressiveness and a personality change from that of a happy, confident child to one who is withdrawn and moody.
If you notice those signs, ask your child if they are being bullied. Listen to and empathize with them. Don’t overreact or under react. Ask what happened, when it started, and the duration. Discuss why, in a non-blaming way, they think it is happening. Share stories of when you were bullied, keeping in mind that to your child, their experience feels like the worst thing that ever happened to anyone. If the bullying is nonphysical, explain about relational aggression and, if your child is willing, empower them to tell their aggressor, in a confident way to stop. Discuss what they’ll say and role model it. Encourage them to respond to the bully without acting emotionally, which may be interpreted by them as weakness and fuel their feelings of power. Agree on an alternate plan in case plan A backfires.
If the bully is a child you see regularly, Plan B can be to speak to the aggressor your self. Approach them in a nonjudgmental way, state the problem and define the bad behavior. Tell them how their behavior affects your child and that it must stop. Ask for their side of the story and offer your help. Bullies see adults as more powerful and so are more likely to stop.
If the bullying happens at school, have you or your child talk to their teacher. If the teacher doesn’t get it to stop, write a letter to the principle and request that action be taken. You can also call the police, especially if the bullying is physical or your child was threatened with violence.
Don’t tell your child to ignore the bully or hit them back; those things only spur the bully on and could cause the situation to escalate. Don’t tell them to deal with it on their own; kids need to know they can confide in their parents whenever they feel overwhelmed with something they don’t feel they can cope with on their own. Don’t accuse your child of being hypersensitive; kids can tell the difference between fun joking and mean teasing. Don’t blame them for being bullied, and never have your child confront a physically violent bully alone; they could be seriously hurt.
Only talk to the bully’s parents if you already have a friendly relationship with them. If you are not close friends, take into account what the parents are like and talk to them only if you feel they can be trusted. If you talk to the parents, they will be more willing to help if they’re approached in a calm, nonjudgmental way. If you don’t think they will be helpful, have a third party contact them for you, such as the school or police.
If the bully is a friend of your child’s, don’t minimize the bullying; that invalidates their pain. Don’t tell them you no longer like their friend either or they may rebel by clinging to a friendship that is abusive. Just as adults can have abusive spouses or partners, kids can have abusive friends, or “frenemies”. Encourage them to make new friends, and find activities that take them out of the bully’s sphere of influence and that raise their confidence.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is available for interviews nationwide and can be emailed at, or visit her at
Hi Folks,

This is my article that won first prize in the 1999 Jack London Writing Contest. I hope you find it enjoyable and informative.


Accomplishing anything was more difficult for me than for others. Keeping jobs was especially hard. When I tried to figure out why, I couldn’t; the reasons I was given for my rejections were varied.

I grew up in a sheltered, critical environment where approval was hard to come by, so I didn’t begin adulthood with confidence. Dad kept his work separate from our family. He left for work early, and returned in the evening wearing a suit and tie. I knew he worked as an architect for the government and that he was a supervisor until he retired. He never brought me to his job site, nor did he talk much about his work.

Mom was a full-time mother and homemaker and attended various self-enrichment classes. When I started working, she seemed to think I should automatically know how to perform well—as if I could pull such knowledge down from the ozone with no role models for how to be a good worker.

My social skills suffered as a result of the years I spent rejected by, and isolated from, my peers because of my nervous quirks, such as head jerks, sniffs, squeaks, and other strange noises that I had trouble controlling. Therefore my employers wrung their hands over my lack of good judgment. It was as if everyone else was given a manual for how to perform well on the job but me.

My brain had a bad habit of switching things around when I was unaware so that they got out of sequence, misaligned, backwards, and generally botched. That happened the most with things involving visual detail, such as balancing my checkbook. I balanced it time and time again but never got the same balance twice. I forgot to write down the amounts of purchases, reversed numbers, put the decimal point in the wrong place, punched in the wrong numbers on my calculator, and skipped entries in my checkbook. That caused me such frustration that I swore, cried, and banged my desktop. I didn’t handle frustration well at all and the most upsetting thing was, I didn’t have a clue why I was so scatterbrained. I assumed I was just stupid.

Doing my own things was hard enough, but when I worked for others, it was no longer just my problem. My bosses discovered my errors and became angry. Like the time I worked in a plant nursery. The job involved displaying pots of geraniums on long wooden shelves in a large green house. There were many rows of shelves, and they all looked the same. When I first started the job, my boss, Bill, stood smiling over his large belly at my neat rows of geraniums, obviously pleased.

A few days later, however, I got the rows of shelves confused and put some geraniums on the wrong shelf, so I carried them over to the right one. After I’d moved a dozen pots, I realized that the geraniums were on the right shelf the first time so I started moving them back—only to find that it looked like the wrong shelf again, and suddenly I couldn’t trust my own eyes, my own brain, to tell me what I was looking at. It was as if there was a little green trickster following one step behind me, sabotaging everything I did.

“What’s this?” Bill asked when he found me moving the geraniums around. “Can’t you tell these rows apart?”

“I got them confused,” I said as my anxiety rose.

“You don’t concentrate very well,” Bill said. “You’ve just got to try harder.”

When I finally got the geraniums arranged correctly, the task had taken me three times as long to accomplish. Bill stood a few rows away, smoking a menthol cigarette and watching me, his previous smile replaced by a growing look of irritation. Is there something else I did wrong? I wondered, or was he just upset about my getting the pots arranged wrong? Perhaps he noticed my nervous quirks, which I could suppress for several hours. Although I tried to disguise them by coughing and fidgeting, people often gave me odd looks that I was too embarrassed to acknowledge.

Just try hard and it will be okay, I told myself, but it wasn’t okay. The tension built as my errors multiplied, until Bill fired me a week later.

Similar things happened at other jobs as well. If I would just try harder and pay attention, my employers told me, I wouldn’t screw up. Sometimes they thought I had a bad attitude, when I actually was desperate to do well. Once a woman I worked with in a cafe accused me of stealing from her when I divided our tips because I confused a five-dollar bill with a one. Some bosses verbally abused me, which only increased my stress so that I made even more errors.

My scatterbrain problem, as I called it, became my big, deep dark secret. I had to be sure no one found out, lest I lost another job. During interviews I felt like an imposter, covering for myself with false confidence so they didn’t know I was a scatterbrain. If I told them I had trouble doing things right, I knew they wouldn’t hire me. Who would?

I didn’t like conning people during interviews, but I couldn’t depend on my parents’ financial support and I had to earn my own living. I didn’t usually lie outright, just stretched the truth a bit and omitted telling potential employers I’d been fired. Sometimes I pulled the act off and got hired; usually I didn’t. I was too subdued, nervous. One woman told me I seemed depressed. “We need people who are more ‘up,’” she said.

“We noticed this vulnerability about you,” another woman explained to me on the phone, making me feel like my secret was written across my forehead.

Whenever I found a job, I was usually fired within three months. Sometimes I started the job with an inner knowing I would fail, that the job setting was ripe with things for me to switch or forget. But I always started each job with a fresh case of denial. That problem won’t come back, I’d think. Not on this job, with these people, or in this location.

But it always did. A building tension would permeate the air as my boss became increasingly cold and distant toward me, and I’d fill with foreboding. It’s happening again, I’d think. They’ve discovered my horrible secret. Then that inevitable day would arrive when my boss summoned me to her or his office. Here it comes, I’d think, she or he is going to fire me. And they would.

Whenever I lost a job, I was engulfed by feelings of failure, humiliation, and shame. What’s wrong with her? People must have thought. They told me I didn’t learn quickly enough, lacked initiative, worked too slowly, and didn’t dress appropriately. I tried to learn from the feedback so I didn’t make the same mistakes. I dressed nicely, took notes, and tried to learn what needed to be done so others didn’t have to tell me. But I always managed to upset someone.

After graduating from college and losing five jobs, I washed dishes in my college cafeteria. I worked alone in the dish room and the door had to always stay closed. “We have to keep the door closed so we don’t offend the poor, innocent customers with the sight of dirty dishes,” my boss said. The arrangement suited me just fine. I was so paranoid to be seen working for fear someone found something I did wrong that I panicked whenever anyone entered the dish room. Fortunately, I kept the dishwashing job until I quit and moved back to my hometown. But the problem followed me there, and I felt like society wanted me to climb behind a rock and die. What possible use was I to anyone? I wondered. What was wrong with me?

At first I thought it was my lazy eye. A visual specialist explained to me that my eyes were strained from the effort of keeping my vision from going double. That caused me trouble with visual details, paying attention, keeping organized, and even sleeping and relaxing, I was told. So I did visual training with an optometrist, but it didn’t alleviate my symptoms.

I took a meditation class. The teachers gave psychic readings and healings, and they said that my problems were caused by “beings in my space”. For lack of a better explanation, I believed them. I thought that if I took their classes, I would learn to “clear the beings out of my space”. The teacher kicked me out of the class because of my nervous quirks.

Suspecting I was dyslexic, I had myself tested at the Department of Rehabilitation. “You’re not dyslexic,” the gruff-mannered, middle-aged social worker explained when we went over the results. “Your reading and writing skills are way too high for that. You’re just so preoccupied with what’s going on inside yourself that you don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside. You just need to pay attention, that’s all,” she said, waving her hand at me in a gesture of dismissal. I felt foolish, and she made it sound like I could just stop being a scatterbrain anytime I wanted. But I couldn’t.

After more job failures, I worked in a cafe for the next four years. The job was menial and low-paid for a college graduate and I didn’t enjoy the work much, but I feared doing anything else. Finally I was financially independent from my parents. Finally I had a job I could keep.

So I worked at my humble job in the cafe, grateful that the managers were too lax to notice many of my foibles and too easygoing to care about the ones they did. I learned to compensate for my shortcomings by being efficient and courteous to the customers.

During my four years at the cafe, I got my Master’s in psychology and later completed the 3000 hours of counseling training required for my Marriage and Family Therapist license. Then I studied for the state licensing examinations. One of the materials I studied was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Revised III, or DSM III. It was in that manual that, at age thirty-four, I discovered my true diagnosis, the reason for my difficulties.

Diagnostic Criteria for 307.23 Tourette’s Disorder

‘ . . . motor tics . . . vocal tics . . . causes . . . distress or impairment in social or . . . occupational functioning . . . clicks, grunts, yelps, barks, sniffs, snorts, and coughs . . . associated symptoms . . . distractibility . . . social discomfort, shame, self-consciousness . . . depressed mood . . . learning disorders . . .’

When I first came across the diagnosis, I panicked. The description on the page sounded exactly like me, irrefutable proof on paper that I was in fact a raving, abnormal, crazy freak. Horror washed through me like freezing ocean water. I didn’t want to have that bizarre, unattractive disorder. It couldn’t be true. I do not have this, I argued with myself. But every time I opened the DSM III to study, that diagnosis lurked within the pages, daring me to read it again. I avoided it at first, but the tension increased like a heavy weight pressing on my chest, until I was drawn to the page with a strange, morbid fascination.

One day as I sat at my desk staring at that awful diagnosis, I felt my denial drain from me, in its place flowing a warm, peaceful sense of surrender. I could no longer deny the truth. I had Toilette’s Disorder.

It was over a year, however, before I noticed the words “learning disorders” on the page in the diagnostic manual, so I didn’t yet connect my Tourette’s with my scatterbrain problem.

I was also terrified of telling others what I had, especially my boyfriend Ian.
“Grunts, yelps, and barks—ha ha!” Ian laughed one night while I studied, as he read the diagnosis over my shoulder. He didn’t have a clue that I was the one he was laughing at. Oh God, I thought. I could never tell Ian. I felt like a gay person hiding in the closet, and I told no one but my therapist. She didn’t know much about Tourette’s, however, for while she agreed I had it, she didn’t tell me anything more about it.

My therapist referred me to a neuropsychologist, who ran me through a battery of tests. I told him about my Tourette’s, but he apparently didn’t know much about it either. When I read his assessment, he didn’t diagnose me with it because, he wrote, unaware of how I suppressed my tics, he didn’t notice them in his office. The assessment did say, however, that I was mildly to moderately impaired on half the tests. His diagnosis, if it can be called that, was “some kind of atypical attention-deficit disorder”.

Feeling just as mystified as before, I talked with my therapist about my symptoms, all the while hoping she could tell me their cause. But she couldn’t.
Years later I learned from some literature that my scatterbrain problem was caused by being learning-disabled, another symptom of my Tourette’s. My quick temper was another common symptom.

Tourette’s is a neurological disease caused by an imbalance of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the brain, causing it to send signals to certain parts of the body, including the vocal cords, to move against the person’s will. It is non-contagious and usually genetic. There’s no known cure.

I told my family, and Ian, now my husband, about my Tourette’s, but they didn’t believe me. “You’re just nervous,” said my sister. “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Besides, diagnosing yourself is stupid.”

“We don’t know for sure that’s really what you have,” said Ian.

Feeling indignant over not being taken seriously, I went to see a neurologist. “I know I have Tourette’s,” I told Dr. Taylor as I explained my symptoms. “I just need you to concur so my family will believe me when I tell them I have it.”

Dr. Taylor stood in his white lab coat, arms folded, leaning against the counter of his office. “There’s no other diagnoses”, he said with an amused smile, “that it could possibly be.” He scribbled “Tourette syndrome” on his letterhead and handed it to me. “You can show this to your family, and I’ll make a plaque for them with those words on it too.” We looked at each other and laughed.

My dad later admitted that his deceased sister had symptoms like mine, as well as himself when he was a child. Knowing the name of my problem brought a new acceptance of myself. No longer did I berate myself for being unable to control my tics or my learning disorders. Finally I could tell others I was neurologically impaired, and ask for acceptance rather than endure scorn for my symptoms. I could see my past through a new lens of understanding, and for the first time, I dropped the feeling of shame I’d worn like a cloak for my entire life.

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2, about a mother and her 12-year-old son who both have Tourette syndrome. I live in Palo Alto, CA with my husband, two children, and our hyperactive poodle. I can be reached at, or visit me at
Academic Stress and Teen Suicide—One Woman’s Story

My cousin Alexandra attempted suicide.

Why? My family wondered. It was a shock, and childhood memories flashed through my mind of Alexandra and me running through the halls of our grandmother’s house, shrieking with laughter. On a ski trip with our families at Lake Tahoe, we chased each other with our hands held out, like claws, as we pretended to be monsters.

Since we grew up on opposite coasts we did not get to see each other often. It was not until six years ago, at a family reunion, where Alexandra and I sat alone on a beach in Maine that she told me her story.

There were three things that lead to her suicide attempt. The first was that she was skipped a grade. The other kids were older, bigger, and more mature, while she was young and impulsive.

The second was that she had severe nearsightedness that was not diagnosed until she was seven. “I could not read the blackboard,” she said.

The third was that she had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. “I’m easily distracted by things that fascinate me,” Alexandra said, adding that she has a different way of learning. “I see patterns in things, and in order to learn anything new I have to imagine it on a visual grid.”

Alexandra compensated for all those things with a combination of deception (she’d memorized the eye chart), a good memory (remember the eye chart?), and high intelligence.

Alexandra’s family moved often, so she attended five schools over a period of six years. Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and that’s when she was diagnosed with depression. Thinking that it would give her a sense of stability, her parents put her in a boarding school when she was thirteen.

“My family,” I began tentatively, “always wondered if you attempted suicide because you could not live up to your families’ expectations for being a high achiever. Was that why you tried to kill yourself?”

As she hugged her knees to her chest, she looked at me and nodded. “Exactly,” she said, “and I felt totally worthless because of it.”

She was 17 when she tried to kill herself. She was failing one of her classes. Everyone thought she had applied to universities, or had at least filled out the applications, but she hadn’t. “Since I was so smart everyone always expected me to excel, but I could not please my parents or teachers and I always felt guilty. It was assumed that I’d go to an Ivy League school. When you grow up hearing you can get a scholarship at Yale by having a legacy there through our great great grandfather, it’s hard to see any other options.”

The day she attempted suicide, her father and stepmother were on their way to see her. She knew how disappointed they’d be when they found out she had not prepared for college. She needed a solution. “I took handfuls of aspirin-based pain killers,” she said. “When someone is in the grip of suicidal impulses, they cannot imagine a time when they’ll feel better. No one can talk them out of it.” After writing a note, she left out special keepsakes for her family. Then she took off to die in peace.

Finding a place to lie down in some bushes under a nylon poncho, she noticed how the condensation caused by her breath created, on the poncho’s surface, a droplet of water. “Reflected, jewel-like, within the droplet,” she said, “was an upside-down, miniaturized image of the world I was about to leave. It looked so precious. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to live on my own terms.”

Was it too late? She wondered. She lost bowel and motor control and vomited profusely. She had walked along a long, high, narrow wall to reach her spot. Could she make it back without falling? Progress was slow and painstaking, but, covered with leaves and excrement, but she made it back and got help.

Alexandra was taken to the hospital. The pills, it turned out, were non-lethal, but she hadn’t known that. Kitty, her stepmother, became a second mother to her. When Kitty visited Alexandra, Kitty told her, “We’ll care for you like a precious plum in our hand.”

“It was not until she told me that, “Alexandra said, ”that I started to recover.”

Some say that school stress doesn’t cause suicide, that statistics show otherwise. “Stop blaming the schools”, they say. Others say to stop blaming parents or peers. But ever since that afternoon on a beach in Maine, I don’t care what the statisticians say. They never met Alexandra. Yes, she had undiagnosed visual and learning disabilities, her parents had divorced, and she was depressed. Her family did the best they knew how by her. But if she had felt valued for the “precious plum” that she was, without feeling obligated to meet lofty academic standards that she could not meet, than maybe, just maybe, she would not have felt driven to attempt suicide.

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 ½. Buy now on Amazon at I live with my husband, two children, and our hyperactive poodle.
Hi everyone, and welcome to my blog. This is an entry I wrote for a local writing contest—it lost!


Food. I could never get enough. If I ate all I wanted I’d get fat in no time. Everyday I deprived myself, and I exercised relentlessly to prevent myself from gaining weight—one of the worst things I could imagine befalling myself. While other teenagers woke up thinking about the term paper they had to do or the boy they liked; I woke up plotting out what I’d eat that day.

I planned out each meal carefully; I had to, or any extra calories would go straight to my thighs, making my jeans too tight. In tenth grade and at fifteen pounds overweight, I saw a nutritionist and went on a diet. Although I lost weight, I tried forever to lose that last five pounds. Every day I allowed myself five carbohydrate servings, such as a slice of bread or one half-cup of rice or pasta, seven ounces or equivalent of protein, one-half cup of peas, lima beans, or corn, four 8 oz. glasses of low-fat milk, one piece of fruit, two tablespoons of oil or butter, all the fresh vegetables I wanted, and one dessert a week.

Sound easy to stick to? It would have been if Mom had stopped buying Pepperidge Farm cookies, my favorite: Milano—with the chocolate centers, and she made the most irresistible chocolate chip cookies. One day, I got mad at her for buying more cookies. “Why can’t you have more self control?” my sister Sue asked, her mouth hanging open with disapproval. Sue could eat every thing she wanted; yet she complained because she couldn't gain weight.

I could have tried harder to control my eating, but it sure would have been easier if there weren't so many sweets around to tempt me. At school people brought cake, sweet bread, or other food to share during class, and every week there were parties during lunch or after school where food was plentiful. It was too much to resist.

Sometimes I did resist, and I was proud of my control and will power. I’ll never forget the sumptuous-looking chocolate cake our English teacher, Mr. Brown, brought to class. For a whole hour I resisted it; sometimes others got up and helped themselves while Mr. Brown led a book discussion. The cake was dark chocolate and looked moist in its gooey decadence, but I dared not partake. I walked away from it, half-eaten by everyone but me.

Oh, the things I fantasized about while lying in bed at night. If I strayed from my strict diet regimen, I was like a snowball hurtling down the hill of defeat. I binged with abandon—blueberry yogurt, banana bread, cookies, and large portions at dinner.

My family made mean comments. “You’d better not eat that much,” Mom said, gesturing with the roll in her hand that she always used as a “pusher”, or it will make you turn into a bunch of flab. It’s no wonder you’re so big when you eat like that.”

“You come from a long line of fat women, so watch out,” Dad said, referring to his grandmother, mother, and two sisters. His mother was well known in our family for having weighed two hundred-eighty pounds.

“You’re always eating,” said Sue as she walked through the front door and found me eating tangerines fresh off our tangerine tree.

“All you think about is food,” Mom said as she paused at the door of my room and found me sitting on my bed reading a cookbook. I spent a lot of time reading recipes and looking up the calorie-count of different foods, figuring ways to measure new ones by the once or half-cup. “Even when you read instead of cook or eat, all you read are cookbooks.”

The irony was that, when I was thin, Mom worried I was too skinny. She surreptitiously peered at my plate during dinner to make sure I was eating enough, that I wasn't starving myself, and she made me drink chocolate milkshakes for breakfast to fatten me up. When I started overeating, a cycle that lasted for days or weeks, however, she commented on how if I ate this or that, I’d get fat. She pointed out how my stomach protruded, and I felt as if I was her laboratory animal.

I gained back five pounds, and went back on the diet again, lest my family’s conditional approval eluded me once more.

If I could just lose weight, I thought, then Mom and Dad, and Sue too, would approve of me. Being slim and physically fit was everything to them. Sue had Presidential Sports awards sewn all over her daypack, and all she talked about were her successes at skiing, running, and weight lifting. Dad worked out every morning before he went to work weightlifting, jogging, and swimming. Mom loved her weekly hiking group, and she walked our dogs and swam a mile a day.

I ran two miles a day, walked two more, and I often swam and took ten-mile long bike rides. Every day I weighed myself at least three times, often every hour, and I cringed in fear or glowed with triumph over every quarter-pound I gained or lost. I remember the day I scrupulously followed my weight-loss diet, with the addition of one sweet, juicy orange. The next morning my weight was up by half a pound. I took this as tangible proof that just one extra fruit serving a day stood between my being thin and teetering on the brink of obesity.

By the middle of my senior year in high school, I gained back the weight I’d lost two years before. Long lectures ensued from Sue that summer as we hiked with Mom and Dad through the mountains. “If you could just lose the weight again,” she said as I stepped over a log in the trail, “you’d be healthier, and you’d look better too.”

“I’m not that overweight, anyway,” I said in defense. Sue disagreed, and Mom and Dad were also upset. So what if I’m flabby? I wondered. Was my weight the sole measure of my self-worth? The only criteria for my being accepted by my family?

My eating problem continued throughout college, and I had a reputation with everyone I knew for eating a lot. “You eat more than any woman I've ever met,” a classmate told me with derision during breakfast at a class retreat as I gobbled down my seventh pancake. He didn't realize, I consoled myself, how long and hard I exercised every day to burn it off, or that I sometimes starved myself for the rest of the day.

“Every time I see you, you're eating,” said an acquaintance, with laughter, at a fair as I wolfed down an egg roll. One of my housemates caught me in the kitchen eating some of her food, peanut butter curried rice that I just couldn't resist; I felt I would shrivel up with embarrassment. Although she didn't say a ward, every ounce of respect she once had for me seemed to vanish in that instant with her look of disdain.

I gained more weight. When I visited home for winter break during my second year of college, Mom took pictures of me. When my family saw them, they expressed horror at the extra flesh on my face. “How about joining Weight Watchers?” Mom suggested.

“But Mom,” I protested, ”I’m only going to be home for two weeks.”

“That doesn't matter,” Mom said. “It's better than nothing.” So I joined Weight Watchers and lost five pounds. I kept it off, too, although I was still a bit heavy.

During winter quarter of my third year in college, I lived with a boyfriend named Tom who tried to reform my eating habits. Tom was slim, which I found so attractive. I felt bad that I could never fit into his tiny pants, the white bell bottoms that make him look so good. He got angry over the amount of food I ate, particularly the amount of sweets.

I couldn't help it; I loved sweets, especially a Mid-Eastern candy made of sesame seeds and honey called Halvah. There was a deli that sold it in bulk right on the bus line, and I often stopped to buy four-ounces worth. I ate all of it during the twenty-minute walk home from the bus stop.

Tom knew about my Halvah habit, and every time I let on that I'd eaten some, he got annoyed. When he didn't get upset, he tried to change me by showing loving concern. “It's not healthy for you to eat so much,” he said, appealing to me with his big blue eyes and taking my hand in his. I agreed with him; it’s just that I couldn't stop. The more I tried to limit my food intake and cut down on sweets, the more food I felt I must have. I remained twelve pounds overweight.

Slim as Tom was, he was a lazy, spaced-out pothead. His marijuana use bothered me more and more, until just the sight of his roach clip hanging from the collar of his fur-lined Levi jacket made my stomach burn with anger. Surely, getting stoned several times a day couldn't be good for his health, I appealed to his sense of reason. Sometimes he agreed that he should cut down. Most of the time, however, he defended his habit like a mother bear defending her cub.

One evening I came home after consuming my beloved Halvah and found Tom sitting in the kitchen in his favorite chair in front of the wood burning stove, gazing off into space with a familiar, dreamy expression. “You're stoned, aren't you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered matter-of-factly, glancing at me without a hint of guilt. My reflexive, intolerant reaction was stifled when he said: “You just ate some Halvah, didn't you?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. We smiled at each other. He was a pothead and I had an eating problem. Who were we to judge each other?

We broke up two months later when he moved back in with his parents. He was too stoned to find a job, and besides his marijuana use, I’d had it with his domineering ways and his constantly asking me to loan him money.

Shortly after graduating from college, I finally overcame my eating disorder, the latter being what I realized it was. It was a paradox, I realized. I could eat as much as I wanted. Wasn't I already doing that? No. I was trying to deprive myself so that I never felt I could get enough. I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, and the strange thing was that, eating no longer seemed so imperative. I didn't binge or starve myself anymore, or exercise like a maniac. Sometimes I actually forgot to eat. I still exercised, but only for enjoyment. Gradually, my weight melted away, until I became as slim as I dreamed of being.

“You used to be overweight?” People asked, “But you're a rail.” Sweet words I never thought I'd hear again.

My weight no longer defined me.



January 2015

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