Bern Warning

Imagine being 58 years old, and you’ve found yourself completely alone, in a great deal of debt as well as jobless and homeless. On top of that, everyone is telling you that you’re mentally ill, which is how you got to this place.

And, you don’t believe any of them. You trust no one.

This is my mother right now.

In mid-July, she made it to our driveway in Dubuque.

Leaning on the front seat of her 2001 SUV, she was sunburned and her hair was bleach blond. She reminded me of a scarecrow. The scent of old smoke from a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, Xtra laundry detergent, and sweat emanated from the hot insides of the car. My nostrils stung and my stomach flipped as the cacophony of scents invaded me.
For the last two decades, this is what I always feared. In our lives together, we were always riding a wave that seemed smooth at first and then continually crashed down, pummeling my brothers and me along the way. And, each time it crashed down, it seemed to crash down harder and more destructively.
Six years ago, I began to step away from her. I felt that I could do nothing to help her, but there was a part of me that never totally gave up, though maybe I should have.
My brothers and I developed a system for when my mother is sighted or when we think she’s in the vicinity. Similar to weather warnings, we have Bern Watches, Bern Warnings, and Bern Alerts (Bern is short for Bernadette). We joke about it, but when a warning is in full effect, the locks in our homes are fastened, the windows are bolted, and the authorities are often called. We are each terrified.
Expect loud screams and busted windows around 1:00 am…
After many incidents, my husband and I forced her committal. She is beginning to get the help she needs, but she hates every minute of being confined.
She doesn’t understand why she’s there.
She doesn’t understand that she has paranoid schizophrenia.
I am so afraid that she will get through this treatment and be right back to where she started.
And the Bern cycle will begin anew.


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The Longest Year

When I am faced with a difficult situation, I often ask myself “What can I learn from this?”

There are two situations that I am embroiled in this year, and I feel like I’ve been in the spin cycle of a washing machine since last February. My husband’s battle with stage two testicular cancer and my mother’s second involuntary committal followed by her second diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia this summer have both changed my life and forced me to confront almost every demon I have.

Apparently, 2018 is teaching me to face all my fears all at the same time.

Folks, if I fall into a well or am attacked by a clown this year, please call a medicine man or woman…

or perhaps an exorcist.

I’ve been going through my journals and trying to make sense of my scribbles. Below are a couple entries from last February. They are a little rough yet, but I think they deserve to have a few readers.

A Medicine Cabinet Full of Marbles
When we first moved into our home on Council Hill Drive, we found marbles strewn everywhere, likely from the previous owners’ grandchildren. Marbles in the yard, marbles in the rocks around the house, marbles in the vents, marbles in the cabinets.
I took it as a good sign.
When I was a kid, in the years before my Grandma Joy died, I vividly remember her jars of marbles and buttons. I loved the swirls of color in the marbles and finding the shooter in the mix. The buttons were pretty, too, but there was something lovely about caressing the sphere of a smooth, cool marble in the palm of my hand. In one of my magic trick books, I read that if you cross your index and middle finger and roll a marble underneath the pads of your fingers, one marble would feel like two. Nerve endings and marbles intermixed in this bizarre tactile experiment, and I never tired of it.
I sometimes wonder how many marbles went astray after I dumped them all over the floor and how many times my patient Grandma Joy had to bend her thinning muscles, tired and worn from years of battling cancer, to pick them all up and place them back in her Mason jars.
I still find a marble here and there around our home. Every time I find one, I clean it, but before I put it in my own Mason jar, I roll it between my two crossed fingers and think of Grandma Joy’s patience, her love, her handwritten letters in shaky scrolled letters.

Fear Monger

Fear is racing through my body and tightens around my throat. I work to fold the fear away. Place it in a storage bin to be taken out again next year, but it fights me this time.

I used to be so adept at folding my fear away and forging on with a life draped in sarcasm and bitterness, which are like fear patches for the pain. It was the only way I knew how to survive. Now the patches are growing threadbare and the pain confronts me.

I cannot fold it away. I must look it in the eye, conquer it.

For me. For him. For us.


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November marked my third year in Chicagoland and it was also the month Nick received word that he would be returning to Dubuque. His stint as an outside sales rep is officially over and we are going “home” very soon.

It’s an odd thing, that word home.

A sense of home was something I felt when I was a very young child, but the sporadic violence and instability of my adolescent and teenage years made it difficult for me to ever be truly at home in rural northwest Iowa. Then, there are these other places I’ve dwelled like Vermillion, South Dakota (undergrad, grad school, booze), Des Moines (transition period, living in my dad’s basement, allergy attacks from living with seven cats), and the Chicago ‘Burbs (my shacking up/married life with Nick and my life in constant traffic).

However, as Nick and I drove back to Dubuque over the Christmas holiday, taking the same highway I drove seven years ago to a job interview, I felt an overwhelming sense of home. I am returning to friends, to family, and to a true community. I will miss some of my Chicago life, but it doesn’t compare to my excitement upon retuning to Dubuque.


Our cottage in the Chicago suburbs. The spare bedroom contains what we affectionately refer to as “the jail bathroom”.

See you in a couple weeks, Dubuque!

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This is a photo of my youngest brother and me when I was about sixteen. There are very few photos of us together, so having this one makes me happy.


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Saying good night to my twenties…

When I wake up tomorrow, I will be thirty. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

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Eat Beef…because the West wasn’t won on salad…

This slogan was one of the many bumper stickers my grandpa had plastered on the back of his classic junker cars. If he were alive today, I have to wonder what he would think of my participation in Veguary.  Since he was a poor Nebraska farmer who raised pigs and cattle, my guess is that he’d curse a lot and grab my nose with his boulder-like hands and shake my face vigorously. That was his signature Grandpa move.

Veguary has reached  its halfway point and I am starting to consider whether or not I want Veguary to evolve into full-time vegetarianism. Even though I am far away from the small-town farming community where I was raised, the cultural stigma of being a vegetarian within an economy that relies so heavily upon animal products still sits uneasily within in me.  By banishing meat from my diet, am I betraying my roots? And, furthermore, does that really matter?

I have a couple more weeks of Veguary to weigh these questions and decide for myself. In the end, I have to do what I feel is right for the environment and what is right for my health and well-being.

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All About My Mother

Ever since my mother and I attended our joint counseling session last December, my perspective about our relationship has been slowly changing. Through my own counseling, I realized that I have taken too much responsibility in trying to improve her situation while damaging my well-being, my finances, and my relationships. What’s more astounding is that I have been doing this for a decade.

As for my mother’s current well-being, it has not improved since our initial session. She will not go back to her counselor and she is still showing every symptom of a serious depression. I want to help her, but I now know that it’s not possible if she does not want help.  I have been conditioned to pick up the pieces everytime something shatters and now I’m reconditioning myself to enlist others to help, so I am not carrying all of the burden and worry.

Easier said than done, but what a massive relief!

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