My Visit to the White House July 26, 2010
(reposted in honor of Black History Month 2017 and just because I was thinking about it too)
I suppose everyone has a time in their life when they pinch themselves to ensure that what they are experiencing is real. As a person diagnosed with mental illness, sometimes reality testing isn’t that simple, but I certainly wish that it was! On Monday July 26th, my wish came true as I experienced firsthand that moment of reality testing through “pinching myself” when I entered the White House gates as an invited guest to an event hosted by President Obama to com- memorate the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act! NAMI selected four people with lived experience of mental illness to attend the event with Executive Director Michael Fitzaptrick. As a NAMI national board memher, I was selected along with the director of the Consumer Council also a NAMI board member (Michael Weaver), a long-time advocate and consumer council member Glenn Koons (PA) and consumer council member John Coon (NY).
My day started; however, with the selection of the most appropriate shoes to wear. Really it did, but I am sure no one wants to hear about that part of the day. On the road to the White House, I first wanted to attend a Congressional Event commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the ADA hosted by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. I contacted my congressman’s office and Congressman Adam Schiff’s staff assistant Patricia Higgins graciously made the arrangements and even escorted me through the “secret passageway” (read: not so secret tunnel that connects the senate and house offices with the Capitol) to Statuary Hall in the Capitol itself. Speaker Pelosi a long time advocate of equal rights for people with disabilities relinquished for that day, her role of presiding over the House of Representatives to Congressman Jim Langevin (RI). This was a history making event as Congressman Langevin, a quadriplegic, would be the first person in a wheelchair to preside over the House of Representatives. Speaker Pelosi passed the gavel to Congressman Langevin and with that they made their way to the House floor and invited guest followed to the gallery of the House to be a part of history and watch Langevin rule! And rule he did, having to ‘scold’ Congressman Patrick Kennedy (a great mental health advocate himself) of going over allotted time while making comments to the House.
As 3 pm was drawing near, we left the gallery of the House and headed over to the White House South Lawn for the moment we had been waiting for the event hosted by President Obama. With Passport in hand, I proceeded to go through several secret service check points in what was a blistering hot, but beautiful day. Past the last checkpoint, and there I was, at the White House. The blazing sun was still shinning but a cool breeze suddenly swelled up, as if on cue, to indicate things are really different (and better) at the White House. The event started with the customary speeches by dignitaries and then a wonderful speech by Marlee Matlin quoting from Hellen Keller. Patti Labelle sang while softly crying – The Wind Beneath My Wings and then Nathaniel Ayers played both the violin and trumpet.
I knew the moment was near when several men came out of the White House carrying the wooden desk with the Presidential seal. I had no idea, first of all, that the desk was so small but more importantly that the President was going to “sign” something on this day.
And then it happened, there he was, the President of the United States. And there I was a mere few feet away, pinching myself! The President spoke eloquently about the passage of the ADA 20 years ago and how far we had come, but also how far yet we needed to go. “Yes, We Can” was his call during his election and now during his Presidency. Along with the President we all chanted “Yes, We Can” to his appeal for housing, employment, health care and access to transportation for people with disabilities.
People in wheelchairs cried out “yes, we can”, people who are deaf signed vigorously in the air so all can see “yes, we can”. I cried out along with my brothers and sisters “yes, we can”! And President Obama went beyond “yes, we can” and he actually “did”. On this day, July 26th 2010, the 20th anniversary of the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, he signed an executive order requiring the federal personnel agency to develop model guidelines for hiring people with disabilities in order to increase federal employment for people with disabilities. The Order included ensuring access to buildings, bathrooms, transportation and web- sites. “Not dependence, but independence is what it is all about”, stated President Obama.
With that, the day was nearly over as President Obama moved through the first row of attendees to shake their hands – I wish I could have grasped the hands of the President in that moment, but I was content with my thoughts:
I thought about my journey here to the White House as a woman, a person of color and a person who was told by a long since gone doctor that I would have to give up my goals and dreams because I would never experience recovery from a mental illness. Well… Yes, I can and yes, I am”! With that I did not need to pinch myself anymore because life could not be any more real, recovery could not be any more real and yes, I was really there at the White House on July 26th, 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act! A day that rededicates us all to the knowledge that we have equal rights and protections to achieve our dreams!
Yes, I can. Yes, you can and together Yes, we can.
(Note – RIP to my dear friend Glenn Koons)
When my father was in Korea in 1955,
His father in Jacksonville Florida could not vote.
When my father drove my brother and mom across the country in 1959,
He needed to find overnight accommodations.
In his uniform, he made requests and was met with “no, nothing here for coloreds”.
Until he was referred to a house, a “black brothel”.
My dad, my mom and my brother were led to an upstairs room apart from the brothel because that is we where “coloreds” could stay.
When my father was stationed in Germany, he took my mom to Paris.
He picked up a newspaper and on the front page was a picture –
Four little children, little black children flanked by the national guard entering a school.
White women, faces distorted and ugly, spitting on little children
He turned to my mom and said “we have to go home, we need to be back home.”
When my father was in Fort Leavenworth Kansas, in his uniform and at his office on base, April 4, 1968,
He heard the news of the assissination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A uniformed coworker was overheard saying: “he got what he deserved”.
My father, entered his office, asked not to be disturbed, shut the door and mourned alone.
When my father prepared to leave for Vietnam,
he drove my grandmother, my mother, my brother and me home from my great-grandmother’s funeral. As he stopped for gas, my grandma took us to the bathroom only to find the “men” and “women” bathroom doors locked and marked “White”. My father, in his uniform, asked for the key and was told “you don’t need a key”. He asked the man to stop the pump though the tank was not full – he threw the amount owed of $2.50 on the ground, we all got back into the car. His children never got to use the bathroom.
When my father returned from Vietnam, he was not met with “thank you for your service”.
My father, in uniform, was treated with ugly, distorted faces and spat upon.
When my father watched as the first African American man
was elected President of the Unified States, he told me “I never thought I would live to see this day”.
When my father planned his wife’s – my mother’s – funeral, he asked me to lay out her clothes.
We selected her favorite outfit and on the jacket was a crystal encrusted “Obama” campaign brooch. We buried my mother with the brooch as she was so proud to support Barack Obama.
When my father texted me on Wednesday November 9, 2016, he said:
“Friday is Veteran’s Day – Reminds me: Once I was young, studious and optimistic.
My father fought for the rights and freedoms of others in their country.
He fought for the rights and freedom for all citizens of his beloved country, wore his uniform with pride until his retirement, carried out his duties, salutes the flag and votes even
This country and its citizens did not always thank him for his service, for his sacrifice and that of his family.
When I replied to my father’s text, I simply wrote:
“Remember to have the audacity of hope as Barack Obama so eloquently says. And no matter what anyone else says or does, you are my hero, you are my brother’s hero, you are our family’s hero. You are loved, loved deeply”.
I then wondered when…when …when can stop we all stop wondering when?
we have the audacity of hope. Hold on to, spread and act on that hope.
Thanking all the Veterans and their families that give their lives to support this country even when at times our gratitude, love and support are not reciprocated. Thank you for your service.
Veterans Day November 11 2016
(Text, stories and images shared by permission of my dad – Howard A. Myrick, retired Army)
Every night, I would wish that the next morning I would wake up dead.
Of course this is technically impossible. It was however a reflection of the deep emotional pain, anguish and hopelessness that I felt for so many years. Waking up dead did not mean waking up with the sudden ability to turn off my emotions, be numb to hurt or still be in this world physically. It literally meant that I wanted to die.
That desire turned many times into actions – attempts to end my life. That desire resulted in multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. Most of all that desire resulted in me not being able to be myself , to be free, to be happy and to be whoever it was that I wanted to be.
No one knew.
This isn’t something you casually share with your friends. It isn’t something that is easily shared with your family – no matter how close the family is. The fear of shame, being judged, rejection and social isolation is one thing. Being called or considered “crazy” or “psycho” is a whole other thing! As a person of color, an ‘army brat’, a ‘creative’ – let’s just say I was already enough of an outsider, the butt of many sneers,stares and jokes that I seriously did not want one more thing folks could put in their attack- Keris-arsenal. So I remained silent.
No one knew. I suffered alone, in silence. Every night wishing; praying that I would wake up dead.
But I didn’t. I didn’t wake up dead. I can now look back and say – that’s a good thing!
On Word Suicide Prevention Day I want to thank my mother. When she found out that I had attempted to end my life and was in the hospital, she got on the first flight she could. She came directly from the airport to the psychiatric hospital. When the buzz of the hospital gate sounded announcing a visitor, I for the first time, left my room. I ran, ran to see my mom, to feel her hug and to know –really know that my mother, my family loved me no matter what. We hugged and I held on tight wanting that hug to adsorb the pain and replace it with love. I cried and my mom held me tight right back as she stoked my hair whispering, cooing “it will be ok”. That day she started a new ritual with me.
She told me about the day I was born. She told me how she wished and prayed that she would have a little girl. That my brother would have a little sister to play with and that she could name me Keris after her very best friend. Those were her prayers for nine months. She told me how when I came out – her prayers were answered and that there I was this beautiful little girl, head full of jet black hair in a perfect bob hairstyle and large shiny black eyes. There I was –given to her and this world for a purpose. Her hopes, dreams and prayers for this little girl had been realized because there I was. There I was with something that I was here in this world to do. Iwas here for a reason. She would be with me, stay with me and support me no matter what to find my purpose here on earth.
Thanks mom! Thank you for telling me my birth story every time I thought I could not make it another day on this earth. Thanks mom for believing in me and for wishing, dreaming and praying my existence here on earth. It hasn’t been easy, especially after your passing. When it gets hard, when I wish as can happen on occasion, that I could wake up dead – I hear your voice telling me about the day I was born. And I stay.
For those still in the darkness – please stay. Just like me and many others – you are here for a purpose. Whatever that purpose is –we need you in this world and there are people who will walk with you in you journey from darkness to light.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, my hope and my prayer is that we first talk about suicide and suicide prevention everyday. That we create spaces and language that help those who are struggling in silence – find their voice, find that person with whom they can express their pain so they too can live a life of their dreams.
When you are lost in the darkness, feeling hopeless and it is impossible to go on -We will hold the hope for you.
There is always someone who will listen.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line: text START to 741741
Available 24 hours
My father returned to the car, inserted the key into the ignition and turned the key. The car started and with 4 words my childhood ended. He turned around, looked at my brother and then me in the backseat, and said with utter simplicity “I’m going to Vietnam.” Period, full stop.
It was a little after 5pm in 1969 and I was 8 years old, looking out of the car window desperately trying to turn back time. 5 minutes earlier Dad, in his crisp military uniform, stood at attention saluting as evening “Taps” blared across the army base. 5 minutes earlier I was a child, 5 minutes and 4 words later, that child disappeared looking out of the window at the flatness of the Kansas landscape. “I’m going to Vietnam”. It’s as if my Dad had already gone to ‘that place’ I’d seen on TV. He was going to war.
Dad slipped the car into gear, pressed the accelerator and the car continued down the road. No one said a word. I was to afraid to look at my older brother and my mother stared out of the front window. It was as if the last 5 minutes were in slow motion yet once the car pulled off we we were accelerating forward as if nothing happened. Was that the intent? To deliver a message of deployment to Vietnam as if it were a trip to the grocery store? Was this how Mom and Dad planned to protect us- their little children?
And that’s when I lost my childhood. If my parents were protecting me, my 8 year old self had to grow up and fast in order to protect them. I continued to stare out of the passenger-side window and did not, would not cry. Inside of my little body were tears and screams that I spread silently across the Kansas landscape as we made our way home.
We arrived home that evening in 1969 and we were the all-American Black military family – a house, yard, dog and 2 kids – with a Dad headed off to Vietnam. My father, my Dad, my daddy – was going to leave us and we came home to play with the dog. My mom (who swore she never did this, but she did) gathered empty jelly jars and caught the small frogs that stuck to our glass patio doors like little green voyeurs and produced the jars of frogs for us and we played with them before letting them free. My older brother, as he had done practically everyday since we moved to Fort Leavenworth, aligned the kitchen table and chairs legs in the cross-hairs of the square linoleum floor tiles, and then showed me how neatly they were placed. All of this so he could later move everything around and trick me into believing a tornado had whipped through our kitchen. He was my big brother after all and that’s how they show love to a younger sister- trick them. And I loved him back so much that I pretended to believe him! Everything was the same yet I knew that soon everything would be very, very different. In 1969 no one prepared a child even an army brat of a child about what to do or how to feel when their Dad is going off to war.
We moved to El Paso Texas soon after dad’s announcement so he could attend a special military language school. That summer we lived in an apartment building and my brother and I made fast friends with many of the neighborhood kids. I spent my time with a little German girl who lived upstairs and we mainly played with dolls. It was comforting to be in a house where German was spoken because I was born in Bremerhaven Germany and I loved speaking German with my new friend. My brother was off with the boys building forts, collecting the crispy outer shed locust bodies left behind on the trees and scaring us girls away. July 16, 1969 we celebrated my brothers birthday and like millions of Americans gathered around the television to watch Apollo 11 blast off sending men to the moon. We repeated our vigil around the TV several nights later to watch the first man, Neil Armstrong, walk on the moon, slow hop by slow hop. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and as Armstrong pushed the pole of the American Flag into the moon’s dusty surface, the war was pushed far out of my mind. It was pushed so far out of my mind that I don’t remember my father leaving for Vietnam.
He was gone and we were in Englewood New Jersey living with my grandparents, auntie and uncle. My mother, brother and me. I don’t remember my father leaving. Did we have a party? Did we go to the airport and cry while hugging and kissing him before he boarded the plane? Did I kiss my father goodbye and tell him “I love you daddy”? Did I? I don’t remember. I do not remember, I am so angry that I cannot remember my father, my dad, going off to Vietnam, going off to war.
My Dad was gone. Pictures of the war were no longer images of a far away place with green jungles, smoke billowing from burning villages or helicopters rescuing injured soldiers. In every picture and every image was my Dad. Yet everyday I went to school and was mercilessly bullied, I came home and I was mercifully loved. My cousin would come home from college to take me to “father daughter” dances, my uncle would take my brother and me into New York City to see the thanksgiving day parade and eat roasted chestnuts and my Grandma would shower us at every moment with “sugar”. I can hear her now – “come and give your grandma some brown sugar”. I loved those kisses that greeted me at the door after school and comforted me throughout the day. I especially loved those kisses and hugs when we received a letter, postcard or audio tape from Dad. Then we got the picture postcard at Christmas that would change my relationship with my dad well into my adult life. A simple picture of Santa Claus with little Vietnamese children. A simple picture that wasn’t simple at all.
I would stare and stare at that picture focusing first on the little Vietnamese children and then the really pitiful Santa Claus. The white beard wasn’t a full, fluffy white mass but rather some skimpy flat matted “dirty white” fabric. And the Santa wasn’t even fat! But for these children, he was “magical”. That’s the word that stuck with me- magical. Yes, I could understand that that for children orphaned by war, children who may not celebrate, know of Christmas let alone “Santa Claus”, that for them this rather inferior Santa, by my standards, was magical. But the picture post card from my Dad said “he was magical”. I looked closer past the suit, past the skimpy off-white beard and suddenly saw something I did not notice before. The magic lay in the color of Santa himself – he was Black. That was magical indeed as even I had not seen a Black Santa before! But wait, hold on, is it, could it be? Yes, that was my father’s face. My Dad was the magical Black Santa? I couldn’t believe it, I stared again and again and again. I was so hurt, how could he? How could he leave me here and be Santa for other children? I would take the picture out every night hoping that the face would change, but it didn’t. I looked at the picture until I couldn’t look at his face for another moment. I took a number 2 pencil eraser and “erased” a huge X over my father’s face. I erased my father. My mother begged me to tell her why. I couldn’t. I was only 8 and war destroyed my relationship with my Dad. As grown up as I tried to be, I couldn’t be anything but a little girl when I thought I “lost my daddy”. How do you explain that to anyone?
Life went on after the “picture incident”. Christmas and New Year’s came and went. The Vietnam war was present in our household through the newspapers, radio and television but most evident through the absence of my Dad. One night I woke up to hear the sobbing of my mother coming from behind the close door of her room. I could see the illuminated light from the TV seeping through the space between the door and the carpeted floor. I stopped in my tracks and just focused on the light dancing on the carpet somehow hoping the light would reveal to me what my mom saw on TV. What did she see, was there some news story that made her cry or was she lonely without dad -is that what made her cry or worse yet did something happen to my dad? I never heard my mother cry before and it scared me. I skulked away from her bedroom door, scampered down the hall and climbed back into bed, this time tucking myself way, way down under the covers.
In the morning, I decided I needed to “mother” my mom. So I copied the morning ritual of my grandmother – her mom to a T. I selected an olive drab ceramic mug from the cupboard, poured steaming black coffee from the percolator into my mug, caressed the mug with both hands and just as grandma did, inhaled deeply while saying “mmmmmmmm”. I looked deeply into the cup, blowing to cool down the hot coffee just as she did. Grandma looked like taking the first sip was like being in heaven. I too was expecting that the first sip I was about to take would be the best thing ever. I closed my eyes and sipped just like grandma. Unlike grandma, I cringed as I spat out the most horrid tasting drink I every had back into the olive drab ceramic mug. So much for being like grandma. When my mother came down for breakfast- she got what I could give her that was just like grandma, some brown sugar. I never let on that I heard her crying, I never told her how it scared me. I just did what I could -love her because that’s what I thought she needed and that’s what my grandma, grandpa, auntie, uncle,cousins and brother did when we were scared by the war, missed my Dad and wanted him home.
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know when it happened. But Dad was home. Did we have a party? Did we meet him at the airport and shower him with hugs and kisses? Did I hug my Dad and tell him “Daddy, I love you”? Did I? I don’t remember. I do not remember. I erased my father from a picture postcard, I was angry, hurt and scared. Now I was 9, Dad was back home and I did not know how to tell anyone that “I lost my daddy before and I don’t want to lose him again”. Back then no one prepared a child, even an army brat of a child what to do or how to feel when their dad is going off to war or what to do, how to feel, what to say when he returns. They didn’t tell me then and they still haven’t told me.
I would sit quietly in the passenger seat as my father drove me to college every day responding to his open ended questions with monosyllabic responses (yes, yeah, no) or on a bad day guttural noises (huh, humph). This happened in the car, this happened in our home and this happened basically whenever my father and I would have a conversation. Until the morning of our drive when he told me under no uncertain terms that “he would no longer tolerate these one-way conversations” and that I was to speak to him with real words. Something in my 20-something body rose up and my mind was reeling. That man that I erased from the picture postcard couldn’t be erased from my vision, my mind or my life. That man is my father, will always be my father who loved me so much that he thought to send me a picture postcard of a magical Black Santa in war torn Vietnam knowing I had never seen a black Santa before in my life. I sat up straight, looked at my Dad and started to speak in whole sentences. Something I had not really done for such a long time. Back then they didn’t tell me, and they didn’t tell him how war would change our relationship.
I think a lot of relationships were changed and we all lost something that day in 1969 when he turned around in the car and announced with 4 simple words “I’m going to Vietnam”. But as an adult, I have discovered what we also gained something. Through it all, my father, my dad, my daddy protected me, his family and as a member of the armed forces- this country. I gained a strong and loving relationship with my dad and this country gained a hero.
– Composed on Veterans’ Day 2013 to honor my dad Colonel Howard A Myrick (Ret.) –