TMS #96

October 9, 2018

When the Cheese Dip Fairy (CDF) comes to visit, uninvited, at 10:57 pm on a school night, it’s time to start writing.

The Notorious CDF typically only intrudes about once or twice per year, and those times are usually fairly predictable. This time, it was a straight-up home invasion – unexpected, aggressive, goal-oriented. And maybe even a little altruistic. She knew I needed her. It was the eve of the one-week mark following a tragic school bus accident in the school district where I am a counselor.

One week prior, on the afternoon route of MISD bus #96, a well-respected, safety-minded and experienced driver loaded up 42 middle school-aged souls, and they left the campus headed home. Not long afterward, according to witnesses and others who walked away, the rear wheels of the bus dipped off the pavement, and the driver corrected to return all wheels to the roadway. In doing so, according to reports, the bus swerved to the left enough to cross over the center line, and as we do, the driver turned the wheel to move it back into its own lane. That correction led to the bus toppling over onto its side, off the roadway, where it collided with a utility pole. The power line attached, gave way, broke and fell to make contact with the bus. Without the grounding effect of its rubber tires, electricity did what electricity does when it is not properly channeled or contained, and a school bus became a death trap. And a driver became a superhuman. Some otherwise typical kids became heroes. A sister became a survivor. And a vibrant little girl became a beacon.

I’ve been a certified school counselor for going on eight years, and for almost all of that time, I have been in some stage of the process of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor. I have a special interest in trauma, childhood traumatic stress and grief recovery. Over these 7+ years, I have had the opportunity to serve many adults and children in the aftermath of various kinds of crises – most often on my assigned campus, but occasionally (and sometimes, far too often, in the wake of violent deaths including automobile accidents and firearms-related homicides).

For reasons I am still exploring for myself, the death of this middle school student – Jazmine was her name – has been one of the most profoundly impactful for me as a care provider. When I reported to the district’s transportation department the morning after the accident, I knew I was there to provide information and support for a large group of people who have some very difficult and important roles in the lives of our students – the bus drivers, fleet managers and mechanics, departmental administration and all of their support staff. What I did not think to expect was how overwhelmingly invested and supportive all of these employees were for each other, up to and including the department leaders. Just being given the opportunity to have counselors on site and to receive factual information about their colleague was clearly very well-received and appreciated. I stood in awe of many people who allowed themselves to show vulnerability among their peers and their supervisors – many of whom spoke openly of their faith in God and offered support to others. I was given the opportunity to briefly talk to everyone about secondary/vicarious trauma and how it may be something with which they struggle as they move forward from this terrible loss. I was able to tell them that recovering from such a traumatic event is a process, quite far from a “one-and-done” kind of compartmentalizing. We were able to give them permission to feel whatever they needed to feel — whether it was comfortable for them or not. To share with them some of the tricky features of this kind of trauma – how it may lie dormant for a time and creep up on them in the near or very distant future; how it may re-emerge in the form of a sense-memory . . . or a state of anxiety or panic at an unexpected time or place. No one shushed us, and no one watched the clock. It was a hope-inducing experience.

I spent the remainder of that day and all of the next day with many other counselors listening to some of the students who were also passengers on the bus — some of whom found inside of themselves a sense of urgency and responsiveness that undoubtedly saved other students’ lives. Those students were given an opportunity to sit with others and find a common language about a terrifying experience that they had all walked through, endured, as they left the scene with their lives and were reunited with their families. Some of them were feeling a true sense of survivor’s guilt — believing themselves to have been less worthy of living through it than their classmate who did not.

A compelling common thread that ran through those days was how the accident had stirred up in so many — adults and children alike — a long-forgotten or disturbingly fresh memory of a prior event from their own lives. Conversations surrounding those emotional wellsprings took many by surprise and swept them a bit out of balance. Their voices found listening ears, too.

I was reminded of a time when I was in elementary school, around the same age as many of those TMS #96 passengers, and my school bus was running its usual route in reverse order, carrying home a busload of students of all ages due to an early release. The weather in our little East Texas town had taken a nasty typical-in-Texas turn where a light drizzle became freezing rain and was quickly becoming an ice storm. Out in the rural community where I was raised, there was a new project underway that involved building a man-made lake/reservoir and a hydroelectric power plant. What seemed like endless acres of forest had been razed, and new “roads” built up and carved out of the red clay native to our area so that heavy equipment operators and project employees could make their way to and from the job site. As our bus traveled one of those makeshift roads, the ice had begun to freeze on their surfaces, and it slid off the slick-as-glass road and tipped over onto its side. I truly do not remember much about what happened after the accident, just that I rounded up all of my younger siblings – there were seven of us total – and I herded them off of Bus #9 and marched us all to the home of fellow passengers Carolyn and Arthur Manning. Once there, I remember a small home warmed perfectly by a wood-burning fireplace, and feeling 100% welcome and safe until my great-uncle arrived to shuttle us all to our homes. I do not remember even once having thought that there may have existed the possibility that someone on our bus that day could have died or been gravely injured. But as I sat and listened to student after student detail for me their horrific experiences on Wednesday, October 3, 2018, I suddenly realized that it was a miracle that my own bus’ accident had not resulted in a similarly tragic ending. And that was unsettling. Almost 40 years after the fact.

Something I did not expect in the week or more after this crisis response was how much I would feel physically affected — I always expect for there to be some emotional fallout, but this time, I truly felt similar to when I had a concussion last year after an automobile accident. I was not resting well — I felt as though my responses when asked a question were delayed and often fairly half-hearted. I felt as though I was moving through molasses. I could not seem to find space in my mind to fit many of the usual activities of my daily life — quality time with my son, focused attention on my responsibilities at work, interest in some of my favorite things – gardening, music, my favorite podcast.

I feel a solid, true compassion and empathy for anyone who ever lives and moves through any event such as this accident, whatever their role in it. Each individual’s response can be achingly unique and difficult for another person to grasp, or it can be shockingly similar to many others’. Ultimately, what does happen is that a group of people, who perhaps before were acquaintances or even friendly with one another, will likely find themselves bonded in a way that they never fathomed possible. Certainly not likely. They will have emerged from the foxhole as a unit, a group of individual humans who will now have been changed in very much the same way. It may feel like a comfort or a burden . . . time will let them know.

About ten days after the accident, first responders, school staff and counselors were invited to participate in counseling/support groups facilitated by outside therapists, many of whom specialized in providing care for survivors of vicarious trauma and its often unruly outcomes. Being able to sit with so many others who allowed themselves to be vulnerable and honestly share with colleagues and supervisors the struggles that had been plaguing them for the previous week was immensely comforting and encouraging. I personally felt a burden lifted — not completely — but sufficiently enough to be able to live and feel a little more like the me I was before it all began.

There will continue to be counseling opportunities for all of those affected, directly or indirectly, by TMS #96 and all it took from so many in its wake as we go forward. And that is the most forward-thinking, supportive and life-giving response anyone could want. And for all of that, I am grateful.

Protected: No Japanese Secrets

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

No More Waiting

Why did we take away waiting? Waiting is what kept us from blowing up at others the instant we thought we knew we should be mad about something. Waiting kept us from immediately sharing photographs that people could never un-see and that weren’t ours to share in the first place. Waiting afforded us the opportunity to consider the profound effect our words could have on someone else’s well-being. Taking away waiting, together with the not-anywhere-near-fully-developed brains of teenagers, may well have been its own tiny version of an apocalypse.


Today, a cell phone app showed me how unhealthy my marriage was for me..

I checked my resting heart rate first thing this morning. It was 56 beats per minute. Later, I was listening to some songs in my iTunes account, and up comes a voice recording. From that fateful night in December 2013 when my husband trapped me at the table for almost an hour and a half, berating and condescending to me.

On a whim, I checked my heart rate again, and it was almost 30 beats per minute faster.

And my O2 stats were 4% lower. He was literally killing me. Not softly. Not with his hands.

With his words.

Prisoner of Indifference, pt. deux

Sometimes, it is difficult to not lapse into a victim mentality.

Sometimes, it is difficult not to overflow with resentment.

Sometimes, it is difficult to find the positive in an extremely negative situation.

Sometimes, it is overwhelming to look at the sum of a finite set of experiences and not question, “why try?”

Sometimes, I find myself wondering why I am “rewarded” for doing the right thing with what seems like a very stern, highly inconvenient and hurtful consequence.

What’s this all about, you ask, Alfie, my friend?

For the first time in many years, I assessed my life and tax-related situation as having become simplified enough that I could return to my once-lifelong practice of filing my own tax return.  So, once my spring break arrived, I made sure that I had all the relevant documents in a bright yellow folder in my work bag, and I set about Turbo-Taxing my way to completion and e-filing.  Long before the deadline.  Yet not soon enough.

What does that mean?

It means that I carefully assessed every relevant-to-my-life IRS topic, entered all my information, and I clicked “Submit.”  A full six weeks before the dreaded April 15th deadline.  I was set to receive a refund for the first time in many, many years.  And I was grateful in advance.  And then, the notice arrived.  The kind postman did not allow me to walk through the pouring down rain to sign for it at his truck – he walked it up to me as I stood in my garage, opening and unpacking boxes, purging and salvaging and reintroducing treasures to their place in my home.  He handed me the envelope addressed to me from our good friends at the Internal Revenue Service.  I cringed. I knew what was inside.  Not good news.  And not to do with me.   

But it was addressed to you.  How could it not be to do with you?

Because, from not-afar-enough, he’s still in passive control of a few things.  He doesn’t respond to powerful entities’ requests to contact them.  He leaves the mail unopened.  He hears my reminders, acknowledges what I am asking, promises to take care of things.

And then he does not do it.

So, yes, it was to do with me.  His Social Security number and my name.  As if we are one and the same.  According to the IRS, otherwise knows as the only people who can take everything you have to cover what you owe to them, we were one and the same.  At least through 2013.

And once again, the aforementioned powerful entities find a way to get what is rightfully theirs.

They take it from me.

Just like they took $1,800 from me in the summer of 2014 because he stopped opening the credit card bill from our credit union.  The credit union he had long ago stopped using for his personal finance.  Because about a year into our marriage, he stopped depositing his paycheck in our joint account.  He opened his own account – a business account.  And commenced to spending about $200 per month on donuts and diet drinks.  For far too many months.  I was a new mother, and I was in survival mode.  So it wasn’t until I asked for access to his account for tax preparation purposes that I noticed the pattern and brought it to his attention.  We were married, so it never even occurred to me to take his name off of my account – like my name was not on his account – therefore, when he stopped paying that credit card bill, and they decided to “charge it off.”  They did – right out of my savings account.  The money was there because I had set it aside to pay the mortgage.  And then it was gone.  To pay off his debt.  In one fell swoop.  My sister and her husband paid my mortgage that month.  And a few other basic bills.  It took me 6 months to get the money to pay them back, but I did it – immediately once my house sold, and I had the cash.  I paid the IRS first, and I paid them second.  I paid the IRS first because I know how powerful and unrelenting they are.  And I do not like powerful, unrelenting people or organizations lording over me.

One of the reasons I got a divorce.

The family court judge who heard our divorce proceedings ordered that we split the 2013 taxes 50/50, and we both agreed to that order.  So I complied with that order.  The other one did not.  So, the taxes were paid 100/0.  It was actually a little more off-kilter than that because the penalties grew to almost $200 on his half.  I paid those, too.  For a grand total of almost $1000.

So, it’s difficult not to be bothered by it all.  And I don’t like to make waves.  And I feel like I have been very reasonable in all of this process.  But now, I have to do a little cost-benefit analysis.  Do I file a Motion for Contempt of Court?  I have asked him to give me a date by which time I can expect reimbursement.  Do I send a formal demand letter first?  Can you, in fact, get blood from a turnip?  What comes from a Motion for Contempt of Court anyway?  They put him in jail?  Do I want to be that parent?  The one that the other parent gets to tell our child, “Mommy had the judge put me in jail.”  I don’t really.  And it does not serve me.  And it does not get my money back.  Jail + wages garnished?  That might be a viable option.  Everything is considered to be my fault anyway.  And there does not appear to be much capacity for insight or self-awareness anyway.  So, would it be a “bottom” experience?  Finally?  Divorce was not.

I wonder, sometimes, if I allow myself to be too hopeful.  


No Numbing Allowed

On my mom’s side, I am the oldest grandchild, and I am her oldest child.  Yet, I am not typically the one who has the forethought and whatever-else-it-takes-that-eludes-me to plan and execute a family event for such a thing as a major holiday gathering.  I used to wonder why.  I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out.  I get overwhelmed.  I feel disappointed.  I want things to be something they’re not.  Which doesn’t make them bad.  It just lies in the gap between my expectations and reality.

What does that mean?  I can’t say that I know for sure.  I’m sure the way it is is the way it always was for me growing up.  A dash of mass chaos, a handful of hope and a generous helping of tradition and love.

My cousin – who, incidentally, is the next-to-youngest grandchild – is a great planner.  She initiated the family holiday get-together, and she finds comfort in our decades-old traditions.  Those traditions are quite difficult to carry forth these days because there are so many extended families and children and schedules and obligations.  But, we were able to get together last night, have a nice dinner at a restaurant and then go to her home to chill, watch some high school football playoffs and open some gifts.

While we were at the restaurant – a large, popular one in the area – we occupied multiple tables lined up banquet-style together, we ordered, and we conversed as best we could . . . in clusters.  I was sitting at the kid-end so I couldn’t hear much of the adults’ conversations . . . or much of anything at all.  I found myself completed overloaded with all of the noise and clanging and voices and activity around me, and I feel like I “went away” for a while, like a turtle would, just to be able to keep sitting there.

Earlier in the evening, I had learned that my cousin and her husband are taking a holiday trip to Italy.  At first, I felt a bit jealous.  Not just because I love Italy but rather because I felt like I could not see past my current situation to a day when I will be able to resume foreign travel, to show my son all that is amazing and exciting about immersing oneself in others’ cultures.  I work in a field that has a fairly obvious and seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling when it comes to earnings possibilities.  I can look at the current salary schedule for school counselors in my district, and it clearly states to me that even if I work another 15 years, I will still not make more than $70,495 per year.  I love my job, and I hope to do it (or something like it) for a very long time.  But, at times like last night, it feels a little restrictive.  I was talking to my cousin’s wife last night who does similar work, and I mentioned that I really have no idea what it would look like if something happened to my (12-year-old) car, and I had to buy something else.  Disposable income – that is what seems to feel like it’s missing.  I am working on paying down some debt – I don’t have a lot, but the gruesome reality of my graduate school student loan rears its ugly head each month.  And will for the next 240 months at least.  I don’t know how all of these topics flew through my mind while waiting for a bowl of lobster bisque last night, but they surely did.  And I allowed it.  I could have ordered a cocktail and dissipated some of the discomfort, but I consciously chose not to do so – I’m trying to allow myself to be more vulnerable, even when doing so provokes all manner of annoying thoughts and feelings.  No numbing allowed.

After a short while, I realized that there were emotions welling up in me that I had to take a few moments to identify and experience.  I was struck by the fact that everyone at the table, except for me and my mother, were there as part of a couple.  I am not often aware of my single-ness like that, probably because I don’t traffic much socially these days.  It took my breath a little, and it tried to take me to a sad, dark place, but I kept my awareness up, and I thought of some things for which I am grateful – I believe I successfully defended myself against being completely subsumed by those troubling thoughts, but I won’t lie – I did have to fight back some tears.  Mostly because I did not want to darken everyone else’s experience or be certain that anyone was feeling pity for me.  If there had been a balcony to go stand on at that moment so that I could have stared at the almost-full moon for a few minutes or maybe even engaged in some escapist conversation with a total stranger, I am certain I would have found my way to it.  But there was not, and I just sat there, marinating in all that was making me uncomfortable.

And I survived.

All of the feelings that came over me were clearly rising from a place of fear and not love, and according to some reading I have been doing lately, those are the only two emotions that exist – and every feeling we could ever feel stem from either one or the other.  It makes sense if you take a solid moment to really absorb that truth.  There I was, surrounded by people who love me and each other, and the devil himself worked really hard to intrude on my time with my family and lure me down the dark path to filtering out all that is good in my life.  I resisted.  Well, with God’s help, I resisted.  Okay.  I didn’t do much at all.  I just allowed Him to defend me.

The good news is that all that was going on inside of me did not derail the fun and silliness of the evening – those are a given at most family gatherings – and for the first time in years, I was able to give a little gift to each family there and deliver a few small treats to each of the little ones.  That felt good – I’m glad we were together.

Today, the boy and I are driving to Central Texas to see a college-mate (or two or three) and her family, and I could not be more excited.  We have absolutely nothing planned – that I know of – and that is A-OK with me.  Hanging out with one or two of my many “ride-or-die” folks will fill my heart and soul, and will probably feel a whole lot like I was able to go to a whole ‘nother country!

An Unexpected Benefit


Early last week, into my email inbox dropped a notice that I had received two tickets to be in the studio audience of the Season 10 Blind Auditions for NBC’s “The Voice.”  It had happened once before in the throes of moving and post-divorce emotional apocalypse, and I simply could not manage all that was involved with logistics.  This time, however, I did not immediately delete the email.  In fact, in faith, I went ahead and accepted the ticket.  It was for two people, and there were a scant few of my friends/family whom I thought might be able to endure all the spontaneity and borderline craziness that doing something on such short notice typically entails.

Then I thought of all the variables, proposed it to one of them, but there were fated reasons that person was unable to go along.  So, it turns out that I just accepted one of the passes for myself, and I declined the second one.  I took 1.5 days of personal time from work (which i haven’t even had available to me in many years), and I began the harrowing process of non-revenue stand by flight from Dallas to Los Angeles.  My initial plan had been to fly with one stop to Burbank because it was just minutes from Universal City where the studio is located.  My awesome dad agreed to get me a hotel with points so there was no cost involved in that department (except for $28 / day to park in their stupid parking garage).  But he couldn’t book a hotel until I knew for certain that I would actually make it to LA because once “spent,” he would not be allowed to get his points back – and those are precious commodities.  So, God bless it all, I was able to get on the non-stop to LAX at 2:50 Thursday afternoon, and we had wheels down in sunny California by 3:50 p.m. PST!  Once the gate agent assured me I would not be pulled from the flight, I let my Dad know, and within minutes, he sent me confirmation for two nights at the Universal Sheraton – muy awesome, by the way — right on Universal Hollywood Drive.  It took me 4 minutes to get from my hotel to the Curious George parking garage where I had to report for check-in Friday morning.

I did not check my bag, so once we landed, I just had to make my way to the Budget shuttle bus to go to their off-site location and pick up my Ford Fiesta – I had a slightly larger car reserved through Priceline for pickup at Burbank, but when I switched to LAX, Priceline was not cooperating, and I had to book directly through Budget – and I was not willing to pay more than $25/day to rent a car.  So, “Ford Fiesta or similar” was the best I could do.  Once at Budget, I stood in the interminable line, and when I finally arrived at the counter, I gave my ID and credit card to the agent and said, languishing on the counter, “I’ll take whatever you have on special for a tired school counselor from Texas.”  He said, “You’re retired!?”  I said, “No, just tired.  Well actually, I’m tired and RE-tired!”  A few minutes later, he said, “Would a 2 door Mustang be okay?”  I thought, “Instead of a Ford Fiesta?  Yep, that’ll do.”  Anyway, once all transacted, he told me to walk out into the lot to my left and that he would meet me out there to show me my car.  He pointed to a spot where this tiny little white car was sitting and said, “Will that be okay?”  It was a brand-new Miata MX-5, white with red racing stripe.  WHAT?  He said, “It’s normally $99 a day, but we didn’t have any Ford Fiestas for you.  Oh, sad.  How very, very sad for me.  I keyed in my destination address to the GPS Map, and I began the trek.

I worked in LA often and long enough to know that my preference, almost always, was to take the side-street routes – perpetual motion is my friend, and there is rarely such a thing on a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

I made my way, first, to a little store where I purchased a terrible car charger to ensure that my phone would last long enough to get me to my hotel, and then I wove my way up La Brea, across Melrose Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, and then weaving along Cahuenga Boulevard, over the pass and into Universal City.  I smiled a lot on that drive – reflected briefly on how I’d much rather drive through Los Angeles side streets than Dallas side streets – and happily checked myself into my hotel and commenced to getting ready to meet an old friend for dinner.  I was somehow able to make myself forget that it was two hours later in my mind.  Around 8:30 pm PST, my friend arrived, and we set out to find some dinner.  We decided on sushi, and we went to an amazing little spot nearby.  I love sushi and sashimi, and I felt 100% confident that I could try anything on the menu and walk away happy.  I asked him to order, and the feast began – so very delicious!  We made valiant efforts to catch up on the 14 intervening years since we’d last spoken or seen each other, and it was good.  We continued our chat in the hotel lobby, and at 12:30 am (2:30 am in my mind), I had to make myself go to sleep.  That visit was an extremely unexpected benefit of the trip – I had hoped to catch up, but I did not expect it to completely recharge me, reminding me of who I really am:  fiercely independent, adventuresome, strong, intelligent, a writer, and, most importantly, not a monster.  I had forgotten almost all of that about myself.

I schlepped myself into bed, preparing my “get ready space” for the next morning and setting every possible alarm for fear that I would oversleep and miss out on the very thing I had made the trip to do.  There was no free breakfast at the hotel, so I just got a cup of coffee before heading to the studio and hoped that the food trucks would, indeed, be available once I arrived.  They were, and I had the world’s best sweet potato fries for breakfast – and nothing else to eat until about 9-10 hours later.  After check-in, we were herded into an area under a big white tent to wait until we were herded onto shuttle buses and driven through the Universal Studios lot to our soundstage.  We arrived there around 10:30, and we were held there until after the taping concluded around 4:15 or so.  Once there, we occasionally had the opportunity to leave the studio to use the restroom, but once out, you could not return until the next taping break.  So, I never left.  There was no food and only water if you had taken it in with you.  It was a live studio audience concentration camp.  Everyone was so nice, and I reminded that show business is not really all that glamorous at all.  It’s demanding and time-crunched, and you never really have a moment alone, especially if you are the star.  Lots of busy-ness and people touching you all the time.

We heard 16 vocalists that day, and the judges did, too.  So exhausting – and the same high level of excitement must be maintained for each one.  For the judges and the studio audience.  Those poor judges had another taping after ours concluded.

After returning to my car for my phone, I maximized my parking pass and remained to find dinner on the Universal CityWalk.  Sensory overload, in a nutshell.  I decided on a bun-less cheeseburger at Johnny Rockets, but my waiter failed me, and after 45 minutes and no food, I got someone’s attention – the manager, fortunately – and he brought me my food and offered me that and anything else I wanted on the menu, his treat.  So, free dinner for me!  While in LA, I bought 2 cups of coffee and an order of sweet potato fries.

Back in D/FW now – first thing I did once leaving the airport was drive to Fuzzy’s for some tacos.  I listened to part of the Baylor game in-flight, then finished that up at my mom’s with her and my son.  Another one in the win column this weekend.

And the game wasn’t so bad, either.