What is Success?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

This week Janet seems to be going through cycles where one moment she wants to be left alone, but the next, she wants to be involved in conversations and decisions. In fact, Frannie is experiencing increasing upset over Janet’s “eavesdropping” on conversations and then trying to participate in them – even when it’s clear that she didn’t really understand what she heard. I seem to be back in the mode of getting between the two of them to prevent verbal altercations.

Another thing I have talked about in the past, that bothers Frannie greatly, is Janet’s refusal to use her walker. I have come to realize that short of tying her down, there really is no way, as a practical matter, to stop her from getting up and toddling around the apartment. It strikes me that perhaps refusing to use the walker is her last act of rebellion.

Come to think of it, that word pretty well sums up Janet’s life: “rebellion.” Whether spiritually, politically, educationally or any other way you can name, Janet has always seemed to have her BS detector (on a scale of 1 to 10) hardwired on 11. She has left churches over misbehavior of clergy. Over two election cycles, she worked tirelessly for Perot. Even in her current diminished cognitive state, she still talks about his prescience in seeing where previous administrations were taking the country.

I have written before about how, when she was teaching in public schools, she tailored lessons for individual students. But she also cared about the small stuff. For example, Janet is from Massachusetts and for those of you who have never been there, yes, they do talk funny. But Janet was always careful to model correct pronunciation. In fact, one of the ways I could tell she was ill was if, in response to the question, “How are you feeling?” she would say “mediocah” (mediocre).

But Janet was always a rebel with a cause. She never believed in tearing things down simply for the pleasure of seeing others fail. For her, there was always a reason for her rebellion: to make the world a better place.

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The post last week talked about what happens to caregivers after they have successfully completed their care mission, and how they can find fulfillment and meaning by contributing back to the community. However, whether you realized it or not, there was a rather glaring hole in that discussion, which I intend to close right now. The previous post just assumes that the caregiver’s work ended in success. However, in the context of caring for someone with a terminal illness where the patient always dies, what exactly does success mean?

  • Kept them safe.
  • Kept them alive as long as medically possible.
  • Gave them “Death with Dignity”.
  • Helped them to be happy.
  • Did the best I could.
  • Kept them out of a long-term care facility.
  • Got them admitted to a long-term care facility.
  • I outlived the person for whom I was caring.

But which, if any, of these goals forms a good basis for determining success or failure as a caregiver for someone with a terminal illness? Before we try to answer that specific query, let’s take a little broader perspective on the matter by considering a common metaphor: The foot race.

Over the centuries, the foot race has repeatedly proven itself as a way of explaining, exploring, and describing the meaning of success. For example, how many times have you heard someone describe caregiving as a “marathon” and not a “sprint?” How many times have you said something like that yourself?

The reason for this popularity should be obvious. Consider: a foot race has a clearly defined beginning (the starting pistol goes off), a predetermined length, a precise end (when the runner breaks the tape at the finish line), and a reward for winning, ranging from congratulatory handshakes and hugs, to formal awards such as this gold medal from the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. (Why the 1924 Paris Olympics? Patience, dear friends, patience.)

Gold Medal 1924 Paris Olympics
The problem, of course, is that the marathon a caregiver runs lacks nearly all of the things that make a race an attractive metaphor. For example, when did the cognitive problems definitively start? Maybe your loved one had been feeling the effects for decades before recognizing them. And predetermined length? Who are we kidding? They may survive for months, years or even decades. We talked about the lack of a definitive end last week.

Despite all these difficulties, race analogies can nevertheless be helpful by bringing with them a certain intuitive understanding of the situation. But this metaphor has much more to offer than mere vague generalizations. A point demonstrated by a wonderful movie I saw many years ago.

The year was 1981 and the Academy Award winner for best picture was a historical drama surrounding the eighth modern Olympiad, held in Paris in 1924. The movie is, of course, the magnificent Chariots of Fire. Focusing on the lives of Eric Liddell – the so-called “Flying Scotsman” – and Harold Abrahams, you soon discover through the film that in many ways, these two men could not have been more different. Given their differences, it would be tempting (and easy) to cast comparison between the two of them in terms of the good (Liddell) and bad (Abrahams), but the truth is far too complex for that simplistic of a structure.

For example, while it is true that Abrahams was at times arrogant, carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of Big Ben, those personality quirks were not without cause. After all, Abrahams was Jewish, and England at the time was rife with antisemitism. But there was more to the man than that. He also demonstrated the ability to love deeply, and had a reputation for being intensely loyal to friends, his teammates, and his country.

The really interesting difference between the two men is their reasons for running, why they raced. Liddell ran as an expression of who he was as a human being. As he once told his sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Liddell raced because it gave him a reason to run and express who he was. A hallmark of the pleasure he felt was apparent in his unique running style. As can be seen in archival films from the time, when he crossed the finish line, his arms would be flailing, his head would be thrown back and his mouth would be gaping open in an impossibly wide smile – a smile.

By contrast, due to the daily reality he lived, Abrahams had a very different reason for racing. He once told a friend that his intent for the antisemitic mob was to “…run them into the ground!” Simply running a good race was not adequate: all that mattered to him was winning. He wanted to be able to rub their noses in his success. For him, there was no joy in running, only anger and revenge. But then something, we don’t know exactly what, changed him.

Perhaps it was the realization that winning an Olympic gold medal didn’t feel nearly as good as he thought it would, but instead left him feeling hollow inside. Maybe, as in the film, he witnessed Liddell win his gold medal event and saw on his face another reason to compete – the sheer joy of it. Conceivably, it was something that God worked out silently in the privacy of his heart. One thing is clear: if you read about his life after 1924 and all the things he did publicly and privately, he was a different person.

So what does all this talk have to do with being a successful caregiver? Simply this: I would humbly submit that there are two approaches to caregiving, that mirror the approaches these two men exhibited when racing. Moreover, I contend that we aren’t stuck in one modus operandi. Rather, people can and do change their approaches to the task of caregiving all the time – in other words, we have good days and we have bad days.

So the first approach is analogous to how a younger Abrahams approached running. Here the caregiver sees themselves as being embroiled in a battle, not against antisemitism or bigotry, but a disease. This approach does work, for a while at least. For example, Abrahams’ single-minded focus on winning at all costs, did get him to the Olympics, and it won him a gold medal. But it called for a level of isolated exertion that was ultimately unsustainable. Perhaps this is why so many caregivers die before the person they are caring for does: caregiving as a battle, in the long term, doesn’t work.

As I said before, the problem is that with our race, the beginning is uncertain, the duration is unknown and the end is unpredictable. So what we need is an approach that is more like the way Liddell ran a race. An approach that focuses less on what we are “doing” and more on who we “are.” With such an approach, success or failure isn’t judged at some arbitrary point in the future when the race is done. Rather, the goal is to express who you are and your giftedness right now, today, with every step.

What parent doesn’t find pleasure in seeing their child using and enjoying a special gift they gave them? Yet too often people of faith fail to recognize that God feels pleasure when we make full use of the gifts He has provided us. Like Liddell all those years ago, we can affirm that “…when I run (care/write/program/etc.), I feel His pleasure.” Moreover, we can learn that His pleasure isn’t just a nice feeling that lasts for a moment and then is gone. Rather, we can experience His pleasure as a sustaining force that enlivens us, strengthens us, and lifts us up on the wings of eagles.

Now that, my friends, is success.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you are feeling spent…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the gifts that you bestow. But today I want to bless You especially for the strength that You give me for today. So often I feel run down and run over. Thank you for not just enabling me to survive trials, but to thrive in the face of adversity. Show me how to feel Your pleasure. Amen”

Puppy Dogs and Unicorns

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

The big news this week is that I got a call from Houston Hospice that Janet is stronger and so no longer qualifies for their services! While that is good news, there appears to be a little confusion. I was called by Jan’s hospice nurse Friday morning and was told at that time that Jan no longer qualified. Then Friday afternoon the same nurse came by the house and not only failed to mention her status change (which the nurse told me on the phone she would) but went on to tell Janet that she was going to get evaluated for PT under hospice next week – what?

Beyond that, there is a new symptom that I don’t think I have mentioned. She has suddenly started needing to know exactly where I am every minute. For instance, if I go to get her something at the store she will call me once while I’m on my way, at least once while I am there, and again as I’m on my way home. Not sure what that is about, but it’s not worth stressing over.

I remember the very first time I saw Janet. It was at a restaurant called “Friendly’s” that was across from Symphony Hall in Boston. As I explained previously, we met through a newspaper ad that I ran, so I didn’t know what she looked like. Unfortunately, I have to admit that the first thing that ran through my mind when I saw her was, “Man, she’s short.” But she packed a lot into a small package. From Friendly’s, we walked to a Thai restaurant that was around the corner, to have dinner. There I learned that she had just recently left teaching due to layoffs. She had also traveled internationally, visiting England, Scotland, and France – and liked trying new things like Thai food. Before saying goodnight, I remember thinking, “Yeah, this one is special. I’ll be calling this one back. Definitely.”


The first thing I need to say this week, is that the title above is a bit of a red herring as this post has absolutely nothing to do with either puppy dogs or unicorns. Rather, the title is a bit of dark humor that I will explain later. In fact, one of the things that I enjoy most about writing is being able to draw connections between seemingly disparate things, and in so doing, expose larger patterns in the world. However, making the connections that I have in mind this week won’t require much imagination at all.

Lately there has been a lot of conversation about being a “warrior” – I even wrote about it myself a few weeks ago. The problem is that there are two sides to everything, and being a warrior is no exception. There are the strong, heroic images of warriors in armor battered and bruised, but victorious! We love seeing those kinds of pictures where we can imagine ourselves or a loved one in the heroic role.

But another side also exists that is not so pleasant to consider. In addition to the prize that goes to the victor, there is also the price that the warrior has to pay in order to gain the victory. In the real world, all-out battle can sometimes extract a heavy toll in the form of a physical injury or disability, while at other times the injury is emotional or psychological in nature.

Yes, being an HD caregiver can be dangerous.

“Wait, what? Caregivers? I thought you were
talking about military veterans!”

What I’m talking about is a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and to be honest, up until a few years ago PTSD was for the most part only considered in terms of either the military or first-responders like the police, firefighters and EMTs. However, recent research is showing that anyone can feel the effects of PTSD, from little children to grandparents, and one of the top sources of PTSD in the civilian population is being a caregiver for someone with a long-term debilitating illness like HD.

Unfortunately, this condition is something I know about. I was diagnosed with it about 4 years ago as a result of my military service and something else that I will talk about later. In terms of the military, I was in the United State Air Force and my last duty assignment was in the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, where I was Radio Maintenance, or RM, flying on what was called the Airborne Command Post. One of our EC135s was in the air 24/7/365 for more than 5 decades. At the same time, we had crews standing by on ground alert, but we all had the same mission: Wait for WWIII to start, and if it did, fight it regardless of cost. To be clear, I in no way regret my service. It was the dedication of military men and women on both sides of the “Iron Curtain” that kept WWIII from ever happening. Since you are here reading this, it’s clear that our mission was a success. But for me personally, there was a cost: an inability to sleep, a trashed marriage, depression, emotional and social isolation, accentuated startle response, and flashbacks when fire alarms went off unexpectedly.

The thing that saved me was when God brought Janet into my life. She helped me see beyond the old pain and start healing by making it safe for me. She was also one of the few people I have met who fully understood what I was doing in SAC. She used to call me her hero for helping to protect her. Unfortunately, Janet is now dying of HD, and the stress is slowly bringing back the old symptoms – and a few new ones to boot. Recently, a fellow wrote on one of the HD support forums about the changes that his wife had started going through. I told him that, “…being a caregiver feels at times like you are literally living in a war zone.” Some days it takes an act of God for me to get to work and stay connected to the world around me.

But what is PTSD actually and what are the major symptoms? To answer that questions, you remember seeing this list online anywhere? This is PTSD symptoms in a nutshell.

For a more formal evaluation, I have also found an excellent website by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, or the ADAA. This link is to the section specifically on PTSD. In addition to the quality of information, the other thing I like about this site is that it (like this blog) has a menu that allows you to select the language in which to display the contents, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

To help you gain insight into either your own condition or the condition of a loved one, there is an online evaluation you can take. Unlike other online tests I have seen, the result of filling out the form isn’t an answer, but rather an opportunity to print out your answers with a recommendation to see a doctor and share the results. In other words, you are pushed to get evaluated by a doctor, which is the responsible thing to do.

Unfortunately, that simple step can be the hardest. A friend from the UK recently told me that the waiting list for obtaining psychiatric therapy with the NHS was 2 years and even when you do get to see a doctor, according to my friend, “…they just want you to pop pills, it’s cheaper.” However, while pills may help you through a crisis, they are not a long-term solution, and what we need is a solution not for the next few hours or even the next month or so. We need a solution for the rest of our lives because the trauma that causes our PTSD doesn’t get better or go away. Like all our experiences, the trauma becomes part of who we are.

So if we can’t depend on “the system” to take care of us and our PTSD, what can we do? The option we have left is self-care, which obviously starts with awareness. Of all the posts I have read on the HD, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s support groups I have yet to see even one that talks about PTSD and identifies it correctly. As caregivers we need to educate ourselves on this condition and be sharing with one another what we have learned. We need to be talking about it and sharing our stories of success and failure. We need to own what is going on inside our heads because if we don’t, it will own us.

The other thing we need to do is set reasonable expectations. There will be days when we are doing well, and there will be days when the old dragon will unexpectedly awaken, and we will have to respond – like a couple months ago when my sister was getting ready to welcome her 18th grandbaby, a boy. The other source of trauma that I didn’t mention earlier was that my second wife and I lost our first child, a boy, when he was three days old. In short, when I heard that my niece had gone into labor, my mind went into a tailspin and all I could hear was the beeping of the fetal monitor and the doctor saying over and over again, “The baby’s in trouble… heart rate is dropping… heart rate is dropping… heart rate is dropping…”

Physically, I was sitting at my desk at work, but mentally and emotionally I was in that delivery room 40 years ago. I was totally blindsided by something that I thought I had resolved decades ago. But the fact of the matter is that no one can ever say I used to have PTSD. The dragon may be asleep or quiet for a time, but it is never gone. No matter how “resolved” you think things are, there will be times when it will stretch out its serpentine neck and try to push you to the limit. We need to always be ready to counter those attacks using the same weapons of grace and faith that got us through the original trauma – especially if you don’t think it was grace that got you through originally.

So for me, reading the forums and answering questions is hard, and writing this blog can be very hard – but I soldier on because I know that each obstacle surmounted strengthens my faith, makes my vision clearer, and enlarges my heart. In fact, that is where the title of this post came from. The other day I was talking with someone about this post and I cried out at one point, “God, why can’t I just once write about puppy dogs and unicorns?” Giving this post that title is basically my military sense of humor kicking in to say to PTSD: you may always be part of me, but you are not me, screw you. (I’m no John Howard, but it works for me…)

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when your past comes calling unbidden…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the ways that you make all things new. But today I want to bless you especially for this thorn in my flesh. Thank you for using my past to make me stronger. Sometimes it hurts so much that I would rather hide away, but you have shown me again and again that when I am at my weakest, you are at your strongest. Thank you for not letting my life be ruled by random chance. Thank you for giving me the experience, skill and wisdom that will make me useful to you. Show me how to reach out to others despite my wounds. Amen”

Who me, an Advocate?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Last Sunday, I spent a chunk of the afternoon on messenger talking with my sister — nothing unusual there. What we talked about was the post that went live on the blog that morning, which if you haven’t read it yet, can be found here. The point of the conversation was the prayer. Margie was curious about whether I intended it to be purely personal, or would it apply to everyone.

I think that part of the matter might have been my usage of the word “advocate” which I realize, in retrospect, is a word that is typically used to communicate very specific and formalized responsibilities. Derived from a Latin root that is essentially a translation of the Greek word παράκλητος (paráklētos) the word refers to someone that is called, or summoned to stand beside you for support — often in a legal sense. For Christians, the most well-known use of this word is when Jesus used it to describe the coming Holy Spirit.

But I want to step back for a moment and think about it from a slightly different perspective. For my starting point, I’ll take a famous quote from the Shakespearean play Twelfth Night:

“Some are born great, some become great, and some
have greatness thrust upon them.”

It struck me that if you replace the words “great” and “greatness” with “advocates” and “advocacy”, the result is a pretty good description of the core of what it means to be an advocate.

“Some are born advocates, …” Most of us have known people that seemingly from the time they were born, realized that their place in the world was to stand by others and speak for them. We typically think of these folks in terms of being social workers, lawyers, or perhaps members of the clergy. But I would assert that there is another side of advocacy. Sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes actions, even strong actions, are required to “stand by” another.

Consequently, advocates are sometimes seen wearing flak jackets under desert brown or blue uniforms. Sometimes, to do their work, advocates have to don green flight suits and prepare to fight a war that is unthinkable, with the goal that it remains unthinkable. Sometimes advocates rush to be the first to respond to a tragedy so they can perhaps snatch some remnant of life from the jaws of death. Advocacy is not just about supportive words…

“…some become advocates, …” Here, we need to consider the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. We have no idea of what was going on inside the Samaritan’s head when he saw the man beaten by thieves and left for dead. Clearly, he could have crossed over to the other side of the road, like the religious men who had come by before him had done, and just kept going.

Instead though, Jesus says that he “took pity on” the man who had been attacked by robbers and so, in that moment, chose to become his advocate. A choice, by the way, that cost him time and money, no doubt disrupted the day he had planned for himself and could even have put him in added danger as the robbers might have still been in the neighborhood. Moreover, he happily took on the responsibility to see the job through to the end by making arrangements for settling any subsequent debts when he returned: more time, more money, more inconvenience.

“…and some have advocacy thrust upon them.” I want to look at this last situation in a bit more detail because it should feel familiar to anyone that is a caregiver to someone with a chronic disease. I don’t know about you, but nobody ever asked me if I wanted this job. Nobody ever said, “Your wife is going to get this horrible disease. Oh, and by the way, you get to watch her die a little more every day. So, if you could help out, that would be grea‑a‑a‑a‑t.”

The job that gets handed to a caregiver is massive, uncomfortable, long and so dirty that even Mike Rowe would think twice about taking it on. And it’s certainly not fair that we have to do these kinds of jobs alone or with too little support from families and friends — or even adequate training for what we need to do. So I would assume that we are in agreement that the life of a caregiver largely sucks. So what do we do? The truth is, the sun will come up tomorrow and we will have to do something.

A number of years ago, I went to a seminar where the leader called up to the front someone from the audience and held out two ice cream cones: one vanilla, one chocolate. He then instructed the person to choose one. The participant got the ice cream they picked and returned to their seat happy. The leader now repeated the exercise with a different volunteer, but this time only held up the one remaining ice cream cone, but he repeated the same instruction: “Choose one.” The result was a spirited conversation (read: argument) about the nature of choosing.

The point of the exercise was to illustrate how people have no problem choosing if they see alternatives, as when they can choose between vanilla or chocolate. However, problems arise when only one flavor is available. We don’t see that as a choice. Rather we devalue it as simply being all that’s left. Consequently, we derive no joy from what we do have, after all who gets excited about making do with the leftovers. Moreover, we can begin to feel pretty resentful and angry toward those enjoying what we don’t have, or who we imagine are enjoying what we don’t have. I can remember nights driving home from work obsessing about the smiling people in the cars around me and resenting the happy homes that I imagined they were returning to.

In the movie “The Passion of Christ” there is a powerful moment when Jesus, beaten and abused, embraced His cross with quivering hands as though it were the most precious possession He had in the world – which of course, it was. At that point, there were no options left available to Him. There was no choice to “go to the cross” or …

All that was left was the cross, and as an example to us Jesus chose it, embraced it, and created from it the best possible Good News.

I hope that you see where I’m going with this unfortunately autobiographical tale: As caregivers, we can easily become trapped in a sense of hopelessness that leads us to feel angry and resentful of those around us who are living “normal” lives. That anger and resentment, in turn, bears fruit in the form of a bitterness that convinces us that, in reality, we are the real victims of this disease, not the person dying. And this victimhood, is the final link in a vicious loop that feeds on itself, solves nothing and makes everyone involved in the situation more miserable by making us even more angry and more resentful.

The only way to break out of this death spiral — I call it that because it will kill you — is to choose the situations in our lives in which there are no options (in biblical terms, “our cross”). When in this way we not only, take up our cross, but truly embrace it, we discover that a joyously new and miraculous possibility emerges: The possibility of regaining just a tiny bit of that perfect Eden experience where life wasn’t supposed to be governed by choices between good and evil, right and wrong, or even vanilla and chocolate. We begin to realize the possibility of living our life of service immersed in and infused with the love of God. We can discover that in this midst of this broken, fallen world, God can create for us a holy place where truly, it is all good…

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you’re out of options…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the bounty of Your love. But today, I especially want to bless you for making my gift of standing up for others into a way for me to experience a foretaste of Heaven. Please give me eyes to see my own calling, and the strength to complete what you have set before me. Amen”

Rules and More Rules

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

To get us started this week, let’s hear from the ’70s Canadian group, The Five Man Electrical Band.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Those words are the chorus to their 1971 hit song “Signs”. I’m bringing it up because these words highlight our cultural/global dependence upon rules. Of course this tendency is nothing new. In fact, rules go back to the very beginning when God told Adam and Eve the one thing that they were not allowed to do, to wit, “Do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”.

I can’t image the number of words that have been expended over the centuries in attempts to fully explain that passage — and I am certainly not going to definitively resolve the matter with my poor ruminations. But one thing that always stood out to me is the inclusion of the word “Good” in the prohibition. Why would God want us to not know about things that are good? But I believe that question misses the point. Instead, I think that in that early innocent time, God wanted to spare us from was having to know the difference between good and evil. God wanted us to know good without an alternative, good that was unidentifiable to us as water is to a fish.

Unfortunately, we all know how the story turned out. Our ancestral parents disobeyed the one rule they were given, and then to make matters worse, when they were found out, they responded with recriminations rather than repentance. Adam, even tried to lay some of the blame on God! In the end, the knowledge of good and evil became for us a bell that couldn’t be unrung, and need for rules to govern our behavior entered the world.

Later, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. But people being people, the Israelites immediately started asking for “clarification” of what this rule or that, really meant. Soon God’s simple commandments turned into a list of no fewer than 613 carefully crafted rules that you, literally, needed a lawyer to interpret for you.

By the time Jesus came along, even some members of the religious establishment realized that things were getting out of hand so they began the intellectual exercise of ranking the importance of the various rules by trying to identify the greatest of the commandments. During His conversation with a group of religious leaders, this enquiry gave Jesus the opening to whittle the rule count back down to just two:

  1. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind
  2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself

Very good rules indeed. Unfortunately, this moment of clarity didn’t last long. Rather, people (again being people) continued compiling their own lists of rules — and trust me, today there’s a lot more than 613 of them.

Although a rule-based society, can be troublesome for anyone, it is especially problematic when you consider the various “Alice in Wonderland” aspects of taking care of someone with a neurodegenerative disease such as HD. For example, of late, there has been a lot of conversation on the various support forums, dealing with the trials of applying for disability services. I have noticed a few things that most of these conversations hold in common.

First, the experiences are all remarkably similar, regardless of the country where the patient lives or the disease involved.

Second, the people overseeing the process are bureaucrats that have as their legally mandated role, not to help people get the services that they need, but to ensure that the “unworthy” are kept out.

Third, anyone that doesn’t meet the rules for the respective agencies are by definition unworthy and therefore bad (and possibly, criminal) people who are trying to sponge off the hard-working taxpayers and/or beneficent government.

The problem here is that rules create their own reality. For example, if you have a rule that defines a disabled person as being someone suffering from a disease on the official list, but your disease isn’t on the list, you aren’t disabled. It doesn’t matter if you can’t walk, or talk, or think rationally. It doesn’t matter that you have to wear a diaper and have no short-term memory, you are officially deemed to be able-bodied and so are expected to go out and get a job. I have read this same story coming out of the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and even (especially?) Bulgaria.

For what it’s worth, I personally have memories of trying to get SSDI payments for Janet when HD wasn’t on the list. Even now, in the US, we are still struggling to get HD to a point of full parity with other diseases.

Then there is what we do to ourselves with rules over issues like suicide. I believe that the current sorry state of affairs exists largely because nobody likes to talk about suicide. The medical and psychiatric professions don’t deal with it well (perhaps because they see it as failure?). Families try to ignore, and hide, suicide due to the stigma attached to it. And the church, which should be a place of refuge and hope, is just as likely to be the place where you find rules that condemn the suicide to eternal damnation in the “fires of hell”.

But let’s be honest, it just isn’t that simple. My Janet can’t swallow without choking and is contemplating simply not eating again, ever. She has been fighting this disease for 11 years and has never wanted extreme measures used to maintain her life. Consequently, she believes that if you can’t even eat that is God telling you that it’s time to come home. Who am I to say she’s wrong? Where am I to draw the line between what is “justified” and what is not? What even gives me the authority to be drawing any lines in the first place?

It may have been there, but I don’t remember promising to, “Love, honor and draw lines until death do us part.”

Finally, we need to look at how rules can even impact the support that caregivers can receive. I have shared in the past that there was a time when Janet would get over the top, angry and violent. During one of those episodes, Janet grabbed my arm and dug her nails in so hard, that it broke one of her nails and left me with 4 bleeding cuts across the top of my arm. Not knowing what else to do, I called my pastor and started to tell him what happened. Before we got very far, my pastor interrupted me.

“Mike, you need to understand something. If your are about to tell me that Janet did something to you that broke the skin and caused you to bleed, I am legally bound by the laws of Texas to call the police and report it. Janet will be arrested.”

To say I was dumbfounded, would be putting it mildly. I thought this is the kind of intrusion into pastoral relationships only occurred in totalitarian countries. So after thinking for only a moment, I thanked Pastor for his time and hung up — we have never spoken about it since. In fact, we don’t talk about Janet’s condition very much at all.

Now believe me, I understand the supposed point of the Texas law, but I also fundamentally don’t give a damn about the state’s sanctimonious justifications. I know that Janet didn’t need or deserve jail, she needed help, but going forward with this so-called “pastoral counseling” while the state was in the room monitoring the conversation would have ensured that she got the first right away, and the second only later, if at all. It would have all depended on some bureaucrat agreeing with me about what Janet needed. So I had to ask myself, how much do I trust bureaucrats? And my answer: “About as far as I could throw them…”

Although my choice might not have been the best decision in the eyes of some, it is the one I made, and I would make it again because, to me, it satisfies Jesus’ second rule. But even so, I would not recommend it as a blanket solution, and I would certainly not judge anyone for making a different choice. However, I guess, in the end, that’s my real point.

Good rules serve as metaphorical guard rails along the sides of the road, that provide the room for reflection and prayer to determine the right path. Bad rules are like checklists that work to produce a result that conforms with what the rule’s author desires. To hell with what you or your loved one really needs — let alone what is the right thing to do.

This conversation about rules even applies within the Church. Different groups have different rules — the function of which is often to differentiate themselves from the heathen worshiping across the street who only, “call themselves Christians”. By the way, I haven’t mentioned it before, but I worship in a Lutheran congregation, so as a Lutheran I am well-aware of at least one glass house that is down range for the rocks that I am throwing…

The bigger problem is that in the world today, this attitude of rule-based spirituality is literally getting people killed. Persecution of people of faith, and Christians in particular, is up dramatically across the globe. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about it nearly enough because comfortable First World churches rest secure in the knowledge that the injured and dead aren’t really “one of us” — since when did that matter anyway?

Good rules are about prayerfully discovering God’s intent for a particular set of circumstances, like say you have a man that converts to Christianity in a culture that allows multiple wives. What should be the church’s response to his “extra” wives? What course of action would conform to the rule, “…Love your neighbor as yourself…”?

Bad rules are about social engineering and fitting every circumstance and every one into the same one-size-fits-all box, whether that box be secular or religious. No grace, no mercy, no justice, no mitigating circumstances — just the rule, the whole rule and nothing but the rule.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you feel boxed in…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the spiritual freedom that I enjoy. But today I want to bless you especially for not creating the kinds of rules that we do. We create rules that categorize and segregate people. You create rules that bless, guide and direct people. Thank you too, for showing me that regardless of how many times I break the rules, I can always depend on your grace and mercy. So please Lord, let me see others as You see them. Give me the courage to speak up for the oppressed and weak, and I humbly ask that you would bestow on me the privilege of being an advocate for them in the world. Amen”

How Much Forgiveness is Enough?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Resuming where we left off last week…

After Janet’s unsuccessful attempt to have me arrested, life in our house has fallen into a rather depressing, repetitive pattern. My days consist of getting up at 7 AM, going to work, coming home (I typically buy dinner for us all on the way home), taking care of Janet and going back to bed (about midnight). Even at work there is no break from the pressures of caregiving because Janet typically calls 5 or 6 times a day to complain about something that I did do, didn’t do, or need to do. Moreover, these aren’t quick calls because the perseveration causes her to keep going back over the same topics over and over and over again.

A side effect of this routine is that I feel isolated from everyone around me. There have been times recently when the high-point of my week was “sharing the Peace of God” at church because the handshakes and occasional hugs allowed me to have actual physical contact with another human being. And every week there’s a fight about whether I even get to go to church. She always wants me to stay home because I am, “too tired” – and she says that being tired is what causes me to get angry.

Interestingly, I have discovered that I can also start an argument by attempting to apologize for something that I did wrong. An apology compounds the mistake because, in her words, “If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have done what you did.” Therefore, I am also a liar and my apologies are deemed “worthless”. Of course, the only thing worse than apologizing is to not apologize – oy vey!

The absolute worst though, is that the only thing really needed to start a row is for me to tell her, “I Love You.” When I make that serious transgression of propriety, she gets mad and yells that if I really loved her I wouldn’t __________. Fill-in the blank with some real or imaginary complaint about my behavior.

To tell the truth, I don’t know how much longer I can maintain this schedule. I am constantly crying – but never in front of Janet, to her that’s just “Poor Mikey” whining about how bad his life is. Even Frannie is starting to become the target of Janet’s wrath and is increasingly calling me at work in tears to tell me about some argument that the two of them have gotten into.

How long, God, can this go on? Why can’t I have the “real Janet” back for just 5 minutes. She was always so smart and organized, she could tell me what to do.

Please God, just 5 minutes is that too much to ask…


This period was truly a dark time. The hardest part was that any mistakes Frannie or I made went onto our “Permanent Record” in broad strokes of dark, indelible ink. There was no forgiveness, no understanding and, very definitely, no mercy. Later, I came to realize that for Janet, her illness got in the way of being able to express forgiveness – a not uncommon problem with neurological conditions. I get it now that it truly isn’t Janet doing these things: it’s the HD. Unfortunately, Frannie is having a harder time remembering.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the darkness, this period taught me that one of the greatest gifts that God prepares for His children, is in fact forgiveness. Ultimately, it is thanks to His gracious and steadfast forgiveness, that we have assurance in our spiritual security and can be confident in the reality of our eternal home. However, forgiveness isn’t the exclusive purview of God. Indeed Scripture presents it as a central gift that we are to give freely to each other – as when Jesus taught us to pray, “…and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…”

Unfortunately, forgiveness is yet another gift of God that today’s society systematically devalues. Modern psychology often turns it into little more that an enlightened form of selfishness by concentrating on the negative impacts that we will experience if we don’t forgive. Any doctrine or philosophy that treats forgiveness purely from the standpoint of human experiences and emotional consequences misses the central point that true forgiveness is, at its core, a spiritual declaration.

Before His crucifixion, Jesus said that those who believe in Him will do all the things that He had done, and will do even greater things than Him because He was going to be with the Father. Therefore, as Christians, when we forgive we are doing more than simply setting someone’s mind at ease, or stopping negative consequences for ourselves, our statement of, “I forgive you” is a way in which God is allowing us to actively participate in Jesus’ redemptive work.

By the way, when considering forgiveness, don’t fooled into thinking that forgiveness is only needed for big important things. Forgiveness is about the heart and the constant drip, drip, drip of “small” things can leave people with a host of problems including:

  • Feeling Personally Invalidated
  • Pain from Unresolved Guilt
  • Hopelessness About the Future

Of course, this fact shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, if you won’t forgive me for something small, why would I expect forgiveness from you for a big problem. So what should we do when someone apologizes?

First, honor all apologies that you receive by really taking the time to hear what they are saying. It could have taken then a while to work up the courage to say it.

Second, remember that forgiving is a holy thing so don’t just blow it off with a quick, “That’s ok” or “No problem”. Use the words “I forgive you” or “You are forgiven”. These responses may throw people off at first, but they are also very healing words. Consequently, Janet and I always used those words when forgiving our kids.

Third, Jesus also said what we bind on earth will bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. God cares how we treat each other – sometimes more than how we treat Him. Think about it, of the 10 commandments exactly one of them addresses our relationship with God. The other 9 are all about how we treat each other. So in your heart, release (loose) them from the spiritual burden for what they did.

There are few things that we can give to another human being that are greater than forgiveness.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you don’t feel forgiven, or like forgiving…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for your boundless forgiveness and mercy. But today I want to bless you especially for the gift of us being able to forgive one another. You know that all too often when I am feeling hurt and unforgiven, I don’t want to forgive either. At those times, I don’t want reconciliation, I want to get even. I want to make them hurt like I hurt. Please God, forgive me and show me how to make amends to those with whom I have unresolved anger. Please show me that what I really need is not revenge, but are loving brothers and sisters. Amen”