More MS news articles for December 2000

Suffering is the seed of a new beginning

Lifestyles : Sunday, December 10, 2000
By Jane Glenn Haas
The Orange County Register

'Tis the season of depression.

Triggered by the homey smells of Thanksgiving dinner. Mirrored in the treasured family ornaments hung on the Christmas tree. Heard in the holiday sounds that echo from radio, television and church choirs.

"Holidays, for most people, are filled with powerful expectations and equally powerful memories," says psychologist and author Kathleen Brehony.

Losses - the inevitable sufferings that simply come with living - are magnified at this time, particularly for seniors who may fall into clinical depression, says Gerald McGuire, psychiatrist and head of the University of California, Irvine, geriatric psychiatric unit.

Lost in the personal pain is the challenge of suffering. The benefits, if you will - the experiences that Brehony and others insist will be seeds of growth and new beginning.

Still, the season is here, and it is not age-specific, counsels Santa Monica psychologist Elaine Rodino. For boomers, these may be the first holidays without a parent. "The challenge is to include the memories of that person rather than exclude them," says Rodino, a specialist in holiday depressions.

Create a ritual that remembers those times gone by," counsels Brehony, author of "After the Darkest Hour" (Henry Holt).

"Don't allow your life to be ruled by the illusion that life is fair. Accept losses as part of living a human life."

One suggestion: Learn from others who have experienced disappointments and pain and turned the experience into a positive result. Seek others who have found wisdom through suffering.

Refuse to give up

Claudia Suzanne, 47, has multiple sclerosis, Raynaud's disease (a neurological disorder), a heart murmur, rheumatoid arthritis and vascular migraines.

She has no health insurance. Suzanne relies on homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic and massage-therapy treatments and home remedies.

She resists filing for disability because she refuses to say she will not go back to work. "I am not ready to say I can't make any more contributions to the world," she says. Her husband is musician and pianist Tom Stein, who is self-employed.

Suzanne is a ghostwriter. She has three books published under her own name and has worked on 54 book projects. She coaches writers and teaches book writing and editing. Her book, "This Business of Books," is in its third edition.

"I had a whole series of classes I was going to teach this summer, but I just wasn't up to it," she says. "I thought I was going to die, in fact. I was really in bad shape. The worse I have ever been. I cried a lot. I got my affairs in order."

Today she sits in the living room of their Santa Ana home and contemplates the future. Because she couldn't work, the Steins were forced to declare bankruptcy.

Four of the family's five cats lounge on sofas and chairs. The walls are filled with artwork created by daughter Lona Stein, 17, already in her second year of college.

Suzanne has a separate room for her computer and office. Since she cannot teach because she cannot trust her energy and strength, she is designing a software package for first-time novelists.

Suzanne has been learning how to slow down for the more than 15 years since her illnesses began depleting her strength.

"Have I had a lot of setbacks? Oh, yeah," she says. "My life has changed. I lost a lot. I used to make a lot of money, and we had a nice lifestyle. I used to be able to do two or three projects at a time. I used to have an hourglass figure. I used to have energy."

What has she learned from her struggle? "I am more empathetic to other people," Suzanne says.

"I am more willing to let a lot go, to focus on values, to realize people don't mean what they say. My cross is more than some and less than others. I know most people are dealing with more than you see on the surface."

Finding love through pain

Barbara Johnson is the "Geranium Lady," the mother who brings hope to hurting parents, the author of numerous Christian books that have sold 5 million copies and been translated into 26 languages.

She and her husband, Bill, have four sons. They lost one in Vietnam and another to a drunken driver. But what she calls her "postgraduate course" in pain came the day she discovered homosexual pornography in the dresser drawers of her son Larry's room.

"Christian parents don't think this is going to happen to them," says Johnson, the daughter of a minister. "I was so ignorant about that lifestyle. I thought if you wore purple, you were a lesbian."

A hostile confrontation with her son led to an 11-year estrangement. Johnson wrote her first book, "Where Does a Mother Go to Resign," and she founded the Spatula Ministry.

Homosexuality, she says, "makes Christian parents hit the ceiling, and only a spatula of love can peel them off and help get them back down on their feet."

"We live in a broken world of broken homes and broken lives," says Johnson, 73. "The thing is, it doesn't matter if homosexuality is the way you are born or comes from some other experience. The important thing for parents to know is that it's not their fault. They need to get beyond condemnation of themselves and their children."

Her ministry pays airplane fares to bring AIDS patients and parents together. At Christmas, she calls hundreds of parents who have lost children to the disease. Her Women of Faith presentations draw crowds of 20,000.

"I never took a writing class," says Johnson, sitting on a couch in her La Habra mobile home.

She deals with the mental burden of hearing so much grief by exercising every morning while she watches reruns of "Little House on the Prairie."

"Do I make money from this ministry? Look at how we live," she says.

What she has gained, Johnson says, is indescribable joy.

The Johnsons have reconciled with their son, Larry. A month ago, he sat beside his father at a Women of Faith meeting at the Arrowhead Pond.

"I know I suffered for a reason," Johnson says. "The only way to get through a depression or a hurt is to find someone else who is hurting and pour out love on them."

The virtue of hope

Andrew Johnson first played drums for Dick Dale and the Del-tones. That was in 1961, right after he graduated from Harbor High School in Newport Beach, Calif.

Then he was drafted, and he served as a nuclear-bomb-disposal officer. In 1975, he was released from active duty because the military had too many officers and he was not a college graduate.

Johnson went to California State University, Fullerton, and was doing well. He won a major accounting award and was looking forward to a bright future.

"Then my wife and I were out to dinner at Five Crowns when something happened. When I woke up, I was in the hospital. I had had a brain hemorrhage."

He survived. He had to learn to walk and talk again. His wife left him for another man.

"I had no self-esteem," Johnson says. "I had no perception of who I was."

He sought religion and says today, "I am a spiritual person, but I don't belong to any church."

He remarried. He started a new career and today is a vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison in Irvine. "I specialize in career strategies," he says. "I help people paint a picture of themselves in words. I solve problems."

Today, at 56, he sits in an executive office with awards and certificates on the wall.

"I know the pain I experienced was really the beginning of my life," he says.

"I am happier now than I ever was. I am truly blessed. Victor Frankel said there is meaning in suffering, and I am able to tell my clients that.

"I give them hope. Because I know what has happened, and I know what can happen."

"Hope," Johnson says. "That's what this is all about."

Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company