Rough Draft: “My Mother Emily” Part One

“My mother in law”: Words that can evoke a wide range of emotions.  I met Emily, the woman who would become my mother in law, in the Fall of my freshman year in college. I was nearly 18, enjoying my first taste of independence and had just started dating her oldest son, Tim. It was Parents’ Weekend, our meeting was brief.  I remember her warm smile made me feel at ease. I had grown up in a tiny town where truly everybody knows your name and I felt awkward meeting new people. Emily ended our meeting saying she hoped we would have time in the future to get to know each other better. I liked her instantly.

In the 35 years as my mother in law, Emily has been one who listens, who frustrates, who cares, who mentors, who understands, who loves, and who confuses. She is a highly educated woman, an only child raised by well to do parents in New York City. Though she does not set high expectations nor does she ask for much, she is accustom to having what she wants, when she wants it. No explanations needed, don’t try to adjust her expectations nor relate how it will be accomplished. As Nike says- Just do it.

Emily and her husband Bob were school teachers on Long Island when they met Dick and Bunny- the couple who would become their best friends. Dick had a high paying job and Bunny was a nurse. They were neighbors in their first apartments and then both couples moved to small houses in the same neighborhood. They rented cabins on the same small lake in the Adirondacks each summer.  As their families grew (Dick and Bunny would have 7 children spanning the age range of Emily and Bob’s 4 boys), Dick and Bunny decided they needed more room. Even in the 1960’s, large houses on Long Island were expensive and their new 5 bedroom colonial was no exception.  Emily wanted to move to the same neighborhood, though it was not within their means.  Her father ‘made it happen’. A short time later, Dick and Bunny decided to buy a cabin on the lake they loved. Yes, Emily’ father bought her a cabin as  well. I don’t know if she asked or he simply was able to do this and enjoyed doing it.

Tim’s dad, Bob, died suddenly at the early age of 62. Emily married longtime friend and recent widower Jack a year later. In their 20 years of marriage, they travelled the world, spent winters in Florida, volunteered their time in many ways and took care of our 4 children anytime I had the opportunity to travel with Tim. They had a wonderful, fun filled life until Jack died 3 years ago.

Today, Emily cannot live independently. She lost her lower left leg 6 months to complications of diabetes likely due to medication mismanagement. Recently she has had TIA’s, a UTI and intermittent memory issues. She lives in a beautiful, new assisted living facility with staff members who always have a smile. It’s clean and there are numerous social events each day. Emily hates it. She doesn’t want to be with these old people, she doesn’t belong there and wants to go home to New York. No matter how many times Tim visits, he is greeted with “There’s my son, the one who never comes”.

Social Media: A Brief History and the Disintegration of Discourse

Social media can be a great thing.  On Facebook, it can reunite long lost friends or loved ones.  It also allows friends and family to stay in touch and see what’s going on in each other’s lives like never before.

On Twitter, news breaks and traditional media has to catch up.  There are a number of informational chats to provide knowledge on particular topics and people can be connected to influencers, celebrities, and important figures like never before.

Additionally, companies can now connect to users in a more humanized, personal way.  Those that excel gain trust and build meaningful relationships with clients.  Platforms provide users a way of giving companies instant feedback.

But, as John Oliver described it recently on an episode of “Last Week Tonight”, the Internet can also be “a dark carnival of humanity’s worst impulses.”

Unfortunately, with social media growing bigger and bigger, it is not immune to such negativity.

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I first heard about Twitter back in April 2008 when James Buck was arrested in Egypt during an anti-government protest. It was referred to as a “micro-blogging” site and Buck credited the service for getting the word out so his colleagues would know that he was okay.  It’s one of the first instances that demonstrated Twitter’s power as an instant news source, although it wouldn’t really usurp traditional media as THE “breaking news” outlet until a few years later.

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In 2007, Facebook went through a number of changes, two of which are incredibly significant.

One, they expanded their user base to include anyone with an e-mail address.  From 2004-2007, Facebook had been limited to those with college or high school e-mail accounts.  Much to the dismay of some of my friends (“I don’t want my mom on Facebook!”), the change went through and was the death knell for similar social media platforms (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) to compete with it.

Two, and this, I believe, is the more impactful change, Facebook added the news feed feature.  Instead of writing on friends’ walls, joining groups, or private message to communicate, people could now share articles and all their friends could comment.  Eventually, this evolved into news sources and influencers sharing articles…and now anyone on Facebook could comment and see the comments of others with whom they aren’t connected.

YouTube has been around since February 2005, but didn’t really become a force until the following year when Google bought it for $1.65 billion.  Even in its early stages, comments sections of videos were notorious for inflammatory statements and endless arguments.

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“Dear Fat People” from Nicole Arbour’s YouTube channel.

Back to the present day.  The video above has stirred up a lot of controversy.  If you haven’t seen “Dear Fat People”, Nicole Arbour very bluntly tells fat people (she excludes those with medical conditions and/or disorders) they are solely to blame for being fat and being fat is not something to be accepted.  Some would call this “fat shaming.”

The response by those who watched the video (or didn’t and commented anyway) didn’t disappoint in continuing the YouTube’s comments section’s tradition of being a cesspool.

(These are paraphrased examples since the comments section has been disabled for her video)

“She’s a horrible person!”

“She’s a cunt!”

“She’s right.  Fatties needed a reality check and the truth hurts.”

“I’m a fat person and I agree with what she said.  If you’re mad, you’re really just insecure about yourself.”

The extreme views dominate the conversation because they are voted to the top on YouTube or Facebook.

Civil discussion can be had on social media, however, but it doesn’t draw.

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I participate in a lot of Twitter chats, both for my own personal brand and my company.

One of which is #HCLDR, short for “Healthcare Leadership.”  The chat consists of a number of healthcare professionals from various academic and/or medical backgrounds that foster discussion in order to come up with health care solutions.

A few weeks ago, our discussion was about sugar and obesity, discussing many of the same issues that Nicole brought up in her video.

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The responses were varied.  But, the discussion was civil.  Alternate viewpoints were considered.

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The conversation continued on about obesity and how best to educate people to make the right choices.  Many came to the same conclusion that Nicole did, but were far more nuanced.  Sure, individuals solely manage their health; no one can do it for them.  But, how can individuals make the right decisions without proper nutritional information, lack of food choices, low income?  Is it really solely the individual’s fault if they don’t even know what they’re eating is harmful.

Nicole’s statistics for obesity in America were correct (Source) and she’s right about personal responsibility, but completely ignores other factors that have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

My main problem isn’t Nicole’s premise, but rather the way in which it’s presented.

Social media platforms can be revenue generators for people that bring in lots of likes/shares/comments/etc.  Several of my successful social media connections make $10-12k a month on ad revenue alone, not even counting book sales and appearance fees.

So, if the incentive is to get attention, to put it in simple terms, what does that mean for content?  Controversy.  And controversy doesn’t foment civil discourse.  Controversy wants attention, negative or positive.  The bigger the numbers, the more ad revenue for the user.

I can’t really blame Nicole, I guess.  Controversy is what sells and brings in the numbers, whether it’s the Vanity Fair article on Caitlin Jenner, Target/Doritos promoting gender/LGBT+ equality, or Ted Cruz on the Late Show with Colbert.

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“Well, okay, controversy sells is not anything new.  What’s your point, Kyle?”

Back in August, it was reported that 1 billion people were active on Facebook. (Source) That’s 1 out of every 7 people on earth.

Not only that, 63% of people get their news from social media. (Source)

“Okay, still, what are you getting at?”

Social media provides a lightning fast method with which people can not only acquire their news, but comment and respond to others.

Not only that, but media outlets frame their posts to deliberately invoke a response:

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Not even the words of the Pope, but Pope pictured.

Additionally, many users see the headline and comment right away without even reading it.  Framing the headline to a particular viewpoint inflames both those who side with the argument and those opposed to it.  It encourages a superficial way of interpreting the news.  Thus, responses like this are the result.

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These aren’t kids.  These are grown adults with at least some semblance of education.  But, the result is inflammatory nonsense.

The rapidity of the news ingestion process prevents many people from looking at an article, absorbing it, contemplating it, and then responding to it; the attention span with so many things going on in the platforms is limited.

Commenting has almost a Reality TV component to it; whoever is the most ridiculous/extreme gets fame.

Those who spread news on social media survive on engagement: Views/likes/shares/comments.  They rely on it for ROI. The bigger the argument, the more it appears in people’s news feeds, the more views/clicks, the more return.

Discourse on social media can be summed up like this: “I’m right and I’m here to tell you why.  **** you.  Give me likes.”

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Why is this important?  “People are idiots on social media and get into dumb arguments, Kyle.  So what?”

My theory is that it’s beginning to affect our political system as well.  Sure, the Tea Party was around a good amount of time prior to social media being as big as it is today, but their message has been amplified by social media.  Same for those that take progressive viewpoints and lash out back at their religious/political/social leanings.

The superficial way we interact on social media and adapting of the platforms by people of all walks of life affects even people of political importance.

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The discontent with Obama as president by a significant amount of Americans (29% percent of whom believe he is a Muslim, Source) and controversial issues have also provided plenty of incidents for which people can argue, flame, and not budge from their viewpoints on social media.  Trayvon Martin, Newtown, the Rise of ISIS, Ferguson, LGBT issues/gay marriage, Confederate flag, Benghazi.

The rapid nature of the exchange of opinion and short attention span of those on social media have resulted in the dumbing down of discourse.  We don’t take time to be thoughtful because social media has sped up how we absorb/interpret information and because we don’t process it fully, many important issues like the ones listed above don’t get discussed in a level-headed manner.

Because social media causes such inflammation on issues and a poor understanding of it, politicians adjust their stances accordingly.  That’s why we see Donald Trump refusing to correct a rally attendee’s assertion that Obama is a Muslim.

Social media didn’t divide America. It just provided a method by which it could grow further apart.

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I do have hope.  Recently, Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University, a conservative-leaning private, Christian institution of higher learning.

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He went there with the intent of having a genuine discussion with those he knew didn’t agree with him on many, possibly all, issues.  He made an honest effort to reach out to those he disagreed with to see if they could find common ground based on morality, appealing to their faith.

Bernie probably didn’t change a lot of minds with the visit, but I think what he did is important and needs to happen more.

I’m not a Bernie supporter (I’ll make up my mind when everything narrows down), but this is the attitude we need to combat the political divide, amongst the general populace and those in office.

More practicality, more action that will benefit the country and not just a political party, more maturity from those who seek the highest office in the land.

But, we are those they appeal to and as long as we continue to inflame/insult and not compromise on anything (even at least agreeing to disagree), the divide won’t close.

Just wait until the morning

I’ve struggled with chronic anxiety for most of my life; I’ve been a worrier, full of doubt.

A lot of has its basis in a severe car accident when I was about eight years old.

I lived in North Carolina for the majority of my life, but my parents are originally from the northeast.  My father is from Commack, New York and his parents also had (and grandma still has) a lake house at Kelm Lake just outside of Warrensburg in the Adirondacks.

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Kelm Lake, Warrensburg, New York

Kelm is a small, quiet community (power boats are not allowed on the lake) that’s a great getaway for somebody wanting some downtime and fresh air.

My grandmother remarried around 1992/1993, and with that, my family started taking trips to Long Lake, about an hour northwest from Kelm.

To make a long story short, sometime in 1993, my grandma was taking care of us (my three siblings and I) while my parents were out of town and she was driving us to Long Lake.  We stopped to get doughnuts along the way (the kind that has the powered, plain, and chocolate kinds).

Somewhere about halfway to Long Lake, my grandmother swerved to avoid cars stopped at a stoplight (I don’t know why she didn’t stop instead).  She then tried overcompensating by turning hard to the right, but it caused the car to skid sideways and slam into a guard rail.

I was on the side of the car with the guard rail and remember watching it grow closer and closer until we crashed, sending glass all over me, jolting me forward and I hit the front seat.

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From that point on, I was terrified of cars and moving vehicles.  I would bring a pillow with me in the car and lay down so I didn’t have to look forward while riding in the car.  I remember riding in a boat on Lake Powell during a big trip out west in the summer of 1994 and just laying on the surface of the boat, scared and hoping it would end soon, instead of enjoying a nice boat ride with my family.

In 1999, I had a severe panic attack while dressing for a hockey game; I had no idea what panic attacks were and I thought something was really wrong with me.  I was rushed to the hospital and eventually calmed down, but it stuck with me for years.

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Jellybeans in Raleigh, NC.  

Off and on, I would have bad stretches of time and travel was excruciating.  I would have panic attacks on driving on the way to school, on the bus to cross country meets, and especially on airplanes.

I would avoid travel and I missed so many wonderful experiences because of it.

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In 2007, I felt like I finally hit a turning point.  I was able to travel without fear.  I hadn’t had a panic attack in almost two years and I decided to enroll in the Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico.

It was one of the best times of my life; I remember being on the parade deck and doing drill, feeling like I had made it.  After years of fear/worrying, I was thriving in a stressful environment.

Unfortunately, due to medical problems, that time was cut short just two years in.

Afterwards, I considered getting my Masters at NC State, taking classes for credit that, if accepted, would count towards the degree and I would continue on.

Around March 2009, I had the worst panic attack of my life and this is the important part of the story.

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It was different this time around; I had convinced myself that since I will die one day, I will have panic attacks until I go crazy and do something rash.

It was unbearable.  These disturbing thoughts affected my work life (I was fired from five different jobs over the course of a year), my personal life, and turned me away from going back to school.  Almost every week I was on the phone with a suicide hotline, unable to deal with these thoughts.  I turned to avoidance measures instead of confronting my issues head on; drinking, video games mainly.

Worst of all, I was pretty poor.  I was prescribed medicine, but it was incredibly expensive and unfortunately, not very effective.  Therapists were also prohibitively costly as well.

In 2010, I decided to make the move to California; I thought the change of scenery would be helpful and I could embark on a new career to get me motivated.  All the while putting the anxiety in the back of my mind and not dealing with it.

I-40 West near Little Rock, AR
I-40 West near Little Rock, AR

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For the first two years, I bounced around TV jobs with low pay, but it was a change of pace from NC.  I got into the game League of Legends for PC and through some luck on LinkedIn, got interviewed and eventually hired by Riot Games, the creator of the game.

It was a dream job to me and like the Marines, I felt like again, I had turned a corner.

The lobby of Riot Games in their former Santa Monica office.
The lobby of Riot Games in their former Santa Monica office.

But my anxiety started creeping in again despite the good fortune.  Again, it affected my work life and again, I turned to avoidance to deal with it.  I was playing games when I should have been learning more about my position and enhancing my skills.  I was drinking very heavily almost every night of the week.

Finally, in June 2012, my performance was poor enough they decided to let me go from Riot.  I was devastated.  I worked two years in crappy jobs to land something great like this and it was gone.

The anxiety this time was different; I felt like I couldn’t start over again. It was pointless, I was a failure, and my anxiety was bad enough that maybe I just needed to give in; maybe the only way to get rid of it was to get rid of myself.

I went to a bar with friends and played off that I was hurt, but dealing with it.  But really, I was in a dark place.

I still had access to my company Twitter account, though I didn’t have many followers.  I don’t remember much, but I just went off the rails, writing disturbing and nonsensical posts that I didn’t think anyone would care about or see.

The night of June 15th, 2012.
The night of June 15th, 2012.

At one point, I convinced myself I was going to do it.  I was going to sneak out of the bar without anyone noticing and in the late of night, run out and let a car hit me and hopefully kill me.

I vaguely remember people sending messages to me on Twitter.  Strangers I had friended begging me to stop and please call them.  I just ignored them and kept writing nonsense.

I found my moment and headed toward the door.  But before I could leave, I ran into one of my friends.

“Hey man, I heard about what happened.  That sucks, dude.  Just wait until the morning, it’ll get better.”

I’m not sure why, but that completely dissolved my desire to go forward.  He sat me down and I drank more (bad idea), and finally got kicked out after I put a 375 ml bottle of Jim Beam on the bar.

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The words my friend said stuck with me as I woke up the next morning; I had to face the consequences of the night before, but I did feel better waiting until the morning.  I saw it as a way to reset, start new.

I won’t lie.  Suicide is something I still struggle with, I see famous people like Robin Williams give up and it sets me back a bit.  I have bad days and wonder if I can make it through the day without painful anxiety and fear.

But, I remind myself no matter how bad it gets, there’s a chance to reset and rebuild the next morning.  Every bad day ends.

Take care of yourselves, your friends, and your family.