We are all about a good story. I mean, we head out to the movies for a story. Reclining in our living room, we pick up the zapper and search for a story. Oh, it could be a sappy story on the Hallmark channel, the latest adventures of Jason Bourne or the color commentary on ESPN, but we are drawn to the story. Really, Karen and I make our living listening to your stories. We even enjoy telling stories. You know, the ones that have a witty ending or a pithy message. We all tell the stories about the things we are passionate about…Youth Town, Tennessee Football, our heroes, our kids, our dogs, certain life experiences, and many other things we feel the need to share. We all love a good story.
But when the publisher (community servant Mike Bickerstaff) asked us to tell our story? Now that’s a different matter. Telling our own story requires vulnerability, though measured, vulnerability still. Now, as for me, I’m kind of an extroverted-think-on-my-feet-have-an-answer-to-almost-anything kind of guy. But, Karen, on the other hand, enjoys her sacred space and vulnerability starts several paces away from the heart and has a complex system of filters that has taken me thirty-five years to navigate, so I know where to tread lightly as we craft this story together. So, once upon a time….
I (Karen) moved to Henderson, TN when I was in the fourth grade. With a dad who was in senior management in manufacturing, my sister and two brothers were blessed to have endured only a few moves, but it was never easy. Over the years, Dad worked many of the jobs out of town, and would fly in a one or two times a month for the weekend. During this time, my mother was left with the task of raising 4 teenage kids, and working a full-time job herself. Some memories of brother/sister rivalry were not so good. However, I have fond memories of summers playing Dixie Youth softball from 6th grade through 12th grade. On the field, I played positions as pitcher and 2nd base. I spent many afternoons throwing 100 pitches a day, even on Florida beach vacations, with my dad or sister (who played catcher several years on the same team). Although junior high can be a “torture chamber” for some kids, I have a few fond memories of cheering in 7th and 8th grade. By the time I was in the tenth grade, I knew I wanted to be a nurse, and was already looking toward college. So, much of my time was spent studying. I had fun being part of the youth group at church, 12 years of piano lessons, and working at Sonic. Yep, Sonic was the cultural center of the adolescent universe in our beloved Henderson. I really liked the fact that I, as an introvert, could work at a job where I got to keep up with friends, as they would drive around, and back around again from a known route in town.
A shaping story in my (Pepper) life was the death of my dad when I was nine. There are so many spin-off stories I could tell. The surrogate fathering of my uncles and their wonderful families, the sacrificial time offered to me by my older sisters, the grace offered by teachers, the rather quick remarriage of my mother into a challenging (to say the least) situation, the death of my grandmother, etc…are just a few juicy stories, but we’ll save those for another time. In spite of all these things, I loved playing sports, could have worked harder at school, really enjoyed friendships (and girls) and I had no stinking clue what I wanted to do when I grew up. After all, how could I ever make a living just talking to people? That was at the least one thing I thought I was pretty decent at. So, in the meantime, I needed a job to pay for my car and my gas so I could drive to work a job. After a driving for a year to Jackson for 20 hours a week at Bonanza, I finally got a job at Sonic in Henderson. That was exciting—I could work a job and watch my friends drive around and around.
Now, Karen may tell this part of the story a little different way, but I remember doing what any red-blooded American sixteen-year-old boy would do when he had his eye on a pretty co-worker. I locked her in the walk-in freezer at Sonic! Of course, she was not to know I was the one who did it, but only that I came to her rescue. At one point, one of the guys that worked with us, Marty, played matchmaker and set us up for a first double date. Pizza Hut. BBQ and shrimp pizza. The second date? A movie—Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip. That one was a short date! Ok, I (Pepper) never said I was a smart sixteen-year-old! But that is how it all started.
We dated off-and-on over the next few years. Dated other people some too. I went to Memphis State University and Karen went to Union University, but we always remained friends. She graduated as an RN and moved to Memphis to work in Labor and Delivery. I talked to a lot of people at MSU and attended class occasionally. Changed my major four times in two years. Transferring to Union in the middle of my junior year, I literally told Jane Nichols (the registrar) to add up all my hours to get me out as quickly as possible and that would decide my major. I graduated in a total of four years, with a Sociology degree. Karen came back to Union to finish her BS degree in Nursing that same year with previous college roommates. We both graduated and ….well…fell in love.
When I (Pepper) transferred to Union, I was blessed with an advisor who both saw something in me and challenged me, sometimes in a confrontational way. He was the first to call out my EQ (emotional intelligence quotient). He was the first to affirm academic skills I had become convinced did not exist. He was the first to tell me to step up my game with no excuses. He was a therapist and a professor and was the cool teacher who wore jeans to class and smoked a pipe. I wanted to be him. Lacking the proven academic track record, I decided that my gifting could be well used in youth ministry, so when Karen and I married the August after college, I set out on my journey to prepare for ministry. Two years later, graduating from seminary, I had begun to fine tune my calling to becoming a psychotherapist and enrolled in Memphis State’s Master’s degree in counseling, offered at Jackson State Community College. I took six years to complete a two-years Master’s degree (and the Ph.D. 15 years later), but began working in the field in 1989 part-time and then eventually full time at the ReDiscovery Unit with Carolyn Willette—another fantastic mentor—Regional Hospital’s alcohol and drug treatment program for adults.
And I (Karen) continued my story birthing babies. I helped hundreds of moms birth their babies and I birthed two of my own. Two sons. No one could ever have adequately prepared my heart for the wondrous journey of being a mom. I was told being a parent was one of the hardest things you would ever do, but also the most rewarding thing. That has turned out to be true.
So, now we get close to the vulnerable part. Being in your thirties is supposed to be the time of life when you hit legitimate adulthood. Everything is supposed to come together then, right? By my (Pepper) late twenties, “managed-care” became a thing and I was a part of four hospital closings. Over a period of five or six years, I was a part of two failed attempts to start a church. I (Karen), loved being a mom and a nurse, but my work as a nurse came to a screeching halt with a bloody needle stick. I was faced with a decision, the day of that stick, not to take 3 HIV meds that were offered, and multiple blood tests over the next 6 months, checking for HIV, and the many days wondering if you could possibly give this to a family member. Thus, a series of issues ensued—issues that were of the nature for which there was no quick fix. We also learned, that in your thirties, particularly as you are making decisions about raising your own children, that the cracks in the armor of your own raising, your own family of origin, become exposed. It was in our thirties that we both learned, first hand, that the problems we humans face are never one dimensional, a single straight line. Most problems are triangular– biological, psychological and spiritual in nature. It is rare that our problems and especially the solutions to our problems are only one of the trifecta. So, grief, depression, anxiety, fear, panic, sadness, discouragement, even hopelessness…were all guests in our home at one time or another. Yay thirties!!
Although Pepper continued to gain experience as a psychotherapist, I (Karen) learned the great value of medical intervention to some of these problems and have since concluded that some of these struggles are extremely common to most people. It became apparent that God could and was using up-close and personal experiences within my family to produce a shift in my calling. I went back to school and got a Master’s Degree from Vanderbilt and became a psychiatric nurse practitioner, board certified to treat children, teens and adults. Through five years of experience in a TN community mental health center and inpatient work ranging from Western Mental Health Institute, to working as a traveling psychiatric NP on forensic units at the state mental hospitals (approximately 3-6 months at a time), in Montana, Minnesota, and Georgia, I have been blessed to see a wide range of mental illness, work with a variety of psychiatrists and to have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of attempts at medical interventions. The moral to the story? Not everyone needs medications, however some require medicine to get needed relief. Counseling and medication almost always work better than just medication alone.
Today, we are adjusting to the challenges of empty nest. The new puppy helps. I’m told you forget about empty nest when grandbabies come on the scene. Not yet. Have you ever noticed that God has a way of taking your story, even the most vulnerable parts and brings redemptive value from those tender places? I (Karen) take great joy in the one day of practice as a psychiatric nurse practitioner (www.LifestreamPratt.com) seeing my clients respond and get relief when we find the right medication. And my (Pepper) heart comes alive every time I step foot on the campus at Youth Town (www.Youthtown.net). Most of the kids we serve hurt like I hurt and reflect both the fear and the potential that I had when I was young. What very limited private counseling I do is moving more and more toward trauma resolution and making sense of one’s story.
So, between the two of us, we combine for around fifty years of medical, mental health and psychiatric experience. Some of that experience has been learned professionally and much of that experience has been lived personally. We certainly don’t know everything, neither have we sorted through all of our own stuff, but we are learning, growing, maturing and still hungry. On-the-other-hand, there are a few things, from our story, that may be helpful to some during the holiday season and may come in handy.
The Story of the Season
Many people thrive during the Christmas season! They have the pathology of Buddy the Elf, OCD—Obsessive Christmas Disorder! They love cooler weather, Christmas music, shopping, movies and the festive feel in the air. Others associate Christmas with grief, sadness, loneliness and depression. Oddly enough, research shows that people are actually struggling with depression less during the holiday season and more during the Spring.
For some, feelings of depression set in not so much due to the Christmas season, but a problem called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS). This is due to shorter days, less time to comfortably enjoy the outdoors and a general, but gradual disruption in the circadian rhythm. In fact, Christmas has its roots in Roman emperor Constantine. He was one of the first to dedicate Christmas to the birth of Christ around the fifth century, but piggy-backed on a pagan holiday that celebrated winter solstice. This, of course, is the time in late December when the shortest day of the year occurs and then daylight begins to increase slowly with hints of spring. Perhaps even Constantine knew we needed something extraordinary at this time of year.
So, Christmas presents with great ambivalence for many. On one hand, we are mindful of the deep realities of the birth of Christ, which really was a spiritual revolution. The birth of Christ was a D-Day of sorts with regard to sin and evil. Redemption and forgiveness became possible for anyone and everyone who believe. On the other hand, Christmas offers a constant comparative existence ranging from social media to television advertisements. It seems that I am reminded regularly of how I fail because I haven’t bought this, shopped here, traveled there, had my selfie made elsewhere….and the list could go on. In the meantime, you have a story.
You have a story.
The way you experience the holidays is extremely tied to your own story. While social media as well as television and movies offer a very unrealistic presentation of how others encounter the calendar between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, your heart knows better. And, yet, there are often one of two things going on. Either a) You long for the story you had when you were a child and feel trapped or disillusioned that the magic of childhood holidays has been lost or b) You long for a story you never had when you were a child or now and experience profound loneliness when it is apparent that everyone else around you seem to have their holiday gig going on.