A Quick Visit to Downtown SLO

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Since moving to the Bay Area from Southern California nine years ago, I’ve driven past San Luis Obispo dozens of times on my way to visit friends and family in San Diego. But until recently, I’d never bothered to pull off the 101 and see what the Central Coast college town (home to Cal Poly) has to offer. Turns out, laid-back SLO, as locals call it, is a great place to visit. This trip was short and sweet–not quite 24-hours. Next time, I’ll definitely stay longer.

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My daughter and I spent a night at the hip and stylish Granada Hotel on our way to Santa Barbara.Tucked away in a brick building on Morro Street that was once a brothel, the boutique hotel is ideally situated for exploring downtown SLO by foot.

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After dropping off our bags, we joined the flow of people filling Higuera Street. As we wandered past trees draped with strands of twinkling lights and charming old buildings housing shops and restaurants, it didn’t take long for us to start falling for SLO. Here’s how we spent the next 20 hours:

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Novo – My friend Sydnie recommended this popular restaurant featuring an eclectic Asian-influenced menu. I figured we wouldn’t have a shot of getting in without a reservation during peak dinner hour, but was pleasantly surprised when the hostess told me the wait was just a few minutes. Soon, we were seated at a table on Novo’s lovely patio, graced by  trees and lanterns, overlooking San Luis Creek. Dining on mouth-watering scallops served with an edamame mash, listening to the creek burble and a chorus of frogs serenade us as dusk descended, was the perfect ending to a tiring day on the road. Capping off my meal with Novo’s Chocolate Trilogy dessert didn’t hurt, either.

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Scout Coffee – The next day, I took an early morning walk and stumbled upon what might just be the most adorable coffee house on the planet. I was so mesmerized by Scout’s sunny, inviting interior, I probably wouldn’t have minded much if the coffee sucked. It didn’t. My double-latte was hot, rich and strong, just the way I like it.

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Sally Loo’s Wholesome Café – For breakfast, we headed to this bustling local favorite in a residential neighborhood of the historic Railway District. The tiny eatery specializes in fresh baked goods, simple but tasty farm-to-table fare and some of the best coffee in town. Exposed beams, a corrugated tin ceiling and brick walls popping with colorful artwork give it a funky, cozy vibe that made the slightly long wait for our food easier to tolerate. When it arrived, my savory vegetable quiche was worth the wait. And my daughter relinquished my phone long enough to enjoy her Nutella waffle, too.

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Bubble Gum Alley—This is one site I could have skipped. But while we were poking around the shops on Higuera, we discovered we were just steps away from the infamous alley where thousands have plastered the walls with globs of chewed gum. Yuck. Though my daughter claimed she was as grossed out by it as me, she couldn’t resist dragging me to the disgusting monument and adding her own wad to the collection.

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Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa — We didn’t go inside the mission, but we spent some time admiring the simple beauty of its exterior and walking around the plaza. We watched families posing for pictures, college students zipping by on bikes, couples strolling hand-in-hand and little kids splashing in the bear fountain.

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San Luis Creek Walkway — After, we followed the steps leading down from the plaza to the shady walkway along San Luis Creek. My 13-year-old may have been too old to play in the fountain, but I was happy to see she wasn’t too cool for frog-hunting or hopping back and forth across the creek via boulders.

dallidet houseDallidet Adobe & Gardens — On our way out of town, we made a quick pit- stop at this 1850s adobe surrounded by peaceful gardens laced with brick pathways. The site is also home to the little Ramona Depot and horse-drawn carriage that once transported guests from the San Luis Obispo train station to the elegant Ramona Hotel, which burned down in 1905.

Retreat to Mount Madonna

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Recently, I spent a few days at an informal writing retreat with a great group of fellow writing mamas. Armed with laptops and notebooks, we abandoned our families and descended on Mount Madonna Center-–an idyllic 322-acre property in the hills outside Watsonville in Santa Cruz County–to hang with deer and some folks participating in a tantric yoga workshop. (Bet my husband wishes I’d signed up for that one!) Perched above Monterey Bay and surrounded by a forest of redwoods, it was the perfect place to escape the distractions of everyday life, get some serious writing done, and bond with other writers.

Mount Madonna offers a variety of workshops and retreats, including personal retreats you can tailor to your needs. The center is also a nice spot for a low-key, affordable family getaway for outdoorsy types. I know a certain 12-year-old who’d have a blast swimming in the small lake, soaring on the secret swing in the woods, and chasing the wild turkeys that roam the grounds. Guess I’ll have to go back with her one day.

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Lodging — I stayed in a no frills but comfortable hotel-style room in the Conference Center. Most of the rooms share a bathroom. I’m a bit squeamish about shared bathrooms, so I splurged on a room with a private one ($165 per night). But my friends swore the communal restrooms were spotless and they never had to wait to use them. So maybe I’ll go the shared route next time.

Some of my friends stayed in rustic cabins set among pines on a hilltop. After visiting one of them, I developed a mild case of cabin envy. The snug, simply furnished, hardwood-floor abodes were more inviting than my somewhat dark, bland room. And at $80 a night, they were a bargain. Of course, you do have to walk outside to a shared bathroom…

Quiet, Please Babi Hari Dass, a yoga master and monk who took a vow of silence in 1952, founded Mount Madonna. So it’s no surprise that this place doesn’t mess around when it comes to quiet-time. Shoes aren’t allowed in most indoor spaces. And loud talking and other noise are verboten after 9 p.m. I confess, it wasn’t always easy for our chatty bunch to stick to this rule.

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Take a Hike  Before hunkering down in my room to write each morning, I took a hike with a friend on one of the many trails that wind through the redwoods. One evening, we wandered up a path—sprinkled with Buddhist altars–that meanders past the lake and up a grassy hill to watch the spectacular sunset and take in the view.

Food and Caffeine— I loved not having to think about when, where or what to eat while at Mount Madonna. Vegetarian meals in the communal dining room are included with all retreats. The food’s not fancy. But it’s tasty, fresh and there’s plenty of it. Outside food and alcohol aren’t allowed on the premises.

I can live without booze. But  take away my coffee, and things get ugly real fast. As a full-fledged addict, I was scared when I read on the center’s website that tea was available throughout the day, but there was no mention of coffee. Writing’s hard enough without trying to do it with a foggy, caffeine-deprived brain. I was relieved to find plenty of surprisingly decent instant organic coffee on hand. And I was over the moon when I discovered the small café where I could order a triple-shot latte from the most blissed out barista I’ve ever met.

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Chant, Massage, Soak– I didn’t get a chance to attend one of the daily chanting ceremonies at the beautiful Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. But I loved hearing the soft peal of the gong and joyful voices wafting through the grounds at sunrise and sunset. When I go back to Mount Madonna, I hope to join in this sweet ritual.

A massage will also be on the itinerary for my next visit. A couple of my friends were smart enough to book one. When they floated into the dining hall that evening looking radiant and serene, I wished I had, too. A few of us tossed around the idea of taking a starlit soak in the hot tub. But the thought of trekking back to our rooms–damp and cold– in the chilly night air, made it less appealing. We opted for bed instead.

Do Yoga – Mount Madonna offers daily complimentary yoga classes. I brought my mat, but as much as I like yoga, I couldn’t pry myself away from my writing to make it to class. Oh well—another thing to try next time.

Memorial Day Massacre: Stop the Insanity

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In towns across the country, Memorial Day weekend was marked with parades honoring those who fought for our nation; flags fluttering from homes and storefronts; and backyard barbeques.

But for stunned residents of Isla Vista, home to UCSB, the holiday was filled with somber memorials for six students slaughtered by a disturbed young man. Though he had a history of mental problems, the killer legally acquired multiple guns used to mow down three of his victims and injure more. Unlike those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, their deaths were utterly senseless.

Naively, perhaps, after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, I believed our nation had the power to prevent future shootings. And so I sent checks to the Brady Campaign. I signed petitions for gun control reform, including more comprehensive background checks. I shared information on Facebook. I clung to President Obama’s vows that stricter gun control laws would be passed. I was sure that not even the mighty NRA could thwart the majority of Americans’ cry for similar changes.

But maybe I was wrong. The Isla Vista tragedy—the latest of more than 70 shootings on school campuses since Sandy Hook—is proof that little has changed. Though the gunman’s parents alerted authorities about their son’s plans weeks before his rampage, virtually nothing was done to stop him. The police checked in on him but failed to search his apartment where he’d stashed three semi-automatic weapons.

Nothing can replace the lives cut short in Isla Vista or erase the pain of the victims’ families and friends. At the very least, I hope what happened there will strengthen our resolve to demand stricter gun control laws.

Internet headlines and comments scream that the shooter was “a madman” and “insane.” Yes, we need better mental health screening and restraint options for individuals threatening to harm others. But the real insanity is continuing to pretend that easy access to guns isn’t what makes these massacres possible. The real insanity is for nothing to change and for Isla Vista to be just another mass shooting soon to be forgotten.

Catch Me If I Fall

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Earlier this week,  a short op-ed of mine aired on our local NPR radio station, KQED. I wrote about why I believe adding a safety net to the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent more suicides is a good idea. I received  positive comments from friends and others who heard the piece. But–not that it was a total shocker –I also got some pretty harsh feedback. 

One reason I wrote this piece is that I read an article that said one recent jumper was a young doctor with bipolar disorder. In another article, the mother of a teen boy who committed suicide from the bridge last year said she believed he was suffering from his first episode of bipolar disorder. Suicide is something my daughter has talked about since she was in kindergarten. While I know the odds of her leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge–which we live near and drive across several times a week–are slim, I want that net there just in case. I want it there to save ANYONE tempted to act on what is usually a fleeting urge to kill themselves. Studies show that those who survive jumping off the bridge rarely try to commit suicide again. Anyway, thought I’d post the piece here.  I’d love to know what you think…

Catch Me If I Fall

I didn’t know when we moved to Marin eight years agothat I was the mother of a child who fits the profile of those especially vulnerable to the deadly lure of the Golden Gate Bridge. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age five, my daughter often fixates on wanting to die when she’s unstable. It was chilling to hear her sob – when she was in kindergarten — that she didn’t want to be on this planet anymore. Last fall, when she was 11, I could barely hide my fear when she told me she’d not only been thinking about killing herself, she’d thought of ways to do it. They didn’t include jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. And thankfully, they weren’t realistic.

Still, when I drive across the iconic span, steely ocean churning beneath, I sometimes can’t help thinking the unthinkable. My grip on the steering wheel tightens as I recall the day I walked into my girl’s preschool to find a somber group of teachers and parents whispering by the storage cubbies. They were talking about a seemingly happy local high school student who’d peddled his bike to the bridge and plunged to his death. I ached for him and his parents; I couldn’t imagine how they could go on with their lives after he ended his.

If the controversial suicide barrier first proposed in the seventies had been in place then, his life and many others might have been saved. Those lucky enough to survive a jump rarely try to kill themselves again.But suicides from the bridge —1600 have been confirmed since it opened in 1937—are increasing. A record 46 people leapt to their deaths last year. And their ages are getting younger.

In a few years, I’ll have far less control over my daughter than I do today. I won’t always be around to assure her that an intense spell of despair will pass. If there’s even a remote chance that she’d ever consider jumping from the bridge, I want that net there to catch her.

This piece originally aired on KQED Perspectives. Click here to listen to the audio version.

Lobby Therapy

I sat with three other moms on ugly green wedges of modular seating in the lobby of the Stanford Psychiatric Services building. It was a Tuesday evening and we were waiting for our daughters to finish their first session of group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for kids with bipolar disorder. At first, we wrapped ourselves in cocoons of awkward silence. Our eyes bounced from our phones to the clock on the wall or–whenever it dinged, rolled back its heavy doors with a groan, and deposited someone into the shadowy room—the elevator.

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I glanced at the pretty Asian woman sitting next to me. I remembered her kind smile when we’d all dropped off our girls–who ranged in age from 11 (Sadie) to 15–in the stuffy, windowless conference room on the third floor.

“Does your daughter have bipolar disorder?” I asked, tentatively, feeling like an idiot as soon as I did. Duh. Why else would she be here?

She nodded. In a soft voice she told me that Lily,  15, had only recently been diagnosed. But she’d had problems since she was 12 and had been hospitalized four times. Thanks to lithium, Lily was doing better, although the drug made her lethargic and slow.

Her father also had bipolar disorder. “He passed away a few years ago,” Lily’s mother whispered.  Tilting her head back, she pantomimed raising a bottle to her lips. “He drank a lot,” she said, lowering her arm. “He didn’t know he was bipolar.”

The matter of fact way she delivered this news hit me like the jolt of plunging into an icy lake. I was reminded, once again, just how deadly this illness can be. And how lucky we are that, in spite of her struggles, Sadie isn’t much sicker and is getting the help she needs.

Lily’s mom asked how old Sadie was when she was diagnosed. Her eyes widened when I said six. The woman sitting across from us leaned forward, listening intently to our conversation.

“How old was your daughter when you knew something was wrong?” I asked her.

“Right away,” she replied, grimacing. “Amy cried all the time when she was a baby.”

Her husband’s denial about their daughter’s condition led them to divorce. She sighed and folded her arms tighter across her chest.

“Amy just goes into a really dark tunnel sometimes” she said, shaking her head.

The rest of us nodded. We all knew that tunnel. We knew how the strain of raising a child with a mental illness could chip away at even the most solid marriages. We knew what it was like to watch our girls flounder in school and lose friends. We’d felt the sting of skepticism from our own friends, relatives and others when we uttered the words “pediatric bipolar disorder.” We knew about clinging to the hope that each new medication would be the one that would prevent our child from ever crawling back into that tunnel.

The only mother who hadn’t yet spoken, a blonde woman with tired eyes, rose from her seat. She shared that her girl, Kylie, who was 12, had originally been diagnosed with ADHD.

“I sobbed when the doctor told me she had bipolar disorder,” she said.

The illness had ravaged her sister’s life. More nods. We’d all seen adult family members sidelined by bipolar disorder and robbed of their potential. We’d watched them succumb to addiction and push away those who love them with their erratic moods and behavior. And we knew how the lure of suicide, with its promise to end their pain forever, always clouded their futures.

Our formerly subdued group was suddenly chatty as a gathering of sorority sisters—which, in a way, we were. Talking over each other, we swapped stories and compared notes on symptoms and medications. We didn’t slow down until the elevator chimed and one of the older girls from the group swished past us in her long bohemian skirt, signaling the 90-minute therapy session was over.

Sadie was the last one to pop out of the elevator.

“How’d it go?” I asked as we headed to the parking lot, though the grin on her face answered my question.

“Really good!” she said. “But it went by so fast.”

I knew how she felt. I was pretty sure spending time with other girls who had bipolar disorder would help her. I hadn’t anticipated how therapeutic it would be for me to hang out in the lobby with their moms. And I don’t know who’s more excited about our next Tuesday night therapy session—Sadie or me.

Note: The names of the girls in this story have been changed.

Children and Antipsychotics: Silver Linings and Stigma

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This morning, I came across an interesting article in Scientific AmericanShould Children Take Antipsychotic Drugs? Like other pieces I’ve read on this topic, it addressed the serious side effects children can experience from antipsychotics. But I appreciated that this article also included evidence that, for certain childhood mental illnesses–including bipolar disorder–these drugs DO work.

Less heartening were some of the ignorant and negative reader comments, including several with the tired old “let’s-blame-the-parents-for-their-kids’ problems” theme. Sigh. So, so sick of that one. I couldn’t resist responding to one commenter and thought I’d share (a slightly edited version of) what I wrote:

Please don’t assume  poor parenting is to blame every time a child is diagnosed with ADHD or another mental illness. As the mother of a child with bipolar disorder and ADHD, I believe this is the exception rather than the rule. I’ve done a good enough job of beating myself up for my kid’s problems–and second-guessing myself about how best to help her–without reinforcement from those who aren’t in my shoes.

Like most parents of a seriously troubled child, I tried many other things–including twice-a-week therapy for almost a year, school counseling and seeking multiple opinions from top psychiatrists and other doctors–before turning to an antipsychotic as a last resort. In my daughter’s case, even her anti-meds therapist agreed that she needed medication to get stable enough to benefit from therapy. There’s no denying that antipsychotics can have serious side effects. And they are not magic bullets. I’m constantly weighing the risks and benefits of my daughter’s medication and work closely with her doctor to monitor potential problems. But as the mounting evidence cited in this article indicates, antipsychotics do work for kids with some mental disorders. They have definitely helped my daughter.

Exploring New Paths

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Starting next week, Sadie will be participating in a study at the Stanford Pediatric Mood Disorders Clinic. The clinic is one of the few institutions in the country–and arguably the most respected–dedicated to understanding and treating pediatric bipolar disorder. The study will look at the effects of group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) on kids ages 12-17 with, or at high-risk for developing, bipolar disorder.

Even though it means we’ll be making the two-hour drive to and from Stanford once a week right after school for the next few months,  I’m so  grateful that Sadie is getting this opportunity. She’s pretty excited about it too. She’ll be learning how to recognize her negative thought patterns and develop strategies to prevent them from spinning out of control. And she’ll be doing it with a group of peers who struggle with the same issues. I know it will take a lot of practice for her to truly master CBT. But I think it has the potential to be an invaluable tool to help her stay on top of her moods and destructive thoughts instead of being overpowered by them. Especially as she heads toward her teen and adult years.

We’ve already made two trips down to Stanford to prepare for the study. During our first visit, we each spent eight hours being interviewed individually by various members of the research team and answering questionnaires. Lucky Sadie had to go back the following week for a three-hour blood draw. I really thought this would be a deal-breaker for her. Thanks to several traumatizing lab visits, she has an almost phobic fear of needles. So I was extremely proud when she agreed to be hooked up to an IV for the better part of an afternoon.

The people she met at Stanford on our first visit were a big reason she agreed to go through with the dreaded blood draw. Sadie fell hard for several of the staff members, especially the young woman (I’ll call her Peg) coordinating the study. They, in turn, were charmed by her quick wit, imagination and mega-watt smile. When Peg  casually mentioned that Sadie would get PAID for her lab work and interviews, my daughter’s eyes just about popped out of her head. By the time we left that day, she was barely worried about the blood work and couldn’t wait to go back to Stanford to hang with her new friends.

While her blood was drawn, Sadie was also given a stress test. She will go through the same process at the end of the study. By analyzing participants’ blood before and after the study, the folks at Stanford hope to learn more about the role of stress-induced inflammation in youth with bipolar disorder and to see if psychotherapy can reduce it.

It feels good knowing that at the same time my daughter will benefit from being in the CBT study, what researchers learn from it has the potential to help many other kids with bipolar disorder. I look forward to sharing more about our experience at Stanford in the coming weeks.