Sarah R. Callender


In Heath, Parenting on September 7, 2016 at 6:20 am

“The problem with having a mental illness,” I tell my husband, Jeff, “is that it makes me feel a little crazy.”

Jeff is making spaghetti sauce because making spaghetti sauce is one of his spiritual gifts. While he chops and sautés, the kids and I watch MLS soccer and fold laundry because watching soccer is one of my spiritual gifts, and the laundry, well, it needs folding. My son’s folded clothes don’t look much different from the pile I dumped out of the hamper. My daughter’s shirts, pants, and undies are origami.

“You know what I mean?” I say.

Jeff knows exactly why I am bringing up this topic.

“Seriously,” I continue. “How do I know when I’m being crazy crazy vs. normal crazy . . . like how Erica gets a little . . .” my index finger makes circles at the side of my head, “you know, twizzy.”

Erica is one of my best friends from college. She invented the word “twizzy.” She is a most wonderful human being, without whom I would be lost.

I scratch my cheek. “Did I do what I did because I have mental illness or because I’m me?”

Jeff turns to our children. “Hey, kids?”

“Yeah, dad?” my son answers.

“Your mother’s weird.”

“Really, Dad?” my son says. “You’re sure?” At thirteen, he is honing his spiritual gift of sarcasm.

Jeff and I laugh because while Jeff is peace and I am war, while he is slow and I am quick, while he is stoicism and I am passion, we share the same sense of humor, an important thing to share every day. Especially important on those days, years ago, when I thought it might feel very good, very comforting and relieving, like chicken noodle soup or a bubble bath, to drive my minivan into a concrete wall.

I get up off the floor and join Jeff at the stove. “The problem with having a mental illness is sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s the illness and what’s just being human. You know?”

He knows. On the soccer field that afternoon, I flipped out. My daughter’s team was playing the Marauders, a team of little girls who played downright dirty: two-handed shoves to the back, intentional tripping, illegal tackles. And their parents, the trees from which these rough little apples fell, spent most of the first half yelling at the ref and the linesman, questioning calls, questioning fouls, questioning whether the ref could benefit from an eye exam.

At some point in the second half, I erupted. “Hey!” I called over to the Marauder’s parent area, left of the midfield line. “Knock it off! Quit yelling at the ref!”

“Oh, lighten up,” one of the fathers called back to our team’s parents, the right side of midfield. “We know this ref. He knows we’re kidding.”

Our girls don’t know you’re kidding,” I said. “They only hear you yelling at the ref. How about let’s keep it classy!”

Another marauding father chimed in, “Well, someone can’t take a joke.”

I don’t care for it when someone tells me to lighten up, and I can take a joke when that joke is at least ten percent funny. Without considering ramifications, I abandoned my base and strode into enemy territory.

“Who said that?” I asked the cluster of dads, each of whom was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I. “Whoever said that, you need to apologize.”

A guy with a head like an Easter ham mocked me with his grin. “I’m so sorry.”

“That,” I said, forgetting I was speaking to a grown man, “did not sound sincere at all. I’d like a sincere apology.”

From nowhere materialized one of the marauding mothers, a squat lady with flinty eyes. She shoved me hard in the shoulder. These parents, like their daughters, had certain spiritual gifts.

“You need to get back to your team’s end,” the lady said. “Look! The girls are all staring at you.”

When I turned, I saw she was right. Play had stopped. From the opposite side of the field, Jeff was also staring. He had been snapping action photos of the game while I was losing my cool, demanding apologies, and believing I could convince other adults to behave themselves.

“What happened?” he asked, joining me as I returned to our team’s parents, all of whom were dying for a play-by-play of the altercation.

I shook my head. Hot with shame and dizzy with adrenaline, I wasn’t sure.

Now, alongside Jeff at the stove, I start unloading the dishwasher while he chops carrots. When the kids take their folded laundry to their bedrooms, I lower my voice to ask the question I am most worried about. “Did I lose my cool because I have bipolar?”

He pauses. “Maybe. But probably it was because those parents were rude and their girls were shoving our daughter. And sometimes your need for justice overrules your sense of safety.”

When we married nearly eighteen years ago and I stood at the altar and promised in sickness and in health, I pictured a really bad case of strep throat. Perhaps a herniated disk (him) or melanoma (me). I would take care of him and he would take care of me, driving each other to medical appointments or zipping to Safeway for Ibuprofen or 7-Up, for bags of peas to be used as ice packs. Young and healthy, we were eager to start what seemed like a till-death-do-us-part slumber party where we’d maintain DINK status for a while, then have a couple of kids who would exhaust and delight us. We’d raise those children, passing stomach flu and cold viruses back and forth. Maybe—God forbid—head lice. I never imagined mental illness.

Even though I was suicidal at sixteen, foggy and vacant throughout college, on the verge of mental collapse as a 22-year-old high school English teacher, and panic-filled as a mother of two kids under age two, I did not realize I had depression. I just thought I was broken and weird. Stressed and incompetent.

In my thirties, I finally received the diagnosis of depression, and ten years later, a new psychiatrist and I realized the illness was actually Bipolar 2. The diagnosis brought relief. Deep down, I knew my moods could swing: From psychic pain that felt as sticky as pitch, weeks where I was chronically teary, unable to formulate a clear thought, and incapable of doing anything other than focus on surviving the present moment, hoping I’d make it to the next, and the next after that. Then over to the light-bright electric end of my spectrum. During those hypomanic episodes, I sent weird and offensive emails. I wrote numerous blog posts and pages of nonsensical fiction. I believed I was not merely funny but hysterically hilarious.

That’s another problem with having a mental illness: reality gets hijacked. Driving into a concrete wall sounds comforting and relieving. Telling unfunny jokes to people I hardly know makes me the cat’s meow. I am lucky I did not do more harm. Lucky I have the husband I do. Lucky I knew where and how to get help. Lucky I have health insurance.

“I have bipolar,” I told Jeff when I came home after receiving the diagnosis.

“Huh,” he said. “OK.” As if a bipolar diagnosis was no big deal. That’s another of Jeff’s spiritual gifts: he rolls with the shoves. To me though, in the context of our marriage, it was a big deal. I didn’t want to have brought it into our marriage, possibly into the DNA of our children. I didn’t want to be a burden or create burdens for others. I said my vows as an equal. I didn’t want my brain chemistry to turn me into someone who was needier than my partner.

Back in our kitchen, Jeff pulls his roasted San Marzanos from the oven. They fragrance our kitchen as they did our garden on August afternoons.

“What scares you most about the bipolar?” I ask.

I wait. It can take him a while to answer small questions and just about forever to answer big ones. But if I give him forever, his words are always thoughtful, practical and true.

Tonight he doesn’t need much time. “After your last round of depression,” he says, “I realized this isn’t something that’s going to go away. And someday I might need to play a caregiver role in our marriage.”

His words sting. “No you won’t,” I say. “I finally have the right diagnosis. The right meds. I know how to manage it.”

Jeff nods. The baking sheet of tomatoes sizzles in protest, as hot and irritated as I.

But we both know I am stitched together with thread. Not fishing line or steel cables. Just cotton thread, the kind I can tear with my small hands.

“You’re like a superhero,” my friend Erica says. “Someday we’re going to realize that the mentally ill have the best brains of all. And then everyone will want to have a mental illness.”

I love Erica.

I love my husband. Plates of spaghetti and fruit, fresh Parmesan and olive bread with butter balance on our laps. We eat in front of the Sounders game with the kids, plus our puppy and two ancient cats sleeping alongside us. Steam from Jeff’s spaghetti sauce rises into my face, comforting and relieving.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Next time the girls play the Marauders, I’ll block for you.”

I laugh. “No way. I am standing nowhere near them.”

But I do like that image: a justice-seeking mother with bipolar disorder, charging the opponent’s stronghold in her husband’s draft, not broken or needy, just a regular gal with the spiritual gift of surrounding herself with those who keep her safe and sound.


In Parenting on May 8, 2014 at 6:24 am

An Open Letter to the Mother Crow That Attacked My Head Last Spring

Dear Ms. Crow,

Let me start by saying that I hope you and your family have had a blissful year. I am sure you have enjoyed the magnolia and cherry and lilac blossoms in this neighborhood, the neighborhood our two families happen to share. Though I suppose I should ask: Do pastel-hued flower blossoms (lacking the shiny, silvery hue of hair barrettes and orthodontia), hold a crow’s attention? I suppose it could be mere myth that crows are attracted to that which sparkles and glints in sunshine. After all, I was wearing nothing shiny–neither bling, nor barrettes, nor braces–on the day of The Attack.

Speaking of, do you recall the events of that May afternoon? It was 3:20 p.m. on a Thursday. I was hurrying north on 50th, between 68th and 70th, wearing my raspberry-red Eddie Bauer jacket, likely rushed because I am often late to collect my child from school. I remember the next details quite clearly: there you were, black feathers on a black telephone wire, and I smiled, making eye contact. Poor crow, I thought. I bet no one takes the time to smile at you. To really see you. To look past your symbolic-of-death exterior and understand that you, on the inside, are a living creature. Just as I am. 

Unfortunately, thirty seconds after I smiled at you, you attacked my head.

It being late May, I can only assume you were guarding your fledglings. Fine. It was perhaps my imposing height and immense biceps that suggested I was a serious threat. Never mind; that was sarcasm. You, clearly a good mother, simply wanted to protect your children. Plus, I would later learn (in post-Attack crow internet research) that your species views thoughtful, compassionate eye contact as a threat. I had no idea! Please know I was simply trying to brighten your day, not threaten your family.

To make matters worse, I now realize you were just a few weeks postpartum, and while I don’t presume to know anything about crow mothers, if your first weeks of motherhood were anything like my own, I understand why you found yourself attacking the innocent head of another.

You see? We two are not so dissimilar. In fact, other than the black feathers, talons, sharp beak and nasty CAW CAW thing you do that, especially after The Attack, makes my stomach knot up, we are exactly alike.

I, like you, have children whom I would protect to the death.

You don’t believe me? Just a few weeks ago, a little girl made fun of my daughter’s cheek mole. This little girl made a mean-voiced comment about the mole, then went further, commenting on the three hairs that poke from the mole. Worse, she did this in front of several other girls. The moment my daughter mentioned this story to me, I felt my face flush. My jaw tightened. My pulse raced. I had to fight every instinct not to fly over to that twerp’s house and snap her in two.

Why didn’t I? For starters, in the Human World there are laws that prohibit mothers from busting down the door of a little girl and snapping her in two. Plus, her mother scares me. Her mother’s friends scare me too. They all make me feel like I am right back in middle school. Do crows have middle school?

Anyway. There have been numerous other events where I have wanted to take down someone who messed with my child. The school principal. The boy who pushed my daughter off the bleachers. The former-friend who said my child, “was a little freaky.”

I know you understand my desire to protect my child from cruelty, because that’s what you were doing when you flew into my head, thwacking me with your God-only-knows-where-those-feathers-have-been wing.  We mothers love our babies in ways that are neither rational nor fully healthy. And that love, sometimes, makes us attempt (or at least consider) acts of violence.

Mrs. Crow, you are smart enough to read this letter. You are smart enough to make tools that help you do stuff. You are, apparently, smart enough to do science experiments.

crow scientist

Here you are, Sept. ’12, measuring scientific chemicals. I assume these days you work part-time for NASA.

I know you are smart enough to know that I am genuinely remorseful, that I am truly sorry I engaged in pre-Attack eye contact.

I am sorry that I scared you on that day, that somehow you thought I was tall enough to pluck your babies from that 100-foot pine tree. I might steal my friend, Steph’s, French bulldog puppy in the next week or so, but I can assure you, I would never steal a baby crow. Ick. Yuck.

I am sorry for the way I disparaged you, post-Attack, and felt the need to wash my hair three times, scrubbing really hard each time, in order to “get the crow out.”

I hope you can accept my apologies.

I also know you are smart enough to, even one year later, remember my face. Hence the reason for my letter. Soon, your 2014 babies will hatch, and while I no longer feel safe walking my former route to pick up my daughter at school, while I now look down at my feet whenever I hear the screech of you overhead, black-feathered tightrope walkers, I know late May through early June is a time where you might feel, for lack of a better word, a little looneytuney if someone walks in the vicinity of your fledglings.

I propose that we come to a simple understanding: I swear I will not bother your babies if you swear you will not divebomb me or any members of my family, including my mother, whom you have apparently made uncomfortable with your too-close flybys. I assume you see my face in hers, being that your kind is so “good with faces.” See? You are smart enough to engage in Mafia-esque terror tactics, knowing that the best way to get to me is by getting to my loved ones. Donna Crowleone.

But I hope we have a deal. I also hope that we can be, well, not friends per se, but that maybe we can coexist in harmony, two mothers in the same hood, women who respect the other’s passionate love for her children.

Feel free to respond via email or text or carrier pigeon as I eagerly anticipate your response. Regardless, I wish you all the best and trust you will have a lovely Seattle summer with your children. Perhaps I will see you at Zoo Tunes or a Mariners game. If you are not aware, the Mariners are miraculously (at the moment) over .500, and the stadium’s not far from our homes, at least as the crow flies.


A Seattle Mother


Me Too

In Faith on March 23, 2014 at 7:28 am

The other day, I wet my pants a little during a class at the gym.

I was doing jumping jacks, nothing fancy, and I wished my friend Steph was there because I always like to tell her when I wet my pants a little at the gym.

But Steph was probably off selling a house or listing a house or maybe eating cheese dip from a jar and cracking herself up with cheese & chip jokes. (“I’m nacho friend anymore!” “Please? Can’t we taco ‘bout it?”)

When I glanced around at others in the class, yet found no one in whom I could confide, I kept jumping-jacking, still wetting just a tiny bit with each landing. And laughing. While it’s not great to be at the point in life where I wet my pants a little, it is wonderful to be at the point where I can laugh at my gym-related incontinence.

Hold on. Did I just share too much?

Because I’ve been thinking about why we share what we share. Why my generation shares far more than my parents’ generation and far less than Generation Tee-Ball Trophy.

While there is, absolutely, the reality of TMI (I was recently privy to the sharing of someone’s stool sample story), I believe sharing one’s stories and foibles does good things. Sharing leads to understanding and understanding leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to cookies. I mean, connection. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing whilst residing on this big blue marble? Connecting, tethering, weaving?


But my sharing about pants-wetting might not be any more acceptable than someone else sharing about stool samples. In fact, in Steph’s absence, I once tossed out a casual, “Wow. These jumping jacks sure make me pee!”

I shared because I thought it was funny, but in return I received only an uncomfortable, slightly-scared expression from the lady within earshot. That’s a lonely-making interaction, and that is the risk of sharing: I end up feeling less connected, tethered, woven than I felt before.

For some reason, though, I press on, I think because there’s always the hope I might hear these words: Yeah? Me too.

As in, Really? You feel that way? Me too!

Each time one of you stops me in the halls at my kids’ schools or writes me a little note on Facebook, about how you, too, went an entire day wearing inside-out underpants, I laugh with you. When we laugh together, we feel less alone and freakish, and when we feel less alone and freakish, we suddenly feel free to eat cookies. I mean, we feel free to connect with another someone.

Me too. Look at those two little words on a page, and they seem as breezy and inconsequential as a gnat’s sneeze. But those words are not gnat sneezes. Hear them after you share yourself with someone? Those little sneezey words have the volume and velocity to wipe out acres and oceans of loneliness and disconnection.

Me too!

You, too? Oh! Gesundheit. Salúd! Bless you.

I have been thinking about the line between being honest and being gross, when–wonder of wonders–the pastor at my church gave a sermon about being authentic, about how we humans spend a whole lot of time and energy wondering of one another, Are you one of us?

Not “Are you Christian?” or “Are you cool?” or “Are you liberal/straight/Irish/a Seahawks fan/someone who practices her dance moves when she’s home alone?”

But this: Do you also feel scared of failing? Do you ever feel stupid for trying to be an author? Do you ever wish you could go back and redo moments or days or years during which you didn’t behave well? Is your marriage also difficult at times? Do you sometimes wet your pants during jumping jacks? Do you feel sad and scared and hopeless sometimes, just like I do?

In other words, Are you easily-breakable, longing for connection, hopeful at the core? Are you human, just like I am?

Yeah. Me too. 

Here’s the rub. While we’re a society starving for connection, it’s scary to be authentic. It can also be uncomfortable to experience someone else’s authenticity. When I share personal details about mental health or parenting or God or marriage, it makes some people uncomfortable. When I hear about someone’s stool samples, it makes me uncomfortable.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so dang uncomfortable with discomfort. Maybe discomfort wakes us up, shakes us from our numbness, helps us understand that we do have something in common with someone who shares his stool sample stories. Because you know what? He’s not really sharing a story about his poop. He is sharing the story of waiting for test results that could have turned up something scary.

Oh. You’ve been worried about medical test results? Me too. 

I was doing a little research about being authentic, partly, I admit, because I do worry about how my sharing turns people off. I suppose I was looking for some kind of modern day Emily Post thing regarding what I should and should not share. Something like this:

Pants-wetting admission is acceptable in a blog post or private conversation, as is the fleeting mention of one’s stool sample. However, take care not to go into unnecessary detail about stool. Furthermore, take caution! Do not, in any venue or under any circumstances, discuss mental illness or Jesus, lest your audience assume you are crazy and/or intolerant.

I didn’t find an Authenticity Handbook, but my research reminded me of this fact: statistically, 10% of all people on this planet will not like me. No matter what I do or don’t do, no matter how much I reveal or don’t reveal about my incontinence, no matter how many cookies I hand out, 10% of the seven billion people on this planet will not ever like me.

That, my friends, is a number that starts with “7” and has a lot of zeros.

But there is freedom in those zeros. If all of those zeros aren’t going to want to connect with me, I can spend time and energy focusing on the people with whom connection is more likely. That’s a pretty big number too.

I was also reminded of Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability. While she doesn’t have a tidy list of Share This But Don’t Share That guidelines, Dr. Brown’s research proves that if I want good stuff in my life, I must share my heart. I must share the important parts of my story. The stuff that illustrates my humanness. Even if the person’s reaction is an uncomfortable, slightly-scared expression.

Yes, that’s right. Sharing my heart requires the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to be vulnerable means there’s a chance I’ll be mocked or uninvited to social events, and sharing something in the face of potential mockery and social alienation requires cookies. I mean courage. Heaps of it.

But when we are willing to be vulnerable? In Brene Brown’s words, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of  joy, creativity, belonging, love.”

Yes. I’ll have a triple helping of all of that.

Consider the power of seven billion Me too’s. Seven billion gnat sneezes. Imagine what all that Me Too-ing would do in the world’s messiest places:  Syria. South Sudan. The Senate. Seattle. The church. My closet. My heart. 

So many sneezes. So many reasons to say Bless you. Bless you. Bless you.

one of us

Photos compliments of Flickr’s Bobbi Newman and Sharon West.