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When it comes to the mental health crisis in America, I have to defer to those with more knowledge than I.

For severely mentally ill folks (I’m talking the kinds of folks who walk into malls with guns), I don’t know if “treatment” is truly an option. If (and that’s a big IF) that individual responds to medication, there is still no way to insure he actually takes said medication. Unless we have the ability to vaccinate against mental illness and we, as a society, are okay with forcing meds down the throats of folks who need it, I simply cannot see a way to help.

Those in Washington are always calling for better mental health screenings and treatment options. All nice talking points, but when you get down to the nitty gritty, how can we force people to get treatment? We can’t.

But, I was pleasantly surprised this week when an  e-mail showed up from my healthcare insurer this week. The subject line read, “Feeling lonely? We can help.”

Inside the message, I found that the insurance company has all sorts of resources for emotional support, tips for helping make friends and community centers where people can go to get help …NOT their local E.R. There is even a way to sign up to get a weekly text message with an encouraging word and a reminder of the insurance company’s mental health resources.

I do not know one single person in my wide network of people who is truly, truly happy with their healthcare insurance. Personally, I’m rather disgusted at my own healthcare insurance company right now. Chances are, you are, too. BUT…at least the insurance company is trying. At least they are promoting their resources to help people deal with grief and loss.

At least they are doing…something. And that’s more than I can say for the talking heads that always seem to pop up after a tragedy. When it comes to tangible, accessible resources, as much as I dislike the money making parts of healthcare, at least this company is making an effort.

Marcus in a bra…

Today is International Women’s Day and I just want to publically acknowledge all the women who have touched my life and who make me a better person. Obviously, I start with my mother who not only raised me to be the man I am today, but who also dedicated her professional life to educating children. My wife, Marvelyne, who consistently shows me how to be a more compassionate and loving human being…and so, so many more!

Switching gears: In the past, I’ve done speaking engagements where a meeting planner will suggest having each audience member be blindfolded during my presentation. Ya know, so the audience will get a taste of what it’s like to be blind. If this is ever suggested (thankfully, “experiential learning” like this is no longer acceptable), I give it the big thumbs down.

When someone wears a blindfold, it no more gives them an idea of blindness than me wearing a bra gives me an idea what it’s like to be a woman. You can quote me on that.

When we try to walk a mile in another’s shoes, I think it’s a good thing. But, it must be done with the knowledge and admission that each human experience is different. We try to understand, we try to comprehend, but the truth is we just can’t get an accurate picture.

I empathize with how women have been treated as second-class citizens, yeesh, seemingly since the beginning of time. I understand the stats about women in the workplace and the glass ceiling. But, I can never know what it’s like to be a female. The best I can do is understand and admit that I am, and always will, come up short when it comes to knowing the experience of being a woman. Yet, I can acknowledge that shortcoming and still remain open and aware to my own ignorance. I can approach my relationships with females on their merit with the knowledge that we are different…and that that is okay. I can refuse to fall into the traps of old and the stigma, boundaries and ceilings that have been associated with women throughout time. That’s the best I can do…and to send love, hugs and support to all those who have been treated as “less than” by my fellow males. We’re getting better every day…I think, no matter what pitfalls our media shows. Let’s keep it up, men, and treat the other half of humanity with (gasp!) humanity.

People Aren’t Bad

Today, the Hotness and I hired a handyman to do, well, handyman stuff. I can’t even explain handyman stuff, which is why I’m not a handyman.

Anywho, Mike, the handyman, came recommended through Hotness’s sister and bro-in-law. Mike attends the church they pastor.

We had a little time to visit with Mike. He seemed such a gentle spirit that I was a little surprised to hear him say, “Ya know, in my younger days, you wouldn’t have even let me through your front door. I used to get really angry, I used to get into a lot of altercations and fights…”

I’ve personally not been in a physical fight since I was in elementary school. And let me tell ya, that kid had it coming! But, past childhood, I’ve never been the kind who thinks problems can be solved with fists.

Mike elaborated a little more. “Somewhere along the way, I figured out I don’t need to be angry at everyone. Not everybody is out to get me.”

I once heard a wise man say, “People are far too concerned about themselves to worry about you.”

Huh. That makes sense. I used to spend a great amount of time thinking people were liars, cheaters and thieves. I used to think I always had to be on guard to protect myself from these nefarious folks. The truth is, bad people DO exist…but they are far, far fewer than most people think.

Still, here’s something deeper: if you choose to live your life protected and guarded, you’re also protecting yourself from intimacy, love, friendship and human relationships. Those are, after all, what make a great life. There’s the saying that no one on their death bed says, “Ya know, I wish I’d worked more.” Same side of that coin, I don’t want to be on my death bed and think, “I’ll die with no friends because I was too concerned someone would hurt me.”

Human intimacy is scary. It takes guts to be authentically open and human with others. But ya know what’s also scary? The number of sad and lonely people in the world who are miserable because they are too afraid of opening themselves to another person.

Listen to Mike, friends: “Not everybody is out to get you…”

In fact, most everyone, at their core, wants the same thing: love, intimacy and connection. Those things are really, really hard to have when you’re angry and protective. Trust me on this, been there, done that.

Survivor

While I was in Jersey training with Elliott, I was a little out of the loop with news. Yet, while out exploring the city one day, I walked into a lounge and was able to catch news of a story that has continued to stick with me.

It was a story about a woman who was killed while pumping gas. No, not an explosion or a fire, but another driver (who was under the influence of drugs) ploughed into the victim’s car, pinned her to the gas pump and she suffered life ending injuries. Such a sad, sad story.

The perpetrator, of course, was not hurt. And the car driven by the intoxicated driver was not her own, but rather her estranged (and out of town) long term girlfriend. For whatever reason, the news decided to interview the owner of the car. Not that I really have a big problem with that, mainly because the woman was sensible.

And by sensible I mean she felt terrible. She knew her ex had a drug problem and was a danger to herself and others. She did not give permission for the ex to use the car and, like I said, she wasn’t even in town when the crime happened.

She just kept saying over and over, “I’m so, so sorry.”

I’m no psychologist of any kind, but this sure sounds like survivor’s guilt. While the car’s owner didn’t play a part in the crime, she still felt the weight of being connected with the death of an innocent person. I would, too. Wouldn’t you?

When I’m confused about the world, I try to remember that the world is chaotic. No matter how hard we try, no matter how committed we are to a plan, crazy shit just happens. It happened to me. I’m sure you, too, have had a monkey wrench thrown into your world a time or two. When chaos rears it’s head, I return to my principal’s advice as a teenager: “Change the things you can and don’t worry about the rest…there’s nothing you can do about those things anyway, just change the things you can.”

In simplified terms, we can’t change what happens to us, only the response we give. Much like the survivor who felt guilty, even she said she couldn’t do anything about it, but still felt normal human emotion to try to change something that simply cannot be changed. In those kinds of times, I hope you’ll heed that guidance, too: you can’t change everything, but you can always control your response to the things that can’t be changed.

What’s Right?

I kinda got in a slump a couple days ago. A few business things were weighing on my mind. I guess I could have just been dealing with a little winter blues, too.

I get quiet when I’m low. The Hotness, who probably knows me better than I know me, noticed. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said. She was not to be eluded.

“What’s right, then?” she asked.

A lot, actually. A direct question deserves a direct answer, so I started talking…

I’m alive. I have no major health concerns, other than my blindness. I have a wife who loves me for me. I have kids I adore and who are all quality people. I have parents who support me unconditionally and who have gone through incredibly tough times with me. I’m living in the wealthiest country on earth. I have not only all I need for survival, but a beautiful home, reliable and comfortable transportation, a clean and delicious food and water supply. I have a career I love that truly helps people. I have the unconditional love of dogs in our home; a home that is temperature controlled with running water and luxuries the rest of the world may never know. There is a whole, whole lot right.

Friends, this was such a testimony of the old adage of count your blessings. When I did, I realized how lucky I am and all the things I DO have already. Thanks to that simple question from the Hotness, it allowed me to re-direct my brain and emotions into a healthier spot. You may want to try this…ancient wisdom suggests it really does work.

Introducing the New Puppy on Tuesday!

At 7pm EST on Tuesday, Jan. 31, just a few days from now, I’ll be “unveiling” my new Seeing Eye dog via Facebook Live. This will ONLY be available on the Marcus Engel Speaker pro page:

www.Facebook.com/MarcusEngelSpeaker

Just “like” the page and look for this annoucement on Tuesday, starting at 7pm EST!

I’ll address one burning question on everyone’s mind now, and answer additional questions Tuesday on FB Live!

I received this new dog on January 4th. The Seeing Eye, Inc., in Morristown, New Jersey, is where I spent around three weeks training with the new pooch. This is dog #4 for me, so having had three previous dogs, I’ve learned a few things…

In each class, there are around 20 folks who are blind who are also training with their new dogs. In each class I’ve been in, there are usually at least one or two people who, for a variety of reasons, do not complete the training period. Sometimes, this is just due to the person learning that a dog is not a good option for them. This usually happens with first timers. It happened in this January class, too. Every once in a while, the dog/person match just doesn’t work. Maybe the dog is too strong for the person, maybe the person walks too slowly for the dog, stuff like that. This, too, happened in my class. But, instead of going home dogless, trainers found another dog for this student…a match that really seemed to work better.

I held off on announcing anything about the dog until I was as sure as I could be that we would, indeed, be working together. After nearly three weeks of training in Jersey, and now with nearly a week at home, I’m pretty confident his dog is going to work.

If you have questions, we can address them on Facebook Live on Tuesday, just comment or e-mail me. Happy to address as many of the inquiries as possible!

Words Matter

On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. It was such a fun event and the feedback was positive and embracing…makes me feel like I did something right!

However, the story I’d like to share came in a private conversation with Patrick, the Director of Patient Experience at “The Beth”. Before I share this insight, let me give you a little Marcus Engel philosophy…

Having the honor to share my story with the great people at “The Beth” this past Friday!

When I first lost my sight, it was the early 90s and “politically correct” language was still thought of as this ridiculously liberal notion of sugar coating everything so it sounded better. Quite possibly, this is because I was from a small town in Missouri. With my white, middle class, rural, Protestant upbringing, I guess I can use the excuse I didn’t know better.

So, when I was first told I’d never see again, I asked, “Am I blind?” Yet, there was a part of me that wondered, “Is it okay if I call myself blind? Or, do I have to use the term ‘visually impaired?’ Or ‘visually challenged?’ Or ‘sight difficulties?’” I just didn’t know. And, I didn’t know if it was okay for other people to refer to me as blind, either.

As I got a little more experience and maturity behind me, and especially as I started working with the disability support services offices at college campuses across the country, I started to adopt the “person first” way of speaking. Like, “Joe is a blind man” became, “Joe is a person who is blind” or “Joe is a man who is blind.”

While I began to use this slight difference in language, I didn’t trip on it much. Like, if someone said, “Joe is a blind man”, I wouldn’t get all up in arms and correct it. I would just be sure I was using person first ways of speaking.

Which brings me back to my story from my time at The Beth. Before a keynote, I was talking to Patrick about the hospital, Newark in general, their specialties and bragging rights of the facility, etc…and then I totally stuck my foot in my mouth by NOT using person first language.

I asked, “Do you have a lot of indigent patients?”

Patrick paused…just long enough to let me figure out I’d said something wrong. “We try not to use the word ‘indigent’, and instead we say, Beth Israel serves the needs of the community”.

God, he’s so right! In my quest for knowledge, I’d just broken my own rule. I’d put this population of patients in the category about their socio-economic status instead of looking at their universal humanity. How could I be so stupid?

Patrick gave me grace with this hiccup…and I got some reinforcement to my own rule. People are people. Humans are humans. That is our basis. To see individuals by their socio-economic status, their race, their gender, their abilities or disabilities, their religion…all these things serve to separate us from other humans.

I don’t want to be separated from other humans. I want universality of all. If I see others as different, then that gives other human beings the ability (dare I say…the right?) to also see me as different. We all have differences, certainly, but it is our humanity that is the glue that binds us together.

Praying for Good Outcomes

In the line of work I’m in, talking politics is just a waste of time. We are so ideologically opposed right now in our country that there is just no good that’ll come from it. I thought things were bad during the Bush #43 era, but this is far worse.

If you’re like me, when politics comes up, especially in mixed company, I either bite my tongue (hard) or echo some sentiment that I actually agree with. A few months ago, after the election, a family member asked me what I thought of the outcome of the election. I gave an honest response: “I’m praying for good outcomes.”

In the medical world I work in, “outcome” is loosely defined that the condition is cured or fixed or lessened thanks to medical intervention. It also means there is little-to-no damage done in the process. Like, if someone goes in for a routine surgery, but picks up a hospital borne infection, well, that is not a good outcome. Hospitals being reimbursed on their outcomes is a major component of the ACA. Frankly, I think it’d take a dozen Philadelphia lawyers to even decipher what is in the ACA, but on this part, I agree.

So, political outcomes. No matter who won the 2016 election, I would pray for good outcomes. I pray that, much like surgery, we will begin to fix some of the things in our country that are broken…and do so without any complications. I don’t want to see our infrastructure rebuilt if it means arts programs are cut in the schools. That, to me, is a bad outcome.

Look, no matter where you fall in this chasm of politics, the fact of the matter is that we now have a new president. I pray for good outcomes. As Americans, shouldn’t we all do that?

The Night Before Departure

Remember going to camp as a kid? Your cabin mates or family group members were all strangers, but after a week of being with one another 24-7, the bonds grow real tight, real fast. That’s kinda how it is in Seeing Eye dog training, too.

I’ve talked a good bit about the dogs and the training process, but let me give a little insight into the human side of this. My class started out with around 20 students. That means 20 individuals who are blind from all across North America. Vancouver, BC to Boston, Florida to L.A. Lots of in betweens. Put any 20 people together in a dorm for a few weeks and you’ll start to get an idea of what this is like. Of course, these 20 people are also separated from their families, living with a profound disability, some have additional health concerns, all learning to navigate a new environment with a brand new dog. In my class, we’ve had one student who, a few days into training, decide it wasn’t for him. In other classes, we’ve seen matches between dog and owner that weren’t going to work. We’ve seen people who cannot deal with the homesickness and decide to leave. At times, it can be a fragile environment.

During this class, nearly half of the original 20 are first timers. The conditions are especially grueling for those who have only known cane travel and sighted guide. Tomorrow, retrains head home. After a few weeks of living together, a lot of laughs, probably some silent tears, times of anger and frustration, times of thinking, “I’ll never get this right…”, we are now headed back to our homes. It reminds me of the last night of camp and all the tears around the campfire. Relationships have been created that will certainly stand the test of time. I’m still in contact with several of the folks who I first trained with in 1995. And, I’m sure there will be a few folks from this class I’ll be glad to call friends down the road.

Tonight, many of us will gather in the common lounge, have a toast to this class and training time, finish packing our bags and, first thing in the morning, head for the airport. As for me, I’ll be here an extra day with the first timers since I have an engagement at Newark Beth Israel Hospital on Friday. The first timers will get loads of individualized attention over the next week and, by the time they, too, board flights, I hope they’ll feel as confident as I do now.

Confidence. That’s one of the things the Seeing Eye gives. I spent six months undergoing rigorous orientation and mobility with the white cane while in rehab school. I was super proficient with a cane in 1995 and I’m still okay today. A little rusty, but I can get around independently. But, with a dog? Yeah, no fear. I can do New York City solo with no problem. I can fly cross country and be just fine. I can leave a hotel and get to a restaurant or anywhere I need to go. This is the confidence I have because of my Seeing Eye dogs. It is a gift that I don’t take lightly. It is thanks to the generous donors, puppy raisers, kennel staff, vets, trainers, grounds crews, apprentices, kitchen and housekeeping staff and everyone else involved with the Seeing Eye that makes this possible.

A few weeks ago I was reading a biography of Mark Twain. I cringed when the author spoke of a “blind asylum” near where Twain was living. Asylums. That is where blind folks went just 100 years ago. It is thanks to Morris Frank and the generous philanthropic efforts of the founders of the Seeing Eye that mean, today, blind asylums aren’t even a thing. It’s because of pioneers like those who went before me that mean I can live a normal life; albeit with a dog by my side. It’s a debt of gratitude all people who are blind or visually impaired should remember…and as we all say our farewells and thank yous, I’ll raise a toast to those original founders of the Seeing Eye that, today, mean I Have a great, great life.

The Call of the Sadness

In Stephen King’s, “The Dead Zone”, there is a scene where a travelling salesman pulls up to a rural home. He figures out that no one is home and, while he’s judging the scenario, the family dog runs up to the car barking and snarling and protecting his home. In a way only King can, the story unfolds to a horribly graphic scene where the salesman kicks and stomps the dog to death.

When I read this book, yeesh, probably a decade ago, I remember being horrified at the story. King says he has received more hate mail and threats due to this scene than from any of his other stories…nevermind that it is a work of fiction.

One of the reasons I was so taken aback is because I wasn’t expecting to read about a dog, much less a family pet getting murdered. As a rule, I don’t read books about dogs. Main reason is because in almost every one, the dog dies at the end. I HATE this! I’ve never read (nor watched) Old Yellar, Where the Red Fern Grows, Marley and Me-none of those. And I don’t think I ever will.

And yet? In an effort to read more classics, I’ve been working through “The Call of the Wild.” I know, I know. I broke my own rule. Now that I’m halfway through the book, I have to finish it. But to read these stories, fiction though they are, it just wrenches my heart to think about dogs being beaten and “broken.”

What about you? Are there certain types of media you won’t consume in order to protect your feelings? If so, share in the comments!

I Could Never Give Him Up

At the end of the year, I threw out a post on social media asking folks to list one thing they are proud of in 2016. Really awesome answers and I hope it gets the wheels turning for 2017 accomplishments, too!

Garrett loves grass – and to sun bathe!

One respondent said she was proud of raising a puppy for the Seeing Eye. I’m proud of her, too…and so, so grateful. So, as I am actively training with my 4th Seeing Eye dog, I figured this would be a good time to share a little info about the puppy raising process. And, trust me, I’m the recipient of a trained Seeing Eye dog, not a puppy raiser. I.E., this is a general overview, not the gospel truth.

The Seeing Eye (www.SeeingEye.org) has their own breeding farm. When people ask how long it takes to train a dog, the quick answer is birth to two years. But, it’s actually much longer. Diseases and conditions that pure bred dogs are prone to have been bred out of the bloodlines for years. Maybe decades. This means that dogs, generations and generations ago, were helping create the best dogs today. Quality, people, quality.

How to work with a “trained” dog…

Once a puppy is weaned from his mother (I’ll use the pronoun “his” just b/c all my dogs have been male), the puppy is placed with a puppy raiser. These are often kids in 4-H and other civic clubs that take on the puppies as a project. Dasher, my first dog, was adopted by a retired couple in Pennsylvania who lived on a farm. Puppy raisers spend the next 18 months or so socializing the dogs and working on obedience. At the end of that time frame, the puppy comes back to the Seeing Eye campus where he then learns to guide: left and right, stopping for steps, maneuvering around obstacles, etc. The puppy raising individual or family always has the option to come to the Seeing Eye in Morristown to shadow the new Seeing Eye dog handler (i.e., me), and see the puppy they raised doing the job for which he was trained. I can only imagine the excitement and pride a puppy raiser must feel when seeing their hard work pay off

When I explain this process to people, I often get the statement, “I’d love to raise a puppy…but I could never give him up!” Understood! I don’t think I could do it, either!

A man’s best friend

This is why I’m so, so proud when I learn of puppy raisers. Those of you who do this work to benefit the lives of people who are blind are some of my heroes. You go through the chewing stage, the whining stage, the late nights and early mornings to get the dogs on an eating and “parking” schedule (“park” is a nice way of saying peeing and pooping.) Then, you hand the dog back over to the Seeing Eye with the full knowledge that you may only ever see that dog once again…the day you shadow the dog and his master around Morristown. That, faithful readers who are puppy raisers, is commitment and sacrifice and I cannot thank you enough.

 

Life Goes On

For some, at least.

Yesterday morning, I learned of the passing of one of my high school classmates, Rick. Rick and I not only graduated in the same class, but we also played football together. And, more than that, we both played on the offensive line, right next to one another. I was left tackle, he was left guard.

At our last class reunion, Rick and I reminisced about football and other high school adventures…most of which are unmentionable in a public forum. If Rick knew I was writing that about him, he’d likely smile. We went through two-a-days together, sweating and puking and running and blocking. Those are million dollar experiences I wouldn’t give a dime for today. Tough, draining, exhausting and, ultimately, good for what we were doing because, if memory serves, we did end up with a winning record my senior year. I know Rick was always proud of this…even into our adult years, I think those were some of the best memories of his life.

Depending on when his birthday fell, Rick was 41…maybe 42. Too damned young to die. These kinds of events give anyone pause. Sometimes, they make you re-evaluate life altogether.

The thing I will never forget about Rick wasn’t football, it wasn’t field parties in high school, it wasn’t sitting through high school classes. I remember Rick being one of the guys who first came to see me when I was hospitalized. When I was totally tripping balls on morphine with no idea how injured I truly was, Rick (and a handful of other buds) all gathered in my hospital room. Due to the trach in my throat, I was writing everything out longhand. I kept asking my friends to help get me out of there. Obviously, that couldn’t happen, though I vividly remember visualizing my friends pushing my hospital bed out into the world. This must have been within just a few days of the trauma, so Rick saw me when I was at my absolute worst. Seriously, no one, not even trained healthcare professionals, should have to look at an image that ghastly. I’m sure he never forgot it.
Then, maybe six or eight months later, and once I’d recovered a lot more, I remember Rick whispering something…something I’ve never forgotten and, to this day, I still appreciate. See, Rick wasn’t someone who would back down from a fight. “A little rough around the edges” wasn’t how you’d describe Rick. He was simply a badass. Wrong him or someone he cared about and there would be problems.

Rick knew, as everyone did, that the reason I was blind, that the reason I’d nearly been killed, all lay at the foot of the drunk driver who hit my friends and me. Sometime in that first year of blindness, I remember Rick saying, “Engel, if you ever want anything to happen to that guy, you come to me.”

My desire for revenge was short lived. I knew that wouldn’t change anything. This may not be forgiveness, but it was the place of peace I came to about the offender. And there’s no doubt that Rick would have relished an opportunity to put some hurtin’ on someone who hurt his friend. He was the only person who ever directly came to me, offering to help me have paybacks. Again, that wasn’t on my radar for very long, but just to know that I had a friend who was willing to get his hands dirty on my behalf, well, I appreciated it. I still do.

Rick, tonight I’ll pour a little out for you and remember the good times. Rest in peace, brother, until we double team up on some defensive nose guard again on that gridiron in the sky.