Tragedy After Tragedy in My Hometown

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This is my hometown. I live in Thousand Oaks, CA.

Our beautiful, tight-knit community, consistently rated one of the top safest cities in America, experienced heartbreaking loss and extreme devastation this past  week. We are in mourning.

I’ll start at the beginning:

Last Thursday, my husband Alex and I woke to a text from our niece, who’s  deployed in South Korea. I’m thinking of you today, sorry to hear the sad news in Thousand Oaks.

“What?” I said. “What sad news is she talking about?”

Alex checked his phone and we could not believe it.

A mass shooting. HERE. In Thousand Oaks. Last night at Borderline.

Our oldest daughter, Mackenzie, is 26. Our youngest, Talee, is 23. They’ve been to the  Borderline Bar & Grill numerous times. It’s a super popular place for college-aged kids and country music.

Wednesday was “college night,” for those 18 and over. I shuddered when I thought of how our girls were excited to go there when they turned 18.

Around 11:15pm, the line-dancing and laughter turned to horror. The gunman walked in, threw a smoke bomb and started firing. He killed 12 people. Then shot himself.

Alex and I watched the news all morning, stunned. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the city of Thousand Oaks was now on the list of mass shootings. Emotions swirled through my mind. Shock, sadness, confusion, anger. Another mass shooting? 

If it can happen here, it can happen ANYWHERE.

I sat in front of the TV and tried to eat breakfast. I felt sick and heartbroken. The news reports said that families of victims were gathered at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where our girls used to play basketball and go to dances when they were in middle school.

But Thursday morning the Teen Center served a grim purpose.

That’s where parents anxiously waited to find out if their sons or daughters were still alive. Even though I don’t know them, those mothers and fathers going through that hell are my neighbors. Our kids are similar ages, have attended some of the same schools, we visit the same shops, restaurants, and movie theaters.

I couldn’t fathom the pain. One father spoke to a reporter, constantly dialing his phone, desperate for his son to answer.

I got the chills when I heard the shooter was two years older than Mackenzie and went to the same high school. Even though she didn’t know him, she knows other kids who did.

Literally — this was too close to home.

An outpouring of love flooded social media.

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Details were just coming out. No victims had been named, except Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus. I knew that as the day went on, we’d hear stories of people we know who were injured or killed.

My friend told me that her friend’s oldest son died. My daughters know a girl whose brother was killed. A boy Talee went to high school with jumped out of a window to escape, and was hospitalized with severe cuts from broken glass.

Another boy Talee went to school with, and I’ve known since elementary school, saw the gunman walk into the bar and start firing. He got down on the ground and ran when he could. He had also survived the Route 91 shooting massacre last year in Las Vegas. There was another victim of the Vegas shooting who was at Borderline. He survived in Vegas, but was killed in his hometown.

After watching the TV for several hours Thursday morning, and reaching out to friends and family, I tried to take a break from the horrific news. I did some yard work and paid a few bills. Then I got a call from my mom.

“Jenny, I’m on the freeway, and I see smoke. It looks like it’s near you. Do you see it?”

“No.” I peeked out my office window. “Wait, I do see something.”

Alex and I went to the backyard and saw a huge plume of smoke. Within minutes, the smoke cloud turned bright orange and grew.

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As bad as it looked, we didn’t think it was that close. We were hoping it’d be put out quickly.

Less than half an hour later, we got the text and phone call emergency alerts from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office: “Your neighborhood is now under a mandatory evacuation order. The threat is imminent, please evacuate the area immediately.”

WHAT? Can this really be happening?

Alex brought me boxes and I filled them with important papers, jewelry, and external hard drives. He took pictures off the wall and unplugged the computer. Adrenaline rushed through my body. I was jittery and my heart was racing. I forced myself to take a deep breath and calm down. I thought about the shooting.

The parents of the victims will never see their children again. Mine are safe at work, an hour away. Those killed never had time to prepare and get themselves to safety. But I do. I have time to pack and get out of harm’s way. They didn’t have that luxury.

Those thoughts helped put things into perspective and get me through our current crisis.

We didn’t have time to process the reality that there was a mass murder in our town. And then we had to face another catastrophe.

We went from being in shock from the shooting, praying for the victims and their families, to being stunned from the fast-moving firestorm, praying that our home wouldn’t burn.

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Alex and I drove away from the home we’ve lived in for the past 19 years, confident we had all we truly needed. The road out of our development was jammed. Cars were stuffed with precious belongings and the look on people’s faces was nervous, frantic, disbelief.

The Thousand Oaks Teen Center went from a gathering place for families of shooting victims to a fire evacuation center. All in one day.

We had lots of offers from family and friends to stay with them. The problem was, so many roads and freeways were closed, we couldn’t possibly get there. We went to one of our daughter’s apartments in Los Angeles, and the second night, slept on sofas at my parent’s house.

Over the course of two days, 250,000 people in Thousand Oaks and surrounding areas were evacuated.

We felt such relief when our evacuation order was lifted, two days after the fire began. We’re safe and our home is too. We’re beyond grateful.

My heart breaks for the hundreds of people who have lost their homes in the Southern California fires. Two people died in their car, trying to escape the flames.

As I write this, the Santa Ana winds gust wildly. I look out my office window and see water-dropping planes and helicopters fly overhead on their way to retrieve more water. Fire continues to rage in Malibu and neighboring cities.

Alex just told me there’s another flare up. I went out to our backyard and a gigantic cloud of black smoke is creeping over the mountain. I see bright orange flames. Here’s what it looks like:

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We haven’t  unpacked our car yet… just in case.

I can’t express how much appreciation we have for the firefighters and first responders.  They are working tirelessly, saving lives and thousands of homes. Saying ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem like enough.

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Thanksgiving is next week, and we have so much to be thankful for. We’re hosting this year, there will be 23 of us. I’m looking forward to our family filling our home with hugs, laughter, and love. These tragedies have given Thanksgiving even more meaning.

I pray for the firefighters, for those who died in the fire, and for the people who don’t have a home to return to.

I pray for the families of the Borderline shooting victims, the survivors, and the twelve beautiful souls who lost their lives much too soon.

Our community will never be the same. We’ll never forget the horrific day our lives changed forever.

But we are strong, as we support and love each other. The countless acts of kindness, generosity, and heroic efforts are what will get us through.

In the midst of all of this heartache and disaster, it may not seem possible, but eventually we’ll heal and rebuild.

Together… We are strong.

Thousand Oaks Strong.

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate action of its members.” ~Coretta Scott King

Rebecca Raede holds a sign reading ‘We are T.O. Strong’ across the street from the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where relatives and friends gathered in the aftermath of the shooting.

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Why Asking for Help Isn’t Easy: My Post on the NAMI National Blog

I’m excited that a piece I wrote for NAMI’s National Blog has been published! How stigma prevented me from receiving medical help for panic disorder. Please Click here to read.

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(Note, this is not an excerpt)

Sometimes people ask how I was able to hide my panic attacks for 20 years. My first thought: I have no idea, I just did. I felt there was no other choice.

The reason, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time?

Stigma.

Growing up, I felt different than the other kids. I was sure they’d never understand the frightening symptoms I experienced. I didn’t want my friends, or even my family, to know. I didn’t want them to worry and think I was strange.

Most of the time I was fine. So why talk about it? I can handle this on my own.

Years later, I realized I didn’t need to handle it by myself. More importantly, I shouldn’t have.

I didn’t know there was help available. I thought I was alone.

Now I speak out about mental illness because I don’t want others to feel like I did. I want people to know there is hope. You are not alone.

Click here to read my post on the NAMI website.

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Let’s Talk: World Mental Health Day

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I feel a bit rusty as I write this. I’ve been away from blogging, writing, and the regular routine for three weeks. Just a few days ago, my family and I returned home from our grand European adventure (it was incredible, more on that later).

Yesterday, while jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I scrolled through my Instagram feed and saw a post from Miriam at Out an’ About. She mentioned World Mental Health Day.

Wait, what’s the date? Of course, tomorrow is October 10! How could I forget?

Miriam is in Australia and I’m in the western U.S., so my afternoon is her next day. I’m messed up with days, nights, and dates, from traveling. So thank you, Miriam, for the reminder!

I couldn’t let this day slip by without saying something about it. AND… this year’s theme focuses on young people and mental health.

I’m passionate about spreading mental health awareness, and in particular, to our youth. As a speaker for NAMI’s in-school program, “Ending the Silence,” I visit high schools and talk to students about mental health issues and what to do if they notice the symptoms in themselves or a friend.

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Half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, but most cases are undetected and untreated (from the World Health Organization).

I can definitely relate to that fact.

I was about 10 when my panic attacks began. I didn’t have any idea what was wrong with me and never wanted to tell anyone. I didn’t want my friends or family to think I was weird, so I dealt with it as best I could, on my own. I kept my scary and strange symptoms a secret for 20 years before I got help.

I don’t want this to happen to other kids. That’s one reason I love presenting “Ending the Silence” to teens. Awareness and education are crucial.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. Adolescents need to know that it’s okay not to be okay. There is help available and there is hope.

This quote from NAMI is a great reminder to parents:

“Odds are, your children won’t go to a counselor when they feel something isn’t quite right. They’ll come to you. So please, stay open and believe them. Believing may save their lives.”

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While the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to lessen, it remains strong.

This morning I read an essay co-written by Lady Gaga and the Director-General at the World Health Organization. Here’s what they said about the reality of stigma:

“Yet despite the universality of the issue, we struggle to talk about it openly or to offer adequate care or resources. Within families and communities, we often remain silenced by a shame that tells us that those with mental illness are somehow less worthy or at fault for their own suffering.”

I’m grateful that there is a World Mental Health Day, recognized each year on October 10. Mental illness is a global issue. It does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you live, what nationality you are, if you’re rich or poor… we all can be affected by mental illness.

World Mental Health Day encourages people to speak out about mental health and mental illness. But the conversation can’t stop after today.

End the silence. End stigma. Let’s talk about it.

#WorldMentalHealthDay

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Up, Up, and Away

Of all the books in the world,

I’m super excited because later this week, my husband, two daughters, and I are heading out to explore parts of the world we’ve never seen before. We’ll be visiting several European countries.

I feel blessed, and can’t wait to immerse myself in these other cultures. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and tasting each country’s delicious cuisine.

As happy as I am, this trip has been overwhelming to plan, and for the past few months, I’ve been nervous and anxious about so many things. It’s stressful for me to be thousands of miles away from friends and family, our business, and well… the familiar.

But when I sit on the plane, I’ll take a deep breath, knowing we’ve taken care of as much as we could, and it’ll all be fine. I’m going to be mindful and treasure every minute, because I know this grand adventure will pass much too quickly.

These upcoming experiences will become a part of me, and a part of our family. Special memories that will enrich our lives forever.

I can’t wait to share my travel stories with you, when I return in a few weeks.

Take care!

Jenny

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Teens and Suicide Prevention

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says each year, more than 41,000 people die by suicide.

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Last week I went to a local high school to talk with students about mental health. I’m a presenter for NAMI’s in-school program, “Ending the Silence.”

My co-presenter and I spoke to two classes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. When our first presentation ended, we noticed the teens looked almost stunned. During the question and answer period, no one wanted to say a word. It took some gentle nudging for them to ask us anything.

Then we thought about it… These were incoming freshmen, brand new to high school. Classes started two weeks before. They probably weren’t comfortable yet with their teacher, let alone their classmates.

And they’d just sat through an hour of us talking about a subject that isn’t usually spoken about so directly and openly.

It was a lot to take in.

The students heard about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They learned the warning signs of mental illness, and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend.

We had a straightforward discussion about suicide and the warning signs:

  • Talking, writing, or drawing about death.
  • Talking about having no reason to live, being a burden to others, or not being here tomorrow.
  • Looking for ways to attempt suicide.
  • Feeling hopeless, desperate, or trapped.
  • Giving away possessions.
  • Behaving recklessly.

We let the teens know that these symptoms can be subtle. But if their gut instinct is telling them that something isn’t right, something may not be right. And it’s important to reach out for help.

Take the warning signs seriously, and take immediate action:

  • Tell an adult you trust.
  • Ask the question. Ask if the person needs help, if they are thinking of attempting suicide.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Call the National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
  • Text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • Go to an emergency room or call 911.
  • Do not keep warning signs a secret.

Sometimes when I’m presenting “Ending the Silence,” especially when we’re on the topic of suicide, I think the kids seem so young to hear about it. But they must.

The National Institute of Mental Health says that for ages 10-14, suicide is the third leading cause of death. For ages 15-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Mental illness can affect any one of us. At any time. Teens need to know there is help available and they are not alone.

When I speak to the students, I never know if a kid in that classroom, or maybe a family member or friend, is struggling with a mental health condition. I never know who I’m going to reach.

The more educated the younger generation is about mental illness, the greater the chance the stigma will lessen.

We must have this conversation. Let’s keep it going.

#SuicidePrevention #StigmaFree

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Girl… or Boy?

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No, no, no, I’m not pregnant. My niece is! She and her husband are expecting their first child next March.

Last weekend they had a “gender reveal” party, and it was super exciting. I’d seen reveals online, like when balloons are popped and pink or blue confetti flows out, or when a cake is sliced, there’s either pink or blue cake inside. But I’d never personally been to a reveal. I know they’re popular now, especially among millennials.

My parents had absolutely NO idea what their granddaughter was talking about when she sent out the Facebook invite. My 90-year-old dad had a hard time grasping the concept. “What in the world is a gender reveal party? Why do they have a party for that? That’s just for women to go to, right?”

“No, Dad. It’s for all of us. It’ll be fun to share in the excitement with Kady and Dylan.”

I wasn’t sure how the reveal party worked. I thought the parents-to-be found out the sex of their baby, and that they were the ones to orchestrate the revealing. I found out this isn’t the case, or at least, it wasn’t here.

A few weeks ago, Kady had a blood test to determine the gender. The doctor’s office put the result in an envelope, sealed it tightly, and gave it to Kady, who gave it to one of her friends. (No, Kady did NOT peek!) Her friend was the only one entrusted with the secret. She ordered the pink or blue theme for the revealing.

About 30 of us gathered at my sister’s house for the “unveiling.” It was suggested we wear pink or blue, depending on what our vote was. I wore blue jeans and a light pink t-shirt. That way, I had it covered. There was a sea of different shades of blue and pink, with slightly more people sporting blue.

We put stickers on, either “Team Blue” or “Team Pink.” Banners and balloons decorated the kitchen. There were blue and pink frosted cupcakes and pink lemonade and blue tropical punch.

Kady was glowing and Dylan was the proud papa-to-be. They couldn’t wait to find out if they’d be welcoming a girl or boy into their lives.

Finally it was time to head out to the front yard. We all stood on the lawn, anticipating what was about to happen. Dylan said some beautiful words about how it takes a village to raise a child, and he and Kady are blessed to have all of us in their lives.

Then they each held a long white cylinder stick (a smoke powder cannon), and the countdown began. THREE…TWO…ONE!

They twisted the canisters and out exploded…

Huge plumes of bright blue smoke!

Everyone clapped and cheered until the blue cloud disappeared. The look of joy on Kady and Dylan’s faces was beyond priceless. They gave each other a tight hug, as they laughed and shed tears of happiness.

In six months, I’ll get to meet my sweet, great nephew.

And my niece and her husband will hold their precious son for the very first time.

"A grand adventure is about to begin..."  -Winnie the Pooh

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A Birthday to Remember

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A couple of weeks ago, my sister called to finalize details for our dad’s 90th birthday party. We had been trying to come up with something extra special.

My sister (I’ll call her Claire) wanted to run an idea by me. “How about if each of us talk about a special memory of Dad, or tell why he’s important to us… And I’ll videotape it.”

Videotape it? I’m not sure if everyone will be up for that.

Claire said that whoever wanted to participate could, no pressure for those who don’t want to.

So I agreed. And started to think about what I’d say.  Where do I begin?

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The anticipated big day was arriving quickly. My other sister (I’ll call her Tara), who lives out of state, flew in for the festivities. It meant the world to Dad that she came.

All of us gathered last weekend to celebrate the birth and wonderful life of our patriarch. Dad, Grandpa, Great-Grandpa.

We had a barbeque with his favorite meal — hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and a donut cake. I can’t tell you how many pictures we have of him blowing out candles, perched on a stack of donuts. But this one was momentous. Two candles, one the number 9, one the number 0, stood proudly on top of the donut tower.

There were 16 of us, so we started the video tribute sessions early, before dinner. Dad sat in the living room where it was quiet, as most people were outside eating appetizers and playing games of cornhole.

One by one, we sat on the sofa next to him. No one opted out. Every single one of us spoke.

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My sisters and I went first. Tara talked about how she used to love going out with Dad every year, just the two of them, to find the perfect “Charlie Brown Christmas tree.” Claire reminded Dad of the times they’d lie on the backyard lounge chairs at night and stare at the stars, trying to find constellations.

I told Dad how much I loved my pretty bedroom he decorated for me when I was a little girl. He painted it pink, with flower wallpaper, and a canopy bed. He made me feel like a princess. I talked about how I treasure the times that he and my mom come over to our house for Sunday dinner. And that I love how our conversations usually lead to sheer laughter. Those moments spent together are priceless.

Then my mom sat next to her husband of 60 years. She told him that he’s the best man she could ever have hoped for. What she said, and how they looked at each other, is etched in my mind forever.

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of my sweet parents. I hadn’t planned on taking pictures, as it all was being videotaped. But I wanted to capture as much as I possibly could.

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The moments were tender and beautiful. It’s hard to describe the look on each person’s face, and my dad’s, while reminiscing. It was like Dad was staring into each family member’s eyes, wanting to soak it all in.

Like when one of my nephews talked about the cross necklace my dad gave him years ago. He treasures that cross, like nothing else he’s ever owned.

Or when my sister-in-law broke down crying, because she’s blessed and grateful to be part of our family. My dad held her hand and hugged her.

Or when my newly-pregnant niece teared up, telling him that he’s always made her feel special. She grew up with four older brothers, and reveled in the fact that she was unique, as my parents lovingly referred to her as “our first granddaughter.” My dad touched my niece’s pregnant belly with both hands, and it was more than precious.

Mackenzie, my oldest daughter, said how much she loves to hear Grandpa tell stories about his life. My youngest daughter, Talee, told him how happy she is that she’s carrying on the tradition of working at the place where he and Grandma met and fell in love.

All of the other memories and acknowledgments were equally as beautiful. Some serious, some lighthearted. But the one thing they had in common: it was clear to my dad how much he is admired, respected, and loved.

I think those tributes were as important to all of us, as much as they were to him.

When the party ended, Mom and Dad looked exhausted.

The next day, I saw Dad, and asked him if he’d recovered from the big celebration.

He said, “No.”

“Oh no, really, you haven’t?”

“No,” he said. A big smile spread on his face. “I’m still on cloud nine.”

Perfect.

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