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Hell is Other People, Part Two

October 17, 2015

In the midst of the lengthy and tedious email exchange over protecting the civil rights of my students, my principal arrived at my door to tell me he had received a phone call from a parent regarding a sticker in my classroom observed during open house.  I assumed that the parent with whom I had been corresponding grew tired of making poor arguments to me, and chose to now make them to my principal.  This was not the case, as it became immediately clear that this was another parent who had a different concern well beyond safe space stickers and rainbows.

“The parent,” the principal offered, “says he was concerned about a sticker in your room that appeared to be pro-ISIS.”


“Do you know what sticker he’s talking about?”

So now I have a parent who thinks I have pro-ISIS decorations.  I heart the Islamic State.  Guns don’t kill people, the Islamic State in the Levant kills people. My other car is a Daesh-owned Tacoma.

So, I’m either filling my classroom with pro-gay propaganda, or pro-Islamic State propaganda.  We need to get our stories together, people.  I clearly can’t be doing both.

To be fair, when he said ISIS, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  There is a bumper sticker that reads “Isis” in my classroom.  However, it does not refer to the band of Sunnis desperately trying to establish an 8th century caliphate near the Euphrates.  It is instead a reference to how the word has been used for most of the last 2500 years: the Egyptian goddess. This is the bumper sticker that frightened my parent so:


This was a gift from a student I received nearly fifteen years ago. I was teaching world history, and anyone who’s ever had me in class knows I adore puns.  So what do you get for your pun happy world history teacher?  You get him a bumper sticker that has the names of two Egyptian Gods (“Ra” being the second) and arranges their names to sound like a cheer! Of course, it never occurred to me that I would one day need to explain how the bumper sticker meant I wasn’t a terrorist.

My principal clarified this to the father, who accepted the explanation with the caveat that the sticker “was still awfully close.” Close?  Close to what?  That the name Isis is close to the acronym ISIS? Yes, that’s true, but lots of words in our language are close to others.  For example,  I am close enough to close the door. In spite of this absurd attempt to save face, I took the matter to be over and done with.

A few days later, one of my students approached me after class.

“Are my parents giving you a hard time?”

I explained that there was a phone call to the principal, but it was just a misunderstanding and it’s all been resolved.  The student sighed heavily and said “I’m sorry. I tried to explain to them what the sticker meant, but they wouldn’t listen to me.” I told her no apology was necessary, and reiterated it was a misunderstanding.  I did appreciate the fact that the student felt comfortable enough to speak to me about it, and I was grateful for the chance to reassure her that I didn’t hold any of it against her.

There are several ironies here.  One being that this came during a unit on the stereotyping and racial profiling of Arabs, South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  Another being that Isis was the goddess of health, marriage…and wisdom.


Hell is Other People, Part One

October 12, 2015

See?  I told you I was back.  Only had to wait one day for my next post…

On my way to open house this year, I calculated that this is my 19th one.  In short, I’ve been teaching a while.  I have already had my first two second generation students, and a few others with parents who graduated the June before I started teaching. In all of those years, I have worked hard to cultivate strong relationships with my student’s parents.  That is not to say that they are always happy with me.  Sometimes we have disagreements of how best to address a student’s needs in the classroom.  Any differences, though, I am usually able to work out through communication and compromise. Any veteran teacher will tell you, though, that sometimes you get a parent with whom you just cannot reason.  What follows are two stories that happened recently that fit this model perfectly.

Interestingly, neither of these events had anything to do with any content in my class, nor any perceived slight in the way I spoke to a student.  They both had to do with the decorations in my classroom observed by parents during open house. Anyone who has seen my classroom knows that it is fully decorated with a number of posters and bumper stickers of a historical or inspirational nature (and in the case of my Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I Woman” poster–both).  Many of them were gifts from former and current students.  I also have displayed several examples of student work.  In short, there are many interesting things to look at in my classroom.  This is as it should be, because otherwise the most interesting aesthetic would be stacked concrete block.

A few days after open house, I got an email from a parent expressing concern about the “political bent” of some of my classroom decorations, and a concern that he felt it may have been making it difficult for students to comfortably express their point of view.  He wouldn’t say exactly what messages he was concerned about, but I had feeling I knew.  I didn’t think he was complaining about a Republican bias regarding my “I Like Ike” poster from the 1950s, nor excessive Protestantism due to my “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply” sign, my pro-Monarchist sympathies due to my “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, my strident Catholicism due to my Mother Theresa quote, nor even the ardent feminism expressed in my Rosie the Riveter poster. I decided to convey to him that I was sorry he felt that way, but I observed no such bias in my classroom decorations.  I wasn’t going to ask him what bothered him so–if he responded, then, he was going to have to be specific.

In his next email, he made it clear what it was he found objectionable: my GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) “Safe Space” posters and stickers.  He thought their presence created an environment where students (i.e., his son) wouldn’t be free to express their objections to homosexuality.  I calmly explained that I have a moral and legal responsibility to protect the civil rights of all of my students–and indeed, the state interprets Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as including protections towards LGBT students.  By creating a safe space, I am carrying out those guidelines.  I also added that he may consider it a political issue, but that it is not–it is a human rights issue.

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word “safe.”

After this, his responses grew more irrational–he claimed that if i was going to have “rainbows everywhere” as he put it, I should also have symbols for all of the major religions.  I then explained the difference between civil rights (rights that protect you for who you are) and civil liberties (rights that protect you for what you believe), and that he was erroneously conflating the two.  He replied by arguing  that it was impossible to protect civil rights and civil liberties simultaneously. In other words, he felt that his freedom to express his disdain for LGBT people was more important than their right to be protected from discrimination.

This, of course, reflects a common misunderstanding about civil liberties (and freedom of expression in particular).  Your right to express yourself freely does not mean you can say whatever you want, however you want to, in any context you choose without consequence.  It just means one of those consequences can’t be prison.  Given that many of our leading politicians don’t seem to understand this very basic concept, it’s no surprise that this parent doesn’t seem to understand this difference.  Being a public school teacher, he really shouldn’t need to have this idea explained to him by a colleague–nor should he be clinging to the notion that protecting his students’ civil rights is somehow limiting his freedom. The irony is, after taking my class, his son will have a clearer understanding of this than he will.

After that,  I informed him that we were at an impasse, and that I would pursue the conversation no further.  He did respond, but I deleted the email without reading it.  That was enough, thank you.

As sad and absurd as this was, it was nothing compared to the ludicrous episode that followed a few days later: the concern that one of my wall decorations seemed to endorse the Islamic State.

I am not making that up.  And that will be for next time.

The Turing Test, Part Two

October 12, 2015

Preface:  A long layoff, I know.  For those of you who know me personally, you are aware of the rather intense transition my life has endured over the last few months.  If you don’t know me, and our curious…you can send an inquiry by email.  I’m not going to bother with it here. I do wish to return to blogging, and will begin by returning to this story from March 8.

To continue:  I had worked constantly, desperate to complete the Turing Machine, and pass the class.  Every time I thought I had solved the problem, it turned out I had failed.  I was becoming desperate, but there was no internet to help me, and I didn’t know the other students in class well enough to request their assistance.  Part of it was hubris:  I didn’t think I should need that help.  I had already spent all of Professor Otte’s office hours having him re-teach me the class.  I wanted to show that I could do this on my own.

The problem was…it didn’t seem like I could.

In spite of all of my efforts, the last day of the quarter arrived, and I still hadn’t solved it.  I worked on it all night, and it was now 8 a.m., and the assignment was due in two hours. With a non-functional Turing Machine, I would not pass the class. My second quarter as a transfer student, and I will have failed one of my courses. In my major.  This was not good.

When my final attempt failed, I simply rose from the desk and headed into the shower.  I’d turn the assignment in, and hope the professor would take pity on me.  Maybe he’d give me an extension. Maybe he’d give me an incomplete. Maybe he’d let me change my grade to “audit.”  I didn’t have any reason to think he would, but it was this hope that I clung to. I had to in order to avoid the humiliation I was feeling due to trying so desperately hard to succeed and having utterly failed.  I took what I could only describe as the “Shower of Failure”: I leaned against the shower wall as the water bounced off of me.  I did nothing else.

And perhaps it was because this was the first time in five weeks I hadn’t been thinking about the god damn Turing Machine, I was suddenly struck by an idea.  Wait, could that…that might…oh my god!  That might work!! Yes!! That might work!! No…that will work!!!

I leaped from the shower and raced over the computer and punched in the program pattern. I didn’t want to wait–I was terrified if I did, I’d forget my idea.  The pattern looked good.  I tried a configuration of numbers.  It worked.  I tried a  different number combination.  It also worked!  Another–success!  I altered the configuration, because it had to apply to different variables.  Yes.  A different number combination.  Yes.   Another combination.  Yes.  A different configuration. Yes!

I think I sat at the computer a half an hour typing every variation I could think of.  The machine passed every one.  It worked.  It worked!  It finally worked!

I began shouting the phrase “IT WORKS!” over and over again as I indulged in a spontaneous,  purely caffeine and adrenaline fueled Spontaneous Energetic Happy Dance of Victory.  I shrieked “IT WORKS.” at everything–plants, furniture, the food in the refrigerator, the spider in the corner of the bedroom.  I screamed at Zorro, my pet tortoise. He was singularly unimpressed, but I didn’t care.   I had done it!  I had created a successful Turing Machine.  I was going to pass. I wasn’t a failure.  I was the logic God!

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

The only thing that paused my revelry was a strange sensation underneath my feet and between my toes. Why were my feet wet?  Why was…the entire floor wet?  It was then that I realized that when I raced from the shower I had forgotten two very important things:  one being I never shut off the water, and now the apartment was nearly flooded.

The second thing I had chosen not to do was actually get dressed.  I had been solving the Turing Machine and celebrating my success completely naked.  With all of the windows in my apartment opened.  On all sides, which allowed several of my neighbors a front row seat to my victory dance.  Not exactly Magic Mike, but they were all staring at me.

I stared back at them a moment.  I’m certain a silly grin crossed my face, as I instinctively began to hide myself. I scanned the room for something to cover myself before meeting my neighbors persistent gaze.  I then impulsively raced over to the window, stuck my head out and shouted “I SOLVED THE FUCKING TURING MACHINE!” and continued my celebration. The neighbors watched, still confused and intrigued by the insane white man.

A few minutes later I was dressed and outside.  I leaped onto my motorcycle, and as I pulled out of the apartment parking lot, I glanced behind me. The neighbors continued to stare.  I laughed out loud as I raced up toward campus. I continued to giggle as I handed to the computer disc to a confused Professor Otte, and giggled all the way home.

There are a number of lessons one can derive from this story.  I think perhaps the most important one is this:  Don’t ever take Advanced Symbolic Logic.

The Turing Test, Part One

March 8, 2015

My time in the Beach Flats neighborhood of Santa Cruz was my first experience living outside of my hometown of San Diego. It was also my first experience as a full time college student.

I had decided to major in philosophy for the simple reason that I loved the subject.  It was purely a decision of passion–it had absolutely nothing to do with reason (David Hume would have been proud!)  As a newly minted philosophy major, I was told that if I wanted to do graduate studies in the subject, I had to take something called Advanced Symbolic Logic.  I did want to do grad work in philosophy–what would be the point of studying it otherwise?–so during my second quarter at UC Santa Cruz I signed up for the recommended course. I wasn’t intimidated at all. I had taken two other logic classes at the community college, and enjoyed them both.  Advanced Symbolic Logic seemed like a challenge I was up for.

Except that it wasn’t.

Most of what you study in your introduction to logic classes is comparatively pretty basic.  You start by taking deductive arguments and turning them into syllogisms, like so:

If it is raining, I will meet you at the theater. It is raining. Therefore, I will meet you at the theater.

Then you turn that into this:

\frac{P \to Q,\; P}{\therefore Q}

And you get to refer to it by it’s cool Latin name, Modus Ponens.  Then you’re off on your way to mastering logic.  The problem was that I had clearly not mastered it as well as I thought, because Advanced Symbolic Logic very quickly began to look like this:

My teacher was Professor Otte (whom you met earlier).   He sported a well-kept beard and was never dressed in anything but a t-shirt and shorts.  The t-shirts always made some reference to rock-climbing, and he was so laid back, he didn’t even bother to write-up and distribute a syllabus.  He outlined the class on the chalkboard the first day.  That was our syllabus.

I was also the only undergraduate in the class.  The other six students were linguistics and mathematics graduate students, so the class was largely a seminar on concepts with which I struggled to keep up.  Every week, during professor Otte’s office hours, I was there waiting for him when he arrived and he would do his best to re-teach me what had occurred in class that week.  When his office hours concluded two hours later, he kicked me out. He was far more patient with me than I think he actually wanted to be.  Thanks to his help, and my determination, I did manage to keep up with the class–albeit with a thoroughly fragile understanding of what was transpiring.

A few weeks before the end of the quarter, Professor Otte announced what our final exam was going to be: we had to design a Turing Machine, named after Alan Turing, the great mathematician and computer scientist who helped break the German Enigma code during the Second World War.  Modern day computers wouldn’t exist without Turing, so it was a fitting exercise to replicate the logic he used in their design.  Our assignment was to design two programs that would carry out a specific required calculation each time.  For instance, if the task was to always give the sum of two numbers minus four, it would have to work no matter which two numbers were put in.  If I put it in a 6 and 7, it would answer 9, if I put in a 3 and a 2, it would answer 1, etc.

The first program I designed worked perfectly, and it took me all of ten minutes.  Emboldened by my new confidence, I tackled the second assignment.  This was taking much longer.  It would work three, four, five sometimes six times, and then not work on the seventh.  I spent hours every day trying to design the program, and then the next day I would hand a disc to Professor Otte, hopeful I had succeeded.  At the next class, he would hand the disc back to me and bluntly observe that “it doesn’t work.”  I was growing increasingly frustrated.  There was clearly a solution, but I wasn’t finding it.  Worst of all, time was running out on the quarter, and the professor made it clear I would not pass the class without two functioning Turing Machines.

I was in trouble.


Hombre Tortuga, Part Two

March 1, 2015
Beach Flats, in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Big Dipper roller coaster.  The neighborhood where Hombre Tortuga became legend.

Beach Flats, in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Big Dipper roller coaster. The neighborhood where Hombre Tortuga became legend.

It’s been a long time since I published part one of this story, so it may behoove you to first read part one here.

Yes, to all of my new neighbors, I had become Turtle Man.  This was somewhat reminiscent of when I played high school baseball, and all of the Latinos nicknamed me “Spicoli.”  That was the name of Sean Penn’s character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and it was apparently the only pop culture reference my teammates had for a white kid with long hair.  Oh, well.

There weren’t a lot of reasons why my new found friends in Beach Flats would find the need to summon me.  In fact, the only reason I can recall was when they were playing soccer in the street and needed another player.  From my apartment I would hear a shout of  “Hombre Tortuga!  Football!”  and knew that was indeed the case.  The locals seemed to be aware of which apartment complex I lived in, but never sure which particular apartment.  So I would emerge from my doorway, as a chorus of ‘Hombre Tortuga!” would greet me, accompanied by hands raised in excitement.  I would trot down and join the game.

And while I held my own as a high school baseball player, I made no pretensions about being a good soccer player. I decided my job was to be a placeholder.  If the ball somehow found it’s way to me I quickly as possible made every effort to pass it to someone who actually could do something with it.  This was sometimes a challenge, as I wasn’t always sure who my teammates were.  The most common breakdown of competition in these matches was Guatemalans versus Salvadorans.  If I had a better ear for dialect and language, I may have been able to focus in on their accents and make an accurate judgment.  From there, I would be able to isolate any physical characteristics that made the two distinctive and therefore more recognizable.  But I have no such ear–at least not one that can focus during the shouting and vernacular of a soccer game, so I had trouble ascertaining who was who.  Happily, they eventually agreed to divide themselves with the tried and true method of shirts and skins.  This made it far easier to hastily pass the ball to one of my teammates.

While the neighborhood didn’t have a good reputation amongst many other Santa Cruzans, I was actually very glad I had the chance to live there.  I am not trying to diminish the neighborhood’s crime and drug problems (which honestly paled against some far worse places I lived in San Diego), but I found most residents to be friendly and welcoming.  I recall one Christmas Eve when it sounded as if the neighborhood was having one massive party:  loud salsa music, shouts of celebration, the frequent igniting of fireworks. I decided to turn my television to the Spanish language station and pretend I was in a different country.  The illusion worked remarkably well.

My pet tortoise and willingness to join pick up soccer games was not my only recognizable characteristic in Beach Flats.  Thanks to the stress of college, I ended up showing a very different side of myself to many of my neighbors.  Indeed, it was a wonder I didn’t develop a new nickname:  Hombre Desnudo.

That story I will tell in a week.  Yes, a week.  Seven days.  I promise!



Still Here

March 1, 2015

Those of you who follow this blog know it is not unusual for me to disappear when school begins.  However, my layoff has been significantly longer  this year.  Part of it has been due to some personal upheaval (we all know that tends to be exhausting and time-consuming).   My life, however, has not been devoid of new projects.

To begin with, I became a member of the Board of Directors of the Daniel Trust Foundation. Daniel is a child survivor of the Rwandan Genocide who witnessed his mother’s death and lost his father and several siblings to the murderous brutality of the Hutu Interhamwe militia.  After escaping Rwanda, he lived in other parts of Africa before a family member brought him to Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He learned English, graduated high school, and attended Southern Connecticut State University.  While a sophomore in college, he made the decision to come out and became an LGBT rights activist.  Daniel would have every reason to be bitter and sullen but instead is an extremely upbeat, kind and generous young man.  It is for this reason that he chose to create the Daniel Trust Foundation, which provides scholarships to high school seniors involved in bettering their communities, the teachers that inspire them, as well as a mentoring program for high school students.  It is a great organization, and I am so thrilled to be on the ground floor to help build it into a something that lasts and supports students for years.  I also love working with Daniel, who inspires me in more ways than I can name.

A Facebook banner I displayed with pride in honor of Daniel's courage and important work.

A Facebook banner I displayed with pride in honor of Daniel’s courage and important work.

In addition, I wrote my very first two act play this January whilst on a writing retreat at Mercy Center in Madison, Connecticut. I was there for a three-day weekend, and wrote a 60 page first draft. While it still has a way to, I am very pleased with the results and look to begin workshopping it this spring. It is entitled “Invincible Summer,” and is the story of young man diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his relationship with the older patient that mentors him. As you can imagine, it is intensely personal to me.

The beach at Mercy Center, an ideal location for a writing retreat.

The beach at Mercy Center, an ideal location for a writing retreat.

And, if you missed it, I had an article entitled “On Storytelling” appear in the very first issue of “The Book Club,” on online magazine about reading and writing. I was honored to be asked, and am grateful for the invitation from the awesome Rubina Ramesh.

So that’s what I have been up to, and why I’ve been neglecting this blog. But I have a story from last July I need to finish telling, so I will be posting again later. As in today. No, seriously.

Coping with Parkinson’s, Warding off Depression

August 20, 2014

Like many of you, I have spent some time over the last few days thinking about Robin Williams’ death. As someone with Parkinson’s and also an addictive personality, I worry that I may at some point suffer from depression. Somewhere between 50-60% of Parkinson’s patients are diagnosed with depression, and addiction can be a side effect of the treatment. Thus, when I heard Williams had Parkinson’s, I wasn’t surprised. In an odd way, I was almost waiting for it. And here’s why:

Having Parkinson’s Disease sucks.

You are in pain most of the time you are awake, and because insomnia is a side effect of both the illness and the treatment, you are awake a lot more than you want to be. Ordinary tasks once taken for granted become nearly impossible, and you can succumb to impotent rage through the simple act of trying to tie your shoes. You grow tired of constantly dropping and spilling things, of wearing much of what you eat and drink. Walking becomes difficult, and you lose your balance almost without warning. You freeze in place. The medications make you forgetful and confused. You feel child-like and helpless, and you certainly don’t feel attractive or desirable. You lose your confidence, and you become nervous in social situations fearful of how your body and brain will betray you and make you feel foolish. Then you get up the next day and do it all over again.

Medication and treatment are helpful, but only for managing the symptoms, and sometimes side effects are even worse than the symptoms. Combine that with the stress that the illness puts on your closest relationships, it is no wonder some of us succumb to depression.

However, I am not one of those who have, and I intend to stay that way. In spite of all of those difficulties, I have learned some lessons that help. This is my list of how to cope with Parkinson’s. I make no claim to its completeness or universal efficacy. It’s what makes sense to me.

1. Find medical professionals you can trust—including a therapist. You don’t necessarily have to find a therapist who knows a lot about Parkinson’s, but certainly one who is willing to learn. The important thing is that you find one you connect with, and is skilled at getting you to think about what you need to. I would also recommend someone scientifically minded who understands basic neurology. This might not be the job for a sensitive type who’s office reeks of patchouli and likes to talk about damage to your aura.

2. Share with the people in your life, including your colleagues. This is very hard for me, being someone descended from a long line of repressed people who take every significant fact of their life quietly to their grave. I now work in one of the most supportive environments I can imagine, and I have fifty people watching my back. Don’t be afraid to share with strangers, either. I was at a teacher meeting a few months ago and a woman I didn’t know sat down next to me, and my walking stick fell into her lap. I apologized, and for the first time, told a stranger that it was for Parkinson’s. She then revealed that she had Parkinson’s, and also had a walking stick! We remain part of each other’s support network.

3. Find others with the illness. I am not into the support group model, but I have a couple of people in my life who suffer from the illness and are available to talk, email, or message. You may have wonderful people in your life who love you, and excellent medical care, but sometimes a bitch session with someone who knows exactly what you mean can be a tremendous elixir.

4. Make sure someone in your support network is unwilling to tiptoe around you and unafraid to be brutally honest. Many people will listen to you sympathetically, but don’t know what to say, and are sometimes fearful of saying the wrong thing. Find someone—your spouse, a friend, a family member, anyone—who doesn’t give a fuck about that. When you are feeling sorry for yourself, and making helpless excuses, sometimes there is nothing better than a loved one who lets you know in no uncertain terms that your moping is unacceptable. They may not give the reaction you actually want, but they almost always give the reaction you actually need.

5. Celebrate small victories. A couple of years back I started wearing a tie to work. This was a big change for me—I didn’t even wear a tie to my own wedding!—but what it did other than improve my sense of style was give me a chance to start the day with a dexterity challenge. If I got it tied correctly, I started the day with a win. Give yourself other chances for victories—pouring your tea without spilling it, finding the correct button on the remote on the first try. Give yourself permission, though, to fail, as it may not be your day. Be sure to reward yourself—three days of not spilling your tea? You get cake! It may not sound like much, but these little victories can be so good for your mental attitude.

6. Laugh. As much as you can. Don’t be afraid to use humor as a coping mechanism.

She: “Can you hand me a soda?”

Me: “Yes, if you would like it to explode in your face.”

He: “Can you take a photo of us?”

Me: “Sure, if you don’t mind looking like you’re in an earthquake.”

I was at my neurologist’s once waiting for an appointment when I struck up a conversation with another Parkinson’s patient. We ended up laughing our heads off imagining what the Parkinson’s Jenga Competition would look like: the winner stacked three, and it only took him two and half hours! You might make someone uncomfortable with those jokes, but never mind. They’re just going to have to understand it’s important to you. So if you’ve rewarded yourself with cake and then dropped it in your lap, be sure to laugh. But if you feel sad about that, call your brutally honest friend. She’ll laugh, because let’s face it: the irony of that is fucking hilarious.

7. Find a physical activity that works for you. Aside from the obvious benefits, joining activities creates new opportunities for support. Every time I have a new Yoga instructor, I take the time to introduce myself and explain that I have Parkinson’s and what that will look like in class. This conversation always ends with me receiving an expression of kindness and gratitude. I had a massage recently from a Hindu guru who pointed out that “I don’t have Parkinson’s, only my body does.” I have been thinking about that ever since.

If your body has Parkinson’s, I hope some of this resonates with you. If it doesn’t, I hope this gives you some insight into what it’s like. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, one of two things is going to happen: remission or death. With Parkinson’s, there is no cure, but it doesn’t kill you. That’s what makes the illness so hard to cope with, and why coping well is so very important.

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