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By: Kathleen Westerhaus 

Cryptic acronyms texted on our phones, new words perhaps, communicate ideas in short memorable phrases; examples include: LOL, ICYMI, DYK. I’ve come to appreciate the creativity of individuals who cleverly express phrases on their vehicle’s license plates. The trick is to convey the idea in less than seven letters or numbers -- at least on license plates in Minnesota. One license plate claimed “ICANFLY.” Hopefully without too many speeding tickets. And, yes, soon, cars will fly, but that’s a topic for another article.

By my own admittance, I speed up and slow down on the freeway sometimes just to read license plates. If I miss the message, I console myself that it was a message I was not meant to see. Back in the early 90’s, I clipped from a church’s newsletter an article that inspired me to keep an eagle-eye out for such mysteriously coded license plates. Paraphrased, the article’s message was: “May you always read license plates that will direct you throughout your life and show you the road you need to travel.”

In my journey with mental illness, I have clung to the direction gleaned from license plates because sometimes I have absolutely no idea of what direction I need to go. I have found the messages always appear in an awe-inspiring and timely way. I remember seeing the license plate with the name “Renee” on it; my grandmother’s name. After seeing it, I went to visit her in her home that very night and we had our last heart-to-heart conversation. Months later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; we had to move her from her home, and slowly but surely, we lost her. Another time, while I was contemplating selling my home, moving to a smaller apartment and using my equity to live on to write a spiritual memoir, I saw a license plate that read: WHYRENT. Ouch, maybe I’m not supposed to write after all. I could tell many stories about this communication phenomena which I can only attribute to the Divine.

Until just recently, I’ve kept this license plate language to myself. And, now I need to share it as it relates to my mental health. At the end of 2017, I concluded my time on the Board of Directors for a statewide mental health organization after six years of service. During that time, I learned to not be ashamed of my bipolar, binge eating, and PTSD disorders. I met many individuals who were embattled by the same diseases and I took up allegiance with those whose journeys mirrored my own. There was a woman on the board, I’ll call her Joy, because that’s what she was, she always lit up the room with her smile. She lived with bipolar disorder and an addiction to alcohol.

Joy contributed more to the nonprofit organization than any other individual on the Board of Directors. She brought in treats for the staff, lobbied at the Capitol, chaired a committee, spoke nationally about her personal struggles and story, donated generously, fundraised, and the list goes on. She is right up there with Robin Williams on my list of heroes for her courage in fighting the illnesses.

I left the board of directors just a month before Joy fell terminally ill. And, unfortunately, I was too disconnected from my role to know that she was fighting for her life. The liver complications due to drinking, a disease which stemmed from fighting her depression, was killing her. Eventually I received a notification that she was in hospice without much time left to live – her decline had been rapid, and she was on drugs and in a comatose state when I went to visit her and her family.

How, God? Why, God? Please bring her back, God. She’s doing such important work, God. Then…please take her home, quickly and without pain, God. I never had a chance to tell her goodbye. She slipped away in her sister’s arms in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. However, she bid adieu to me in her own, happy way – “ALBCNYA” – as she delivered that message to me on a license plate after my visit to her at hospice. “I’ll be seeing you” – what a hopeful message – this is not the end – we will see each other again.

One of Joy’s scriptural readings that she had selected when planning her memorial service was the same scripture that my brother, Mark and I had prayed the night before he suicided: Isaiah 40:31. “Those who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as eagles. They shall run and not grow weary. Walk and not faint.” Right now, two beautiful eagles sit perched outside my window on the electrical pole towering over my condominium two-story building. As I eye them, they watch me write, trying desperately to make sense of it all. I think about how many individuals who live with mental illness could perhaps find strength in Isaiah 40:31, who could look to eagles for inspiration, who could mount up on wings and fly if they were but given the chance. Joy and Mark, help those of us with mental illness to mount up on wings as eagles, to say ICANFLY, because “WEBCNYA” soon.

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