• Lifestyle

    The Stained Glass Window

    May is Mental Health Month. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since my teens, this topic is very near and dear to my heart. I know that I am fortunate to get the care I need in the times that I struggle. Unfortunately, there are many who aren’t always as lucky. Please understand that you are not alone in your journey. You can visit the website nami.org for resources and to learn how you can advocate for yourself and your loved ones with mental illness. I would like to share an essay about an experience I went through in March of this year below. It’s taken me more than two months to be able to reflect upon this, but I knew it was finally time.

    It was raining the day 18-year-old Isaac was laid to rest. We joined the mourners that afternoon, carefully walking around the murky mud puddles that pooled on the concrete of the church parking lot. I could see my reflection in those pools, and the tears threatening to spill over onto my cheeks, on that day as I struggled to keep my umbrella from blowing inside out and out of my hands.

    In a matter of a few days, the world had become a confusing, broken and upside-down place, one that I hadn’t lived in for a very long time. It started with an e-mail from our church pastor, letting us know one of the longtime members of our youth program and church had passed away. There were no other details, except the request for prayers for the family. I read the e-mail as I waited to pick up my 14-year-old son from school. When he got in the car, I told him what I had just read.

    “What do you mean?” he asked me, frowning. “Was he in an accident?”

    “I don’t know,” I told him, with a familiar, sinking feeling weighing on my heart.

    My son pressed on. “Suicide?” he asked, looking out the window. “That doesn’t make sense,” he continued, talking more to himself than me. He mentioned how this boy had just gotten into his dream college. We drove home in silence, contemplating.

    Our worst fears were confirmed. It was indeed the thief of suicide that took this young person from the family and friends that loved him. Worst of all? No one knew why. They had no idea. This young man had suffered for so long but didn’t want to burden those around him. It’s a story we hear time and time again, but it never gets any easier.

    As we learned of the funeral arrangements and read the beautifully-written obituary celebrating this young man’s life, my heart felt like it was broken in a million pieces. I was immediately transported back to the mental health facility I had walked into at the age of 20 years old, when I confessed to my roommate that I no longer wanted to live.

    I knew the pain he must have been feeling. I knew how hard it can be to tell someone what the pain feels like—a pain that seems to come out of nowhere and has no rhyme or reason. It leaves you with an ache, a pillow full of tears night after night, a loss of appetite and the inability to understand who the person is staring back at you from the mirror.

    We walked through the lobby of our church the night of his visitation, looking at the enlarged pictures of a smiling young man wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, holding a selfie stick as his brilliant smile joined those of his friends, and even a shot of him decked out in scuba gear, giving a thumbs up to the photographer in an underwater shot.

    “My, how he lived,” I thought to myself, then stopped. He had lived, but he hadn’t lived long enough. I wondered if I were able to talk to him at that moment, would he have regrets? Would he be grateful the pain was over, or would he have wished he could have held on just a little longer?

    I think about the holding on part often. It’s what I did for most of my early 20s—white knuckling through the depression, anxiety, insomnia and sleepless nights. There were times it was excruciatingly hard, and I didn’t think I would make it through, but I pushed myself to hold on.

    Hold on, I would say to myself, in between therapy sessions, in between new trials of antidepressant medication. Things will get better. There are people who love you, even if they don’t always know the best way to show it. You have so much to live for, even though it doesn’t seem like it now.

    We drove home from the visitation in silence. I could hear my 16-year-old daughter’s ragged breaths from holding back tears. My son had only one question, “Was that his body in the coffin?” It was almost as if he couldn’t grasp that Isaac was truly gone until he saw that.

    The rain poured outside the following day as the hundreds of people gathered inside the red brick church to celebrate Isaac’s life. We heard stories of his most epic pranks, his love of politics and sports, the way he lit up every room he walked into, and his endless generosity. I thought to myself how the young men in their neatly-pressed suits did not deserve to have their friend taken away by mental illness. How unfair it was that they were carrying their friend to his final resting place, far too soon. I thought of the quote I had come across the day before.

    Love conquers all things except the fact that depression is not a thing, it’s a living force that consumes everything in its path, it takes no prisoners.

    Isaac was a prisoner to his pain, and it took him from the world. I wished he were sitting beside me so I could’ve taken his hand to tell him things can get better; they will get better.

    I wished I could have told him he wasn’t alone, because I’m sure that’s how he felt.

    As the service ended, I looked up at the beautiful stained-glass window at the front of the church sanctuary. I could see the sunlight begin to stream through it. As we walked out of the church, the sun shone down upon us, and we gripped the handles of our umbrellas we no longer needed tightly as we made the long walk to our car. I watched as the humidity formed steam off the stagnant puddles of rain. A bright blue sky unfolded above us. I couldn’t help but feel like Isaac was giving his loved ones a final message as they said their goodbyes.

    I’ll be okay now.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: How Did Irina Yarmolenko Die?

    Courtesy of The Charlotte Observer

    I recently purchased the book, Charlotte True Crime Stories, penned by Charlotte author Cathy Pickens. It’s a great read, full of a varied assortment of stories from Charlotte’s collective past, from cases of fraud, murder, serial killers and missing people. One story that stood out to me was the mysterious case of Irina Yarmolenko. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it.

    I remember hearing the story on the news when it first happened back in May 2008. Irina had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine with her family when she was a child. At the time of her death, she was a young 20-year-old college student at UNC Charlotte who was planning to move a few hours away to Chapel Hill to transfer to school there. Her friends called her “Ira.” According to reports, she started her day visiting a bank, dropping off a bag of donations at a nearby Goodwill, and visiting a local coffee shop she had worked at to say goodbye to her coworkers. From there, it appears she drove about 12 miles away to the Catawba River in nearby Belmont. Video surveillance from the local YMCA showed Irina’s blue car passing by around 11:09 a.m., but due to grainy footage you couldn’t tell if she was the only one in the car at that point.

    Speculation at the time was that Ira loved the outdoors and may have been heading out there to take some photographs. She accessed the riverfront on a small dirt road located next to a YMCA. Less than two hours later, her lifeless body would be found on the bank of the river.

    That same morning, two men, cousins Mark Carver and Neal Cassada were fishing just around the bend from where Ira was found. The men were locals who had been fishing at Catawba their entire lives. Both Carver and Cassada had four children, were former millworkers and neither were working due to disabilities. Cassada had heart problems and couldn’t walk long distances due to shortness of breath, and Carver couldn’t grasp items very well due to numerous surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome. They enjoyed fishing as a reprieve.

    At around 1 p.m., two people on jet skis noticed what looked like a car almost submerged in the water, crunched against a tree stump. The driver’s side door was open and a young woman lay on her back nearby, cords knotted around her neck. It was Ira Yarmolenko. The couple on jet skis were stunned and called 911, while Carver and Cassada continued fishing about a football field length away, unaware of the commotion on the banks of the river. They had been there since around 11:30 that morning.

    Ira had died of ligature strangulation, and two of the cords on her neck came from items found in her car—a cord found in her hoodie and a ribbon that came from a tote bag that was tied in a bow around her neck. There was also a bungee cord included in the knots. Investigators concluded she had not been robbed. They talked to everyone in the area of the riverbank that day, including Cassada and Carver. Both men said they hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual. They offered up their fishing licenses to the police during the conversation. The men eventually went to the police station for interviews, and continued denying involvement in the murder. However, seven months after Irina’s death, the two men were arrested. Authorities claimed their DNA had been found on the outside of Irina’s car. They continued to proclaim their innocence.

    The men were eventually released to house arrest to await trial. Cassada never made it. He passed away from a heart attack the day before his trial was to start. Carver’s trial began in March 2011. He was convicted of Ira’s murder on March 21, 2011.

    This case is baffling to me. Based on the evidence of “touch” DNA of the men being found on the car, I tend to think there could have been some type of transference involved. What motive would the two men have had to kill Irina, and were they even physically capable of doing so? There is also a suicide theory floating around. People think Ira tied the ligatures around her own neck and then put her car into neutral in an attempt to plunge it into the river. But for some reason she ended up on her back in the mud on the riverbank. There was also DNA found on one of the cords on her neck that has never been identified.

    Based on some of the questionable evidence, an attorney with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence lobbied to get Carver a new trial. He was granted one and had his conviction overturned in June 2011.

    This is a case that kept the media riveted. NBC’s Deadline produced an episode titled “Mystery on the Catawba,” and The Charlotte Observer also did a deep dive into the case in a six-part series titled “Death By the River.”

    Do I think Carver and Cassada were guilty? I think it’s highly unlikely. But I also think there may be a murderer out there who has yet to be punished for this crime.

  • writing advice

    Should Writers Be on LinkedIn?

    Pexels.com

    I’ve been on LinkedIn for about 10 years, but I’ll admit I probably haven’t utilized it the way I should. After reading an article recently on how LinkedIn has changed its algorithms and how it can be beneficial for career advancement, I decided to take another look at the platform, which is essentially a social network that focuses on professional networking and career development.

    You may be thinking, “I don’t use LinkedIn, and I don’t see how it could help me in my writing/editing career.” However, you should realize that LinkedIn is an easy way to showcase your experience and skills and help you make connections in the industry that you may not be aware are out there.

    Here are a few examples of ways I’ve been using LinkedIn in the past few months.

    First, I made sure I had my most recent headshot uploaded and my details (what industry I’m in, the area in which I live, my website linked, etc.) Second, I updated my headline with my new job title and fixed the dates on when I left my last job because it looked like I still worked there. Then I began engaging more with my connections by liking or commenting on posts or articles they shared, and posting more content related to my writing and editing platform. When I write a blog post I think my network would like, either here or on my own blog, I share it. I also utilize the new hashtag feature available at LinkedIn to try and get more eyes on it. The new analytics LinkedIn is using shows me how many views each post I create gets.

    As a magazine editor, I’ve discovered even more ways to use LinkedIn to my advantage. When I created a list of contributor’s guidelines for the magazine I work for, I shared the page in my LinkedIn feed. That post had 272 views—far more than any other post I’ve shared. And within a week of sharing, I had legitimate inquiries from new local writers and a few solid pitches from businesses for profile stories.

    Here are a few tips as you navigate your way through the platform:

    Make sure you have the most-up-to-date information on your profile, including a professional-looking headshot against a solid background. My headline was easy to come up with, as I have a specific title at a magazine. But if you are in the freelance space, consider using titles like Podcaster, Freelance Writer, Content Creator, Marketing Strategist, Blogger or Storyteller at (places you blog), Author of (name of your book), etc. Your profile should be as complete as possible. Fill in your list of skills and accomplishments and interests. Think about what you would want a future employer, publisher or collaborator to know about you, and don’t be afraid to show off your copywriting skills.

    And last but not least, don’t just use LinkedIn when you’re looking for a job or writing opportunities. Take time to regularly look through your feed, like or comment posts from your network connections, and share your own blog posts and other work. You never know when you’ll make an impression on a future employer, potential business partner or editor.

    Want even more tips on how you can use LinkedIn to enhance your writing career? Carol Tice wrote a great post on this topic at The Write Life.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Blanche Taylor Moore

    I only realized recently that North Carolina’s oldest death row inmate is an 87-year-old woman named Blanche Taylor Moore. I came upon this realization after watching the Oxygen network’s true-crime show, “Snapped,” a few nights ago, having been intrigued by a promo that it was featuring southern cases.

    I remember there being a pretty creepy made-for-TV movie starring actress Elizabeth Montgomery back in the 1990s that told the story of a southern black widow, but I had no idea how much evil permeated from Blanche until I digged a little further into her backstory.

    Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore was born in Concord, N.C. and married a young man named James Taylor in 1952. They had two children together, and she began a life-long career working as a cashier at the Kroger chain of grocery stores. Apparently she began an affair with a man named Raymond Reid, the manager of the store she worked at. In 1973, her husband James passed away at age 45 from what doctors thought was a heart attack. Blanche and Reid took their relationship public after her husband died, but it had numerous ups and downs. In 1985, Moore supposedly began a relationship with another Kroger manager, Kevin Denton, but eventually she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and Kroger. She settled out of court with Kroger for $275,000 a few years later.

    Moore seemed to present two different sides of herself to the public. Her co-workers at Kroger later described her as crass and lewd, and it’s no secret the head cashier liked to pass the time with male co-workers at the store. But she also cultivated a sweet “church lady” persona, attending regular church services around town and always being willing to serve up pie, banana pudding and sweetened iced tea.

    Especially banana pudding.

    In April of 1985, while she was still casually dating Raymond Reid, Blanche met Rev. Dwight Moore at a local church. He was pretty quickly smitten with her and clearly had no idea of her troubled past. At the end of May, Reid was admitted to a hospital in Greensboro for severe nausea and vomiting. His condition worsened and he had to be transported across one town over to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. By September, he began recovering, and Blanche talked him into making her the executor of his estate. Not long after, nurses observed Moore bringing Reid treats like milkshakes and banana pudding and feeding them to him. He died in October of 1986, the origins of his illness remaining a mystery to the doctors. Within a month, Blanche had an engagement ring from the Rev. Moore (I have to wonder—did he even know she was visiting a sick lover in the hospital while they were dating?) Wedding plans were put on hold when Rev. Moore became hospitalized with nausea and vomiting. He overcame his bout of illness and the two were eventually married in April 1987. Rev. Moore was back in the hospital before the honeymoon was even over. Blanche continued to visit him in the hospital and bring him food. His organs began failing, and doctors had an idea to test his blood for heavy metals, because he had recently done some gardening and used insecticides.

    The test came back positive for arsenic—Rev. Moore had 100 times the normal amount in his body.

    Thus began the unraveling of a most curious web of a black widow. Rev. Moore mentioned to investigators that Blanche had a boyfriend who had died of an unknown illness. Five different bodies were exhumed—those of Raymond Reid, Blanche’s father, her mother-in-law, her first husband, and a co-worker. The male co-worker didn’t have any arsenic in his body, but everyone else did. Reid’s arsenic levels were 30 times higher than the normal limit.

    On July 18, 1989, Blanche Taylor Moore was arrested and charged with the death of Raymond Reid and assault with a deadly weapon in the case of Rev. Moore.

    Photo courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal Now.

    During the trial, Blanche made sure to dress demurely and wear a pair of oversized glasses. Her defense was to “deny, deny, deny.” She denied about having ever brought Reid or Rev. Moore food in the hospital. She denied every knowing what the bug poison “Anti-Ant,” was, although witnesses had seen her buy it in hardware stores and she even asked Rev. Moore to buy it for her (he had no clue she’d turn around and poison him with it).

    Blanche was convicted to death but had her sentence commuted to life in prison in 2010.

    I had a hard time trying to figure out exactly why Blanche poisoned so many people. Was it her way of exacting revenge? I guess she could have received life insurance in the case of her first husband but couldn’t find any evidence of that. She did receive part of Reid’s estate, and oddly enough, his sons were fine with her receiving it at the time. They had no idea that she had murdered their father. And she began poisoning Rev. Moore before they were even married. What was the point of that? Part of me wonders if she had an illness where she enjoyed the attention she received when caring for ill loved ones (similar to Munchausen by Proxy). Or maybe she was just plain evil.

    Author  Jim Shultze wrote a book about Blanche Taylor Moore titled “Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore.” I may have to check it out and see if I can dig deeper into the origins of this case that took place in my home state.

  • Book Review

    Book Review: Spellbound by Christopher Pike

    Christopher Pike was one of my treasured authors back in high school. I had a collection of his horror/thriller/suspense-themed paperback novels and I always had one on me. I read them over and over, studying the character development, re-reading to see if I could figure out the red herrings drop along the way. Somewhere, during one of my many moves after high school, I lost the entire collection. I probably couldn’t fit a box of books into my car and donated them, but now that a lot of these are out of print, I’m really regretting that. I found a small stack of them a few years ago at a library book sale and snatched them up. After reading Spellbound again recently, I decided to put my thoughts about it down in a blog post.

    Synopsis:

    No one knew how the girl had died.

    They found Karen Holly in the mountain stream, her skull crushed. There was only one witness to the tragedy, Karen’s boyfriend, Jason Whitfield. He said a grizzly had killed her. But a lot of people didn’t believe him. They thought Jason had murdered her in a fit of rage.

    And now weeks have passed, and Jason has another girlfriend, Cindy Jones. And there are the new kids in

     town, Joni Harper, the quiet English beauty that Cindy’s brother, Alex, cannot get out of his mind. And Bala, the foreign exchange student from Africa, the grandson of a powerful shaman.

    Together they will return to the place where Karen was killed.

    Some will die.

    The others will come face to face with a horror beyond imagining.

    Review:

    I needed a break this week so I plucked this off my YA collection of books on my shelf. I read the back, and as I flipped through the first few pages, the story started to come back to me. (Full disclosure: I know I had to have read this book more than 20 times in my teens!) I remembered who the “monster” was pretty quickly, but couldn’t remember how “they” got that way. The main parts of the book take place in a state park near a waterfall, and I got fatigued after a while reading about how the characters continually kept going back to that spot for meet-ups and dates, especially after it became clear that something wild and murdurous was on the loose up there.

    I loved the relationship between siblings Cindy and Alex, as the novel goes back and forth from their perspectives. However, they both were a little too bold for their own good, and both ended up falling into the turbulent river at two different times, leaving me shaking my head a bit. Jason was also a bit of a caricature–rich, good looking, football player and most of all, a jerk. My favorite character was Bala, the grandson of the shaman, as I felt Pike really nailed his mannerisms and dialogue. Also, I kind of laughed a bit that you NEVER saw Cindy and Alex’s parents at their house. They were always out working at the hardware store they own, but it made me wonder if that was meant to raise suspicion in the reader or if Pike just didn’t really want to deal with character development for them. They are only mentioned in passing as “still being a the store,” or “working at inventory” at the store. As a teen I doubt this even crossed my mind, but reading it as a grown adult, I picked up on it right away.

    Now I’m on to reading another old Pike favorite, Remember Me. It’s narrated by a ghost, which is funny, because I also wrote a book in the same fashion. I also came across this article about Christopher Pike’s novels, but the blogger didn’t have Spellbound on the list.

    *Note: Christopher Pike’s older novels are out of print, and there is one copy of this book for sale on Amazon for $71. Wow. I’m holding on to my copy. Also, I may be revealing a bit of my discerning nature here, but I’ve often wondered if Christopher Pike was a pen name for another author, as there is not a whole lot of information about the man out there and even fewer photos. He could write a lot of books, though, and he kept me entertained in my teens along with Lois Duncan, so I have no issue with it.

  • Lifestyle,  writing advice

    Don’t Let Fear Cripple You

    There have been a lot of things I’ve been afraid of in my life. Here are just a few.

    I’ve been afraid to:

    -Go through labor and delivery with my kids (I survived, two c-sections later).

    -Travel alone to an unfamiliar location.

    -Take a cross-country flight even though I know I’m more safe in the air than a car.

    -Pick up the phone and make a call for information I need for an article (I’m introverted, and there are days I just don’t feel like talking to people I don’t know).

    -Confront people who have hurt me, because rarely does it work out the way I hope it would.

    -Share my history of battling depression and anxiety, because it’s a topic that not many people want to discuss.

    -Try running again after a minor injury sidelined me for a few weeks.

    -Hit the “send” button after crafting a query to a potential literary agent.

    -Apply for a job I don’t have 100 percent of the qualifications for.

    -Upload an audio file I created and produced in order to share my love of true crime reporting to the world.

    This is only a small fraction of the things that scare me or have intimidated me in the past. And guess what? I survived every single one of them.

    Yes, if I fail at something it will be embarrassing. But who will really know? Me. I’m my harshest critic. If an agent decides they don’t want to read my entire manuscript, they will simply send me a polite response. If a person doesn’t want to be interviewed with a story, they will say “no” and I’ll move on. If someone doesn’t want to discuss mental illness and the stigma it carries, they don’t have to. I’ve had minor physical injuries and have always been able to get back into shape. If I make a mistake in a podcast recording, I’ll own up to it and learn how not to do it in the future.

    I don’t want to be one of those people who watched other people chase their dreams while I told myself, “I’m not good enough. And if I mess up, people will judge me and ridicule me.”

     It’s taken me being in my early 40s to get past a lot those fears, but sometimes it takes time to gain courage to go after the bigger dreams.

    I hope others around me will agree.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: The Story Behind “Death of a Cheerleader”

    There was a time when I ate, slept and breathed movies on the Lifetime Channel. These days, I’m more apt to binge shows on Investigation Discovery Channel or the Oxygen Network (they are really stepping up their true crime game!) I think it was Lifetime where I first watched the made for television movie “Death of a Cheerleader,” (originally titled “A Friend to Die For), which starred Tori Spelling and Kellie Martin from one of my all-time favorite shows, “Life Goes On.”

    When I was scrolling through the available titles on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, I discovered this gem. Because I’m always happy to procrastinate with a streaming service, I heated up a cup of coffee and plopped down on the couch to stroll down memory lane with “Death of a Cheerleader.” As I watched the opening credits, another name stood out to me—Kathryn Morris. Any “Cold Case” fans out there? Yeah, she was cast in the role of a misunderstood “goth girl” and I wouldn’t have recognized her right away.

    “Death of a Cheerleader” begins with Tori Spelling’s character, Stacy, knocking on the door of a stranger’s house, saying her friend “went all weird on her” and asking for a ride home. You can see a shadowy figure nearby through the trees pacing in front of a car. Once she is dropped at home, she is viciously attacked by the person who had followed her home. The movie then proceeds to flash back to a year earlier.

    The movie tells the story of a young impressionable student named Angela who is desperate to finally become noticed by her classmates, and determined to do whatever it takes to fit in with “the cool crowd.” That cool crowd includes Stacy Lockwood, a peppy and vivacious cheerleader who also derives great joy in making those around her cower in fear, most of all, her female classmates, and this includes driving the once-meek Angela to violence.

    Noticing that the movie was “based on true events,” I pulled out my phone and googled the details as I watched the first part of the movie. The plot for the movie was inspired by the murder of 15-year-old California native Kirsten Costas back in 1984. Her classmate Bernadette Protti was eventually convicted of stabbing Costas to death. The two girls had been classmates at Miramonte High School and according to some, rivals. Protti had endured disappointment after disappointment at school, not making the cheerleading team or the yearbook staff. She felt like people like Costas sailed through life getting everything they wanted based on looks and how much money their families had. She told police she feared Costas was going to start telling people “she was weird,” and that she would become an outcast.

    Kirsten Costas

    Protti served seven years behind bars and was released from prison in in 1992 at the age of 23. She moved away and eventually changed her name.

    Bernadette Protti

    In my opinion, “Death of a Cheerleader” did a great job of showcasing the pressure kids put on themselves to be perfect in how school and how bullying and the disintegration of friendships can drive people to unimaginable violence.

    By the way, if you want to watch an updated version of the film, it looks like Lifetime is remaking the 1994 version of “Death of a Cheerleader.”