Unlocked Ward


 

Eight days later they transfer him to the unlocked ward, he has improved. They put him on liquid lithium because he has been cheeking his pills. I can’t believe it. I check his mouth every time. The nurses chuckle softly and tell me how clever, how adept, the patients are at this. My son, the mental patient.

 So when you enter a psychiatric hospital, at the desk where your sign in, there is a bowl filled with padlocks and keys. You get your own lock and key so that you can put your purse, phone, anything of value or potential harm into your own, high school style, locker. I enter the facility holding only a tiny key to go see the person that I grew in my own body, all by myself, with all my cells and love. Walking down the super bright, clean hallway the hard metal dances in my palm, making me sweat. Walking with only a key, the thing that opens other things and secures those of value, I am a breathing, blood pumping metaphor.

 My craydar goes into overdrive as soon as I enter the Community Room, in the unlocked ward they are allowed to congregate. Good looking Latino guy making large, unwieldy origami birds out of heavy construction paper. For God’s sake, everyone knows there is special paper for origami. Those birds will never fly. Several women sit at a long table coloring in coloring books. One of them looks really normal. This cheers me up. A small man with only one eye (really?) is talking to the wall in an adjacent room. Origami Guy is now circling the room twirling the broom like a baton. My son sits, like Buddha in a Barcalounger, off to the side. He is doing nothing. 

 “Hey, Nickboy, how are you doing?” I ask.

 We have an impossible conversation in which I attempt to address the medication issue. He strongly denies any cheeking. I tell him what the doctor told me: the blood doesn’t lie. He smiles broadly as he informs me that he likes the liquid lithium, “It tastes like Tang!”

 As I open my metal locker I consider the histories of the mentally ill. So often they are artists, with a sensitivity to see beauty and connectedness in the world that the rest of us don’t. Perhaps that heightened sensitivity makes them more susceptible to these illnesses. Their gentle brains are easy targets, like little bunnies, so vulnerable. As I walk out into the rain, I imagine the stone building behind me as a warren of rabbits, safe from the cold uncaring world.

 

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Locked Ward

 This is not a psychiatric hospital but it would be nice if it was.

This is not a psychiatric hospital but it would be nice if it was.

I’m going to visit him in the locked ward. It’s the weekend and reception is closed, so I have to enter through the emergency room door. I can see myself in a sort of silhouette reflection with a few details. I look like I did thirty years ago: blue jeans, striped shirt, the same haircut. The undulating glass doesn’t show the lines on my face, or the fissures etched by the acid of fear in my bones. I look little.

 Jeff, the handsome ward clerk walks me in to the Quiet Room, opening hallways with a plastic card he wears on a Seahawks chain around his neck. He’s from Texas but he likes the local teams as well. The hallway door clicks locked just as the ward door opens and Nick shuffles in. That door clicks locked in echo to the first.

 “Look I brought you the sushi you wanted,” I say, eager to please. His face is dark, far away. 

 “You know what? I don’t want it, I ‘m going to go back to my room now.” He says softly.

  It feels like the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me. 

 As Jeff walks me out he says, “I think he’s just tired today.” I suppose breaking up all your furniture and body slamming the walls until the entire right side of your body is purple is exhausting. 

 In the parking lot I sit, cemented, in my car. I consider the scrawny woman I saw in the emergency room door. That can’t be right. I’m not little, I’m big. I can twirl babies over my head, I hoisted a 6’ x 6’ beam up twelve feet with my husband because I was the only one there. Once, in a dream, I lifted a car off a small child. Why is everyone telling me I am little these days? I imagine a jagged stone flying across the asphalt and nicking the corner of the door, shattering it into a million little rocks of glass and pain and shit. The woman in the striped shirt disappears.

 In ancient civilizations the people who behaved like those we now label schizophrenic were regarded as visionaries. Shamans. A circle was drawn around them in which they could live, respected, within the existing society to which they weren’t suited. A circle. Nick has a red diamond on his right wrist, covering his suicide scar. A tattoo over a scar. But isn’t the white line of the scar really just a tattoo as well? 

 Circle. Diamond. Line.

 

Hospital Birthday

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It’s in my mouth. At first, I thought it was in my jaw, the pain, like marrow to the bone. But I was wrong. It seems to be living in the saliva, moving between my teeth, collecting under my tongue, sometimes slipping out the corners of my mouth. The watery, moving anguish that is my son’s insanity. Yesterday was his thirty-third birthday. We couldn’t take him out to lunch because he’d demolished his apartment. Cabinet doors ripped apart, broken furniture, coffee and Gatorade all over the walls. He is sorry. He promised he won’t do it again. But it is not up to him.

Now my mouth burns even more as I look at him on the gurney in the emergency room: large mound of a man. I sit in the very corner of the room and my saliva starts to taste like blood. The pain. The fucking, never ending, pain. I can’t seem to put it down for even a minute. It tastes like red, red blood.

So yesterday was his birthday. His middle sister posted pictures of them as children on the internet. His delightful smile, the cartoon dimples. The future written neatly in skin-colored ink on the surface of his body. I could see it. I could always see it because I have the Mother Eyes. But it lied. The real story must have been written somewhere else in some other kind of ink. Maybe that’s what is accumulating like a tidepool in my mouth. The real story written in blood. The one where he gets the crazy eyes when he is nineteen and punches holes in the walls. The story where he shakes his head no when he says “yes.” The one where he doesn’t become a famous artist after all, he never becomes a husband, a father; just a big, vacant-faced person who lives on an empty island. The real ink tells me to shut the fuck up with my stupid idea of how it was supposed to be. Just let the truth swish around in my mouth until my teeth are like swiss cheese and my esophagus rots.

His middle sister tells the internet that he is her North Star. God help me, but he is mine as well. The skin-colored ink confirms this. Who looks at a careening bottle rocket and calls it the North Star? People blinded by love.

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He is making wild grimacing faces and showing all his teeth and gums. I can’t take it. I pull the chair from the corner of the room out into the hall. I cover my face with my left hand (of all the family, only Nick and I are left-handed) and cry. Then I decide, this is a hospital, I don’t have to hide the fact that I am crying. I lower my left hand and rest it in my right just as a nurse places a small box of Kleenex in my lap. I just sit there and bawl. I make eye contact with everyone. I don’t care.

 Another nurse asks me she can get me anything. I say no, and I mean it. But then she says “how about a hug?” I surprise myself by saying “yes please” and fall into her ample arms and stay there a really long time. My mother told me that as a little girl I hated being hugged. She said I’d stand there, steel rod straight, and endure until it was over.

I don’t remember who that little girl was or what she was thinking. God, I wish I did. Maybe she knows the answer to the mystery of the ink. But she is not here anymore. Actually not here. The cells of my body have died and been replaced so many times in 62 years that my original body is gone. I look intently at my foot, tapping the linoleum floor and wonder if maybe, just maybe, a speck, a trace of the original me might still be on the very tip of a toe. Or what about my first permanent tooth, awash today in the blood-ink, is some truth written there?

I sit outside the room where my son lies making faces. I’m clutching the brightly decorated, single-serving Kleenex box, the police report, the never-ending paper cups of water they keep bringing me. A big, silly Sad Mom Doll (she cries real tears…) complete with accessories. The green bag labeled Patient’s Personal Belongings sits on the floor next to me.

Hard Rain

Hard Rain

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I’m at the end of a week in Los Angeles. I painted with my daughter, Rose, who came here from the forests of Virginia to work with me. Perfect.

I met a young man with schizophrenia who manages his own company, and founded an organization that helps the mentally ill.

I met a woman I have read about for years. She is a brilliant professor at a prestigious college, and also has schizophrenia.

How do I keep the demons at bay? They howl “why not Nick” into the branches at night. 

I had dinner with a friend whose son was hit by lightning and killed. Hit by lightning. Every time I see her, I want to rock her in my arms like a baby. Rose tells me that when a person is struck by lightning, their shoes fly into the air. 

I had cocktails with four women writers who knocked my socks off (they flew into the air).

And each day, I painted with Rose, side by side, the colors washing the white out of the walls.

I saw my family, nephews going on into the world, baby girl about to put on one foot ahead of the other and walk.

I sat with my life-long friends, laughing until our muscles hurt, tears washing the white of our eyes to pink. 

Rose told me about a friend who does silkscreen prints on tortillas. He couldn't keep them flat, so he laminates them onto old record albums. He sells them from a storefront in Silverlake that has a Craps game in the back room.

I had animated discussions about the present and the future of mental health care, about savants, society and the possibility that the voices really are God speaking.

If that is so, if it is God, what do I howl into the branches at night? What, now, is the accurate song?

Smashing

My husband and I are driving to Canada. I sit in the passenger seat, writing a story about my crazy son on a napkin.

I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no poem, painting or song to present. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document it and put it into the world as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he was just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they didn’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother's eyes can see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

Driving a grey serpent of highway, we descended into a valley. Immediately, I could see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing red, yellow and green, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out: calamity. “What is going on down there?” I said, sitting taller, straightest spine. The traffic slowed as we drove, and I could see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere. 

"Pull over, I need to go there," I said. My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see what I could do. It is how I am wired, I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. Nonetheless, I will jump into a river any old time. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought: “I would have done that.”

I grab a water bottle and open the door before we have even come to a halt. My husband admonishes: “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first, it takes time. First, I see two women attending to...what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.” 

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred yards further, several people lean in, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris. Artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot smashes on a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his wallet, now we know his name.” I wish I had found it. As I approach the car, sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., the whole world in the corner of a room. 

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves steadily hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The girl with the wallet says, ”His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans that it is her shoulder which hurts.

There is nothing I can do. There is nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there for a minute. The man and woman, holiday careened off-course (mushroom sauce for the pasta no longer relevant), are tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I consider the stillness of the tableau in front of me, and realize that I am just using up important oxygen. I return to my car.

As we drive away we pass a fire truck, siren cutting the day, on the way up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin's 24 Preludes, piano fills the car. My fingers continue to caress the air.

 

 

What We Keep

We moved Nick up to Washington two years ago. It was a forensic revelation to empty the apartment he'd occupied in L.A. for eight years. Most of it was trash, actual trash. He had surprisingly few possessions. So much has been lost, literally and figuratively, over the years. Much of it is scattered along the pacific coast, from Los Angeles to Olympia, where he attended college for a week. His paintings are safe with me. He has six pairs of Old Navy khakis and a dozen black t-shirts. Whenever we give Nick a gift, he thanks us and then hands it to me: "keep it up at the house for me, please." He lives an ascetic life.

This is why the things he has chosen to keep carry such weight. They are imbued with messages and signals. I was moved as I discovered what was still important to him, so I made an album.

 Larchmont Guy (friends would take pictures and send them to me so I'd see he was well)

Larchmont Guy (friends would take pictures and send them to me so I'd see he was well)

He owns three books.

 One of his linoleum cut prints, wrapped carefully and placed in a kitchen drawer.

One of his linoleum cut prints, wrapped carefully and placed in a kitchen drawer.

GANGboys

"I hope you have a better year." Rose was about fifteen.

 Of everything we've given him and he's lost, ruined or given back, this is the single thing Nick kept safe and in perfect condition. It is the vintage bowling ball and shoes Craig gave him for his sixteenth birthday. He insisted on carrying them on the plane.

Of everything we've given him and he's lost, ruined or given back, this is the single thing Nick kept safe and in perfect condition. It is the vintage bowling ball and shoes Craig gave him for his sixteenth birthday. He insisted on carrying them on the plane.

 The train that he used to play with at his Amah's (my mother) when he was a toddler. I asked him why, out of everything, he kept this. He said: "you know, AMAH."

The train that he used to play with at his Amah's (my mother) when he was a toddler. I asked him why, out of everything, he kept this. He said: "you know, AMAH."

The "subversive" underground newspaper he started in high school that almost got him expelled. I'm not part of the herd, mister trendy man.

He kept souvenirs from every concert he and his dad went to. He stole the photo of Craig from home and kept it in his night table drawer.

I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no poem, painting or song to present. Scraps of a life, one piled upon the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document it, and put it into the world. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he was just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light we didn't have eyes to see. But I can see. A mother's eyes can see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

Cycle World

 

“Text me as soon as you know what’s going on,” was the last thing Craig said as I peeled out. The caregiver had called and informed me that something was really wrong with Nick. I had to drive the twenty miles into town from our farm, for the second time that day. Goddammit. Goddammit.Goddammit. It never ends, I was thinking. Most of the time it is nothing, but you never know. I had to go.

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So. It was something. Nick appeared to be totally psychotic. He couldn’t answer a simple question, and he was stumbling around. He had the crazy eyes: the gone-astray gaze that could make you believe he was listening to God’s voice. I took one look and called 911. There is no PET (psychiatric evaluation team) division of the police department out here in the country, just cops and paramedics. The police beat the ambulance there. That was not good. With the police comes the possibility of misunderstandings, conflicts, tragedy. The big shot, small town, cop was guardedly moving in on my son, hand on his thigh, near his gun. I walked directly between them.

“Officer, my son has schizophrenia and seems to have taken too much medication. He is not violent, or dangerous. He has never hurt anyone. He needs to go to the hospital.”

“Tell it to the paramedics, lady.” He looks past me.

“Well, you are the guy with the gun, and that is why I’m telling you,” I say. “He is not a threat to anyone and needs medical care.” I stand in mountain pose. I don’t look past him, I look him right in the face. He looks down.

The ambulance arrives. The paramedics talk kindly to Nick and persuade him to get on the gurney. The woman takes his vitals and then calls the guy over to the side and they whisper. A slow line of sweat moves down my back to the top of my jeans, moistening the entire edge.

They tell me his heart rate is dangerously high. He could die. How many times in a short lifetime will I hear these words? They slap an IV into the crook of his arm, slam the door, and take off into the wail of their own siren. I follow in my car, as I have learned to do. I remember Nick on our front porch when he was a boy, crouching in front of the red, red door, looking at his sisters.

At the hospital I text Craig that we are in the psych ward. I see that the phone has auto corrected psych ward to cycle world just as I push send.

I’m sorry, but standing in the dim hallway, I can’t help but chuckle. I mean, it is funny.

Cycle world: funny. Psych ward: not so funny.

 

 

 

The World from Above (Or Very, Very Close)

 Eskimo Girl

Eskimo Girl

Nick and I had a secret relationship with Rose when she was little. Most of the time she was stand-offish, and people would tire of cajoling her. She didn’t smile and twirl, didn't care about getting attention. She sauntered around in sweat pants, no shirt (if the boys didn’t have to, then why did she?), and a backwards baseball cap. Nick and I understood her. She was actually the funniest thing on two legs, you just had to give her some space. The hat she wore was his.

When she was about three and a half years old, she decided that she wanted to learn how to whistle. She’d sit at the bottom of our stairway, the epicenter of the house, pursing her lips, blowing, blowing, blowing, every day after nursery school. I’d hear that hollow, breathy sound, daily. She was really too young to whistle. I encouraged her, but it was her own determination that kept her at it.  As the light darkened into dinner time, she'd join us at the table, but for her this was little more than an intermission. She returned to practice as soon as chores were done.

"You know you’re adopted, Rose,” Nick would tease. “You are really an Eskimo. Look at your brown skin and tilted eyes.” When I asked him where in the world he got this idea, he told me she didn't look like the rest of us, a cagey smile on his face. "It's fun to tease her because she never shows that it bothers her. I'm just trying to get a reaction." I told him that wasn't nice. He told me he knew she liked it, or he wouldn't do it.

 New Zealand from 24 inches above

New Zealand from 24 inches above

Well, one fine day she started whistling. It had taken three weeks. Pretty soon she could whistle anything, from Beethoven to rock and roll. She could whistle like the wind.

“Hey, come here, Eskimo Girl, and whistle for these guys,” Nick would beckon. He’d bet his friends a dollar she could do any song. He was still the leader of the pack, back then, and they all fell for it. He shared the money with Rose.

She would look alternately at the ground, and then solemnly up at her charming brother, never smiling. She was happy just to be part of it, but she never let on.

Greta Garbo in a backwards baseball hat, whistling 'In A Gadda Da Vida."

When Nick was sixteen he stood, toes at the brink of a high, high cliff, full of endless potential.. Below him the landscape a verdant, mossy, rocky mystery waiting for him to figure out. He was just beginning. Inside his head: another mystery, waiting to reveal itself.

Sometimes when I am in an airplane, I see the earth configured in shapes that look startlingly like illustrations of the human brain. From high above the land resembles patterns seen also under microscopes.

 

 

Paint Stigmata

This is the story of my future. I found it in the heel of my palm, just before the wrist starts, in a place I’d never noticed before. A small line of flesh that informs my whole hand, and at the same time resists the actions of my forearm.

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I am standing with my bare feet planted in dirt, and from that brown I rise, feeling taller than I really am. My arms are turned slightly outward, my shoulders are still, like a hanger hitched to the base of my skull. 

Nothing can touch me, and everything can touch me. I’m ready.

I know how to be quiet. I know how to rest.

I have dead people’s bones in my neck from corrective surgery, and a hole in my skull where a tumor was sucked out. My body is decorated in the hieroglyphics of scars, small white moons, angry chicken scratches. I’ve carried babies, lost babies, nursed babies, and cried. Paint runs through my veins, not blood. Cobalt blue, when inside, alizarin crimson as it meets the air. Yellow ochre fills my head.

I move forward from here.

 

SILENCE=complicity

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These are the faces that haunted my dreams as a child, to the soundtrack of my mother sobbing on the couch. Television documentary on, piles and piles of bodies in a big, ragged dirt hole. Nobody put flowers on their graves, she wailed. It was the late 1950’s. It had just happened. Most of the Hungarian side of my family was gone. All of the Russian side was.

Years later, in school, I was presented with the story of the Japanese internment camps. Well, it had happened during the same period. We knew better now.

Today I watched a black television screen with only a soundtrack. This time: Children sobbing, wailing, crying out for their parents, the translation a scroll of white pinching my soul with each letter.

SILENCE=complicity

 

Whose Life?

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Every time I turn around there is a small, sharp pain in the lower part of my back. A recent development, it started around the time spring began. There are also other things. Things that come and go. Sometimes my eye twitches, or when I get up too quickly, I get dizzy. Odd little symptoms of a malaise too vague to investigate.

It is everywhere right now. Two famous people have taken their own lives and we shake our heads in wonder. They had so much to live for. They were so successful. They were famous! When will we get it through our collective, heads that it is on the inside where the problem lives? The shaded areas of the psyche, where secrets and wounds fester. I ponder the phrase: take your own life. Is it taken as in claimed, or simply eradicated? There is some beauty to the concept. The Israelites at Masada took their own lives rather than live as slaves. A body turns against itself in illness, pain, suffering; and the person decides when to die. She takes her own life.

And yet, for the thousands wrestling with depression, suicidal psychosis, another story: help exists. It must be sought, it has efficacy. Tortured souls: please ask, please tell, please allow others in.

I know this is not going to be a popular idea, but I also think that, in the final analysis, some people just are done living. Not everyone can be saved, wants to be saved. If you trace the provenance of any single life it never changes. My life is mine. Your life is yours

Every time I turn around there is a small, sharp pain in the lower part of my back.

Marionette

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A bitter rain falls outside. My choice would be to burrow in, today, but I don’t have that option. I woke to see that my son’s latest tox screen was up on the computer. He tested positive for opiates. Opiates? WTF? What is going on now? I call the doctor. Why didn’t he notify me? Sorry, not in until Monday. It is Friday.

I walk past my husband, pause, hold my breath, and then keep going. Why even start, I’ll just carry this one myself. Like a marionette, I pass him on the way back and he asks: is something wrong?

 I am trying not to lie, these days: Yes, something is wrong, I tell him.

We discuss and agree that we are helpless, hapless, hopeless. It is all so out of our control. I am going into town to take temperature of the situation.

First stop: Rite-Aid. Reason: I forgot to get the Lithium, and he has lost his phone for the third time this year. At the counter, I have a whispered consult with the pharmacist: Where are the opiates coming from? (I have a theory that it is the cold medication he abuses…again, we have no control). I am told that isn’t possible. No more opiates over the counter. Leaving only that he is buying drugs on the street. A lump rises in my throat which ends the conversation.

I retreat to the car, where, under pounding water (a streaming waterfall down the windows) I dole out the Lithium into the baggies containing his other meds. Now I have to figure out how to activate the phone. Miraculous wonder: I am able, with the help of a lovely woman in some faraway land, to do it. Paper bags, pill bottles, phone paraphernalia litter the car. I head to his house.

He answers the door like Kramer on Seinfeld, in boxer shorts, with hair like a landslide.

On the way home, I call his sister. Of course, he denies everything, says it’s a mistake, I tell her. What am I supposed to do now?

Wait! I just thought of something, she says. Remember when Elaine ate the poppy seed muffin and tested positive for opium? Maybe that’s what happened. It’s a real thing.

I drive along a ribbon of mud, feeling better.                                                                  Seinfeld. Muffins. Rain.

 

 

 

 

 

Crown of Thorns

So this is the thing: Do I really need this crown of thorns, after all? I have an embarrassment of riches. I am talented. I am loved. I have wonderful children, a loving husband. I have more real friends than anyone deserves.

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And he sits in his room.

At least now it is clean. Not thanks to me, who used to turn the other way and let it all go to hell, for long periods, because I couldn’t stand it. But. Thanks to my relentless advocacy on his behalf, he now has DHS workers who come every day and care for him. They clean his apartment and give him his meds. My burden is lightened, his life is better, and yet I feel wrong because I am not wiping up the crap myself. Scooping up the cockroaches. My grandmother would not have foisted this task off on another. But I have. I travel the world and have nice dinners while a county worker cares for him.

It's funny, both his caregivers repeatedly tell me what a good mother I am. What is that? Do most others just abdicate completely? Yes, I keep track of everything, I make sure he is okay. I spend time with him. I take him places. I make sure he is safe and sound, every day. If we didn’t have the caregivers, I would do it all (hell, I did it for ten years). But does that make me a hero? I feel like I am doing the bare minimum.

And he sits in his room.

We make plans. We think of ideas. We sign up for things. And then he bails, at the last minute, almost every time. His father says I am a fool. Give up already. But I can’t. I cannot. The question is why? Is it for him? Because I want better, more, for him, or is it for me? Is his sickness a reflection in my ego? A verdict on my life? The final word: I failed. 

And he sits in his room.

I do know this. I love him beyond imagination. I am bound to him, carried by him, pulled into the bowels of the earth by him. And I would have it no other way. I know that I will never give up. But what I need to know is why. Is it MotherLove or is it my ego? God. Someone tell me. Only I can answer that question and I am frozen.

I was so full of pride. He was handsome, brilliant, charismatic...and then it was all gone. Did I do this? Was it my hubris that called this disease to him? To shut me up and teach me a lesson? Is he the victim of some cosmic retribution? I think it might be true. If I had had more humility, maybe the universe wouldn’t have picked him for this insidious disease. I hate myself. I just know this is my fault. 

And he sits in his room.  

 

 

Hearing Voices

I am walking. It is the big city, the New York City. I’m alone, looking at the people around me. I am not afraid. It is night time, but I don’t fear things like that. 

Ahead of me a girl with fashion model-like clothes. Swishing, poignant, making a statement. So many people talking out loud. I always check to make sure there are earbuds, so I know that they are on the phone. A young black man, angry, defending himself, “My mother says no I can’t make it happen but fuck her I know I can do this.” A strong-legged girl shouting, “If you can’t deal with my feelings then just forget it.” Greek tragedies played out on cement for us all to see. No one is concerned about privacy. I’m here now and this is what is happening, you can listen in or not. 

I walk with intent. I always do. And then I see him, just a half step ahead of me. “Yeah, well, no, you will never get it. You fool. You know nothing! I can’t ever explain it to you.”

I walk with Half-Step-Boy and observe. No ear bud on the left side. Hmmm. I saunter to the right to check. Nope. Nothing there.

Ah for the time when we knew that people talking out loud were the crazy ones.

So now I am sure. He is crazy. No iPhone, no ear buds, no electronics. Only the electrical charge emanating, agitating, disrupting my…my what? Oh god it is my cervix. That is where I feel it! The place where it happens. The sperm enters; maybe a person, maybe nothing. Maybe a beautiful boy who veers terribly off course and loses his mind. (I have one of those myself.)

 oil on canvas                                                                                                         Nicholas O'Rourke

oil on canvas                                                                                                         Nicholas O'Rourke

I walk for three blocks, a half-step behind Crazy Boy. I summon the genetics of his mother and tell her that I am here. I am beside him. I hear him. There is nothing I can do, but I am next to him, trying to carry some little part of his burden. Her burden.

He screams, and people stare. The noisy night shatters into silence for a minute. I can see it disperse into the air: his mind, his agency, his future. I want to jump up and catch it, return it to him, but I know that is impossible.

I walk, one half-step behind, and gather the detritus, because I know it is not garbage. It is his soul.

The Dime

Today is shopping day. It is always a test of my Zen capabilities. Sometimes it is not fun, but sometimes it is. Nick can stand in front of the frozen entree section for twenty minutes. Deciding. He wanders off. Every single time we get to the cashier, he remembers something he needs. I can’t send him to “run” and get it, I may never see him again. So off we go to some far corner of the store and back to the end of the long line. My friends ask me why I even take him with me. I should just go myself. I explain that he wants to come, to pick out his own food. They say: let him make a list. I cannot explain the nuance of this activity to them. He is a grown man. He is crazy, but he is not a child. His abbreviated life leaves him in charge of very little. He wants to pick out his own food. I can give him that.

Off we go to the Walmart (in itself a test of one’s Zen) for his supplies: massive amounts of paper towels (never toilet paper…don’t ask), coffee, ivory soap, Simple Green, bologna, cheese, half and half, sugar, frozen entrees, and ice. Lots of ice.

We have a good time. He is lively and asks for new coloring books. Nick was on track to be a famous artist (seriously) and now he is happy to fill endless superhero outlines with colored pencils. He pulls one ridiculous item after another off the shelves and says, “Hey, let’s get this for Dad. He would like this.” A huge, neon Christmas sweater. A coffee mug with the face of a lion sculpted on it. Children’s candy shaped like cartoon characters. “Let’s get him this popcorn, for at night when he watches black and white movies!” 

I had to relent on that one because it connected directly with reality.

On the way home, he starts slamming his arm against the inside of the door. Then he pushes his legs forward and straightens his whole body. I’m afraid he’s going to break the seat. “Nick, Nick, what the hell? What’s wrong? You need to calm down!”

He glares at me with the dark, scary, crazy eyes and yells WHAT? Really loud. Here we go. I know that there’s nothing I can do. I can’t get mad at him, I can’t calm him down. Things are going on in his head I can’t even get near. It turns on a dime.

We pull up in front of his place, he flings the door open and jumps out. I sit in my seat, very small, as he grabs his groceries and slams the door with the velocity of a meteor hitting earth.

There is nothing I can do but pull away.

One dime. It turns on a single dime.

 Self-Portrait at 14                  watercolor on paper               Nicholas O'Rourke                 

Self-Portrait at 14                  watercolor on paper               Nicholas O'Rourke          

 

  

How Was I Supposed To Know My Son Was Crazy?

It sneaks up on you, the crazy. It’s cagey. This is the thing: if I made you a list of the red flag signs of serious mental illness, and another list of typical teenage behavior, they would be virtually the same. You watch all the kids acting like idiots and assume it will pass. But little glitches in your kid’s behavior gnaw away at the dark places of your mind. Is this really normal?

Initially you assume it must be drugs. And it is. So, you act on the drug problem and get him help. You’ve got it somewhat under control, only things don’t improve. This is because your son is using drugs to subdue the voices in his head that you won’t know about for years.

Next comes the parade of therapists. Years of confusing and conflicting opinions, thousands of dollars, and still no answer. Precious time lost when you might have intervened before it was too late. The diagnosis gets worse and worse until finally the haymaker is thrown: schizophrenia. The departure of a mind, cradled in the exquisite skull of my son. Gone. Future veered terribly off course. Mental illness is like a hurricane, a tornado, it plows through your life, leaving anything not nailed firmly down, destroyed. Decimated. No way to prepare for this  adversary, just hang on for dear life.

IMG_0506.jpg

I’ve been thinking about the babies, lately. The beautiful babies who lie in your arms and suck at your breast before falling, milk-drunk, into a wanton sleep. Did we have any idea, an inkling, of the place this would take us to: motherhood? The sheer black you find yourself surrounded by when they are in peril? The sky-high, heart bursting love? The breakneck speed at which we move to help them. Save them. The crumpling grief. The future in a green-gold eye.

They can drive us to distraction, bring us to our knees, wail forever, and it changes nothing. We will walk the floor, holding them, all night. We stand like roughcast stone monuments, sending out our love. Nothing can topple us.

 

Mothers::Come Here

Mothers::Come Here  

 

Take a minute and read. I know how much you need to hear from another mother who has lived through the mental illness of a child, has shitty, toxic teenagers, or wants to jump off a wine cliff every night. Who understands that you love them so completely, so ridiculously, you’d dance in fire at the hope of helping them. I know your need because it is mine, also.

I had a son. A perfect, and beautiful and shiny boy. All the fingers, and all the toes. They laid him on my belly. I really didn’t believe there was an actual human being inside of me until I saw him. Serious, dark composure (like a judge) his brown eyes pummeled me with questions. Oh my god, the love. The semi-truck slamming into my soul, laden with unfathomable love. In a second, the earth pivoted on its axis and I was a mother.

 Vesuvius Erupts                                                oil on canvas                                               Miriam Feldman

Vesuvius Erupts                                                oil on canvas                                               Miriam Feldman

Twenty years later he left me. Some kind of unknowable shift occurred in his brain and he was no longer with us. Schizophrenia. First: anxiety. Then: depression. Then: bipolar. Finally: goodbye, Nick boy, you have been swallowed by the rancid swamp water of the worst mental illness diagnosable. I’m at the shore; scrappy, wild-eyed, flailing arms. Why can’t I save you? Why am I suddenly irrelevant? I have a stick! I have a rope! I have a college degree, and yet you float away from me. I glance back over my shoulder and see your sisters, all three, glaring at me with the fury of injustice. “Save him, Mother.”

I would do anything to release him from insanity’s grip. Hey, God, take me! Please. Pour cancer all over me, it’s fine.  But there are no deals like that. You stand at the shore and wail, into a vast and relentless wind. No one hears you.

Holy, moly, that sounds sad. And it is. But it is other things, too. It’s profound. It’s shockingly beautiful, sometimes. I know this isn’t politically correct, but it’s also really funny. Crazy is funny a lot of the time. 

So here I am, internet world. It took me a long time to get here. I am battered and shaken and changed forever. But I have learned things. I have endured and accepted and learned. I am happy, yeah, I am.  

Let’s help each other. Mothers, come here.