The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Brain Cramp June 1, 2012

Been a sweet, happy morning so far. Elihu’s off to school now, and I’m psyching myself up to put away the laundry I’ve boycotted all week. My mood is light in the wake of a delightful breakfast during which Elihu and I played a game of our own invention. We call it the ‘Non Sequitur Game”. You can probably tell by the name what’s involved. It had us giggling over our french toast this morning. It’s always a fun little game. You think of a word, then the next person has to think of a word that totally has nothing to do with the word that’s just been said (that also means you can’t choose a word that is opposite in meaning, as that creates an inherent relationship between the words). Today we kinda tweaked the rules: the person who goes first is the ‘leader’ of that round. His word determines the type of word to follow; verb, adjective, and so on. He, as the round leader, can change the type of word any time he likes. When is the round over? When we feel like it. It’s a lot like Calvinball of the comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’; the rules kinda morph as you go along to suit your fancy. (Whether intentional or not, Elihu has modeled much of his life after Calvin and Hobbes, from his Spaceman Spiff costume at age five to the Non Sequitur game and lots in between.) So we enjoyed a robust couple of rounds, using terms like ‘mandelbrot set’ and ‘axis’ (non-tangible things) and ‘petticoat’ and ‘cotter pin’. We also like to use words that may sound a bit alike – it usually ends up a bit sillier that way. They still have nothing to do with each other definition-wise, so it follows our rules and adds a fun dimension to the game. After a while the game starts to slow down as you start to over-think your answer. I’ve always thought there should be a time limit on answers in order to keep the thinking fresh. Myself, I usually end up throwing in the towel after about five minutes. My brain cramps up pretty easily, and this game does it for me. Fun though. Try it sometime when you have a couple of minutes to kill.

In a few hours my brother Andrew will receive a visit from an adult protective services case worker employed by the state of New York. The visit is supposed to be unannounced in order to prevent the hopeful patient from having any lead time with which to build a case to defend his behavior and choices. Those who live like he does will, of course, always be able to make a case for why they’re living thusly, so it makes sense to give them as little time as possible to ramp up their defenses and get emotionally charged. Andrew is fundamentally a well-raised and polite fellow, and no doubt he will open his door to the man. But the question then becomes, where will the two stand? There is hardly more than a cow path thru the mire and mess. It’s hard to picture two fully grown people standing side by side in that house. And I know that regardless of how Andrew rationalizes his environment, he must certainly feel a good bit of shame and embarrassment when people actually see the interior of his house up close. My heart aches for him. It must be so hard to pull himself thru the day. How does one live when one’s own home is literally filled to the ceiling with garbage? Many times through the years I’ve tried unsuccessfully to help; it not only fails, but it backfires incredibly. It fans the flames of his rage, because in his eyes I am the one responsible for where he is today. And while I understand that this belief in of itself is a symptom of his illness, I still have to fight my keen desire to get it through his head that I’ve never done anything but try to help.

There’s the rub with this mental illness thing. For the most part, the person seems absolutely fine. You might even spend a good bit of time with that person and not have any idea what lurks below. (There’s a strange lack of rationality in the ill person’s thinking, and yet despite their being unwell, they are quite adept at hiding it.) One aspect of their thinking isn’t flowing correctly. And because it’s only one little hiccup in the larger scope of their thinking, and because they have so much together in other departments (mentally ill people are fantastically skilled at deception and creating stories!) it’s really hard to fully comprehend that they are not all right. That they are living partly in our shared reality, partly in a reality of their own creation. I can tell you from having been the daughter-in-law of a schizophrenic for over two decades that a very sick person can appear, for the most part, to be completely well and totally on the ball.

I myself once lived with mental illness. I experienced panic attacks long before they were even called that. Before they were even a recognized ‘thing’. Before it was slightly in vogue to suffer from them. (There’s nothing hip about them. I lived dodging random, nearly unpredictable episodes of sheer terror all throughout high school and college. It was a nightmare.) And even in the midst of a profound attack, I realized how crazy a phenomenon it was. I would physically feel as if I was free-falling – as in my tummy, my whole body would feel as if I was in rapid descent through the air, although of course, I was not. If I were to close my eyes it would be virtually impossible to tell I wasn’t falling; the only difference was that my hair wasn’t being blown back. These attacks were illogical in every way. I remember sitting on my bed once, consumed by fear (the fear is beyond being a simple reaction to the physical sensations – I cannot explain it. It is a bottomless, acute fear that is far worse than any type of fear I’ve ever known. I broke my neck years ago and was told I might not walk again – and even this did not make me feel the profound sort of terror that accompanied my panic attacks) and I knew it made no sense. I sat there, falling, yet I was not falling. I knew I was, and I knew I wasn’t. Knowing that I sat safely on my bed did nothing to stop the sensations I was experiencing. In fact I would often tell myself over and over during an attack that there was no logical, real reason for feeling like this – it was physically impossible. I would command my mind to stop this crap now! I knew something was misfiring and it was so frustrating that I seemed powerless to change it in spite of my desperate desire to do so. I was either free-falling or my ears rang so loudly that they drowned out people’s voices or I was consumed by fear and found sweat dripping off my brow within seconds – any one of these horribly real things could be happening to me, yet it was completely illogical. But at I was at least aware of the illogical nature of my problem. Andrew, my mother-in-law and others more deeply trapped within their illnesses, are not.

There’s another discussion around mental illness with respect to artists and thinkers. Many brilliant people have been crazy. So the question arises, do the brilliance and insanity go hand-in-hand? If the mental illness was ‘cured’, would the artistic brilliance become dulled? I don’t know, but my guess is yes, artistic brilliance and insanity are probably related in some way.  Although I think there must be a relationship between the two, I also know that to live with the torment of some mental illnesses is exhausting. I believe a person should have options, artistry be damned. If there are medical means to stop the unpleasant symptoms, I believe they should be made available to patients. I’ve watched friends work their way thru the meds, adjusting dosages and types until they find what works best for them. I don’t envy them the process. But at least once they’re on their way; they get it. They see the light, they know there’s a destination, they experience some hope again. And I think everyone with a mental illness should be given the opportunity to see the goal. But it’s tricky territory, I know. Legally speaking, a person’s rights are protected and you can’t force treatment on them. But I assert that if their very thinking isn’t healthy, then it’s our job as caring, fellow humans to get that person’s thinking healthy again. I know there are some symphonies that might never have been composed, and paintings that might never had made it to the canvas had the authors’ thinking made entirely healthy. Like I said, it’s not an easy question. Lots of nuances, many different situations, a bunch of ‘correct’ answers.

Elihu himself suffers from panic attacks and has since he was six. We call them his ‘brain problems’. It’s horrible to witness them, and I know well there’s not a thing I can do to make it better while they’re happening. I have learned however, that there are two main things I can do to prevent them: 1) make sure he has enough sleep – and this is not to be underestimated – eleven hours is sometimes just what he needs, and 2) empower Elihu to have as much control over his life as he can have. I pump him full of information, ideas, facts, opinions, data… all in an effort to have him feel that he knows everything he can about the world in which he lives. Feeling out of control and uneducated about the world is something that contributes to, I strongly believe, the onset of panic attacks. Although preventing panic attacks not been my primary motivation in teaching my child about the world, it’s been an important one. I want him to know that although he may not have ultimate control over what happens to him in his life, he is free to learn all he can about what he might expect and why things tend to happen as they do.

But no matter how much thinking you do, life will always throw something in your path you hadn’t expected. Like a game in which the rules change ever so slightly while the game’s in play. You know, kinda like our ‘Non Sequitur Game’. You just gotta roll with it. No use trying to understand it completely, because most likely your brain will cramp up.

 

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