The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crazy January 1, 2016

Last night I spoke with Elihu. He’s in Florida with his dad and his dad’s other family, and for the most part, he’s loving it. He’s got a racoon tan around his eyes and sand lodged in his sneakers. Aside from the occasional all-American family gatherings which he must endure – replete with football-watching menfolk and salads that contain marshmallows – it’s been a happy time for him. Which makes me happy, too. Yet it’s never easy on this end when lil man is absent; our family if rife with dysfunction, depression and a deep apprehension for the future ahead. My son can be a lovely, shining distraction in such times. But these days, even Elihu’s presence might not have changed things, cuz they’re dark. I know, that doesn’t sound like a nice way to kick off the New Year, but hey. It’s true. I’m always ready and eager to find the hidden silver lining in any crappy experience, and I’ll broadcast my good findings when I discover them, but I will never shy away from telling my experience the way it is, no matter how it looks.

Last night, New Year’s Eve, was my brother’s 50th birthday. I know how deeply he blames me for his rotted-out, stinking life. I know he thinks mom gives me all her resources, that she favors me over him, that one day she will leave her entire estate to me when she goes. That none of this is true is beside the point; Andrew is ill, and simply does not posses the ability to see things outside of his own highly personal and paranoid perspective. For years and years I’ve fought this impediment to his potentially thriving life, but now, in this brand-new calendar year, I am choosing an entirely new tack: I am finally going to let it go. Nothing can be done for Andrew unless he chooses to do it for himself.

A lesson I myself would do well to live by – I keep waiting for some mysterious exterior force to enter into my life and help sweep things into a shining new order… Hoping for a savior to come and assist me, to uplift me, enlighten me, tell me how it is that I should proceed with my new business, someone who will see and share my vision and throw herself into the ring along with me, full of fresh ideas, vigor and business savvy. I keep thinking that somehow, this magical missing element will find me and make it all better. It’s a nice fantasy, and you never know, shit happens in mysterious ways, but still… I need to get moving. I need to make connections. I need to get my ass out of the goddam house and do things for myself already. No one but me can get the ball rolling.

Last night I’d planned on attending a bonfire and maybe meeting some new people, but between my running out of fuel oil (no matter how many times you see it, it’s always a bit disheartening to see the needle begin to visibly drop each minute) and it being Andrew’s birthday, and his being drunk and storming out, and my not wanting to see my mother sit alone, I bagged. Plus the idea of coming home from a bonfire in the cold, snowy dark woods to a cold and dark house was too much for me to take on. So instead I sat with mom, drank a couple of beers and watched TV like a good American. But that’s ok – because I’m lucky enough to have been invited to join some local musicians tomorrow night for an informal jam. Just the sort of thing I’ve been missing these past years. It won’t be too long before I’ll be back out into the world and making my new way.

During the day I’d been messaging back and forth with my brother’s only remaining friend on the planet, a fellow, who as far as I can tell, is living in the Bay area and is doing well for himself and his family. He spends hours on the phone with my brother, as much chatting about nothing in particular as he does conducting a covert attempt to draw out my brother’s feelings as a means of getting to the bottom of it all – and maybe even finding a fix to Andrew’s grim situation. However sane and successful this guy might be, sadly this fellow seems to have bought my brother’s skewed story, which is this: I, Andrew’s sister, am the cause of everything that is wrong with his life. He has been profoundly abandoned and unrighteously neglected by our mother. Mom pays my way, and leaves him out. I get all the accolades, he gets no respect. I live for free in a house she owns… You get the idea. What my brother doesn’t understand is that while yes, I do live in a home our mother provides for us, he too lives in a home provided for him. The difference is that I pay my own bills (while also raising a child), and mom takes care all of his expenses. But he’ll never see this. Because he can’t.

The truth of the matter is that my little brother has always been sick. In first grade, he came home from school reporting in a screaming rage how much the kids at school hated him, and that the whole class had “pulled machine guns on him” (I remember this specifically because as a 3rd grader I had never before heard this curious use of the word ‘pulled’). Last night, Mom recounted to me that when she’d gone back to work when we were young children, Andrew had asked her if he got a tummy ache in the middle of the day, would she be at home for him? She was honest and told her small son no. But she promised always to be there when he got home from school. And she was. So here we have a kid in whom something’s already a bit off (ie raging how kids ‘pulled machine guns’) and then you have growing feelings of abandonment on top of it: a cocktail for emotional trouble. But back then the signs were likely cast off as crazy kid’s talk, the behaviors chalked up to routine issues of childhood. My brother was quiet, funny and hyper-intelligent (when I described him once as ‘Rainman smart’ to my mom, she had a fit. “See?” she’d said, agitated and getting louder, “You think he’s crazy! Why can’t he just be smart?”) and if he brooded, it was considered merely part of his personality. It was a different time. We weren’t on the lookout for children with mental illnesses.

And while our culture is thankfully changing its feelings towards mental illness, I can tell you that it’s still not without stigma. I do think my mother’s thoughts about mental illness have changed over the past few years, but in her world it’s still not a comfortable subject. Yeah, I do think that personally she feels shame, maybe embarrassment, and even responsibility. Likely, she sees it this way: Mentally Ill Child = Crazy Child = Failure of Parent. Even I myself – dealing daily with panic and anxiety issues – have only just discovered a metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of what it is to have a mental illness: If someone felt nauseas in their stomach – would you try to tell them they didn’t? Furthermore – you wouldn’t expect them to simply turn off the bad feelings, would you? Mental illness is the same as a tummy ache. It’s physical and it’s real, and it cannot be changed through will and desire alone.

Every now and then my brother’s friend will reveal a tidbit about Andrew heretofore unknown to us, and last night came this bombshell: Andrew remembers mom once saying that she ‘regretted ever having him’. Where the hell had this come from? Never once in mom’s life has she said or done anything that would have implied such a thing. Not even in the heat of an argument. Never. It shocked me to hear that Andrew thought this. And these days, in this crazy world, nothing much shocks me anymore.

I joined mom and Andrew last night, birthday gifts in tow, and tried to assimilate myself into the kitchen quietly. But I suppose I spoke too candidly, too animatedly, too something-or-other, and before ten minutes had passed, my drunk, brooding brother stood up and walked out. I followed him out into the snow, calling after him, begging him not to leave. He stumbled in the frozen ruts of the driveway and mumbled something unintelligible. This, by now, was sadly nothing new. I stood and watched, to make sure he made it safely to his house, some 200 feet down the driveway. The year that dad died, Andrew had fallen in the snow, and we were worried he’d pass out and die there. It’s always a concern in the cold months. On Christmas Eve, my 80-year-old mother had been worried enough to walk the rough terrain around his house, tapping her cane on the windows and calling out to him. Finally, he came to the window and barked at her he wasn’t leaving his house. Usually his rages are brought on by an event or a comment, but this was new – it was unprovoked, and as such, more unsettling than usual.

Among his concerns for his future, Andrew is worried that I will get everything when mom’s gone, and he will go the way of the poor house. Frankly, the way the market is, I expressed to mom that I personally held out no hope of a dollar being left when she died. She took immense offense to this, even though I protested – the markets were continuing to dive, and after all, she had her own expenses to pay. It was simple math! She’d been smart about her estate planning, yes, but no one can outrun a horrible market – this in no way reflected badly on her! Try as I might to de-escalate her emotionally charged reaction, I couldn’t. Maybe it was because my lack of trust showed a lack of respect and acknowledgement for all of her hard work and forethought. Her generation does things ‘the right way’ after all; they take care of their own, they don’t take handouts, and there’s great shame if things don’t work out that way. But things can change in unexpected ways, I tried to explain to my mom. And in light of my own experience, I thought it was prudent to be prepared for the worst.

At one time in my life I thought my husband had my back – emotionally and financially – as he had always promised me. Many times over the years my ex husband assured me I had nothing to worry about. He said his own mother had worried all of her married life that her husband would leave her unsupported. My fears were just as unfounded as hers, he had told me. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case. I went from fancy restaurants to food stamps almost overnight. I reminded my mom of this. Shit can change in unpredictable ways!

I tried to assure mom that I was forever indebted to her for taking care of everything I couldn’t – tuition for my son, heating oil and injections of cash when there was no income in sight – but that didn’t assuage her agitation. I wanted her to know that I was being practical here, not personal; at the end of the day, no one really had my back. And it didn’t bother me. It was better to be emotionally prepared for lean times than to count on help. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t worried – and besides, the key thing here was not my future, but my brother’s. The issue at hand was that Andrew needed to know he would always be taken care of. I assured her that when she was gone Andrew would be cared for. I promised I would intercede, that I would not let him go without a home, without food or heat. And if there was no money left, then social services and governmental support would always be there for him, and I would always be able to advocate for him. I had hoped to ease her mind, but I don’t think it worked.

As long as my mother is living, and my brother too, there is nothing I can do to change their dynamic. The best thing I can do is remove myself as far as possible from the mix. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters, emails, standing in lines, filling out forms – all to help Andrew get better. But with this new year has come a new realization – I cannot do anything for him. I cannot repair anything, and I can’t change the way he lives or thinks, nor can I change the way my mother behaves or thinks. While I may think the short and easy answer is a little tough love from mom – if she cannot bring herself to do it, then it’s not an answer. I explained that she was ‘an enabler’, but judging from the look on her face, I wasn’t sure she’d gotten my meaning. When I suggested that she withhold payment of his electric bill until he agreed to see a counselor, she moaned in classic passive-aggressive tones “I know, I know. It’s all my fault. You’ve made that perfectly clear.” So around and around we went with no real meeting of the minds.

I had simply wanted to remove a burden from her load, but it had backfired. She was not thrilled when I posited a long life of continual, low-grade poverty for myself (sorry, but I don’t see any gleaming opportunities from where I stand today). Honestly, I’d love to have money, and if I did, I’d use it well and wisely, and I’d share it too – but if that never happens, I need to be happy with what I have. Lowering one’s expectations softens the blow of reality. Hell, even years ago – when I had all the money I needed – I’d often say ‘lower your standards and you’ll be happier with the results’. Cuz seriously, it’s so true! Because then, any good that comes your way is lovely and unexpected icing on the cake! Yeah, I prefer to avoid disappointment by moderating my expectations. Crazy? Meh.

As I’ve been writing this, coincidentally, I’ve been talking on the phone to a friend of mine back in Chicago who is enduring her own battle with addiction. She’s an alcoholic, and last night, on New Year’s Eve, she had decided she would admit herself to the rehab program at a local hospital. (Like me, she is, although intelligent and accomplished at many things, living in poverty. Sadly, Medicaid offers very few options for inpatient recovery addiction programs. To my great relief there was a good local hospital available to her.) My thoughts were partly on her last night – was she there yet? Was she trembling yet? How crappy did she feel? I had told my mother about her. “Why does she need to go back to rehab if she’s already been through it before?” my mother asked, honestly confused. I promised my mother that rehab was very, very hard. That it might take several tries before someone had the strength to follow through all the way. And that even then it was not a fail-proof solution.

And as I explained this to my mother, inside I came to a new, deeper understanding about Andrew. He needed to want it, to crave it, to be willing to fight for it – all on his own. If a professionally successful mother of three had a hard time mustering the focus and will it took to get clean, how on earth could my brother even begin? In that epiphany I was no longer convinced that recovery was an option for him. Certainly it would never happen as things were now. Later on my friend called me from intake. We chatted a bit, laughed a bit, and I felt hopeful for her. She too knows that this time it still might not take; that this is a harsh and unkind world, and it will be difficult to go it without a drink. Her road will be hard. But I’m so grateful that she’s at least back on the path. Not everyone gets as far as that.

New Year, new game. I can’t play that old one anymore. I’m letting go of Andrew and his burden, I’m going to move into my future with focus and fortitude. The YMCA approved my reduced membership fees, so I’ll get back on that path. Haven’t moved in a long time, so my body will appreciate it. I’ll devote to my new business the time it requires, and I’ll figure out how to improve those things that I’m currently doing my best to avoid. Sometimes it might seem pure folly to use some arbitrary mark on a calendar as a reason to undertake great changes, but hey, if not now, then when? This will be a good year for me and my son, I just kinda feel it. At least I’m reasonably hopeful that it will be. One never knows. Serendipity and unexpected blessings are just as crazy and unpredictable as the scary stuff. Truly, it’s a mixed bag, and you’ll never know until you go.

So like I said, I’m going forward into this New Year with guarded, modest and humble expectations. That way, the little successes along the way will appear huge and thrilling! Imagine how wonderful it will feel when happy, unplanned-for events fall into my path when all I meant to do was just get through the day! Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Elihu with tanI’ll tell ya what’s crazy… Dad talked Elihu into cutting his precious hair – which he’d been intentionally growing, with my support for a year now – all because the family was having professional photo portraits taken on the beach. My kid felt duped, and he’d held back tears. He was deeply sad when we spoke this afternoon, but he’s a good kid, and he accepted it without complaint. We’ll be back on the quest for long locks upon his return. Love my boy so deeply it hurts sometimes.