The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Hope Burning March 3, 2015

I’m trying to imagine how everything might look right now if I knew I were dying.

Tonight the moon is out, and from every window in my house I see a gentle, rural scene. Beyond my kitchen window to the north I can see a thinly wooded forest through which the moonlight passes, leaving slender shadows in the sparkling snow. To the right of that there is a deep swath of open yard which stretches up and over the rise; it’s defined at the far end by a stone wall and row of trees beyond which lies another large field. I can also see the lights from my neighbor’s homes in the distance, and it feels nice to know they’re not right upon us, but still, just close enough. I like knowing that. Through my living room window to the east I see the ridge of the horizon, and lights twinkle from the hills beyond the Hudson River. There are people living out there, under those twinkling lights, and I like knowing this, too.

It’s a modest house for sure, but it’s cozy, it’s comfortable, and I think that most of the people in this world would be happy to call this place home. For just a second or two I’m able to conjure the feeling that I’m looking at it for one of the very last times, and for however many times I’ve so deeply missed the homes I’ve lived in before this one, for however many times I’ve lamented ending up here, alone at the end of a long, country driveway – now, in this moment, this place feels like the most important place of my whole life. Tonight, this place is my only home. It’s where I want to be. And until recently, it’s where I’ve always felt safe from the world.

Less than an hour ago I heard that a friend, who’d discovered her breast cancer in what she’d thought to be its earliest stages, had learned through her recent surgery that it was worse than previously thought. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A diagnosis I’ve heard many, many times in the past decade of my life… It doesn’t always end the same way, but it’s a long, difficult road to travel no matter the severity of the disease, and I don’t envy those who’ve had no choice but to take up the charge. I’ve seen friends fight tenacious cancers, some triumphing after incredibly brave battles, some succumbing after equally courageous campaigns. And in the end, who in hell knows why some people make it, and some people don’t? No one, of course, deserves to get cancer. And no one deserves to die of it either. But when the patient is either the parent of a young family or a practitioner of the healing arts, it somehow seems all the more unacceptable.

Last night, Elihu and I had dinner with a neighbor, who brought up the subject of another town resident who was, although putting up a kick-ass fight, dealing with a lethal cancer. His mother had died of it, and he himself hadn’t even discovered it until it until quite recently – when it was already stage four. He was a relatively young guy, and with three young children he had a lot to live for, but still, it didn’t look good. Truthfully, it looked bad. But in spite of how imminent his death appeared, my heart lightened to hear a new tone in our hostess’s voice as she offered rather brightly that of course he still had a chance. (Funny how one latches on to hope – however small or unlikely it promises to manifest.) I myself had only learned of his diagnosis a few weeks back – after, I’d seen him in a local liquor store and given him some grief about his newly launched vodka business. He’d cited some local lore on his product label about which I questioned his firsthand experience. But he sure showed me; he’d known more about it than I’d thought he would, and even had the class to acquiesce about a point on which he may have put something of a romantic spin for the sake of salesmanship.

After my needless challenge of his new product line had concluded, he cheerfully asked after Elihu, remembering his charismatic performance at the Greenfield Elementary Talent Show a few years back. Our kids had ridden the bus together for a few years, and Elihu, whether this man knew it or not, had fairly idolized his namesake son. Maybe I should have told him? I wasn’t sure how relevant it was at this point. Just as well I didn’t go on…. In hindsight, I so wished I’d have stopped babbling sooner, and just played it a bit cooler. I had remembered to congratulate him on the new business, but still, I guess I just feel as if I’d been a bit foolish, a bit trivial spewing all that ridiculous banter to fill the space. I know it’s the common, everyday stuff that matters – it’s banter mostly that keeps the world turning – I just wish I’d been a little less enthusiastic in my pursuit of it. After all, there was some serious courage on display right in front of my eyes, and here I was chattering on as if it was a day like any other. Of course it was a day like any other – and when you’re sick, don’t you wish for your life to go one all around you as if it truly were business as usual? But then clearly, it is not just another day. A confusing mix of realities.

Both my parents have had cancer. My cousin’s been undergoing repeated rounds of chemo over the past several years in an effort to keep her colon cancer at bay. Our grandmother died of colon cancer. I myself, for the second time in as many years, have pre-cancerous polyps growing inside of me which need to be removed. The office gal at the gastroenterology group is nonplussed at my status; it’ll be months yet before I can even get in for a first appointment, much less get the things lopped off. “They’re slow growing” the gal on the other end of the phone tells me in a near monotone, the subtext being “We know what we’re doing. Don’t freak out here.” In past years it’s been another thing to tick of the to-do list, this year it’s something that begins to really frighten me. I mean, what if? What’s to say it shouldn’t be me too? There is no fucking justice in the assignment of disease. I am just as human as the dad down the road with the young family, or my friend and acupuncturist with the breast cancer. I am just as unsafe as they are from a surprise diagnosis. Nothing saved my old college beau from dying of Leukemia before he turned forty, or my dear musician friend dying from esophageal cancer shortly after that, or my old childhood pal passing from lung cancer before fifty. None of those jovial, loving and spirited young men deserved to go, nor did their loved ones deserve to lose them. From my earth-bound perspective these good souls deserved none of the shitty hands they were dealt.

In spite of the cheery demeanor that goes out before me in the world, I live my life in an ever-present, low-grade state of fear. And lately, I’m more keenly aware of just why. Making my way through life feels like I’m walking through a field of land mines. And now that I’m past that fifty mark, people in my life have begun to leave at an increasing rate. Right and left I hear stories, I learn that ‘so-and-so is gone’, or ‘didn’t I hear that she had only months to live?’ or ‘it was so sudden, and then he was gone’… It almost doesn’t shake me quite so much – at least not as much as it did say a couple of years ago. And also because many of my friends who have died have been out of my immediate, day-to-day world, their deaths have seemed somewhat unreal and distant. But the frightening reality of death has settled in all around me now, and I find that I’m even giving my eleven year old son simple directives should it be learned that I too have something possibly terminal. I’m not sure how comprehensive Medicaid is, but I am surely at its mercy. If a treatment isn’t covered, it isn’t going to happen. I feel a growing pressure to archive the work of my life, to get it organized clearly – so clearly that someone other than me could go through the mementos and understand their context and stories. I want my footprint to be tidy and identifiable, even if I know it will only eventually recede back into the rolling sea.

We passed a house today that I’ve always liked; it was a small cottage nestled into the side of a mountain, part of it was made of local stone, the rest a deep gray clapboard with white trim and tidy black shutters. Many were the daydreams I’d had about what life might look like if I myself lived there… Today I saw that it had recently suffered a fire. Gutted. It was black with soot, and dusted with the flurries that had started to fall again. I know most people’s first hope would have been that the residents got out safe. Somehow, I always take that as a given. Instead, my first thought is usually I hope they were able to save a few favorite things. But this time, after a moment’s more thought on the matter, I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t what I hoped for this time. This time I really did hope that they’d made it out safely, and hadn’t dawdled on account of the memento box.

My arthritic hands have started to make playing the piano painful; they’re beginning to twist in different directions and ache all day long. My vanity had already given up, but this new physical challenge of simply playing – of doing the only thing in the world that I’m truly qualified to do – is breaking my heart. It’s making me fear for the shape my fingers will be in ten years from now if they continue at this rate. But then, I remember my friends and what they face. And as with everything in life, when the road gets harder than you could have ever imagined in your worst dreams, the unimportant stuff somehow falls away. It’s not about living so much pain-free as it is about just plain living. It’s not so much about grabbing a box of mementos on the way out. It’s about steeling yourself, gathering your courage and getting the hell out of harm’s way.

Tonight I’ll be thinking of my friends – all of those who face deeply frightening health challenges at this time – and I’ll be sending them as much love as the airwaves can hold. I’m surprised to find I’m not quite out of hope yet, in fact I’m turning up the dial now, and I’m emitting as much hope out into the world as best I can… I pray they receive it, and like some sort of beacon, it will help them find their way out of the burning house in time…

 

Scare January 10, 2014

“What happened to your fingers?” one of the eighth grade girls asked me today as we stood chatting and waiting for the teacher to arrive. It was more than the uncensored nature of youth that allowed her to ask me without first editing her thoughts (or her surprised tone) – I’d spent some time with this class accompanying them at several performances, so by now they felt pretty familiar with me. While her question initially stopped me in my tracks (I kept my cool in spite of it), I appreciated the candor of her question, because it confirmed for me that it wasn’t all in my head… I’d known it was bad, or at least not good, for a while now. In fact I’d even heard slight gasps from my adult students in class last year when showing them the hands that had just demonstrated something intricate on the piano. There had been a slight pause in the room as people began to reconcile the music they’d just heard with the hands they now saw before them…

The nodes on the distal joints of my fingers can’t be ignored anymore – certainly not be me, nor by folks I meet for the first time. They are large, they are painful, they get stuck in between the black notes – and they are not getting any smaller. Just this past week I had a painful day of great sensitivity on the fourth finger of my left hand, and the next day there it was: a fresh, new node. A newly deposited growth of bone, I suppose, from what I’ve seen and researched online. Just about a year ago I’d gone to an orthopedic doc, before it had gotten terribly bad, and I was more than disappointed to hear him tell me there was basically nothing I could do about it. There were some drugs I might take, but they had a lot of potential side effects which probably weren’t worth it, he advised. I’d been prepared to hear something like this, but it was quite disappointing even still. I mean, come on. Everybody and his brother has arthritis and has for as long as we can remember – and I still have so few options? Seriously??

As a young adult I can remember looking at my mother’s hands and thinking that the distortion in her fingers was almost unbelievable. As if she certainly must have done something to have earned them. Knuckles don’t just blow up like that unprovoked, do they? Well, no matter who or what was responsible, a fate like this was certainly this poor woman’s cross to bear, but thank goodness, I’d think confidently to myself, that’s not my future. I’d even had such smug thoughts knowing damn well that while I do get my musical talent from my father, I look not a thing like him. No. Rather, I look like my mom. So here I am, at the start of my fifties and my own beloved hands are blowing up like those of an old peasant granny. For heaven’s sake. This is so not me! Come on guys! I beg my hands. I love you guys! I appreciate you guys! Why are you doing this? Why? I plead with them, even kissing them like a mother would her child. But onward they go, their shapes morphing almost as I watch; the minute, intermittent stabbing sensations and dull, hot pain confirming for me that things are, in this very minute, continuing to get worse. I’ve cut out wine. I’ve cut out acidic foods. Dairy. Salt. I read, I Google, try something else. I drink water. I try to think positively. But my fingers respond to nothing. My disease is progressing without my consent, and I am sad. Scared, too.

It’s a dull, ever-present sort of scared, it’s one I can live with. But there are other insidious types of fear that I find have been making headway into my life of late, and I don’t like it. I might be able to live with them too, but I sure as hell don’t want to. I may strike people as a strong woman – and some days I might agree – but I can feel that it’s becoming a bigger challenge these days to keep it together. Panic has resurfaced over the past year, chronic concerns over money feel even more real as my own aged years loom closer (and I have not a penny saved), and then of course there is always the concern for my son. His vision, his ability to participate as fully as he can in the world, and of late, I worry about his having contracted Lyme disease. We’ve begun his treatment, and docs assure me that in a young and vigorous kid like him, he’ll have no worries later on. It helps, but angry emails from his father telling me that I “need to take this seriously” as if somehow I do not, and telling me I might have been more vigilant when I in fact had been worried but hadn’t had him checked yet, this all makes it much worse. I don’t know how my ex still has such power to hurt and frighten me…. I summon my focus and I stand up to him. Right after, I beg my son in my heart to forgive me for not knowing, for not doing something sooner…

Tonight Elihu asked me to please stay and read to him. He said he was feeling ‘needy’. I hadn’t given him a lot of one-on-one time lately as I’d had too much life to deal with. Music to learn, house to clean, food to fix and such. Tonight, we agreed on a trade. If he’d let me just organize the mess in the kitchen – get it squared away just a bit – then I’d come in and read to him. I did, and shortly after I began to read we both started to drop off. I turned off the light and soon fell deeply asleep. The next thing I know Elihu is feeling for me in the dark and muttering something. He, like me, is a sleep-talker. He can even hold some conversations in this state, so at first I wasn’t concerned. But this was different. He reached out to me with outstretched arms, which I took for a hug, but he shook his head. “Machine” he said, pointing to his nebulizer. Can you imagine the shot of adrenaline that flashed through my body? I immediately got a packet of medicine, poured it in and gave him the mouthpiece. He looked drunk. After a few puffs he laid back down. I yelled his name and shook him – “Are you ok?” He waited for a moment, then nodded no. “This is different” he said through closed eyes.  “Do you need to go to the emergency room?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Yes, emergency room” he said, again his head drooping to the side. Holy fucking shit. White hot fear coursed through me and my heart began immediately to beat as if I’d run a race…. I thought back to a panic attack I’d experienced earlier that day. It was a close second, for sure, but man, these stakes were mind-bendingly high… I ran through the house, pulling on clothes, locating his rescue inhaler, my boots, keys, a blanket to wrap him in…. I came back and tried to tug a sweatshirt over his head, but he fell limply to the side. Holy shit, holy shit, keep moving… I was thankful that the ER was just about five miles away, and we could be there in less than ten minutes. Lucky…. “Elihu!” I yelled at him. “What?” he finally responded. Then a look overtook him, and he sat up, eyes fully open, as I tugged the sweatshirt down around his neck. “What are you doing, Mommy?” he asked. “We’re going to the hospital – to the emergency room! You said you needed to! Can you breathe now? Are you ok??” He shook his head and fell back down on the pillow. “No, I wasn’t waiting to go to the emergency room. I just wanted a more comfortable pillow.” He lifted his head up and I inserted the down pillow underneath him. He plopped back down onto it. “Honey, are you ok? He nodded. My heart was still pumping loudly, and I wasn’t convinced. But I realized that he was still deeply asleep, and that while he may have needed help with his breathing, it wasn’t as dire as his sleep-talking self had said. Oh my God, I kept thinking over and over again, the prospect of a life without my beloved son flashing uncontrollably, nauseatingly, through my mind. My God, I think, and I my face sinks into my hands. Holy shit.

For the most part, I’d say I’m a glass half-full gal. Might not always have been, but I am now. Only I’m not sure if I could remain so if I were to lose my son. For that matter, how will I feel about that glass when I can no longer play the piano? Many times I have thanked the universe for all that I’ve been blessed with. Even the unexpected divorce and all the unforseen events that followed. It’s all been one unpredictable adventure from which I’ve learned so much more than I ever would have otherwise. If I hadn’t once been scared shitless, I wouldn’t be here now. I remind myself that fear has its place. But truly, I don’t think I need any more. I’m good. I don’t want to have to find out if I do or do not have it in me to live through a tragedy. Please, universe, don’t try me. I’m good with things the way they are. And I aim to make things better, too. I aim to get my son tinted contacts this year. I aim to teach him how to ride a bike, to make dinner on his own. We still have so much more to do, I have so much more to teach him. Let’s just get through this night, please, I beg anyone who might be listening. My right index finger hurts, my head hurts. I am emotionally weak just thinking of yesterday’s new run-in with panic. I am scared. But I remind myself: I might be scared, but I am strong too. Posturing though it might be in this moment, as the adrenaline begins finally to subside, I challenge my fear. I tell it we’re done for the night. Running in to check on my son every few minutes as I write this middle-of-the-night post and finding him in a comfortable sleep, breathing nice, even and deep breaths, I begin to take back what power I can. I tell fear to leave us alone.

Soon I think I’ll get to bed myself. One more check on Elihu, one more set of good, deep breaths and I’ll lie down.Man, I sure could use a rest after all of this… And I’m pretty sure being brave may well require a good night’s sleep.

 

Sad Planet November 15, 2013

What a bittersweet and frustrating planet this is to live upon. Please know that I do realize I don’t by have it particularly hard by the greater standards of the world, yet in just the past few hours I’ve come to feel at the absolute end of my patience with this stupid place (or, if not out of patience, perhaps one might say ‘beyond disillusioned’ with this silly existence.) Just what the hell kind of joke is this world?? I’m done with trying to understand, trying to justify, trying to learn from it all. I’m fucking done. And the scary thing is, I have hardly begun the real adventure. I may not like the jowly face that stares back at me from reverse-camera skype images, I may not be able to casually drop a couple of dress sizes without much effort anymore, and simply tossing off situps or running a half mile may not be such mindlessly easy activities as I remember them to be…. But BAH! This sort of stuff is nothing! These things, however surprising or abhorrent they may have seemed to me at first, they don’t begin to approach the level of personal challenges that lay yet ahead. Losing one’s looks, yeah, that sucks. Losing one’s physical prowess, hard on the ego. But losing one’s parents – and then having it happen ever so slowly – I think that sucks a whole lot more. And experiencing it all with that quintessential, ‘keep-up-the-appearances-at-any-cost’ vibe of last century’s generation is just plain exhausting.

Things in our family changed tonight. I’ve been around for half a century, and during that time I’ve only seen my mother cry twice. Tonight was one of them. And I can’t even say she was crying really, but her eyes filled with moisture, and for the first time I can recall, I could actually feel a breach in her defenses. For just an instant I saw her, as a woman, as a wife, as a person about to be left terribly, irreversibly alone. It was the first time I’d seen any honest emotion in my mother in perhaps decades. Well, emotion other than outrage or anger (granted, she laughs sometimes too). As any student of spiritual life may recognize, anger (outrage being another manifestation of the same) is simply an expression of fear. While I myself had learned of that years ago, I don’t think it truly sank in for me until I came to live here, and was forced to re-examine my own personal habits and history in the wake of my ‘great life change’. I too had felt a good amount of rage at the world throughout my life – at my partner, at my circumstances, at many things – and had never thought twice about expressing it. In other words, I expressed myself just fine (and often loudly), and without much editing. And I never stopped to wonder at the origin of such rage. I guess it never struck me as something that needed any examination. Yeah, I’d read about it before, but until I put it into the context of my own personal experiences, I didn’t really get that rage came from fear. And being afraid is, well, understandable. This is one goddam scary place to live. Yeah, I can say that I sympathize with those who live in fear. In fact, I think you’d have to be fairly dull-witted not to be impressed with the opportunities we have here for some truly fearful situations. Having said that, I’m usually the first to be chill in the face of true stress; from surviving a broken neck as well as a handful of other life-heavy episodes, I’ve fared pretty well in the face of crap. Doesn’t mean I welcome any more of it though. And it sure doesn’t mean that I’m still not pretty goddam angry about things.

My mother too has never ruminated over the reasons for her emotions (that I know). Thankfully, the study of one’s own psyche and emotional world had become a practical and accepted life skill by my generation’s coming of age, but regrettably, my parents never had such tools on their side. Hardly. Instead, a stoic attitude, stiff upper lip and general disdain for everyone else kept a person moving successfully forward in life (glaring wounds and flagrant injustices be damned and ignored; keep your eyes looking ahead, pay no mind to the nasty reality…) And so, nearing her eighth decade here, my mother still does a yeoman’s job of keeping it all inside and pretending nothing’s wrong. That it’s all business as usual. (Btw way, I borrow ‘yeoman’ from my mother. A great word; her generation’s gift to me.) So I can’t blame her for any of this. Of the crazy, ‘it’ll be fine tomorrow’ kind of talk. It’s a strange new world now, because my mother still seems to me like the keeper of all answers, the ultimate knower-of-all-things, and in spite of more and more evidence that shows otherwise (in no way downplaying the immense amount of shit she really does know!), I just can’t seem to get it. She’s the sane one in the house, the one who keeps it together. The one who does things right (or as my ex would have half-joked she’s ‘white and right’), and she’s the one who lets everyone else know that she knows. Ok, so maybe she does that with a 1950’s vintage passive-aggressive sort of flair, but hey, at least everyone knows what’s up. Well, so that’s the way it’s been for the fifty years I’ve known her. But now, in quick, minute little steps, the relationship seems to be changing. The power dynamic is shifting, just a bit. It’s not that I need or want to be right, or on top of things, or taking charge, no. I don’t need more stuff. It’s challenge enough just trying to keep up with a simple life. But mom cannot do it all herself, and as I began to interject myself into the equation tonight, lifting dad off the floor, moving furniture to barricade him safely into his bed, I realized things had changed.

Tonight the situation just kinda forced our hands. When I arrived, dad was on his knees by the guest bed, too weak to sit, too weak to pull himself up. (That he had wandered into the guest bedroom and not his own presents a new level of concern.) My mother, bent over with arthritis, was not able to move him. My brother had thankfully arrived to assist, but by the time they’d been at it a while and I had gotten there, nothing was changed. Now I myself have very little core strength these days, but I was somehow able to lift dad and get him back onto the bed. From there I got him into a lying position, but he protested and for nearly an hour made efforts to sit back up – only with no ability to follow through and even walk across the room. I’m not sure how mom would have played it had I not arrived. She talked to dad tonight as if he were as well-reasoned as ever. In fact, he is markedly changed from even a few days ago. His talk was absolutely surreal, plus he was distressed, and even sometimes uncharacteristically angry, at being confined to his bed. Logic was of no gain; he had no understanding at all of where he was, or why he was there at all. He did still know us, and he did still formulate sentences, however this time, and for the first time, they began to more closely approximate mere gibberish. At one point I said “dad, what’s your favorite Scarlatti?” and without missing a beat he replied “D major”. Ah. Mom and I smiled at each other. I made a mental note to bring it up to speed again… maybe play it for him some time… Elihu and dad have had this made-up, Eastern European-sounding language in which the two speak for sometimes great lengths of time – they use gestures, crazy facial expressions and in general, sound quite plausible. And funny. I nodded at Elihu to give it a try as the four of us sat there in a dazed lull following an episode of moving dad from floor to bed. Elihu leaned in, and said something to dad. And wouldn’t ya know, dad gave it right back to him. All four of us laughed! It was the most remarkable thing – and such sweet relief to laugh like that! Elihu gave it another go, and we had another couple rounds of solid laughs. Dad couldn’t keep it going, but the thing was, he still got there. He still had that thing. Dad has always had a talent for impressions, for quirky, off-the-beaten-path humor. And in spite of how much of his life is lost to him, a spark of this remains burning. Hope, in one tiny form.

We managed to get dad lying down, tucked tightly into his covers, and I enforced the side of the bed with antique ladder backed chairs and a large hope chest. We fed him some of that crappy, over-sweet nutritional drink that old folks use to keep up their calorie intake, then we gave him half of a sleeping pill. As I sat with mom on the bed I began to pick up on a change in her spirit. I sensed the faintest beginnings of defeat. So I put my arm around her – something that just never happens in this house – and felt that it might have helped a little bit. Not a lot though. There’s just too much heartbreak here to make much of a dent in. But I told her I loved her, and that I had no idea how hard this was for her. Elihu leaned in to kiss grandpa and tell him how much he loved him. And my father, for as feeble and absent as he’s become, he simply beamed at his grandson. His eyes sparkled, and he told Elihu how very much he loved him too. This, I thought, is the happy ending. No matter what may happen, this is it.

As we were walking through the garage to our car I heard Elihu sniffling. And then I realized he was crying. Really crying. I didn’t offer a hug, or contact of any kind; it just didn’t seem the time. He needed some space to digest what was happening. Man, it just didn’t seem fair. He’s a young kid, and his grandpa such an old man. I really wish they’d had more time together. Crap. When we got in the car I said “well, you’ve had ten wonderful years together. We can be thankful for that.” We rode home in silence.

Had a nice supper, enjoyed some laughs, and we spent a moment just sitting on the couch, arms around each other, saying nothing. Mom called to say that dad had fallen right out with the sleeping pill. Mom’s life has always been fueled by agendas, by plans, goals… and now she finds herself zapped of her usual purpose and forward momentum. I can hear a shift in her voice. She sounds smaller somehow. Like she’s finally giving in. I hear it, and I wish I could just tell her that she doesn’t need to give up or give in – she just needs to surrender some things…. and other things will fill those places one day. I want to tell her this, but of course, I don’t. But I do tell her that I love her, and that I’ll call her in the morning.

I find relief in knowing that my son’s asleep now, and so is my father. But like me, I’m guessing my mother is still up late, not quite knowing what it is she should be doing. Feeling loose in the world, alone, the line to her anchor being cut away one thread at a time while she looks on, helpless…. Like me, I’ll bet she’s thinking this is all one great big let-down. All of this life, and then this is the crappy way it has to end? But she’ll put on a good show of it come morning, I know. And she’ll keep it up for a while longer yet. And me, I’ll make the best of it too. I’ll play this game as well as I’m able, and I’ll make an effort to keep humor and love alive in my small world. For the most part I think I’ll go with the half-full attitude. But for the moment, I can honestly say that I’m not thrilled to be here at all.

Tonight, this seems like a very sad planet indeed.

 

Old Monkey January 6, 2013

There’s been some sort of change in my mind and body lately. I don’t like it; it’s familiar, it’s been part of my life for over thirty years and I’ve been lucky to have lived without it for the past decade. But it’s come knocking again. Haven’t opened the door to let it in, but I know that it’s sitting there, waiting. Shit. I honestly never thought it would come back. Damn. Really? Ok. Gotta face it head on…

If anyone ever tells you they “think they’ve had a panic attack”, then they most certainly have not had one. There are people who use the words ‘panic attack’ in a very casual and cavalier way. That can sometimes really piss me off. Because panic attacks can rule, run and ruin your life. They aren’t just some hormonally-related hissy fit brought on by something mildly upsetting… No, a real, honest-to-goodness panic attack is a nasty thing. A horrifying experience. An experience of pure fear which, once it’s gotten into your system, can take years and years to get rid of.

With all our social connection these days, it’s not difficult to find people sharing their own experiences with panic attacks. But it wasn’t always so. Mine first came on in high school, and I can tell you firsthand that the psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors provided to me had not the least understanding of what I was experiencing. Now, it is different. But no matter whether panic attacks have been officially diagnosed or not, it hardly makes a goddam difference. Once they worm their way in, they are insidious and threaten to weaken the strongest resolve to keep them away.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this during my life, and I have some notes to offer. But before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge that sometimes talking or even just reading about panic attacks can be very frightening in of itself to those who live – or have lived – with them. Doing so brings them back into your awareness, creating the possibility in your thoughts that they may reoccur. If you do personally know about this topic and feel some trepidation, I encourage you to come along with me in spite of the risk, because I mean to demystify this phenomenon and hopefully loosen its grip on us.

First, as I just said, if you think that you might know what a panic attack is, then honestly, you probably don’t. And second, speaking of this phenomenon as if it were one or two isolated ‘attacks’ is not at all accurate. Instead, there is a constant state in which the patient lives during which panic may descend at nearly any time. It’s this unpredictability which really makes the situation much worse. Sure, you might have identified some triggers, and you’ve developed some strategies to ride out the most intense moments of panic, but even being this self-aware is no defense against them. After three decades of having on-again, off-again panic attacks I have come to see some trends, which helps, but unfortunately there is a mystical element to these fits of horror that for the most part defies methodical inquiry.

One thing I know is that ultimately, panic first enters into someone’s life when there is some sort of threshold of stress reached; a divorce in the family, peer pressure, lack of self worth, getting too far behind in school or work…. And really, what all of that translates to is that you have lost control over things in your life… I think that feeling as if you have no control over your own life – whether consciously or unconsciously – is the soil from which panic attacks grow.

So, you’ve got this environment or event which ramps up your stress to a critical level, and then one day, some silly, seemingly unrelated thing  (loud noises, chaotic surroundings, all eyes on you, etc.) will trigger it and BOOM! You’ve had your first panic episode. Your heart is most likely beating as if you’re running top speed, your palms are cold and wet, and you are fucking scared. I mean really fucking scared. You know it’s just you, you know there’s no good reason for it, but you’re locked tight inside your private, hellish experience and you can’t begin to convey what’s going on… Plus of course you’re trying hard to hide it, oh and that’s just making it all so much more frightening… So that’s a panic attack in a nutshell. Stress drives it, then it becomes physical. It defies logic and therefore seems impossible to stop.

But there have been a few critical times in my life when they did stop. Cold. One was a situation in which I really couldn’t screw around; somehow my inner psyche overrode the panic and disabled it for a while. I’d broken my neck and was told I might not walk again if I didn’t lie there perfectly still. Ok. That’s some serious news. I felt a little pre-panicky in the beginning as I lay there pinned to the bed, but I noticed the feelings dissipated soon after. Kinda seemed like panic attacks knew they weren’t really out to paralyze me in earnest. So they took a back seat for a while. Thought that was interesting.

I also didn’t experience panic attacks during the busiest, most enjoyable time of my life as a working musician in Chicago. And I think it’s because my life was truly mine, I made my own creative choices, I was expressing myself, I was living in freedom, unhampered by rules and restrictions – and also feeling very much in control of my destiny. (Ha!)

And as a mother and soon after the owner of a nightclub, I was just too busy for panic. And  I was enjoying a good amount of control over my immediate environment. No problem there. But how about when my husband asked for a divorce? That might seem just the perfect time for some good old-fashioned panic attacks, right? But not for me – cuz the real life shit was hitting the fan and I had a child to take care of – I had to take care of bidness for real. Again, the panic attacks politely deferred for a bit as it seemed I had much more pressing things to attend to. So I did the things I had to, and eventually, the dust settled…

So here I am. Couple years down the line. Not really digging the older version of myself that I see in the mirror, certainly not digging that I’ve let myself add on an extra 30 pounds, and as I stand back and look around, I realize that my life is really quiet. In the past it was the chaos, coupled with a loss of control that zapped me with panic. I think the pre-panic cocktail is a bit different these days… the physical sensations are familiar, but they’re not brought on by chaos and confusions these days…. Rather what gives me a chilling, pre-panicky sensation is the awareness of a vast, unending emptiness that seems to stretch out before me… Yes, I’m feeling that familiar, almost out of body sort of buzzing energy – I reach to touch something, but it doesn’t feel like I’m in my arm… it’s someone else’s… oh, I remember this part… Why is this happening now? I ask myself. Then I sit to think in earnest. Think. What’s the same this time? And – just what is different?

Got it. What’s the same as previous episodes? Loss of control (weight gain, aging, arthritis getting worse in hands) and the sense of falling behind (I have no friends here, not creating these days, not keeping up with the world outside). So now, what is exactly different than before? There’s no chaos around me to trigger me into a panic, but rather… there’s so much of… nothing. So much quiet. So much space, so much time alone. This is the new stressor. Can you imagine? Finally alone with myself and I am driven to panic. ! Come on, Elizabeth, that ain’t right. You’re no dummie, you know there are a couple of things you can do. Yeah, you’ve had Yoga on your list, and yeah, it’ll help, but for now we’ve got an emergency situation – it’s time to get proactive about my panic.

So I sit on the couch facing one tall, straight pine tree down the hill. I align myself with the tree and begin to ground myself, imagining roots going down, down… breathing in through the top of my head, washing all the chatter aside with simple, specific tasks…. “I breathe in abundance, I breathe out peace..” I don’t plan the words, they just seemed the right ones. I continue this for several minutes. Yes, I notice that I feel better. I’m more in my body now. In fact, this is comforting. I knew it would be. Stop thinking, Elizabeth, keep doing that abundance peace thing… I bring my wandering mind back more than a few times, til I feel it again. Not the way I have in years past, but it’s there. Just enough of it to remind myself that it is all ok. In spite of how goddam scary this world seems to me, yes, it is ok. I am supported. Breathe in, and out….

It’s a lonely thing to have panic attacks. You can’t just tell anyone, and you can’t explain them, because even you yourself know they’re unreasonable. I once sat on my bed, my mom right beside me, and I physically felt as if I were free-falling down an elevator shaft. I mean literally, that’s the feeling I had in my body. I was almost surprised that my hair wasn’t being blown back, it was that convincing. And there wasn’t a thing she could do calm me. I was in a private universe of my own. Yeah, it’s really not possible to explain what it’s like. And there are many different sorts of symptoms too. Suffice to say, there’s no logic, but the experience is nonetheless terrifying and real for that person.

So, loss of control sets the stage. My advice? Try not to take things too seriously. Know that a better situation awaits you. And if you’re in the middle of panic – ride it out, keep moving – walk around – and don’t be shy about telling people. (Sometimes I worry that will make it worse – but it almost always helps. Remember, panic attacks are made worse by your having to hide them!) And if you can, when you’re still in that ‘pre’ panic mode, try doing what I did. Not sure if it would have worked for me ten years ago, but today it took the edge off. Sit still. Just give your attention to breathing in and breathing out. Try to turn down the chatter in your brain. Don’t make it about doing it any one way – the goal is to quiet your mind, to find peace, to come home.

I’m not saying that I’ve got this figured out. Seems my new personal challenge will be about learning to live in stillness, cuz that’s making me nervous. I’m in the right place. Got country all around and cute little birds at my window to keep it real and give me a laugh when I feel the fear trying to sneak up behind me… I mean to meet my new fear and transform it. Can you imagine? Getting panic attacks from, well, nothingness? First the chaos of the city overwhelmed me, now the peace of the countryside is doing the same. Interesting to say the least.

Thankfully, I know I’m not alone in my handicap:

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”    Blaise Pascal

My main efforts – and self-prescribed remedy for panic attacks these days – will be to work on being still. And quiet. Might not be easy. Will let you know my progress. This monkey is persistent, I hope I can persuade her to sit quietly beside me…

 

Election Addendum November 10, 2012

Seems an ancient topic only three days after the event, but some thoughts linger in my mind which I’ll express here now, before life swiftly sweeps us into the future and these musings hardly warrant a read-though…

On election night I’d gone to bed shortly after Elihu. I know that the only time I have to myself is after he’s asleep – but I can never last that long to enjoy the window. And that particular night I had a heavy, waiting heart, so going to bed seemed the gentlest and best thing to do. However, I awoke with a start at 11:36 and realized that we’d probably chosen a new president by now, that the waiting was likely over – so I turned on the TV. It had already been on the comedy channel – and so it was through a characteristically heavy-handed bit by my beloved Mr. Colbert that I learned the breaking news. What a lovely way to awaken from my nap… I was relieved, quietly thrilled, and I was laughing. Thank you, Stephen.

While I might have gone directly back to bed to enjoy a sound sleep, I simply could not. I had to stick around and hear from the men themselves. So I did the dishes, I tidied the kitchen, arranged things for the next morning’s breakfast and packed lunches to pass the final hours. I heard Mitt speak first. And was I thrown – for the first time, I could hear the humanity in his voice. Relieved of the campaign, he was, I believe, finally able to represent himself as a person. As he thanked his family, friends and team members I heard genuine gratitude. I was riveted; who was this guy? First I’d seen of him! It wouldn’t have changed my vote – fundamental principals remained – yet it warmed my heart to see him let down a little. I actually liked him in that moment. He was behaving like a real person. ! At the risk of appearing a bit naive and sentimental here, I believe that when he thanked his family, he was speaking from a place of real love, and that is always transformative; it is inherently honest. So now he can go spend some quality time with his five sons and their families (it’s Mrs. R who’s the unsung hero here, I think). Good. Let’s move on.

The following day I heard a few passive-aggressive comments from people whom I took to be Romney supporters. Only long after the moments were gone did I think that maybe it might have been a more powerful choice to call out the elephant in the room – and maybe even have a short, civil chat about the beast. I understand that there’s some steam to be let off from the folks whose candidate lost, but do I need to pretend that I didn’t hear the almost, but not quite under-their-breath remarks on the subject? Am I supposed to – as I did several times – merely chuckle politely and just sort of ‘oh well’ it away? Won’t do so if another such situation arises, but I doubt that it will. It hardly seems there was an election. From a churning ocean to a still pond. Crazy.

Reiterating my sentiment from the previous post, I say again that as humans we all share a few basic goals in life, regardless of race, economic status or gender. I hope that this simple reality might one day bring a certain peace – and balance of representation – between all political parties (and I do mean all; the ballot shows us we have more options than an appetizer menu, but it’s still for all intents and purposes a two-party show). I’d hoped that in the meantime we could treat each other with respect and civility, but it doesn’t look likely. While it’s certainly human to feel anger and disappointment – the way in which you express that is governed by your personal self-control and sense of decency. So far, I’ve only seen rage expressed by Mitt fans. I’ve heard a lot about Obama signs being defaced or stolen (both through the media and in my own neighborhood) – but I have not once heard the same about a Romney sign. I’ve been mulling over this phenomenon, trying to get at the root of the reason, and I’ve arrived at this thought: I feel that this is symptomatic of a larger issue that seems to belong to the Republican mindset: fear. Anger may be the symptom, but fear is its first form. Fear and anger bear some nasty fruit. But where does this fear come from? It grows in an environment absent of love (as well as the tolerance that love engenders). Taking someone’s Obama sign off their front lawn is not an act born of love, ya know? You gotta be pretty angry to go and make that happen. Please understand that I by no means think that all Republicans are fear-based vandalizers – (some of my oldest and dearest friends are Republicans!) however I have never heard of equally hate-inspired acts attributed to Democrats.

To many it may seem simplistic, but I believe that the last vestiges of fear (control, hoard, distrust of others, keep to self, save self and those like me) are living under the wing of the Republican party. I also believe the party represents a mindset that will one day in the not-too-distant future become obsolete. This world cannot thrive and grow into a healthy future with fear-based groups controlling her populations. We see this changing in dramatic ways all over the globe, and while it’s perhaps not as overtly apparent here in the US, we too are morhping slowly into a new culture of love and understanding. Our interconnectedness, our diversity, our shared economically-challenged realities – and our brotherly love for each other as fellow citizens of one planet – these things have finally gotten their foothold in our modern world, and we have begun our journey up and out of the mess we’ve made.