The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Edge January 15, 2014

I’m holding on, doing what’s expected of me and trying my best to keep it together. Must admit, these past two weeks have been brutal for me. On the outside I’m sure it doesn’t seem as if much has changed. I’m trying to be as professional as I can about my obligations, but inside my mind is misbehaving. Panic is ever looming, and not a rational thought in the world can dissuade it from taking hold. I breathe, I try to distract myself, but I know the deal. There’s no talking to a panic attack. The only thing to do is either cease the activity that’s causing it, or, as I have recently discovered, medicate it.

A friend had suggested I try Xanax after my brief but uncomfortable experience on Sertraline. She assured me that it did not interfere with one’s ability to work, and it didn’t make one high either. Sounded good, but I’m usually a bit afraid of drugs, and I don’t have time to mess around with any more nasty outcomes. After doing a bit of Googling on the drug I arrived at the conclusion that it might well be my only option at present. I was given a gift of several small doses, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most heaven-sent relief I have ever known in my thirty-plus year history with panic attacks. I can’t help but wonder how different things would have been if only I’d known before. My college years were hellish on account of panic… But my present no longer has to be. Finally I can look forward without the nauseating sense of dread that’s been with me that past several months.

I’m not quite there yet. I’m seeing my primary doc next week for my annual checkup, and hopefully she’ll agree to write me a script. I wrote her a letter today, explaining my situation in hopes that it’ll prep her before we meet. I have a few doses to help me ride out the coming week, but I don’t feel I’m out of the woods yet. I won’t be able to fully relax until my doc can agree to help. It won’t be a lasting situation; I just need some assistance getting through this chapter. Yoga and walking might help, so too might eating extra healthy, cutting out alcohol and caffeine, but they’re not doing the trick in and of themselves. It’s time to take more action still, because living on the edge of panic is exhausting, and these days I’m already tired enough.

 

Control January 12, 2014

Yesterday the weather was misty, white and damp. The trees seemed to be floating in the sea of melting snow, and the lines of the garage appeared smudged and indefinite from our windows. When Elihu went out to shut in the chickens last night he said the air smelled like summer. At a balmy 48 degrees it was decidedly more spring-like than the below zero temps we’d just experienced a few days earlier. Even so, the driveway was still one big sheet of ice and the rain continued to fall all day, so we stayed inside.

My life has been rather consumed by outside events lately, and I’ve been going, going, going, with no time to stop and just breathe. Up until dad died my time had been all about the wait, right after his death it was all about the details, and getting through it. Shortly after that my son returned home, then school began and with it new music, new classes, new schedule. Apparently, it’s been getting a bit too much for my system, as the recent return of panic attacks has pointed out. On Friday I had a roaring, unrelenting headache and was worried about another episode of panic hitting me while at the piano during afternoon classes, so at lunchtime I confided in Elihu’s teacher my situation. She encouraged me to take a sick day. Really? The thought had never occurred to me. I mean, if I don’t show, there’s no music. The class is different, the teacher’s lesson plan is screwed up. I don’t want to do that to anyone. Personally, I gotta be deathbed sick not to come in. Or do I? I was feeling horrible enough. The idea of staving off a looming episode of panic was in of itself creating more of the same, and that headache was just about enough to make me throw up. Maybe I could wave the white flag just once. I went to my car and called the high school. Told em how lousy I was feeling, and that was it. I cast the possible consequences out of my mind. And wow, I felt better. So much better. I’d taken the reins and pulled the cart over for a short rest, and it looked like things were still going to be ok.

Elihu and I spent yesterday in our pajamas – we even managed to go next door to visit with mom without ever having to get dressed – and we went to bed in the same. Yesterday we just needed a moment. Even played hooky from his 4H group. It was just too much. Between his asthma and my panic, we were a little beat. I’m usually strongly motivated by doing what I should, doing what’s right and polite. But yesterday I let us both off the hook. I felt a little bad about the 4H thing, especially as Martha’s sponsored his membership, but our own mental and physical health superseded all of that. And although we spend the day in our bedclothes, it was certainly not an idle day, not by far. Because we cleaned house.

Contributing in part to my ill-ease these days has been just knowing that my house is, well, filthy. Absolutely filthy. Messy, ich, maybe a little. Systems needed tending; the cabinets, pantry and kitchen drawers were getting to be tangled, tossed-about snarls of stuff, but that was just a matter of putting like with like. That I can do (although it still requires time, that most valuable commodity of all), but it’s the cleaning that I find so daunting. As in wiping cabinet fronts, dusting the tops of shelves, sweeping the cobwebs off of the ceilings, and of course, dealing with the floor. I think back to those blessed days in Evanston when I’d had dear Marianna come in two whole days a month to help me keep my house in top shape. Even then, I’d work by her side as she cleaned; keeping a house in clean, working order takes many unseen hours of manpower. I know damn well that I could not have kept that house without her help. Yes, my current house is much, much smaller, yet it’s still no small task to see to its care. The past month or more it had just been too much. So yesterday was the day to take it on.

I’ve just woken up and have begun to assess my progress from yesterday. Sitting in my chair right now, listening to the basement sump pumps kick in every so often as their chambers fill with snow melt, I feel relief. While I may not have washed the kitchen floor (on the docket for today) I did manage to vacuum the whole place, and dust too. It feels better to sit here and look about me. Elihu, bless his ten-year old soul, organized and tidied the pantry, and I set other little corners in order. The kid even straightened out his room and it looked just as good as if I’d done it myself. We’d been a happy mood last night as we dined on artichokes and grass-fed beef burgers grilled outside on the rainy porch. I enjoy my son’s company so very much, and am increasingly grateful for his presence as he shows himself to be not only an able-bodied young person, but one who is earnestly cheerful and enthusiastic about doing his share. He derives a good bit of pride in helping to make his surroundings attractive. I think it helps to make him a healthy, balanced young man. It certainly helps me! To have a child that wants to help, that asks what he can do to help me… I’m probably luckier than I realize. (Not holding my breath, I realize we still have those teen years ahead.) So it lifted my heart a great deal  – and my burden as well – to accept the capable assistance of my wonderful son. And sharing a few lovely meals together was the perfect complement to our refreshed home.

In an attempt to take the bull by the horns and stop this panic thing in its tracks before it got worse, I’d recently asked my doc about going on antidepressants again. I’d taken them five years ago, when we moved here, in order to navigate the transition from my old life to this unfamiliar one. I guess they’d done what they were supposed to, because somehow, we got here. When they’d served their purpose I stopped taking them. That process, as I recall, was not without its unpleasantness. And so too, apparently, is the process of getting back on the drug. I took Sertraline for four days when I realized this was not the same experience as before. The last situation had been far different, after all. If for no other reason than the sheer amount of gin I had been drinking to get through. ! I’m not keen on admitting it (nor the Marlboro reds smoked at 4 am, but hey, it was a very tough time) but I do so in order to illustrate a point: finding the right drug – or the right solution to a medical problem – is not always as easy as one might hope. Lots of factors affect your reaction to a drug. In my last case I was already a bit impaired because of the alcohol, so my body was physically in a different place. Who knows the rest of the physiology. Back then I was acutely upset, and my distress these days is of a different nature. All of this must come into play, I’m sure. And – I would like to emphasize this clearly – it’s critical that one listen to and heed the wisdom and guidance that comes from inside. If it doesn’t sit right with you, pay attention to that feeling – take that tiny hunch and magnify it ten times! While I realized that the benefit of the drug might still have been a week or more away, I could see the process wasn’t worth it. In fact, it actually made my panic worse. Gave me sweaty hands, a headache, and in spite of prescription sleeping pills, it gave me insomnia. I felt as if I was in a tube, getting farther and farther away from my surroundings. In an attempt to gain control of my very life, I was, ironically, losing control. And loss of control is a founding component of panic attacks. Yeah, I was going to have to figure this out myself. Disappointing at first, but empowering when I thought about it from the standpoint of control. I wanted to be the one driving if I was able.

The morning that I decided to chuck my meds I also decided to go downstairs and see if I couldn’t get the treadmill working again. After fiddling around with the fuse and the starter I got it to move again, so then logged forty-five minutes of a brisk walk before I got to my day. That felt good. What a hopeful start. The tiny voice inside – like the spec in ‘Horton Hears A Who’ – had shouted to me that I must move. Throwing some endorphins in the mix might even help with my panic attacks. No doubt, my body needed action. While making breakfast and getting lunches ready for school I’d been watching the relentless barrage of early morning paid-for tv spots that advertised workout routines for transforming one’s body… so the January push to get back into healthy living was underway. I didn’t need to buy a ten dvd set. I had all I needed. Lucky me. One more time, here I go…

I don’t necessarily believe that my struggle with panic is over, but I can see a bit of relief ahead. The important thing for me, I think, is that I’m going to do this myself. I have begun to take back a little control. Whether it’s subduing the clutter in my home, attacking the floors with a thorough vacuuming or getting on the treadmill for a half hour’s walk, it’s taking control – taking action – that helps move me towards my goal. There is one thing that still looms large and uncontrollable above all, and that’s going to be the biggest challenge for me: coming to terms with my father’s death. I do think his passing has contributed to my panic. His departure from this world is permanent, and on some level that idea to me is flat-out terrifying. It’s more than I can bear some moments. But I need to come to peace with it somehow. That’s going to be another issue before me in the coming months as I try to regain control as I’m able, and maybe more importantly, relinquish those things over which I can never be in control. Tricky balancing act, but it’s a challenge every single one of us is working on each day.

I’m stuck here on this silly planet for the time being, so I may as well do my best while I’m here. It’s so easy to want to give in, to throw in the towel, to not fucking care anymore. Life sure can press in on you. The thing is, sometimes you just gotta reclaim what control you can and press right back.

 

System Failure March 6, 2013

After months and months of phone calls, emails, forms and faxes, today was the day. It’s been a veritable part-time job. Making call after call, inquiry after inquiry, figuring out my way through the maze turn by turn as I searched for a legal way in which to intercede on behalf of my brother. A dry drunk no longer, he threatens more than his own life as he drives home each day from helping Martha with her nightly routine. Finally, in what feels to me like the eleventh hour, Andrew managed (with the help of the only friend he has in town) to get himself to the local mental health facility at the hospital for an appointment that I’d set up for him (he thinks our mother did it. If he knew I did, he certainly would not have gone). In spite of being the one person who made today possible – in spite of my being his only proactive advocate – I cannot be given an update. Legally, as a protective measure (how this protects me or Elihu when Andrew flies into a violent rage or prevents him from taking someone out as he drives drunk along a country road is beyond me) I cannot be told a thing. Yeah, I knew to expect that. I get it. So then I call the hospital. I hope to find his name in patient information. But no. He has not been admitted. Shit, shit, shit. My spirits sink to my shoes to learn it. Now what?

I understand that he’ll go back next week for another meeting with this woman. I’ve spoken to this counselor myself, I’ve given her some background, and for all the many people I’ve met throughout my life in the mental health field, I like her more than many. At least I got a good impression. The feeling that she understood the futility of the system; how it got in its own way, preventing the very help it was established to provide. Yeah, I had a pretty good amount of hope in my heart this morning. But now, it’s just gone. How the hell can a depressed drunk get better when faced with a filthy house, no income to speak of, no friends and daily access to a full liquor cabinet? I don’t think it’s possible. At least not for my brother. As self-determined as he can be, this is one thing that I don’t see him doing for himself. The last time he sobered up, it was under peril of possibly never having his driver’s license returned to him. And the next time it happens? He will never drive again. And more than likely, he’ll be locked up. No joking.

I have a feeling he’ll make an attempt to cool it. At least before he drives. But he can’t sustain it. No way. He lives in absolute filth (think the worst episode of the cable show “Hoarders”). He has no reason to live. Really. He is chronically depressed, blames the whole goddam world for his misfortune and just jumps at the chance to corner someone and talk their ear off about the whole mess. I know he’s my only sibling, he’s my brother, I love him and shouldn’t talk like this, but right now he hasn’t got a whole lot of reason to be here on the planet. He could, but right now he doesn’t. And reaching him will take finesse. I sure hope he comes to like and trust this counselor and finds himself on the start of an upward path. Goddam it! I wish I could help, but I’m nearly as stuck as I was at the start of this whole thing.

Mental illness is a fucking hard issue to tackle in this day and age. The laws bind your hands to help, and for as hip and understanding a culture as we think we are, the stigma continues to exist. The field of mental health is not sexy. One look at the waiting rooms in just about any mental health facility will confirm for you that this is not a money-maker for the health care industry. And we all know it’s a business. Don’t we now?

Sometimes the system absolutely sucks.

 

Second Act September 17, 2012

“Bankruptcy is not a dirty word” is followed by an image of a Staples-esque ‘easy’ button… “Considering Divorce?” is followed by a graphic of two browning, crispy roses shedding their petals… Been looking online for a local attorney to help me create a will – not that there’s anything except a few killer gowns and a handful of vintage keyboards to pass on – as I was reminded once again by my primary doc recently at my annual one-stop-shop-git-it-all-done visit that I really should, as a 49 year-old single mother, have a will in place. Yeah, made sense. After all I’d come to my doc’s to demystify my physical world, to break it down, to learn the things I must watch over more closely as I neared the half-century mark. To create the most personally important to-do list ever and to put it into action.  And if she had a sidebar tip about end-of-life planning, why not. Hey, it was a small personal success that I finally knew my cholesterol numbers, so I was ripe for more forward strides.  When she said the bit about the will, I immediately whipped out my date planner and wrote it down in the never-ending list. At least it was finally written down. A physical manifestation of my intention. A good start. It still must make its way into action, and that is why I find myself tonite, after having watched Oliver! with Elihu and finally putting him to bed, searching for attorneys to help me craft said last will and testament. Maybe not the best way to shop. But hey. It’s a start. And besides, I feel the need for an internet nightcap.

My shopping for an attorney reaches its conclusion, so I set sail for a little fun… I begin to torment myself, searching for “then and now” images of actors and musicians (as initially inspired this evening by me and my son wanting to learn more about the kids in the production we’d just seen.) Interesting indeed, heartbreaking too. I hardly remembered the chap’s name, but I can tell you that as an eight year old girl I felt the first, faintest tingles of sexual excitement watching Jack Wild on his crazy, high-70s adventures of HRPufnstuf. It was good that I finally saw him as Artful Dodger – else the poor man would had died with me only knowing the fluff that followed. I see he played football – but let’s just call it soccer – with Phil Collins, whose mom was a talent scout. Ok. I’m stuck at the idea of little Phil and even littler Jack playing soccer…I begin to imagine it… the future pop icon’s soccer mom says “Philip, sweetie, can you bring Jackie over here for a minute? His Mum and I need to speak with him about something…” Oh yeah, and that Jack Wild is even dead – that was sure news to me. You too? Just wait til ya Google him and see him looking like, to quote my son,” a ninety year old lady”. He had oral cancer, and it must have helped to shape his face in the final years. As I study the changes – the ones I hope so dearly people will overlook in me – I note how even the subtlest shifts result in a remarkably changed countenance. Tiny increments can result in a big transformation. Yikes.

I admit it; every so often I check up on folks to see how they’re aging. Lately – as in the past six months or so – I find myself thinking about aging a lot. I don’t mean this with any false modesty; I know that I don’t look bad for my age. I feel relief that I don’t – cuz in my younger years I fairly begged age to make an early home with me, indulging in hours on end of baby-oil sunbaths while sucking down Marlboros and hydrating myself with alcohol… Although that was several decades back, and it hardly seems like it should still count, I’ve heard the damage lasts. I dismiss that thought however with visions of regularly scheduled yoga classes, daily aerobic activity, disciplined portion control, and a robust daily intake of water. In this future life I also see daily meditation, an orderly, systematic approach to household chores, more delegation of such to my able-bodied son too. Oh, what a bright life this will be. This life that I will start just as soon as my house is clean and tiday. What’s that? Oh yes, my house is clean and tidy. Well then, just as soon as we get Elihu’s new violin and get him started on lessons. Then I’ll set out to get going on it all… Oh, but then there might be a day job… And I can’t possibly start drinking all that water if I have to sit at a piano all day, can I? And yoga – I can’t go because it’s too late and Elihu would need a sitter!

All joking aside, whether the hitches are mild or severe, there truly are some blips in the road that seem to make my ‘new lifestyle’ a little less than practical. I was able to do the yoga thing for a while a couple of years ago, but it just got too expensive. So I’m hoping with the little extra cash from playing piano for Waldorf, I can afford them again. But when? If not working, then it’s mom duty. No subs for mom. Grandma has to tend to Grandpa. No budget for babysitter. See? Taking action can be tricky. Still, there must be a way to live well. More research will be needed on this one.

And this aging thing – I just can’t lie down and let it take me without a fight. But that’s essentially what I’m doing. I think I’ve got a pretty healthy mental/spiritual/emotional thing goin on, and I do believe that helps to mitigate the signs of aging (cosmetic or otherwise)… but the physical part of the equation has me a little worried. Just tonite, after sitting for an hour to watch Oliver! and then getting up and trying to walk down the hill to the compost pile – OY! did I feel like a little old lady. Sheesh! Hand on my lower back, unable to stand up straight… A real mess, and just because I sat ‘wrong’ for too long. Yeeps. Now that feels old. My core muscles were hardly able to help. I slipped from right to left, each side taking the shortest turn possible in keeping me erect. I can honestly say it was kinda scary. Cuz I can tell you, just one short year ago my body never felt like that. I haven’t been using it much, and well, we all know what happens ‘when you don’t use it…’

I once found and contacted Jaye P. Morgan’s most recent producer and was this close to getting an interview with her for my radio show. This was a good ten years ago now, and back then the woman must have been in her late 70s. I’d been fascinated by how she, as a career diva, had dealt with aging. She’d even written a comic song about west coast plastic surgeons and the everyday trials of her glamorous, aging peers, so I knew she was at least able to treat the subject with some humor. But I wasn’t persistent about making the interview happen, and deep down I think she didn’t really want to get into it. And maybe I myself felt that it was too intimate a territory for me to breach. So I let it go. Besides, at a mid-thirty something, what the hell did I know about aging yet? Nothing! These days, however, I bring some experience to the table. Just this afternoon I even removed a pure white hair from my eyebrow. A first. Sigh. Miss Morgan, if you’ll indulge me, I think I’m ready for that interview now.

Years ago, I asked Fareed if he was at all worried about getting old – and ugly. He said no, because he’d always been unattractive, so getting more so wouldn’t be much of a shock. People wouldn’t treat him much different either way, he supposed. Me, however, having started out as a pretty young thing, and enjoying all the power that went with it, he proposed that aging might well hit me a lot harder. He postulated that I’d likely see changes in how people responded to me as my looks changed. Once, shortly after I’d had Elihu and was quite large, I went to the grocery store. I was exhausted, unkempt and fat. And I can tell you this too: I was invisible. I knew well what it was to be an attractive, well-dressed young woman who drew people in. And to experience the absolute opposite just these few months later – it truly blew my mind. I learned instantly and unequivocally that in youth and beauty there is power. Never did and ugly old man inspire the same feelings of warmth as a pretty young woman. Never. And yet within the outer shell of that man lives a person as complex, as human, as needing of love – if not in more need of love – than the pretty girl. How unfair is life. The moment I realized people were not even noticing me was stunning. I got it. I realized how lucky I’d been. How much love I’d been given by strangers just because of the way I looked. My heart bled for all of those who never knew that kind of immediate acceptance. Truly this is a cruel, cruel world.

I’m not doing this aging thing with a lot of class. Really, I’m not. I’m uptight about it, I’m continually surprised by it, I’m offended that age should drag me along with it… As light-heartedly as I may live my life, deep down I’m wondering how this is supposed to work. Oh, I can be happy here on my back forty with my son and my chickens, but I can’t hide back here forever. Maybe til my kid graduates from high school – but what then? I need to find this new life, this new person I’m to be. It used to be about the tiny-waisted cocktail gowns or the platform boots, but those things are never coming back. So what’s next? I find myself with thirty pounds on my frame that I can’t simply ditch the way I used to. My upper arms move in two different directions. I have no jaw line anymore, and what were once slight, temporary laugh lines are now permanent contours. Although it might sound it – this is not about knowing that I’m truly, legally divorced that’s bringing this on – I’ve been keenly aware the last few years that I’ve been walking through a transition time of sorts. The past four years here in New York my son has grown a foot, and my hair has become undeniably gray. And I just can’t seem to understand it.

I’ve identified this window of age in which everyone shifts from their ‘first act’ selves to their ‘second act’ selves… (The third act seems to occur in a wider range of years, and has within it some subtle differences, as in there’s ‘old”, then there’s ‘slack-jawed-in-the-nursing-home-wearing-a-diaper’ old. Those would be the last couple of pages – and I’m not thinking about those for now, although let us open our eyes to this very personal possibility. That may be us one day – although I pray we all die sweetly in our sleep before our kids ever have to choose that fate for us.) This transition phase seems to occur sometime in the mid forties. Don’t know quite when the threshold is crossed for sure – but I can tell you from my own experience that I felt ‘ok’ and ‘youngish’ still in the first few years of my forties, but this last year I no longer can claim those feelings. I don’t necessarily feel old, but I no longer feel young. I can much more easily see over the rise ahead. Or perhaps I might say that I’ve reached the rise in the elevation and can now see the grand plateau before me…

Personally, I was never one to look forward. Never once dreamed of ‘my’ wedding, a house, a career. Knew I’d be a musician and that was pretty much it. Knew I wanted to travel, have a beautiful home and be a mother one day. But ‘one day’ never existed in real, calendar form. It existed in a far-off, fuzzy dimension I never took a moment to envision. For all my lack of energetic homework, I feel lucky to have landed in such an idyllic situation. There are times when I lament my lack of planning, wondering where instead I might have ended up had I indeed bothered to plan it all out a bit better, but in the end I know that regret does nothing. Sadly, it doesn’t even burn calories. ! I’m in a good place from which to go forward. I’m still without a social life, and my friends seem to be mostly back in the midwest, but I’m a bit more hopeful than I’ve been the past few years about our life here continuing to improve. The past four years have been my transformation time, and the process is now gently lifting to reveal a wide-open future.

There’s much to come, I’m fairly sure of it. Intermission was refreshing, but now I’m eager to see what awaits in this next act…