The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Snowy Valentine February 14, 2015

Elihu sits beside me on the couch. We’re both engrossed in our own activities, but stop now and then to say “Love you” to one another, just because we can. We’re content to be snug at home after another full week of activities. Tomorrow he leaves to be with his dad for winter break, so me, I’m a bit sentimental today. But Elihu’s just plain happy. He’s looking forward now to seeing his father again. As good as our relationship is, I still think it’s important for him to have some time and space apart from me. And I’ll make good use of the time too; his time away will give me the chance to file the massive piles in my office, do my taxes, prepare lesson plans and tend to the Studio. Lots to do, few pauses in the ongoing agenda. Don’t get me wrong, I might be busy, but I’m grateful for it all. Still not sure how the coming years will pan out; from where I sit tonight, my future is one big unknown. But whatever happens, I’m so happy to be sharing it with my dearest Elihu, my one true valentine.

IMG_1936Pulled into the grocery store parking lot and saw this outside my door. Sweet.

IMG_1710It’s not hearts I see each morning when I start the car in sub-zero temps, instead it’s lovely geometric designs in the frost on my windshield.

IMG_1237We visited mom’s place so Elihu could fly helicopters with Uncle Andrew (he lives down the driveway). Mom’s working on the New York Times crossword puzzle and watching the opera. Classic weekend stuff.

IMG_1239The two of them talked endlessly about accelerometers, flybars and swashplates. It’s “Geek” to me. !

IMG_1254Here’s the old craft that’s back in the air again thanks to some new replacement rotors (a thank you to friend Gene for assisting with that!).

IMG_1160Elihu and Andrew enjoy the vertical space of the great room.

IMG_1269Look what mom sees routinely outside her kitchen window. Turkeys and deer side by side.

IMG_1325Mom tells me the snow is even deeper today, one week later; she says it’s up to the deer’s bellies.

IMG_1277The Studio can be seen off to the left outside of the same window.

IMG_1336Drama erupted as I accidentally knocked a glass of water onto Andrew’s bag. He flew into a frightening rage, violently knocked over a chair and left for a few minutes. He came back and behaved as if nothing had happened. I guess that he had a restorative nip of booze to help him keep his cool. In his tirade he had screamed that I did everything I could ‘to fuck him up’… His situation is so sad, and we’re all powerless to help. Mental illness – and the self-medicating that goes with it – is a tricky thing. Laws that are meant to protect individual’s rights end up preventing others from helping those who can’t help themselves. Elihu’s heart is broken to see his uncle like this. He loves him anyway. Good kid.

IMG_1339And so our visit ends and we take our leave while mom sets about fixing the busted stool. Sigh.

IMG_1415Back at home we make a go at sledding the big hill. A no-go. It was way too deep. Shoulda started grooming our run before all this snow fell.

IMG_1531After some major effort, even lil man threw in the towel.

IMG_1510Then he tried his hand at something that he’s always been good at – catching birds. Here’s our dear Austin, the goofy guinea fowl. Both boys are red-cheeked!

IMG_1720While Elihu’s at school, I pay a visit to my friend Ken. Here’s the view from his current digs. Classic Saratoga.

IMG_1724Another fine Saratoga home.

IMG_1723One more view. Saratoga Springs often reminds me of a little HO train set village.

IMG_1742Ken shows me his current project.

IMG_1741I guess snowy weather is good for staying inside – and painting. But of course, you have to know what you’re doing to produce something like this. Seriously, how talented is this guy? Amazing.

IMG_1948After school we check out the logger’s progress.

IMG_1939Look at the size of the tires on this skidder! And the chains are just massive.

IMG_1963Every year we host these folks when they perform at the Flurry – a dance festival in town that is now in its 28th year. Musicians and dancers come from all over the East coast. It’s one intense and immense event.

IMG_1967Sherry baked this gorgeous bread for us!

IMG_1971They also brought us some homemade maple syrup. !!!

IMG_2070Packed up and ready for anything.

IMG_1984Here are John and Matthew – aka the Swing Peepers – doing their thing for the kids. It’s entertaining for all (see a short video clip at the end of the post).

IMG_1997Elihu sat in on his djembe with an Irish jam. Some purists might not have dug it too much, but no matter, he played just fine.

IMG_2027Playing his drum was fun, but he was really jonesin to fly. Dylan stops to check it out.

IMG_2031Dylan introduced us to his dad, Amadu, who’s from Senegal. He made this enormous kalimba himself.

IMG_2034Dylan and Elihu check out a concertina.

IMG_2038Here’s Paul Rosenberg, one of the Flurry festival’s founders. He calls and leads community trad dances throughout the greater Albany area. I guess you might say he’s a local treasure.

IMG_2056This is why Elihu’s here; an African drumming workshop led by Ubaka Hill. She made it a fun experience and it left Elihu in a fantastic mood which lasted all afternoon.

The Swing Peepers sing for the kids and their parents.

Elihu plays his djembe with the Irish jam session.

Ubaka Hill leads a room full of percussionists in the final number (check out the dynamic changes near the end).

IMG_2076After all of that we were starting to get hungry… a special day requires a special meal. To the Indian buffet!

IMG_2114Finally, we’re back at home on a snowy winter’s night. Me and my little Valentine.

 

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.

 

The Fourteenth February 14, 2013

For no good reason that I know of, fourteen has always been my favorite number. It’s not that I aspired to be that age long before I was, nor that I looked back on that age with nostalgia after it was long gone. I have simply always loved the number fourteen. In my mind I visualize it as a verdant, deep green. It is a number that has just felt right to me for as long as I can remember. But a few years ago it took on another meaning altogether. On a day in which most people celebrate their love for those they hold dear, dark and horrible changes both big and small were taking place…

It was a gray winter day, in the middle of the afternoon, when a young man burst into a lecture hall in Northern Illinois University’s Dekalb campus and opened fire, killing five students and injuring many more before finally killing himself. (He had recently stopped taking medication for mental illness and had reportedly been acting strangely.) I heard the news almost immediately, as Fareed called me from NIU to let me know. I remember sitting in the kitchen, looking numbly out at the river that flowed behind our house… I was stunned, yes, but almost more stunned to hear him go on… He said that he was now worried about his girlfriend, that she was freaked out and he felt he needed to be with her… he wasn’t sure if he’d be home tonight. Crazy as it sounds, while she was now five months pregnant with their child, my husband still stayed at home with us – and still retired to bed each night with me. He would, however, slip away during the night to be with her, making sure to be back home in the mornings, for the sake of our son, he’d say. I was still so shell-shocked at what was happening that I followed along in a daze as he drew out the torture. I’d been fooling myself somehow during it all, thinking he’d come to his senses eventually and come home – that somehow we’d make sure this child was taken care of, and somehow, when this had all blown over, we’d find a way to go on with our lives again. Certainly this was crazy thinking, but it was a surreal time, and crazy was all over. And now this.

How could I argue – how could I indulge in my own petty concerns when people had just been killed? When true and real heartbreak was occurring, when parents were receiving the worst possible news they’d ever hear – when all this was going on, how was it that I could beg my husband as I did to please come home to his wife? I told him that family was of prime importance, and that this event must surely remind him of that. I was livid that this silly girl nearly half our age could manipulate him so easily. I found it hard to believe that she was afraid to be alone – for heaven’s sake she lived in a tony, suburban house with her parents miles from campus! What had she to be afraid of? What did she know of being left? Of truly being alone? I was furious, I was heartbroken, I was sick. I was also extremely confused.

Although he’d said nothing of it, earlier that day, merely through coincidence and not at all by design, Fareed had been served with divorce papers. He’d gone for months saying that he wasn’t sure, that he didn’t know yet what he would do… he wasn’t sure if he planned on leaving us or staying. His presence in our home gave my heart hope, but his girlfriend’s growing belly wasn’t unsure at all. I asked about divorce, but he wouldn’t commit to it. Finally, summoning the best fighting attitude I could, I agreed with my attorney that he should go ahead and serve the papers. They arrived that day, but Fareed didn’t mention it. I’ll still never know just how he reacted that morning at work when the agent knocked on his office door. I’ll never know if it caught him by surprise, or if he felt relief. Even after five years we’ve never talked about that day. I do still wonder sometimes.

In that he said nothing about the divorce papers, in the back of my mind I hoped they hadn’t arrived. That my husband would choose me over his mistress, that he would come home and everything would somehow heal itself. I was still fooling myself. Acting one way, feeling another, and thinking somewhere in between. Man that was one difficult Valentine’s Day. Not a lot of love to be found, and more heartbreak than anyone deserved. I could never have imagined in that moment that some five years forward I’d be ok. That I’d have more joy in my life than sorrow, that my gut wouldn’t be consumed with an unceasing ache. How can you tell someone in the midst of such pain – and make them understand – that it will not always be thus? Although I myself wasn’t able to envision a brighter future back then, I had to make that leap of faith and simply behave as if it was there waiting. I took the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach. It definitely took a few years for my heart to catch up and relax into this new life.

Honestly, I am still not completely reconciled with what happened to me or with the way in which my life’s course shifted, but I do realize that the trajectory of my life – and certainly my son’s life – was greatly improved by this fateful turn of events. By this fourteenth day of February on which things changed forever.

 

Transforming Tragedy December 16, 2012

It is unthinkable. It cannot fully be comprehended. And the families of those who died in Connecticut this Friday have only just begun a lifelong process of intense grieving. Hopefully, there will be healing one day. Heartbreakingly though, that day is still a long way off.

Media everywhere is full of the images. Facebook posts are almost exclusively about the story. But I refuse to give it my attention, my energy. Why? Because what is done is done, it is out of my power, and in my opinion the most constructive, helpful thing I can do is to send my love to the survivors. I will not succumb to rubber-necking at such a tragedy. I do not need the immense heartbreak in my own life, but rather I need to cultivate love and understanding in the most personal ways possible (as do we all, I might guess.) I need to help the world move away from events like this, and I don’t believe watching the videos of horrified parents in real time will contribute to that. I strongly believe that “where your attention goes, energy flows”. So I’ll continue to remember the survivors and send them my thoughts of strength, support and love (aka prayers and good energy).

There may be those who would not agree with me, but I don’t worry for one second about the people who have just died, as I believe they’re in a far better situation right now than we are. We, who have been left behind to finish our lives in this dense, love-hungry world have the short end of the stick, plus a lot on our plate. If we mean to elevate this world from its darker aspects, we need to live in our world responsibly, courageously and peacefully, and do all of that under the patient guidance of love. The more we live in love, the more we’ll live in understanding – and forgiveness. And truly, we all aint free until we’s all taken care of.  So we all have a tiny bit of personal homework to do each day. All you can do is all you can do – but still, you do gotta do it.

We who are still here need to take this event – and other tragedies as well, minute or massive – and transform them into opportunities  for change and improvement, whether that may be in our own hearts and minds, or out in the world working for gun control or access to mental health services… Change of course, starts within, and as a ripple in a pond starts small then grows…

My own thoughts are turning to action now too… I have several people in my own immediate family who live with untreated mental illness because of the great stigma and embarrassment that still, in 2012, accompanies these diseases. Frankly, under the right mix of anger, resentment and booze, if armed, my brother could kill me. I’ve seen it in his eyes – the eyes of a person deeply entrenched in the distortions of mental illness. Yet no agency will come to his (our) aid until he does something violent (ya know, until after he shoots his sister.) Apparently, they need hard evidence before they can intervene. So the pot simmers, and we hope it never blows. All cuz the laws keep our hands tied from helping my brother to help himself.

There’s a lot to be done. Myself, I’m going to keep my work personal, focusing on keeping my own attitude positive and loving, living in forgiveness as I’m able. But there’s some big-time, real action that needs to me done too. And I hope that the conversations that have started up won’t die down too soon – not before they’ve inspired some folks to take up the charges of gun control and mental health care.

 

Brain Cramp June 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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