The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Waking Time August 15, 2015

The sound was so shrill that it pierced the layers of fog surrounding me and reached deep into my subconscious, playing itself as a new feature of my dream. It sounded as it always did; like a warning or a cry for help. Was it a child’s cry? It didn’t quite sound like that, but it evoked a similar tightening of my gut. Was it a predator? Was it a happy sound or one of anguish? It was hard to tell, and as always, even after searching my surroundings as best I could, I wasn’t able to find the creature responsible for it. Gradually, as the cry continued, it pulled my waking self loose from the blissful abandon of my dreamscape, until I floated up and out and eons away from that place and instead came to the daily, and many times disappointing realization, that I was here. In my bed. And the goddam rooster was crowing.

Today’s re-entrance into waking reality was a little bit less of a blow than in mornings past. Elihu’s been gone for a couple of weeks and I’ve gotten a lot accomplished. Some mornings I wake with dread. Some with urgency; last night’s to-do list sits encouragingly on my bedside table and I’m ready to rock. Some days I awake in a pleasant neutrality, with caution and gratitude striking a momentary balance before the day begins to favor one over the other. Either way, it’s very seldom that I wake up entirely happy to be here. But this morning it definitely was different. Maybe not exactly a thrill, but at least waking up today didn’t pull my spirits down. That was progress.

A week before, each day had started differently; I’d had house guests stay here and so for that window in time things slowed down. So as not to lose forward momentum, immediately upon waking I turned my attentions to minor domestic repairs and garden chores to assure the mundane stuff got done, even when larger projects had to wait a bit. It all worked out very well, and in fact the visit was filled with serendipitous little meetings and outings – plus it gave me the opportunity to be with my friend’s daughter, a young girl who’m I’ve known for much of her life. We enjoyed some true girl time together (Elihu’s a great kid, but he could give a hoot whether I dress up or wear farm boots to town) and a chance to wear ‘super-sparkly’ stuff and mascara. (Just so ya know, Lilas and I also caught plenty of frogs.) Plus mom Mary left me with a pretty tasty recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip pancakes. It was a nice break in the routine, and after they left I could feel a refreshed surge of excitement for all that lay before me.

It’s beginning to look like the Studio might really blossom in the coming year – construction’s coming along, both indoors and out, and the place looks gorgeous. I’ve been trying to move about in the world in spite of ongoing panic issues, and have been making an effort to meet new people and see how other folks run their businesses. I’ve been practicing piano and have spent hours honing my book, moving songs into my preferred keys, merging lyrics and chords, making peace with formerly unknown bridges and verses. I’ve even gone out and met musicians. I’ve learned the contents of my wardrobe and cobbled together a few new outfits that will suit a new, public and active life. And more than all of this – I’ve finally gotten rid of the falling-apart and mismatched table and chairs that took up most of the precious screen porch. Since my food bill had been considerably less over much of the child-free summer, I was able to put that money towards an ensemble of low-end patio furniture I’d had my eye on since June. My patience paid off; the stuff had been marked down by almost half. I borrowed Zac and Stephanie’s vintage diesel truck and bounced down the road to pick em up. Planted the old wooden chairs at the top of the hill in the woods (what fun that always is to come upon some useful chairs when on a walk! And in the winter, it’s a great view) and last night, as the grass was still wet from a recent rain, I launched the old table to the heavens in an immense fire.

The first thing I did this morning was check the porch to see if it I hadn’t maybe dreamed it all… and to make sure the heavy table had indeed burned. No, that had not been a dream. It was now a pile of white ash. And yes, the porch looked lovely. It was whispering to me to come, sit, take my coffee there. Ok, maybe on paper it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but this has added a whole new room to the house, and plus it’s outside. Surrounded by flowers, hummingbirds and butterflies, its ceiling dancing with the reflected sunlight from my pond and my pool. My kiddie pool. But still.

I also got a lawnmower this past week. Got five open acres that the woods is quickly reclaiming and have felt a growing urgency that I equip myself to take some action. I have a friend who mows the place a couple times a year just to keep on top of it, but the place really needs a bit more maintenance than that. A rider is far beyond my budget, but I was able to find a self-propelled and fairly new Troy Bilt from a fellow down the road – and what’s more – I can actually pull start it myself without throwing my back out. Yes. Finally, I have the power to cut my own grass. Again, on paper, not much. But in reality, it truly makes me queen of my castle at last.

The kid’s having a great time with his father and their family. He’s on Washington Island in the far northern region of Wisconsin, kayaking and enjoying nature walks. He sounds rested and happy. Makes me happy too. Glad he’s able to share in all of that typically summer stuff. I don’t always have the resources to give him those experiences. So that’s good. We’ve both enjoyed our time away. I have two nights left, and in that time I hope to sit in at the local piano bar. All this practicing has my voice a little fuzzy and my knuckles are puffed and sore with arthritis, but hey, it all still works. Things could always be worse. !

Shortly after Bald Mountain called me back into this waking world, I checked my nightstand to see if there might be a note of encouragement left by my last night’s self to help propel me into a new day…. And indeed, there was. It read “August 15th, 2015. Been here seven years.” Earlier this week I’d passed my three year mark for having quit smoking (I was a part-time smoker then, but still, it counts). And wouldn’t ya know, here it was. Today was the day Elihu and I had arrived, seven years ago, at this great unknown new life. A sketchy ranch house with green shag carpeting and what I like to call “high Angie Dickinson” decor – wrought iron pulls on the mahogany-toned cabinets, red velvet-covered doorbell speaker… I had looked about me from a place of deepest desolation. My head was spinning, my heart broken, my future absolutely unknown. The faint smell of wet dog didn’t help, and to be honest, neither did the fine view from my living room window. I was petrified of the situation, and my ex was so full of rage at me for having left. It was an absolutely horrible place to be. But see, now – it’s not. Things aren’t exactly what I’d thought they’d be when I set out to create a family and build a new life, but still. This place is my home, and this is my life. Not so bad. Really.

If you’d have told me seven years ago today that down the line I’d be raising chickens, shooting at foxes and stuffing a string bass into the back of my CRV, I’d have thought you were dreaming. But look how it’s all turned out. Wow. Me, a single mom in the country raising chickens and a polka-loving, tuba-playing boy? Yup. It’s all true. And I’m pretty sure I’m wide awake.

 IMG_0237Super sparkly and ready to rock.

 

Stuffed July 6, 2014

We are a culture of stuff. Crap just seems to find most of us, regardless of whether we are filthy rich or dirt poor. Our contemporary American culture grooms us to become professional consumers and collectors from the earliest age. Even our organic, untouched human nature, regardless of cultural affiliation – always in search of wholeness, satisfaction and existential peace – places great importance on objects to help us fill those voids and still that pesky uncertainty. We all know that a flag is really just a piece of fabric, but plenty of us are still a little squeamish about seeing it hit the ground. Trinkets and mementos tug hard at our heart-strings by offering us tangible evidence of long-gone memories.  Finery represents to the world our good taste and our economic success. And then of course, there’s that ‘new-from-the-box’ rush against which few of us are immune. Stuff is comforting, it’s exciting. It’s what we crave. To many of us, our stuff really, really matters.

To some of us, our very identities are completely identified by and wrapped up in the stuff that we own. Most of us live with a low-level of this affliction, but as the current run of tv programs on hoarding will bear out there’s also a growing population of people who act like absolute magnets for matter; people who feel somehow safer, more emotionally protected and at peace when completely surrounded by stuff. All contingencies of life are potentially prepared for, all heartbreak warded off, memories continue to live, and past hopes and dreams, whether realized or not, linger comfortingly in the physical realm. Most of our stuff is merely a collection of inert, valueless objects, but to the super-invested owner, the very experiences or memories those objects represent – whether either in the past or possibly yet to come in the future – are one in the same with the object.  Owning an object also seems to mean owning control over the thing that it represents. And control gives one a feeling of comfort. Of predictability, stability and ultimately, of safety. To have control is to have the illusion of peace. And the illusion of peace can sure feel better than no peace at all.

Stuff helps cover your shit up. It weighs you down and buffers you from any possible hurtful, frightening or unpleasant experiences. Stuff insulates you from pain of living – but only temporarily. It can help mask the fear, yeah, maybe, but in the end, stuff kills. In the end, it’s the stuff that has the control over you, not the other way around. If you’re a person that doesn’t feel the nagging tug of stuff, count yourself lucky. I know you’re out there; I’ve met a few folks for whom it’s never been an issue. “But what about all of your schoolwork, your artwork, your… you know, all your stuff?” I would press them, but the response from these folks would often come easily, matter-of-factly. They didn’t remember really, they guessed that they just didn’t ever think about it much. Their stuff just kind of disappeared over the course of their lives. Who knew? That kind of answer always blew my mind, because I myself have been in a constant battle with stuff since I was a young girl. A hand mirror given to my by Louis and Patty, a stuffed suede dog from Switzerland that Hannelore brought me, an empty spool of thread my grandmother left behind or an ever-growing box of my drawings and writings. I kept tight watch over my stuff and it broke my heart to think of it lost or gone forever. I try to imagine what it’s like not to live as I do, and I just can’t.

My basement is currently under siege; stuff from toys to clothes to aquariums to old paper mache costumes take up valuable space in a humid and dank, ever-shrinking space. Gifts of hand-me-downs sit in bins, waiting for their seasons, or perhaps even to be given away, broken candles await the winter project of making shiny new ones from the remnants, lps line up on sagging bookshelves, volumes of photo books too take up more shelves. Stuff just blooms from the corners and the mass seems to have grown bigger than the last time I took a casual inventory. For someone whose main goal in life is to live simply, I am years away – or at least many hours away – from that goal. And whenever I make some headway, it seems something throws me back again; a kindly drop off of clothes or toys by a friend or classmate, a couple of ‘bird things’ from grandma here and there, oversized drawings of Elihu’s, or hundreds of his unique paper airplane designs that now require storage in an enormous plastic bucket. When assessed one object at a time, most of them seem reasonable enough on their own. But there comes that certain threshold in the accumulation at which it all of it seems equally deserving of a rented roll off container.

A short time after college, and long before it was hip, I worked as a personal organizer. It was a short-lived endeavor, as I felt that most clients needed both a psychologist and organizer in one, and after a certain point, I didn’t have the skills to wrest unhealthy people from their hoards. ‘Assess a Mess’ ended before it might have realized a good measure of success; the job took a huge amount of energy and stamina to do right, and my own personal energies were going in a different direction. So it makes me wonder; if I didn’t have the stamina to deal with people’s messes back then (when I was young and had more oomph) how on earth will I deal with this mess, now? Plus there’s also another phenomenon to purging and cleaning out – it’s easier to do it for other people than it is for yourself. It’s simply not as easy to make the hard decisions when you’re so emotionally invested in things. But I also know this about cleaning house: when the time is right, you find it in yourself to get the job done. I’ve also known major cleanouts to happen around big life changes. Obviously there are the stories of death and divorce, cross-country moves or major career changes, but there are physical and emotional chapters too which play a part. When I was twelve, shortly after I’d first gotten my period, I did a heroic job of cleaning and organizing my hugely sloppy and congested bedroom. Martha, family friend and matriarchal figure, asked if I’d ‘just begun menstruating’. She seemed to have skills of divination; how on earth did she know? She laughed and told me that often ‘when girls become women’ they do something of that sort. I guess it’s kind of like the nesting that soon-to-be mothers are famous for.

There’s definitely change afoot in my life; I’m pretty sure it’s part of what’s been contributing to my panic attacks and bouts of deep depression lately. And if change is what I need to get this massive clean-out underway, I have a hunch that I’ll find it in me to get this thing nailed. Gotta unload a little of life’s ballast to set sail for new seas…

kitchen hoardThis is my brother’s kitchen, it’s a mixture of garbage and non-garbage items. Hard to tackle even if you’re feeling strong and of good spirit; how on earth can someone so compromised by depression even begin?

kitchen clutter

And here’s my mess, after coming home from a friend’s house and receiving the contents of her pantry and other assorted things after her recent out-of-state move. It was daunting, so much so that I hired a neighbor girl to help me get it packed away.

IMG_7558I’ve spent hours upon hours excavating my cellar and garage. It’s not quite organized yet, but at least it’s out in the open where I can see it all… I’ve posted ads in Freecycle and Craiglist hoping to give it all away. Maybe the key words ‘free stuff’ will move it out faster.

IMG_7721Sure enough, folks were coming by long before the thing was even supposed to start. Drat, I forgot to post ‘no early birds’. That’s ok. Everyone’s lighthearted. One woman even went to get me coffee when I mumbled something about not being ready so early (and also kindly invited me to visit her church one day)… I met a bunch of very sweet people that afternoon.

IMG_7710It’s sad for me to see things go… this little blue trike my kid dubbed “Mongey” when he was four. Never a cuter sight than that tiny boy pedaling along furiously, his baby curls blowing in the breeze…

IMG_7716The wizard, acquired at a truck stop and now missing an arm (which always inspired us to cry ‘it’s just a flesh wound’) has found a new, enthusiastic owner. (Btw – if you, new owner, should read this post, I have the power supply – find me and I’ll get it to you.)

IMG_7718There goes a model of the Tally Ho. I once jumped off the cap rail of that boat and kept this for years as a memento of that day.

IMG_7729Told this gal she’d have to wipe it clean; it was too hard for me to do.

IMG_7731My grandma Lydia’s raccoon coat is simply too musty for me… hope this woman will give it another go.

IMG_7775This cherub poster hung over my marital bed for years – in the early, posters-as-art days… My ex felt it should be on our walls here to help give Elihu a sense of continuity. ! I’d felt there were other, more important symbols of ‘continuity’ than this, and it’s been languishing in the basement ever since.

IMG_7767I’m even willing to part with my Noel candle, purchased at the Jewel in Wilmette (the one on Greenbay that had the escalators) as I, at the age of six, repeatedly begged to have it. (It lasted, untouched til the last of the giveaway, so I ended up sneaking it back into the garage. Shh..)

IMG_7769I was giving it all away…. I wanted stuff to move, after all. Ended up making $25 in tips. Good karma sales.

IMG_7821Unearthed from the vaults. Those on the top are from the bicentennial! And the Eli business was a nod to both Yale (founded by Elihu Yale, and my father’s alma mater) and a mentor figure of dad’s at Yale, who’s name was actually Elias. When my son’s name finally came into my head (he was nameless for a good week) I first saw in my mind’s eye this license plate. Crazy, huh.

IMG_7755I remember many nights going to bed with this fan in the window. It used to scare the pants off of me. As kids, Andrew and I would fake dare each other to stick our fingers into the unprotected metal blades. They don’t make em like they used to – and it’s a good thing, too!

IMG_7754Look – made by Montgomery Ward. A drop of oil and you’re ready to go.

IMG_7749It’s this young girl – also named Elizabeth – who’ll be enjoying the fan next.

IMG_7766More sentiment. This is the main activity that kept my son busy on our drive here when we left Illinois.

IMG_7806This is what’s left of an impressive Quetzacoatl/Archaeoptyrix (yikes, I don’t remember which!) costume I made year before last (complete with 12 foot wingspan on a working pulley system), and in the upper right, a goofy but earnest portrait of a young Navy man that I would love to pack up and send to Evanston’s Lucky Platter. Evanston peeps, ya think?

IMG_7804What’s a girl to do with an enormous monarch caterpillar costume?

IMG_7799I’m running out of steam…

IMG_7738Keep it going… I see some shabby chic makeovers in the future..

IMG_7740Make yourselves a big ol load of stuff…

IMG_7820The next morning, I’m left with just a few things..

IMG_7818A bunch of trash…

IMG_7819Some wonderful clothing which will go to a local community center…

IMG_7810And soon we’ll have our own Burning Man here – only it’ll be Burning Gingerbread Man…

IMG_7816Bald Mountain approves of the tidy garage.

IMG_7823Ya know what happened at the end? A really nice man named Dan showed up, and while my offerings disappointed, he did end up with an Oliver Sachs book, a couple of nice planter pots, plus he was a saint and helped me schlep all of the remaining items to the roadside for passersby to pick up and whisk away.

IMG_7826Good Free Stuff. Well, kinda. At least it’s free. And so now am I.

Aaaahh.

 

Too Much More June 26, 2014

If someone else were to say the things I’m about to say, I’d tell them it’s not that bad. I’d be concerned for them, I’d want them to find relief. I know all of this, but I can’t help it. I’m even beginning to think there’s something rather manic about the way I operate in the world. One day I see the potential and promise of everything, and a moment later I’m wishing I could just kill myself and just be done with this stupid life – without all the fallout. It’s always my son and my mother who stop me from taking that thought any further. But I swear there are days where I’d give that option some serious consideration, were it not for those two people – that, and my basic cowardice. The same unfortunate trait which is causing me to think about such things in the first place. I’m so much more afraid than I’d thought.

The day started out with a sobering visit from a geothermal heating and cooling guy. The man himself, the owner of the company came out because his son, scheduled to visit, had thrown out his back. I’m glad that Senior came instead of Junior – he brought with him the advice of not only an HVAC guy, but that of a businessman, a property owner and landlord, and father to five kids. He had plenty of wisdom and advice for me, down to the smallest, most helpful details. I’m glad he showed up first, because he applied the brakes of reality on my fuzzy future. For one, he made clear that I faced a money pit. And that I’d not only need a business plan for potential investors or donors, but until that time came I’d need the Studio to generate some income. A lot of income. And I’d also need a loan. Because it was going to take a lot of money to get the place back to square, let alone ahead. He suggested I bring everything to a halt until I got that stuff figured out. Made sense of course. I’d seen my former parents-in-law throw money – hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions even – at dozens of projects through the years, little of which ended up paying for themselves, let alone generating cash flow. I’d seen what a hazy vision and a dash of romance could do. And it seemed I might be doing this myself – putting the cart before the horse, building a garage for a dream car that wasn’t even mine yet. When pressed for examples of revenue sources, I had lots of maybes but no definites. Lots of what ifs but no contracts, no leases, no programs to even consider. I wished I hadn’t sounded so lost, so unsure, but the truth is I am. I have a spark, a hope – and it glows so very bright sometimes – but it’s founded on very little. It’s not founded on studies or research, it’s founded on intuition and desire. And I just don’t know if that’s enough.

“This was your father’s dream” the man went on to say as we mulled over the pros and cons, “not yours, right?” I had to answer that it was. “And he realized it, he made it happen, right?” he pushed. I had to admit that he had, and that he’d even seen it to a satisfying conclusion. He cautioned me not to move ahead on sentiment alone. Not to follow my father’s dream, but to follow my own. But as I sat there taking it all in, I realized something rather surprising: I myself had no dream. At least no specific, concrete vision. What I did have was a feeling, a way in which I envisioned feeling in my dream life. While not a vision per se, it had some specifics. Just maybe not the nitty gritty bones of the whole thing, but nonetheless a general scenario…  For over a decade one thing has been foremost in my mind: I want a simple life. A life free of panic, a life full of friends and good food and hopefully travel. A beautiful garden, and a tidy, organized home to come back to at the end of my adventures. I’ve always been able to see it in my mind’s eye. The Studio simply rounded it out. Instead of playing with the musicians I missed so, I’d have them here when they were touring. Instead of seeing the world, I’d have the world come and see me. I’d be host to all sorts of people, and life would be full of impomptu late night jams and dinners around a big, inviting table. And I’d be hostess to it all. But in reality I knew that I couldn’t reconcile running a concert venue with a simple life. I’d spent years despising all the extra time and visiting required of my ex husband’s career as a non-stop working musician. And I’d hated the relentless nature of owning a nightclub. And while I loved having rehearsals, dinners and parties at our home, I would cherish the privacy in between those events. And I needed a lot of alone down time to refresh myself for the next episode. Plus as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I desire even more space and time – and quiet. So what the hell have I been thinking here? As I heard myself talk about what I envisioned, I felt a torturous mixture of excitement and dread. I can’t explain it, all I know is that this man’s real-world red flags had me putting all of my previously delirious thinking through a filter of reality, and now I was feeling sick to my stomach. And panicky. Great. Almost out of Xanax, and just entering the fire. Just fucking great.

It was still good to hear. It was all stuff I needed to seriously consider. Absolutely valuable input. And then came the chimney sweep.

A well-known local peace and renewable resources activist, he had been recommended by a friend for his advice on my situation – and he had his own list of considerations I might make in my process. And being a firm believer in looking towards a responsible way to provide for the future energy needs of the planet rather than beating a soon-to-be-dead horse of dirty fuel-burning, I really wanted to hear all he had to say. Here was another take on things – a perspective that while not entirely at the other end of the spectrum – certainly one that represented a different way to approach my situation. And his way made sense. Equal sense. As he spoke I began to feel that signature out-of-body sort of sensation that precludes panic attacks, and although ironically he was a man of great heart and compassion, I began to squirm, to feel the inner terror beginning to build. He was clearly giving more good advice;  keep things simple, do only the repairs absolutely necessary, don’t overdo. Yet still, I continued to feel the pre-panic sensations building. I stared at my feet, I feigned things to pick up and examine from the floor, I created the pretense of searching for a bottle of water in my car in order to distract myself from the fear that was welling up inside of me. I was trapped in this goddam situation, and I had no one to save me now. My brother was ill, my mother was old, and I was a single mother with no savings, no resources, and now, no job. What was to become of me? I felt it all becoming my burden alone. And I am in no place to bear such a burden. Most people think I’m strong and resilient. Hell, I’ve never even had a real fucking job. I might be capable of many things, but apparently making a decent living is not one of them. And it’s becoming ever more highlighted by the shit that’s sitting in my path.

What now? I know what I’d do if I had money – but what even then? Is having a state-of-the-art facility enough? I imagine myself enticing already-existing programs to my gorgeous little space in the woods, but in reality, who the hell will want it? I imagine renting the space to yoga instructors, to after school programs, leasing it out for recitals, concerts… but I know the reality of this all, one-time events are not a reliable stream of income. I can’t be assured that they’ll cover my costs of running the place. And certainly, if my mom uses the rest of her savings to make the upgrades, I can’t be assured that she – I or my brother – will ever recoup the costs. And I still have to live. Maybe another forty years. Good Lord help me if that’s the case. I haven’t a fucking dime to my name, and my electric bill is still behind five hundred dollars from this last brutal winter.

I’m ready to go to bed. To forget that the raccoon stole the bait from the humane trap and escaped, as did the chipmunk in the kitchen just now. To forget that I have eleven baby chicks running wild, chased mercilessly by the grown flock and flung far and wide over the yard… to forget that I’m twenty pounds more than I was last year at this time, to forget that I haven’t kissed a man since I last kissed my husband, more than six years ago. Having Elihu gone is making things feel more dire, I’m pretty sure of it. And it’s much easier to contemplate ending things when he’s not around. But he’s coming back, and I need to be his cheerleader in life, not the other way around. How can I be? I admit, this time I’m not sure how to turn things around. Secretly (or not so secretly, as it’s here now) I consider a life off the map, anonymous and forgotten. Might I just drop out? Secede from Facebook, stop returning emails, fail to have my piano tuned, or show up to volunteer at school? What would happen then? History is full of once-famous people disappearing from society, going bankrupt, crazy or just plain missing… Could I pull it off? Seriously, who the fuck would miss me? I have no real life here; my only social life is a virtual one, and I seldom relish waking up in the morning. I scold myself as soon as I begin to think like this. I’m not being tortured, I’m not hungry (look at my waistline), I’m clothed and have a roof over my head. And a piano. And the internet. I’m ahead of probably 90% of the planet. So what the hell is with me??

Years ago, when I broke my neck (C6 and C7, which subsequently fused and created what I like to call a C13), I was confined to a bed for several months, while tongs, stuck into quarter inch holes in my skull held me in place and stretched me out while I healed. I’d been experiencing horrific panic attacks just before my car accident, and yet when held down in place in bed – in what might have looked like a torturous position in which to live – my panic ceased. I was too concerned in the beginning with my very survival to even notice, but a few days after I became stable and began to understand my situation more fully, I did notice it. I hadn’t had a single panic episode. And man, if ever there were a reason to panic, breaking one’s neck and being told by one’s neurosurgeon that you might never walk again might be legitimate cause for alarm. But I came to realize something… that when the real shit hit the real fan, my body knew what its priorities were. It knew the situation was for real – unlike that self-induced, self-created panic attack bullshit. It was revelatory. Here I was, with every reason to panic for real – and yet I wasn’t. I’m not saying I wasn’t concerned – I was – but it was a sober, alert sort of concern. It made all the sense in the world. Yet when my neck was healed, and I was better and finally off to college… the panic attacks returned, worse than before.

I know what’s at the root of the panic. That’s easy. It’s a feeling of being out of control, of having lost the power over your life. It’s a physical manifestation of fear and uncertainty. Maybe what I need is a real illness or injury to get my physiological priorities in order again. Hell, I don’t know. I don’t. What I do know that it will either take a mountain of focus and energy for me to get my life in order, or it will tank on its own. Christ, at a time when most of my contemporaries are looking forward to retiring, I’m only just beginning to figure out what it is that I’m supposed to be doing here on this stupid planet. Hell, even when I did have a job it hardly paid eleven bucks an hour after taxes. Before the panic returned it was worth it – I saw my kid every day and got paid to do the only thing I actually kind of know how to do. But now, with the Studio, the time it’s going to demand of me and now the element of pure fear that it’s added to my life… I remind myself again that the burden outweighs its worth. And besides, the little extra income I made disqualified me for food stamps and even Medicaid. Crazy, but it’s really safer to stay living in controlled poverty than just an inch above water level, gasping for air. Shit. I never expected to be in such a place in my life at my age. Never.

Obviously, this is a situation that’s far from being resolved. Somehow, in my slightly manic state, I will pull myself up for a bit, knock out a few more tasks and make an inch of progress before doubt and panic consume me again. My cellar is full of water and moldy boxes, I guess I can spend a few hours working on that. At least there can be some tangible results from my efforts, which would sure feel good. Because right now, no matter how much more I do, I just don’t see an ending to things. For the moment I cannot begin to picture my future. There’s still too much more in the way.

 

A happier post-script to remind myself of what we did at the Studio only a few years ago.

Drawing Class at The Studio

I gotta remember that we can do this again… this past run of bad luck has just been a detour, we can get there again… Right??

 

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…

 

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.