The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Breaking Ground January 31, 2015

For the next month there’s going to be a lot going on around here. The loggers have started to work, and as the money comes in from the harvest, it’s going to go out just as fast, as we rebuild and repair the aging Studio building. This alone is great news, and that we also get a ‘free’ parking lot out of the deal is beyond my wildest dreams. Truly, it feels like a gift from the gods. I am beyond grateful for our situation and am these last few days in an almost continually upbeat mood – something uncharacteristic of me, prone as I am to frightening bouts of anxiety and moments of profound depression (yes, I’ve wondered sometimes if I’m not bipolar – but think it’s more likely an old-fashioned case of artist’s temperament coupled with that stressful lack of money thing). I’m almost waiting for the other shoe to drop right now – I can’t remember feeling so happy for this long at a stretch.

(I realize this ‘depression talk’ may surprise some readers, but know that I write about a mere fraction of the life that I experience. There simply isn’t time to convey all the inner crap that I wrestle with… Suffice to say my ongoing issues with panic likely indicate larger issues beneath, but in the end, the reason’s not so important as is just going forward as best I can. Your friendship and company on this adventure help a great deal.)

Yeah, I’m fairly brimming with hope these last few days, and I can’t stop the visions for the place from crowding my thoughts… I have to keep reminding myself just to keep to the tasks directly ahead. One of my young piano students gave me wise words I replay in my head daily: Start simple. Right you are, Brett. Thanks for that. It’s so easy to put the cart in front of the horse, to count my chicks before they’re hatched, to scheme too big in the beginning… But at least things are moving now. My plans can become more than just that… finally I can act on them. It’s been an excruciating wait for this influx of cash – we’ve been talking with the forester for two friggin years about this job! That they’re finally here – that they’ve been careful to keep my favorite trees, that they’re all super-polite, super-nice, that they’re also pretty damn cute (!) and that they have no problem with me being a hovering client – all this is more icing on the cake than I could ever have imagined. Really, how can a gal feel so good? I have to keep telling myself it’s ok to feel good. My inner Woody Allen imagines all sorts of horrific glitches, accidents or illnesses befalling me at this critical time, and I have to speak to it sternly. Goddam it, I am going to enjoy this moment!

At the end of the day (more specifically, at the end of yesterday when I finally saw the wide open expanse of my new parking lot) I am brimming with excitement. Every cell of my body is invigorated and ready. The last time I felt this thrilled for the future was when Elihu joined the Waldorf School. That was the beginning of his new life, and this is the beginning of mine. Yes, this is a very special, ground-breaking time.

IMG_0120Logging begins on the property. In order to make room for the massive equipment, the guys need to make a large opening in the woods. They call it a landing. I call it a free parking lot. !

IMG_0035The sun came out as they began to make the roadway in. (They moved a stone wall, inserted a huge culvert and covered it in crushed stone.)

IMG_0054A right proper, two-lane road in. Hooray!

IMG_0084They’re working their way in to the woods. Notice how things look now; in a couple of hours – at the end of this post – it’ll be a whole different landscape. I need to leave and do a few errands now; I’m sorry to miss some of the action.

IMG_0020We have other concerns back at home, including a sneezing Thumbs Up who has been living inside and receiving antibiotics for the past few days.

IMG_0105Elihu tried to squeeze her into his backpack. Sorry, no chickens allowed in school!

IMG_0113After six years of talking about insulating the attic, we’re finally able to! With single digit temps it comes just in time!

IMG_0133The only access to the attic is above the pantry.

IMG_0137Here’s the fellow stoking the machine…

IMG_0138… and here’s the fellow blowing the fuzzy stuff in. Not as messy as you might think. Sure hope it helps keep us warm.

IMG_0348I passed one of Saratoga’s many galleries after dropping Elihu off at school and saw this outside on the sidewalk display. Instead of this image of Chicago making me homesick, it made me happy. Love that city always, but it’s becoming clearer that my future lies here for now.

IMG_0298Back to the job site. Mid-day it started to snow, but it didn’t slow em down a bit. This machine is called a buncher. That big wheel is a rotating chain saw. You should see this thing in action (and you can, in a video below) – first it snaps the tree like a twig, then it picks it up and sets is aside in a pile to be cut and stacked later.

IMG_0261See?IMG_0314In just a couple of hours they’ve cleared a huge space. You can see the Studio now!

IMG_0186The back hoe’s job is done for now, as all the stumps have been cleared.

IMG_0197Here’s the buncher in action. Seriously, it carries trees like they were tiny plants. Crazy.

IMG_0246By lunch there’s a road and completed parking lot. I love trees, and yes, it can be hard to watch them being cut down, but this sight is glorious to me. Like a cathedral in the woods.

IMG_0287$$$

IMG_0242The beautiful, snowy road in front of neighbor Tom’s place. Sadly, one of our five resident deer was hit and killed (instantly, thankfully) here recently. Happy ending to the story however…

IMG_0239Tom, industrious man that he is, he dressed the deer and put some gorgeous-looking meat in his freezer! How kind of him to give me some too! I love rare meat, and this venison couldn’t be a more beautiful color. (My spirit would like to be a vegetarian, but my body is so not there. !)

IMG_0365Back inside I have a small project of my own to attend to. Remember when I lost my favorite earrings this past fall? After much searching, I found a new pair of go-to favorites which clamped safely shut on my ears. Not safely enough I guess. In a last-ditch effort to save it from the drain after losing it in the shower, I am trying my luck to retrieve it with a shop vac and some plastic tubing.

IMG_0363We have really hard water, can ya tell? I could clean the iron stains away and they would return in a week’s time. Our teapot routinely coughs up thick chunks of orange mineral deposits. Oh well. We like to think it’s good for our health. One hopes. Oh, and the earring? Sitting next to the other lost earring somewhere in the bottom of the septic tank. Oh well. I tried. And I learned how my drain works, too. So not a total loss. Restored my DIY spirit if nothing else.

IMG_0352Home from school now, Elihu takes his first peek at the site.

IMG_0357Watch your fingers. !!

IMG_0098Inspired by today’s physics class and learning about Thales of Miletus (the first guy to discover static eletricity), Elihu gives me a little demonstration.

IMG_0367I know what we’re having for supper!

IMG_0370A little German influence in tonight’s menu: Braised venison with rosemary mushroom sauce – I even made my own spaetzle and mixed berry sauce on the side.

IMG_0359Life is so busy these days that it makes us appreciate the peace and quiet of our home all the more.

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Some videos of the main event…

See how effortlessly the buncher snips this cluster of trees – as if it were a bunch of flowers.

Not the best camera work, sorry, but here you’ll see a giant white pine fall.

You’ll be able to see the whole site in this clip.

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More to come over the next month as the loggers work their way deep into the ‘back forty’…

 

Grounded January 23, 2015

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Because Elihu missed four days of school from having the flu lately, he’d been a bit behind in his homework. He was staying on track, and we’d talked to his teacher, so I wasn’t worried. But he was. Poor kid’s been having a hell of a time getting to sleep over the past few months, and now, what with this school thing, it’s worse. Part of the reason is that in addition to school, there are a few other things weighing on his mind.

A few days ago he pulled his two oldest helicopters off the shelf and began an online quest for replacement parts. He misses seeing the giant one fly – it was his first, and we both have nice memories with it. “It isn’t right that it costs more to replace the broken parts than to buy a whole new one. It’s just a waste. It’s not right” he had lamented to me earlier that night. He’d admitted to me that he felt a deep sentiment towards this one particular heli – the big orange one he’d had since he was himself tiny – like the kind of feelings someone usually reserves for favorite stuffed animals. And I’d agreed. This machine was our friend, and we owed it to him to get him back in the air.

But it didn’t seem likely, from what we were learning. In fact, if we wanted to fly this one again, it just made economic sense to get a new one and use it for parts. Elihu resigned himself to this, but I could tell it disappointed him deeply. This was just another mild defeat which added to his sinking mood. I knew there was another piece too – one which he’d been keeping to himself because it was just too heartbreaking to speak aloud, and that was the absence of an old school chum from his life. The boy whose mother felt I made “bad parenting choices” by way of removing feathers from a dead owl or using a cuss word within earshot of my kid… She removed her son from the Waldorf School last year (no, I was not the reason for the change, although I’m sure it relieved her to be rid of me), and Elihu’s had a huge hole in his heart ever since. I emailed her recently about getting the boys together – completely on her terms, on her turf, whatever could work – but heard nothing back. That’s the way she handled the situation last time, and apparently it was still her method. Last year it took me three emails plus an intervention by the class teacher to get her to admit the reason she wouldn’t agree to our sons playing together. (Ironically she’s a psychologist and her job is to help people through communication. !) Plus the blog. She finds that to be the most dangerous of my bad parenting choices. Even after I removed every last image or mention of her son – and apologized profusely – even then it wasn’t enough to pacify her (when I apologized in person she had literally said “no worries”). And so my kid suffers. Many tears have fallen over this lost friendship, and we’ve spent hours parsing over the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might yets’. Elihu has learned to stuff it down, to forget it for now. But tonight, feeling the stress of being behind in his work, unable to fly his favorite toy and long out of touch with his old best friend, he succumbs.

He’s curled up into such a tight ball on his bed that I can’t lean in to kiss his forehead. Instead I kneel beside his bed and put my arms around him. “Mama, I’m really scared. I really am.” I hate to hear this from my brave, spirited and wise boy. But I can’t indulge in my own feelings of fear and uncertainty; I need to provide comfort. “What are you afraid of, sweetie?” I ask. “I’m just afraid,” he answers me. “Of everything.” I tell him that I am too, and that sometimes we just need to break things down and tackle them one at a time. He was behind, but still keeping to a schedule, so that was good. We’d found a website that sells his old helicopter, and that was good. And we’d sent an email to his friend, so we’d done all we could on that front. Until his friend was a teenager with his own ability to communicate with us, sadly that one would have to wait. But besides, wasn’t life sometimes magical for us? Didn’t the possibility exist that we might see him sometime when we were out and about in the world? After all, didn’t crazier, more serendipitous things happen to us from time to time? Elihu nodded his head a bit. I stroked his back and sat with him in silence for a moment. When he gradually straightened up, I could feel the bed was wet with tears where his head had been. I leaned in and kissed him. “It will be ok. It will.”

After our talk I’d left him to sleep, but even after two hours had passed he hadn’t been able to turn off his mind, to forget all that troubled him. Finally, he stormed into my room with Lenny, his favorite stuffed parrot, and harumphed as he dove into my bed. I didn’t say anything, I just turned off my computer and joined him. I understand so well the challenges of sleeping at night; my own thoughts race through the never-ending to-do lists and possible future scenarios, both hopeful – and frightening. Always just a couple steps ahead of a dire economic state, I live with a constant, low-level of stress which I’m afraid has somehow bled over into my son’s consciousness. I know our household is full of humor, music and nature. I know unquestionably that I have given Elihu the very best home life possible within my means. But I also know that he, like me, feels the edge on which we live. And he, like me, is physiologically prone to anxiety and panic. And he, like me, has no social life to distract or entertain him. He has but one friend with whom he meets outside of school, and those dates are too few, I know. He, like me, is for all intents and purposes, a loner. And that’s not a bad thing; for the most part we both enjoy living a quiet, isolated life in the country. Being a loner truly isn’t the same thing as being lonely, but tonight it really does feel just as bad as it sounds.

I realize that this will pass. Elihu’s an insightful kid, and so he knows this too. Things won’t always be thus. And no matter who or what it is that’s doing the flying – even his old favorite aviator, the tireless Wandering Albatross – not a one of them can keep on flying forever. Eventually everything must spend a little time on the ground.

 

Yearful May 19, 2014

It seems I should be feeling some enormous weight removed from my chest; a great lifting of spirit at the conclusion of a stressful Spring full of performances and commitments. And to some degree I do, I guess it’s just not quite the experience of bliss I’d thought it might end up being. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than relieved it’s all behind me now.) Last night the 8th through 12th grades of the Waldorf School did their end-of-year performances in Skidmore College’s ultra-modern and gorgeous Zankel Music Theatre. After having secretly dealt with the idea of panick attacks resurfacing at such an event – and meditating daily to mitigate their probability, and even in spite of having taken 3x the normal dosage of Xanax to stave off such attacks from hitting onstage, I was nonetheless side-swiped, mid-performance, by a couple of doozies. The difference between the recent attacks and those of some thirty years ago is mostly the medicine, I think, and also a good deal of high-intensity mental energy spent beforehand in preparation. Those two things seem to make the attacks the slightest bit more bearable. But no matter how prepared you’d like to be, if you suffer from em, there’s really no hiding to be done; they’ll find you eventually. And let me tell you – that shit is not fun to deal with. It definitely takes away from you being able to enjoy – and fully live into and perform into – the moment. I just kept reminding myself that my role was supportive, that my job was to make movement easier for the kids; to make the movement as intuitive as the sound itself. I just kept thinking my only job is to make a beautiful sound… It helped a bit, but not as much as I’d hoped. But in the end, as it is with any on-stage errors, those that I made were much larger in my head than in reality. (Although I’m not going to be checking the Skidmore live broadcast archive to prove that theory. !!)

It was a lovely night. The teachers have the routine of the end-of-year performance down. So do the kids. They struck and re-set that stage ten times that night and kept the program moving along. Yeah, it was long, but yeah, it was also impressive, diverse and heartfelt. How proud I was of every kid up there. Hell, this may well be what it feels like to be a part of any school I suppose. I have nothing to compare it to, so I can’t be sure. But I had such feelings for all the kids on that stage… How can one not have strong feelings of solidarity after having gone through so much together through the long school year? But there’s just something about knowing each kid – even if it’s just their name – there’s something wonderful about having some sort of relationship to them – however small (in my case I’m the accompanist for movement and chorus classes – not super-exciting perhaps, but the kids do know that Miss Elizabeth used to be a real musician once upon a time. Seems she used to tour… she just might be kinda cool. Not sure, but there’s a small chance that the thought exists among the populace…) I could look upon any one of those faces and feel something unique… And I consider it no small blessing that I’ll come to know most of these children as they grow up over the next few years. How lucky am I?

Well, I’m a pretty lucky lady if for no other reason that I finally know how it feels to play a truly in-tune piano. !! And a honking big one at that. Same fellow who tunes my piano tunes the 10 foot Steinway I played on this night. Must give that fellow a call soon. My piano quickly became a disappointment after playing this gorgeous, responsive creature. Only wish I’d felt freer to really enjoy myself on it. There’s always next year. But I’m on it- getting ready for it already…

As life tends to do, the landmark events quickly and unceremoniously move into the mundane, everyday landscape of regular life. Within hours of leaving the stage with an arm full of flowers, it was life as usual. A visit to the local animal shelter, a stop at the town cemetery, the taking care of domestic tasks forgotten all week in favor of prior committments. The big news this week was not so much the performance at Zankel as it was the installation of our new dishwasher. And yes, you naysayers, I have found it to be just as life-transforming as I’d hoped! At least three hours of time have become mine since I first began to use it late Friday night.  And my counters are CLEAN and EMPTY for the FIRST time in my nearly six years here. If folks don’t already know, I’m a BIG fan of right angles and empty surfaces. I like it when things are put where they belong. My life may be a mess, but God please grant me clean-looking counter tops. That way at least it looks like everything’s perfectly under control.  !

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Ok, so this is how the day starts. Josh will be installing my new dishwasher as I go about my very busy day.

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We started out early with Grandparent’s Day at school. Mom in back at left, Elihu in front at right with pal Ben. Note the drawings on their desks that they’ve made on Classical Greece (their recent study block.)

IMG_3300Class Five gives a performance of a classical Greek poem for an audience of grandparents in the Eurythmy room . It was done masterfully.

IMG_3203This is a regular eurythmy class. The idea is simply that sound is made visible through movement. Kinda like dance, but not exactly.

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Here the class is given direction for a new piece.

IMG_3236Same room, now it’s used for orchestra. This is the most utilized, multi-functional room I have ever, ever seen.

IMG_3237The bass section.

IMG_3307Later on the same day, here we are at Zankel. Fancy shmancy indeed.

IMG_3331We started with a little eurythmy rehearsal on stage in the late afternoon.

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Now the High School orchestra rehearses.

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Eurythmy in traditional costumes which show and enhance the movement so beautifully.

IMG_3415Alex has a solo in the Bach.

IMG_3418Recorder ensemble.

IMG_3422The Waldorf acapella  group. Sublime.

IMG_3424Yay!

IMG_3431A nice shot of the High School Chorus

IMG_3433They did some great pieces, including  a lively arrangement of  ‘Ain-a That Good News’ by William Dawson.

IMG_3414It’s growing next to impossible to take a candid of this 11 year old boy. Screws up his face as soon as he sees me lift the lens… Mom is in the striped shirt. She’s been with us since before 8 this morning, and it’s now well past 8 p.m. Long day…

IMG_3409Backstage the ninth grade girls dish…

IMG_3411And Miss Elizabeth tries to secretly listen in on what ‘the kids are talking about these days’….

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Hey look! They got me flowers!! Apparently, they’d planned on giving them to me onstage with some fanfare, but I’d quietly slunk off after my bit was done. This is a new world to me! I was so very touched. Plus I just LOVE fresh flowers. A wonderful night. And did I mention the Steinway was ten feet long? Almost looked like a mistake it was so honkin big. And those bass strings. UN real.  Woo hoo!

IMG_3686Ok, the night’s program was beautiful, the whole day in fact was a marvel, but this is the height of it all: a new dishwasher was at home just waiting for me!!

IMG_3443A dishwasher and flowers. !!

IMG_3280The next day starts out cool and green…

IMG_3219Elihu’s taken my camera to document our life from his perspective for a little while…

IMG_3212This is what lil man sees from his world in the backseat…

IMG_3217…and this is what’s on his mind most of the time.

IMG_3491On our way to the 4H meeting, I was struck by fresh activity in our long-dormant village cemetery…

IMG_3473We stopped to see that a local woman who’d died in early January was just being buried now.

IMG_3489Having just begun to read a book on the current culture of death in our country, I was fascinated and had to stop.

IMG_3488Wherever dear Agnes is now, I hope she can share in the joy Elihu finds in making a lovely, resonant percussive sound on the structure designed to lower her casket down into the vault. (I learned the proper terms from the man who’d set it all up a bit earlier.)

IMG_3493As a child, I’d ride my bike to cemetery hill and pump myself a refreshing drink of water at this now dry hand pump.

IMG_3499And this is how I think of this place looking. Most graves are over a hundred years old on the hilltop.

IMG_3524We’re over the hill and on the other side of Greenfield now at the locally well-known Estherville Animal Shelter for our 4H meeting.

IMG_3532It’s a very casual place, a casual bunch.

IMG_3541Aged horse Stardust (yes, I sang him his song) and goat Blossom routinely stand in the newly paved road. All of my 51 years this was a bumpy, uninviting dirt road which posed no threat to these two residents. Now the cars zip thru here and I can’t help but worry…

IMG_3545Elihu doped up good on allergy meds for moments such as these.

IMG_3554…and for these too.

IMG_3560Elihu found his sweet spot it seems.

IMG_3587Jessie and Sam – in the 4H shirts – are daughters of a guy I’ve known since I was their age. It’s nice to have continuity like that in the kind of displaced world in which we live in these days.

IMG_3578See this is why I have a ‘no hooved animal’ policy at our home. Give em an inch… Blossom is joining the party without an invitation…

IMG_3597After the club kids go home, Elihu remains to brush Stardust a bit. He’s got a lot of wild, winter hair coming off him and could use a little help being groomed.

IMG_3601Apparently goat Blossom and horse Stardust are inseparable.

IMG_3607After a good grooming they’re in search of treats in one of the out buildings.

IMG_3679Coming home to a clean, open counter. Oooooohhhh

IMG_3684See how nicely my flowers fit in the open space? What a nice reminder of our lovely weekend.

I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to a load of magically washed dishes. Truly, it feels like the dawning of a sparkling, new age.

Grateful to all I am.

 

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.

 

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.