Somebody That I Used to Know

Since Alana Concetta’s death, I’ve felt unable to write. Yet life reminds me in so many ways that she wanted me to write. She encouraged me to write about her battles with mental illness and how I coped. She thought I could be a voice of hope in a world where too many parents ignore their child’s mental illness because they think it’s a reflection on their parenting.

She wrote “The stigma of mental illness is alive and well.”

But I have resisted writing and this resistance has made my grief even worse. Writing about my feelings helps me acknowledge and process them. Keeping them inside has made me feel like the proverbial elephant sitting on my chest.

It’s hard to breathe.

I keep them inside for fear my feelings will be used against me and used against Alana. But as the months pass, I keep going back to the fact that I raised my children in a family of secrets, of things we didn’t say and things we didn’t acknowledge. I took Nora Ephron’s advice late in life to “be the heroine in your story, not the victim.”

I left my marriage and New Hampshire after my ex husband kicked the kitchen island down and pinned me to a wall and told me I should consider myself lucky he took his anger out on the kitchen island rather than my face.

I decided I no longer wanted to be a victim.

But still I find myself eating my feelings and swallowing my words. I fear what my divorce lawyer might say when we end up in court again because my ex intends to drag this out until there is nothing left to fight over. I worry that my words will be used against me when Alana’s boyfriend finally goes to trial for her death. I ache at the thought I will hurt my remaining daughter with my words.

But I can’t keep it inside any longer.

Depression is a medical disease with a high mortality rate. Being hospitalized for depression is like being in an Intensive care unit as the person’s life hangs in the balance. These are the words Alana Concetta‘s psychiatrist at the Brattleboro Retreat told me and listening to these words gave me two more years with her.

I wish I could have had another fifty.

Instead she is dead and I don’t know how and I have accepted I never will. Two medical examiners have weighed in, both admit she was beaten, strangled, and had a lethal dose of heroin in her system. One states she died of strangulation, the other a heroin overdose.

Where the heroin came from is anyone’s guess.

The day she died, I went to her boyfriend’s house, at his request,  to pick her up. She was face down on the floor, her dog, Baxter, next to her. She was the last person I performed CPR on.

The part I struggle with is that we were working so hard on her mental illness. Taking classes with NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). Understanding that her unreliability was a symptom of her illness rather than a lack of consideration. Figuring out that her reluctance to make plans wasn’t flakiness but rather an acknowledgement on her part that sometimes she didn’t know from day to day whether she could get out of bed and participate.

I understand all of that now.

Since my daughter’s death, depression is my constant companion. Anxiety and stress visit on a regular basis. I never know when something will trigger me to tears or despair.

My mental health is dependent on medications, exercise, yoga, and keeping busy.

See, if you keep busy it is harder to dwell on the pain.

Since Alana’s death I feel her pain. I feel the strength it takes to get out of bed each day and go on with my life. I understand how hard life was for her.

She was so much stronger than any of us gave her credit for her.

And so I will try to write to honor her and her struggles. Try to feel my feelings and speak my words. Let people know that having a child with mental illness isn’t something to be covered up and ignored.

It’s the least I can do.

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Family Rules

When we left New Hampshire, we left an environment where Alana’s mental illness was considered attention seeking and my support of her getting healthy was considered being a sucker.

As we settled into our new routine in South Carolina, Alana came home one day with a sign listing our new family rules. They were so unlike the ones we lived under before. We were used to criticism rather than compassion, angry explosions in place of laughter, bitter rants instead of gratitude. It wasn’t until we were out of that place that we could understand how unnatural it was.

With the upcoming arrival of a grand daughter who will never physically know her Aunt Alana, these are the things I learned from Alana and hope to pass on to the newest member of our family:

We use our words

We feel our feelings

We lick faces

We make mistakes

We practice being kind over being right

We celebrate little victories

We pop the bubble wrap

We’re never too old to play the floor is lava

We will hug you fiercely and we will love you forever

A Farewell to Dad

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father.  When my sister called and asked me to accompany her and my brother to his deathbed, I went, even though I hadn’t spoken to my dad in 22 years. I did it, I thought, for my siblings. Turns out I really did it for me.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

When we entered the room where my dad lay dying, he looked exactly like his father had 22 years before. His head, covered with silvery gray hair, was thrown back on the pillow, his mouth gaped open, and harsh, irregular breathing filled the room.  Though the nurses said he could hear us, he was unresponsive.

Unlike my grandfather, who died at home in his living room, my father began his death in an intensive medical care unit. Outside the unit a sign warned us to wear masks due to a flu outbreak.  He was on contact precautions so before we entered his room we added gowns and gloves to the masks that covered our faces. The constant beep of monitors and the intrusion of nurses to empty his catheter, titrate his medications, and turn and position him widened the space between us and him.

It was hard to break that space.

The death of a parent, even a parent that never embraced the traditional role and remained more of a Peter Pan man-child than a King Triton type of dad, is hard. When it’s a father you’ve only seen from a distance for the past 22 years, one you’ve ducked down grocery store aisles to avoid and maintained at least a one room separation from at family gatherings,  it’s a little harder.

In Al-Anon they say one can detach with love or detach with dynamite. I’d always seen my choice, dynamite, as irrevocable.  As I smoothed his hair, wrapped his hand around mine, and reminisced about our shared past, I realized I was wrong.

Even though it was too late to repair the damage done to our relationship, it wasn’t too late to remember the good times we once shared.

In the time we spent alone, I played him the songs we knew together and the ones I’d grown to love since then. Kenny Chesney sang “Boys of Summer” in the background and I talked about fall in New Hampshire, football games my older brother played in, and towns we had rivalries with. Willie Nelson crooned “Always on my Mind” while I told him about the toast  my youngest gave at her sister’s wedding and how it reminded me of him. Craig Morgan sang “Almost Home” as I retold stories of the friends and family that had predeceased him. Over and over, I told him it was okay to let go.

But, he hung on.

The palliative care nurse practitioner said he wouldn’t survive once they stopped the medications, but the medications stopped and he didn’t. Then they said the ambulance ride to the hospice might kill him. One last road trip, I murmured as the stretcher rolled into the Florida sun and bumped up into the ambulance, yet still he hung on.  We can keep him pain-free, they said at the hospice, but it might hasten his death. It doesn’t matter, we told them, yet in spite of the pain and anti anxiety medicine, he breathed on. We sat by his bedside and laughed, prayed, told stories, cried. We watched him take one agonizing breath after another and we held our breath each time they stopped. But he kept breathing.

It wasn’t until late the second night, with all of his children around his bed, that he opened his eyes, took one last breath, and died.

My clearest memory of childhood is my father’s lectures at the dinner table. He’d tell us look around this table, these are the only people you can trust. These are the only people who love you unconditionally and will love you even if you grow up to be a murderer, a rapist, or a thief. For years I joked about his low expectations for us instead of focusing on the other part, how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to love and look out for each other.

Perhaps he hung on to make sure we’d learned the lessons he’d taught us. Even me, the daughter who had ignored him for 22 years.

If we get to make our own heaven, I have no doubt he’s in a place where the Jameson flows freely and the stories and laughter never stop and he is surrounded by people who love him.

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father, and, in the end, I loved him still.

Alcoholism: A Family Affair

It takes an enormous amount of energy to live in an alcoholic family in denial. “Loose lips sink ships,” my father said and our family currency became half-truths and lies. My dad wasn’t a drunk. He liked to drink. He wasn’t an alcoholic because he didn’t go to AA. Even thirty days in rehab didn’t stop the denial. We unknowingly snuck him out one night when he begged us to visit and then told us we could take him into town for an outing. I knew it wasn’t because he missed us, but because he missed the liquor store.

العربية: مجموعة مشروبات كحولية. Català: Divers...

العربية: مجموعة مشروبات كحولية. Català: Diverses begudes alcohòliques. Cymraeg: Rhai diodydd alcoholig traddodiadol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See, no matter how many drunken speeches an alcoholic makes about how he loves his family, he loves the alcohol more. Deep down, his family knows this. We did. We heard it in the next-day apologies for his drunken behavior. We saw it in the glaze of his eyes. It reverberated in the clink of empty bottles.

As I grew older, it became harder and harder to convince myself that I was content in a relationship where I came in second to a bottle of booze. Eventually, he succeeded in pushing me away and I let him. For that, I am grateful.

Growing up with an alcoholic taught me to be careful and cautious and scared. It made me evaluate every drink I take. It forces me to analyze every slurred word or stumble I make when I’m drinking. All of my interactions with alcohol are judged on a strict scale because, due to my family history, I’m only a few drinks away from being an alcoholic. I carry that burden with every drink I take.

Maybe that’s where I break the cycle. I love my kids more than I’ll ever love booze.

Yes, alcoholism is a disease. Yes, some of us are genetically predisposed. And it might be unfair, and un-politically correct, but on some level I still believe that if my father had loved us enough, he would have given up alcohol and I guess I’ll never forgive him for that decision.

All I can do is not make the same mistake he did.

 

I Miss My Things

I miss my things.

Missing: My Things

Missing: My Things

It’s been 2 weeks and 2 days since the moving company arrived at my house and ushered all of my most prized personal possessions into their big truck. When they were done, I received a copy of the packing list and they drove off, promising to reunite me and my things within a week.

It didn’t happen.

I’ve called my relocation specialist several times and received vague promises of a delivery soon. “I’ll call you back in a few days to firm it up,” he assures me. But no call comes.

It’s amazing how empty a house is with only two beds, a dining room set, and two folding tables. It echoes.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden claims “The things you own end up owning you,” and I wish I could be more zen-like and unattached about not having my things, but that would be a lie. I miss my things. My desk, mostly, and my comfortable desk chair. The asthma medication I ran out of several days ago that I can’t refill because there’s a three-month supply on the truck. A cookie sheet. My spice collection. Extra vacuum cleaner bags. The whiteboard for my refrigerator. Even though it seems like a random collection of stuff, it’s the stuff that makes a house a home and grounds me. I need it.

Okay. I don’t need it. I want it.

The things I need are already here. The love of my family. My dogs. Good health. A creative mind. A sense of peace and rightness in my world. The truck didn’t take any of that, I did.

Having a desk to put it on doesn’t seem that big a deal after all.

Cats: Not to be Trusted

Image

Please note: No cats were hurt in the writing of this blog post.

My daughter’s dog has a cat. He loves his cat. Yes, that’s his picture above. He’s grooming his cat. He enjoys it. The cat appears to enjoy it too.

There are many things I love about sharing a house with my daughter. I love how she accentuates the positive. I love how she tells my inner mean girl to shut up. I love that she pay attention to what I have to say. I even love her dogs.

I just hate her dog’s cat.

Cat

Cat (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

It’s bad enough that cats cause depression, use litter boxes, and indiscriminately kill birds and rodents, but her cat sneaks into my office late at night when I’m asleep and messes with my stuff.

At first I blamed the dogs (cats are expert at shifting blame), until I realized if one of the big dogs leapt onto my desk it would collapse and the mini beagle can’t jump that high. No way dogs were dancing on my desk at night and leaving my papers in a disarray. My suspicions were confirmed the morning I opened my office door to find the cat guiltily looking up from a pile of papers. He fled through a secret entrance back into his bedroom before I could react. After I picked up the papers and straightened out my desk,  I found the cat pee.

Luckily he missed the laptop, kindle and ipad. His watery destructiveness was limited to the desktop calendar, my favorite Grammar Girl book, and a few pages of miscellaneous  notes. Enough to tick me off, but not enough to ruin my day.

Kattenbak

Kattenbak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it certainly didn’t ruin the cat’s day, mainly because cat’s are hard to discipline.

A dog will drop into a submissive pose and look guilty even if he isn’t. A cat won’t.

A dog will understand he’s done something wrong and attempt to worm his way back into your good graces. A cat doesn’t.

Cats are resistant to having their nose rubbed in something, their snouts lightly tapped, or hearing the words “bad cat.” Almost like their egos are so large they can’t conceive of doing wrong. Cats are very egocentric, possibly sociopathic.

Which is why, in spite of the cat’s bad behavior, I’ll take no further action than to block his secret tunnel. As the bad boys of domesticated animals, I can’t spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder and wondering how he plans to take his revenge. You know, like entwining himself in my feet as I descend the stairs or pinning me under the blankets and smothering me. And that’s only the cat tricks I know about. Imagine how many devious little feline machinations remain secret.

On second thought, don’t imagine that. If you do and there’s a cat in your house, you’ll never sleep well again. And if there is a cat in the house, sleep with one eye open. Cats aren’t to be trusted.

(Evil) cat

(Evil) cat (Photo credit: zven-ug)