My Definition of Hero

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I was going to make note of the death by suicide of Robin Williams, but so much of what I might have to say has been said in my series of posts I recently wrote here, here and here.

I cannot know what the layer of complexity of celebrity does to one’s psyche as I’ve never experienced it, nor will I.  I just know as a normal nobody that the despair and sense of nothingness and desperation to make the pain end were palpable in my case, and the selfishness this desire engendered wasn’t pretty, or rational.

Suicide touches us all – at least in the first world countries.  Really, is there a person reading this who hasn’t known someone to commit the act?  In my own case, the first suicide I knew of was the mother of a school friend, and then I knew of several other kids over the years who had parents who killed themselves – talk about selfish!  Yep.  (But hey, I’m not judging as I was in that exact position years later.)

When I got older, luckily I never had a friend commit suicide (although that is a terrible phenomena for lots of teenagers), but I remember my mother had a colleague from work who did kill herself.  My mother’s reaction was much scarier to me than the shock of it – she said she understood it and could see doing it herself if things got too bad.  Well, she’d already tried when I was eight years old, for gods’ sake, so even though she did a half-assed job of it, she wasn’t repulsed by it.

My father’s reaction to suicide is exactly that – repugnance.  He’s had tough times, too – lost two wives to death (not by suicide, but illness), lost his job and family and house.  And he tells me that he never, not once, thought of harming himself.  I don’t think that makes him some sort of hero, but it is an interesting contrast between my parents and does speak to why they fundamentally have such different world views (and are long divorced.)

As these two’s daughter, I admit to swinging both ways.  Mostly, as a former mental health professional, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the state of despair that underlies suicide.  But I’m not quite as sympathetic to the act itself because of the devastation left in its wake.

When one is in the pit, they are usually not thinking about that devastation.  About the wife or father or child who will find the body in that state, who will panic and try desperately to revive their loved one, or have a sense of their world shifting on its axis in one horrible moment of thudding reality as they see a head blown off, or smell piss and shit from a body hanging from a belt, having let go of its sphincters.  These are some of the realities that the person wanting to just end their emotional (or sometimes physical) pain doesn’t take into account usually.

And the ripple effect of this devastation – no person thinking of suicide can anticipate this.  One suicide in a family can make others so much more acceptable and then that much more likely to occur.  Kurt Cobain had a long family history of suicide.  Not uncommon.  Probably also a long family history of depression and/or substance abuse to self medicate, too.

I, too, come from a family history of both unipolar and bipolar depression.  I’ve certainly suffered from it and so have my son and mother – well, I’ve written a fair amount about her bipolar illness.

The one thing that makes my mother my hero is the following – unlike my father who has a strong, visceral repugnance to suicide and self-harm, my mother does not.  She views it as rational, acceptable, understandable – even a release in some cases.  But up to now she’s made a conscious decision to NOT do it.  I’m not saying she isn’t still flirting with idea; she certainly is, as witnessed by last year’s contact with the State of Oregon (a tragic/comedy of errors apparently as nobody she talked to even knew what the hell she was talking about!).  But flirting and doing are two different things.  And she’s been clear – she doesn’t want to kill herself because of the effect it will inevitably have on me and my son, her grandson.

She is less concerned about me at this point, but she’s very concerned about her grandson.  I can appreciate this, as he’s quite frankly, more volatile than I am.  For one thing, he’s younger – for another, as a man, his choice of method would most likely be more fatal than a woman’s (this is only going by statistics, but I’ve talked to him about it and what he’s mentioned is no doubt close to 100% fatal.)

So my mom, my crazy and crazy-making mother who will be 80 on August 29, doesn’t want to create a family legacy of suicide.  And for that, she is and always will be my hero.  She is doing something that is, for her, extremely hard, because every time she’s in the pit, she wants to die.  Every single time – even on medication.  But she’s learned over time that her pit is temporary and if she can just ride it out, she will feel better eventually.  When eventually is may not be predictable, but eventually will come.

So that’s my definition of hero.

I do feel sad that Robin Williams couldn’t hang on a bit longer.  I do understand both intellectually and on a gut level, the despair that drove him, but I don’t think I could ever say he’s a hero, because he has either perpetuated a family history (I don’t know his family background with mental illness/substance abuse/alcoholism/suicide) or perhaps even worse, now created a legacy of suicide which is not the thing any parent wants to pass on to their kids.  His pain is over – his family’s is only continuing.



More Readerly Detours – But Not Much Writing

old fashioned woman reading 2I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.  Also learning Spanish.  Two things that have nothing, necessarily, to do with writing.

Yep, I’ve been in a slump for the past number of weeks.  I hear my husband click clacking on the computer keys and feel . . . like picking up a book or my kindle and reading some more.  His writing output which right now is prodigious doesn’t necessarily spur me on to writing productivity.  In fact, I feel a bit depressed about the whole thing.

Oh well.

I don’t think the Spanish helps with the writing, but I suspect the reading does.  I know I mentioned that I had discovered J.A. Konrath by finding kindle bargains on  He’s a terrific mystery writer, if you like that sort of thing.  Which I do!

I’ve always been a fan of mysteries.  Yesterday at my in-laws, we got on the topic by a circuitous pathway, of where we’re headed on a quickie vacation week after next.  “Pismo Beach,” I said.  And then I remembered Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet – and this was his favorite place to escape from LA., too.  Who was the sidekick?  Harry Morgan played Bill Gannon, the perfect foil for Jack Webb’s deadpan Joe Friday. But this funky memory of Pismo Beach led me to remark that I’d loved Dragnet as a child and that this probably was the reason I loved police procedurals as an adult (yes, I’ve saturated myself in the Law & Order franchise, even watching the British version, so there.)

One summer I read all of Raymond Chandler – even the Black Mask stories.  I must have been in college when I did that and it was an effort to find everything, since this was a few years before the internet.  Yes, I’m that old.  Stop it.

But anyway – mysteries are my all time favorite genre of fiction.  Second to that is probably the more literary fiction and third, I’m embarrassed to admit this, is chick lit.  Well, no need to be embarrassed, right?  Okay, yeah, I guess there’s a reason to be a little teensy weensy bit embarrassed.  A lot of it isn’t that great.  But a lot of genre fiction from a literary standpoint isn’t that great.  What IS great is the story.  The plot.  The characters that you learn to love or hate – or both.

So . . . one of the genres that I’ve never really been able to connect with much is science fiction.

Another detour.  About a year and a half ago my son said I had to read Game of Thrones.  I tried.  I read the first ten or twenty pages – and I hated it.  It was confusing.  It was “dark” and well, confusing.  I couldn’t imagine it as I was reading and that’s fatal for this reader.  When I pick up a book, if I’m going to be captured by it, I can imagine the scene in my mind.  I’m a pretty visual thinker, so this is how it works for me.  Your mileage may vary if you’re a more kinesthetic or auditory thinker.

Well, with GoT, I was just lost.  And the premise of supernatural stuff happening . . . I just couldn’t get it, no matter how much my son tried to talk to me about it.

Then I had occasion to see the first episode on HBO.  It was great!  For the first time, the scene was alive and visual and I decided to give the book a second try.

And this time, with some visual help from the TV show, I got into the book, and I got captured and finished all five books in short order.

So even though fantasy is not a genre I generally like – I was able to fall in love with A Song of Ice and Fire  – after some help.

Same with horror – not a genre I generally like, but I’ve found Stephen King to be a pretty decent author of it.  I started out with The Stand and again, I read that when the TV mini-series was showing (this is years ago.)  I recognized it was a basically religious story, so that helped me with it, too.

But I have very little interest in a lot of King’s work.  I’ve read Misery which has no supernatural stuff in it, and about a year ago I read 11/22/63 which has a time travel device, but is essentially an historical novel about the Kennedy assassination (in case you didn’t catch the date.)

Now I’m at the beginning of The Shining.

About six months ago we watched the Kubrick film of the book, and even though I saw it ages ago, it felt very fresh to me.  It’s an interesting film but I can also see why King didn’t like it much.  I’ve also seen the TV mini-series that was done a few years ago which is truer to King’s vision of his own story.  It was also good, but visually it didn’t pack the punch of Kubrick’s version.

So I decided to try the book myself.  And I’m loving it.  Yes, it’s got a supernatural theme in it but to me it’s the story of an alcoholic writer which in all those permutations, holds a lot of interest to me, more than the supernatural stuff actually.

So back to science fiction.  After many detours.

Because I find it fun to tool around Kindle – I somehow stumbled upon a book with the curious title of Wool.  By an author I’d never heard of, Hugh Howey.  (For some reason, that name, Hugh Howey, reminds me of Sylvester the Cat lisping “Sufferin’ Succotash” – too much sibilance, I guess.)

Wool blew me away – and it’s science fiction.  Who knew?  I ended up reading in short order the remaining parts of the “Silo” trilogy, Shift and Dust.

Perhaps it was the knitting references that pulled me in.  The author originally self published Wool in small novella-like pieces – each titled for the handling of the substance of wool – “Proper Gauge,” “Casting Off,” “The Unraveling,” and “The Stranded.”  Only the first section, “Holston” has no sneaky references to knitting.  But it was the first section that totally grabbed me and hurled me into this dystopian future.

The other grabber was that there were strong female characters throughout.  The primary character is named Juliette (yes, after Romeo & you know . . .), but even besides her there are fully realized women in the Mayor Jahn, Shirly, Courtnee, Anna, Charlotte, and others.  One negative I had with the books, though, is that the bad guys are all men with the possible exception of Anna, who we aren’t sure of (of course she turns out to be a good person.)  That’s a weakness of the story – because this is a fairly egalitarian world he’s created, it’s entirely probable that women would be just as reprehensible as men at times.

The story has a few other plot weaknesses, but overall, it’s an engaging, fun read.  There’s plenty of twists and turns and “black moments” to keep you turning pages, or swiping them if you’re on a kindle.  But in the end, although not completely positive, there’s a nascent hopefulness that gives it a satisfying closure.

Although there is no supernatural element to the story, there is the use of science fact, stretched to logical, or at least possible, conclusions.   What if nanotechnology can be used as a weapon in warfare?  What if propofol became the newest psychotropic drug, used to erase painful, negative memories?  What if we had perfected the hibernation of people?  All of these pseudo scientific elements in the near future (although Wool and Dust take place in 2345, the second book Shift brings it back to 2049) form the backdrop for the actions taken.

It’s the Waking Dead, not the Walking Dead, but both are set near Atlanta.  And the waking are not “dead” exactly, just in the deep freeze for decades at a time.  And nobody remembers their recent past, their legacy, due to their water being “treated” with the memory erasing drug.  And when a group gets out of line or threatens to – they are dispatched via nanos that attack their bodily systems from the inside with no way to escape them.

Of course, people not being robots (at least not quite yet), some of them do the courageous thing – they don’t conform, they make trouble, they get sneaky and attack back – and in these books a lot of these courageous ones die for their trouble.   Our heroine, Juliette, survives although she pays a high price with loss of friends and lovers and a new, painful understanding of both her people’s legacy and their possible future, which is left a bit unknown.

All in all, a great read, even if – or especially if – you don’t like science fiction.


This is What It’s Like (The Mom Chronicles, Part 3)

This is what it’s like.

The dog is barking.  The doorbell is ringing.  I’m asleep – or trying to be – on a Sunday morning at nine.  Roughly roused from slumber by the sounds of Izzy and doorbell, I finally emerge to find my mother mounting the hardwood stairs.

“I was ringing the doorbell.  I finally used my key – and here I am!”

“Oh.”  I’m tired and grumpy in my flimsy nightgown – my hair needs washing and I feel taken over by the ground invasion that is my mother.

She has stuff.  Stuff to give me.  All from the dollar store.  Excited, she sits down and begins to hand me things from her bag – a book for my husband to read, another book full of recipes from the Special K folks (so it’s about dieting, gee, thanks), another straw hat, family memorabilia from my Aunt B, a magazine called “South Bay”, a long indecipherable letter about all the stuff, and a check.

“I wrote to the magazine and told them that their magazine was too expensive.  It needs to be less.”

I don’t doubt she wrote them.  In her handwriting that only a doctor would love, I imagine they will tack her letter up on a board somewhere and chortle as they puzzle out the scratchings from a gray-haired Roseanne Rosannadanna.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my mother is manic right now.  It happens every few months.  She is bipolar, type I.

She has probably been bipolar most of her life and now, at just under 80, it’s no better.

She lives about three quarters of a mile away from us, and this morning has probably been up since four or five am so by nine, she’s had three cups of coffee (“the coffee at Rod’s is terrible!”) and wants more, wants a cigarette, and is just gearing up to say more and faster.  Her emotions are raw and  mostly annoyed – at everything and everybody.

“So I was pissed when you pooh-poohed getting the couch reupholstered.  I might live to be 90.  I can do what I want.  I’ve got the money.”

She does.  She has a great pension, courtesy of the people of the County of Los Angeles.  Our tax dollars at work – but I’m grateful, of course.  I don’t want her to be living in near poverty, but her buying ramps up significantly when she’s manic.  A lot of stuff she buys she ends up giving away or throwing away.  When she’s not manic she is full of financial fear and self opprobrium, paying off credit cards and hunkering down in depression.

But now, with the inflation and grandiosity in full swing, she’s exhausting.

This is what it’s like.

She doesn’t drive anymore.  But she wants to maintain as much independence as possible, so she’s learned to take Dial-a-Ride and even the LA County transportation for elders and disabled folks called Access.

Usually this works pretty well, but minor disaster seems to follow her when she’s manic.

It starts as many of the minor disasters do  – with her having had no sleep for a day or more.

She was at Albertson’s when they opened and got money out of her bank ATM at the store.  She got $400, the maximum allowed, and bought a carton of cigarettes.

She also left her wallet at the store.

Not realizing this, of course, she walked home and was picked up by Access a few hours later.  Taken to the mall in Torrance, she realized the wallet was gone when she went to pay the driver.  She asked (or demanded) to be taken back to the grocery store so she could retrieve it.

Now, it helps to pause and realize a few things.  Some of which I only learned after this whole thing had blown up.  One, Access is a service that you have to qualify for – they have a procedure and member number and a whole host of things for the population they serve.  Dial-a-Ride only serves people within the city, but Access takes them further.  Where we live, there are about five communities that are nearby each other, but each are separate cities.  So even though Torrance isn’t that far, Dial-A-Ride won’t take her there.  Both services are inexpensive to seniors and usually have regular drivers, some of whom even know my mom by name.

What I didn’t know but learn after the calls and waiting and being hung up on, is that when Access is low on drivers, they contract with local cab companies to do the pick-ups and deliveries of people.  Which means that the alternate drivers may not be at the same quality as their regular drivers – that is, in dealing with a cranky elderly woman with a mental disorder and a grandiose sense of entitlement.

But whether it’s a regular driver, or a contracted cabbie – Access is supposed to just pick up the person at the appointed time and deliver them where they have agreed to go, not just drive them hither and zither.

So the perfect storm – she couldn’t pay and wanted to go back and the driver didn’t have good English language skills to boot.  He didn’t understand what she was asking for and wasn’t supposed to do this anyway.

So, being manic, she got pissy and loud and slow, trying to enunciate her words as if he was deaf, not just unable to understand English very well.  He finally understood what she was asking and after pleading that he wasn’t supposed to do this, he relented.

Amazing what a sense of entitlement will do to buffalo those around you.

So he drove her back to the Albertson’s in Redondo Beach and parked.  She managed to toddle in to get her wallet (of course missing the money! but debit and credit cards left untouched), and when she left the store and crab walked out – the driver was gone.

With her walker in his trunk.

A few hours later, after I’d picked her up and delivered her home, after I’d made numerous calls and been on hold a few times, after I’d made a formal complaint about abandoning an elderly person and without her walker – after I’d talked to the cab company directly, all without having eaten and just gotten out of my shower, with dripping hair, I realized that –

This is what it’s like.

This was also my life growing up.

And nothing much has changed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  She’s older and more vulnerable now, and some of the symptoms of manic behavior have moderated.  No longer the indiscriminate sexuality, for example.

Yes, she’s medicated.  Yes, she has a psychiatrist.  I have a hard time remembering what it was like before she was medicated (I think I’ve blocked a lot of that out), but images come:

  • a naked man and woman asleep downstairs in our townhouse – yes, that’s my naked mother, but who’s the guy?  my eight-year-old self wonders;
  • the vacuum cleaner running at 2 and 3 in the morning;
  • my room never my own as she comes in and cleans and reorganizes it for me, instead of making me do it myself because I do a bad job (hey, I’m not too proud to admit I learned to use this for my own ends);
  • her anger flaring at my minor indiscretions so I learn to be careful around her at some times versus other times when I can easily get my way;
  • her crumpled body on the landing from falling asleep at the top of the stairs and taking a tumble.  This results in stitches from cracking her skull; and
  • spending a week at my aunt and uncle’s after she makes a suicide attempt (again, I was about eight years old.)

This is what it’s like.

Her depression is not exhausting, except to her, but it is, in some ways, more frightening.  Last year she contacted the State of Oregon to find out if she could just take the train up there and utilize their assisted suicide law (the answer is probably no, as she is not a resident of the state.)  But apparently nobody she talked to had any clue what she was asking, she told me with disgust.

Maybe she was disgusted, but I was horrified.

Not that she wanted to commit suicide.  When she’s not manic, when she’s depressed, she’s severely depressed.  Of course she thinks about suicide.

No, my horror was that she took the action of trying to figure out a more socially acceptable way to end her life, and her matter-of-factness about it.  As if she was just ordering a pizza.

This is what it’s like.

When manic, she always asks for a computer.  This is something we try to deter by foot dragging and just not talking about it.  My husband makes a good point that her, with a computer, would be possibly lethal.  Not that the computer would reach out and strangle her, but that she would be vulnerable to phishers and online scammers, to spending money even more profligately than she already does, and frankly that her various demands on me would amp up if she had email.  It’s frightening what damage she could do with a computer.

Once she downshifts in her mood, talk of a computer is over and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course her learning how to use a computer, or anything that is electronic, is an ongoing issue.  We recently got her a DVD player and my husband patiently got it all set up, going over the instructions on how to use it.  A week later she announced that it was broken and that my husband needed to fix it.

This is, by the bye, how a lot of her stuff ends up being great pickings for folks going through her trash.  We ended up with a compact stereo system this way, slated for goodwill, but rescued by my husband.

Of course she’d forgotten the instructions.  So this time, I annoy my tech-savvy husband by having him go through each painstaking step and I write down instructions and then re-write them to make them as simple and mom-proof as possible.  We’ll see how this works – I expect she’ll throw away the written instructions in a cleaning frenzy at some point, and we’ll have to go through this exercise once again.

This is what it’s like.

Being manic is, at first, a welcome relief from the despair of depression.  She revels in it.  She gets things done – many things that she’s put off for the past few months.

She gets out more and can be quite charming.  Everybody along Artesia Blvd. knows my mom.  She’s on a first-name basis at the local eateries, and the dollar store and the used book store, and definitely at Albertson’s.  She even has favorite checkers there.  All of this makes my duty a bit easier, as there are others looking out for her.

But her charm and friendliness also has the hard edge to it, too.  She gets in people’s faces more – she’s aggressive and pushy in her pronouncements.  She tells Manny, a recent widower where she lives that he should shave every day to be presentable.  She’s mad at the management company at her apartment complex (one for seniors) about all sorts of things that they are, or are not, doing.

She tells my Aunt B that she should be more assertive with her son (my cousin), and she’s mad at my son for not being grateful enough at a birthday check he received.  And she’s perpetually mad at me for not answering my phone more often, but hey, do you blame me?

Last week I had something every single day focused around my mother and her needs.

Everything from a mid-day medical appointment, to a lunch with her, me and Aunt B which took up half a day, to the fiasco with the missing walker and the abandoned senior citizen.  Which meant not only figuring out where it was, but the next day, my driving to an industrial area to retrieve the walker.  And yes, ordering a second walker from (just in case something like this were to happen again.)

Yes, this is what it’s like.

And it will be like this until my mother is no more.

I love her.  And I get annoyed by her.  And I am grateful that, even with her smoking and her unsteadiness and her mental condition, that she’s out every day, walking and living her life and is still peppy and interested in the world.  She’s interesting.

I am supremely grateful that I have a husband who, because it’s not his parent, can laugh at her shenanigans, help with driving and fixing and instructing, listen patiently, and even mix her favorite drink, Smirnoff vodka over ice, two olives.

She’s not your average grandmotherly type, that’s for sure.  At this stage of her life, her pluck and verve are mostly welcome traits, as long as she’s not your mother.

She just hired a personal trainer who will be arriving to do a session with her in the pool tomorrow.  And she found her passport and is planning a trip to Cuba – why Cuba I have no idea.  Perhaps it’s those cars from the 1950’s that attract her.  Or maybe she plans on smoking a good cigar, or just being in a society where smoking cigarettes is more socially acceptable.

When I think of the childhood I had with her as a mother, it wasn’t pretty a lot of the time.  But that’s ancient personal history and now is my time to be there for her to the best of my ability.  Not that it’s easy, but I know it’s time limited.

And I suspect, even with all the aggravation, I will miss her terribly.  I suspect for years after her death we will tell “Susan” stories.

And sigh and remember –

This is what it was like.