Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sally's Wedding

I've heard people say that going on Facebook depresses them. They see other people's happy lives and exotic travels and wonder if their own measure up. I don't usually have that experience, though. I like to live vicariously through my Facebook friends, seeing faraway places and "doing" exotic things I don’t have the time or brio to get around to on my own.

But it was different yesterday, when I found myself pouring over pictures of Sally's wedding. There was a video clip of her father walking her down the "aisle" -- a dirt path in a vineyard in Sonoma County -- that I played four times before unhappiness overwhelmed.

Was it jealousy? Not exactly. You see, Sally used to be in love with my son.

I have a picture of the two of them going to prom. She wears a long black dress with big white polka dots and long white gloves. He's wearing a suit jacket and slacks. They pose in front of a backdrop of Paris. He has a red lipstick kiss on his cheek. She holds her fingers up in front of her mouth, miming "Oh!" His hands are around her slender waist as he leans back and flirts with the camera, vamping right along with her. Compliantly playing his role.

It's exactly the kind of photo Sally would compose: charming, funny, and planned down to the last detail. Some attendees at her wedding took pictures of their place settings. Each one was unique. She wrote the name cards by hand and adorned them with photos she’d chosen to be personally relevant to each guest. Sally is the Scrapbooking Queen. She is the Anti-chaos.

Her love for Scott was a puppy love, sure, but I remember it fondly. Because back then, we had all kinds of hopes for our son. He'd been hard to raise: stubborn and defiant, but also smart and handsome and often charming, awake to possibilities in the world around him, intensely alive. We hoped that growing older would smooth out his rough edges. We worried that it would not.

Because mental illness runs in my family, and sometimes Scott’s behavior felt too familiar for comfort. My father was bipolar. Two cousins on my mom's side--the same. An uncle died of alcohol. And there was a long stretch of time when I had panic attacks.

I remember lying in bed one afternoon when Sally's mom came over to loan me some self-help tapes. We talked of Sally and Scott's budding romance, and I admitted I was worried that something was wrong with my son. Less than year later, at age 18, Scott had his first psychotic break. And over the next 12 years, he's taken us on a hell ride.

While Sally was vowing to love and cherish her sweet man in a creamy bridal dress on a bucolic farm in Sonoma, my son was struggling with security guards at a psychiatric hospital, breaking a window and getting a black eye in the course of refusing antipsychotic medication.
Today, he isn't speaking to me. He asked me to show up at a hearing at the hospital to tell the administration that he can take care of himself. But I didn't, because he can't.

Besides having schizoaffective disorder, Scott uses alcohol, marijuana, and crystal meth. I want him to stop, but I also sympathize. Perhaps if I were homeless, without a place to pee, or sleep safely, or even sit down, and unable to separate delusion from reality--enemies from friends--I might use drugs, too. I might want some relief.

Trying to get help for him has been Kafkaesque. There are laws that protect his "right" to be mentally ill, allowing him to refuse medication and treatment and walk out of a hospital at any time, despite the fact that a common symptom of mental illness is not knowing that you're mentally ill.

We’ve called the police to our home more than once, asking for help getting Scott to a hospital, only to be told that carrying his pee around in a bottle in his pocket, hiding in the cramped crawl space over the garage, or ranting non-stop for four hours straight is "not a danger to himself or others," so doesn't meet the legal requirement for them to take him into custody against his will.

Even when we do manage to get him hospitalized, they don’t keep him long enough to make a difference. Three days is typical. Rarely, that’s extended to 10. All across America, we've lost 96 percent of the psychiatric beds we had back in the '50's, so hospital personnel keep their psych patients churning, to make room for the next person in line.

You might think a person like Scott is his family’s problem, not the government’s. And we’ve tried to help him. Believe me, we’ve tried. When living together became untenable, we lined up a room in a hotel in North Beach where he antagonized the manager, threatening lawsuits because he wasn’t allowed to bring in random homeless people to sleep on the floor in his room. When we bought him a small trailer in Belmont, he ripped out the built-in furniture and used it to create “artwork” in his driveway. His toilet got clogged, so he shoveled the shit into his shower. Then big, burly meth users moved in. He was lying in a puddle of glass on the floor of that trailer, beaten bloody and semi-conscious, when he called to tell me, “Mom, I’m afraid I’m trying to get myself killed.”

Scott's been homeless. Dirty. Pathetic. Aggressive. Beaten up. Broken. Afraid. We used to let him come into our house to use the shower or toilet, spend a night on the couch, or share a meal, even though sometimes he’d start yelling and refuse to stop or leave. But two years ago, his dad had a heart attack, followed by triple bypass surgery, while Scott was yelling at me in another room. So I don't let him into the house anymore. I meet him at a park, or a restaurant. I visit him in the hospital, or jail.

Even with our unflinching support, Scott hasn’t been able to put any kind of life together in the 12 years since that first psychotic break. He doesn’t cooperate with doctors, or take his medication as prescribed. He opposes efforts to help him, and doesn’t see what his stubbornness costs. One time he let two muggers beat him senseless rather than hand over $20 clutched tightly in his fist. That’s emblematic of his illness. He’d rather die than submit to authority. But I’m not ready. I’m not ready to let my son die.

The period when we saw most improvement in Scott was the year when he was conserved, meaning a public guardian made Scott’s decisions for him, requiring him to take medication and stay in a locked psychiatric hospital where he got therapy and got off street drugs. He was friendly when I came to visit. He made a friend, participated in groups. And his father, sister, brother and I hoped that one day he’d be able to live among us, work in our family cafe, come to Christmas again.

Then a judge who’d seen him for five minutes decided he was no longer severely disabled and released him back onto the street.

The judge was wrong. Scott needs what every floridly psychotic person you see on the street needs: to be taken into custody and given medication--whether they want it or not. To be given a safe place to sleep, a hot shower, food, therapy. To be coaxed back to reality with kindness and medical intervention.

In my job giving walking tours of San Francisco, I talk to people from all over the world. A recent tourist from Israel said he wouldn't be coming back anytime soon because when he got up early one morning and walked down Market Street, he saw mentally ill homeless people everywhere he looked, stepped around junkies on the sidewalk shooting up heroin, smelled feces and urine on the street.

“Why aren’t you taking care of these people?” he asked me.

I said we were trying.

He said not hard enough.

And that’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since: why aren’t we taking care of these people?

Our current mental health treatment system is brutal, misguided, and inhumane. Back in the day, people with a major mental illness could live in an asylum while getting treatment. Then asylums were closed for “humanitarian” reasons. But it’s not humane to put a person with a major mental illness out on the street and say, “You’re on your own.”

But that’s what we’re doing, day after day. The result is upsetting, dangerous, and expensive. And everybody is paying the price: the people who are mentally ill and abandoned because they are too hard to deal with; their families who are stressed beyond endurance trying to figure out what to do next; and people everywhere who have to walk by, turn their heads, harden their hearts and pretend they don't see the wounded people on the street and the filth they leave, including garbage, used needles and human waste.

Those old asylums need to be reopened. New group homes need to be built. Scott wouldn’t agree. He’d rather be set loose to use meth, get beaten up, freeze, starve, hallucinate and cause trouble everywhere he goes. He's called more than once to say he fucking hates me. He's called me a bitch.

But that’s Scott’s illness talking. That’s not my son. And I won't give up on him. I will never give up. I still remember who he was before he became psychotic. I remember how handsome he looked in that suit jacket on prom night 12 years ago, and I believe he can do better. Much better.

That's why I cried when I saw the pictures of Sally's wedding. That’s why I’m still crying now. It’s not that I wish he had married Sally. I grieve because the kind of sweet, stable life that Sally represents is no longer an option for my son.

But it could be. I believe it still could be. If only our nation would wake up and take care of these people.

Why aren’t we taking care of them?

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Feeling Grateful and Hopeful for 2018

2017 has brought me much anxiety. When President Trump was elected, I flew out to participate in the Women's March on DC. Since then, I've periodically interacted with Trump supporters on Twitter and Facebook, arguing over issues like climate change, reproductive rights, the criminal justice system, and immigration. The exchanges are often brutal, with opponents calling me stupid and worse. It's hard to articulate how fractious our country is in December of 2017. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the acrimony. These conversations make me feel dirty and hopeless.

But then I stop. I look around. I remember. 

I'm living in the most beautiful place I've ever inhabited. After having a heart attack in 2015, my husband is alive and well and still loves me 34 years into our marriage. Two of our three adult children are happy and healthy. The third is in a hospital where he might get some help, where he's safe and warm and housed and fed.

Could it be God has a plan for me? Probably not. But if I turn off the incessant chatter of "doomsday!" called out by the media and populace on both sides of the divide, I can see that things are as they've always been--beautiful beyond reckoning, chaotic, loud, tragic, and intermittently strewn with exquisite, almost unbearable gifts.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

I'm Ready to Cook

I last posted on this blog two-and-a-half years ago, on June 3, 2015. But please don't think I abandoned you. I would never do that! For many reasons, posting here became too much for me: my son with a chronic mental illness fathered my first grandchild; my husband had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery; I decided to retire after 17 years of teaching high school; and, I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly what I wanted to do in this space.

So I retreated, turned inward, and began to ferment, like this beautiful bubbling bowl of sourdough starter on my kitchen counter. (That's another thing that happened. I took up baking sourdough bread.)

And then this morning, after visiting SFMOMA two nights ago and getting inspired by the photography of Walker Evans, after finding myself wanting to document the world around me in gorgeous photographs as he did, after taking multiple photos in my SF ramblings over the past two days, after posting a few on Facebook and finding the experience less than satisfying, I remembered: I have a blog! I can post my photos here. And I can talk in depth about all the things that have been occupying my mind for the past 2.5 years, all the things that seem too weighty and complex, too intimate and disturbing for a FB post.

So I came back, and found this wonderfully constructed site, representing many hours of my labor, waiting for me.

When I first pulled it up this morning, I had two loaves of sourdough in the oven. Now, I've just taken them out. If I could describe to you how good they smell, you wouldn't believe me. The tiny crackling sounds their crusts make as they are cooling is exquisite, and is moving me, as everything seems to move me lately, as we come to the end of this dark year of deep disappointment.

Here's hoping this new iteration of my blog turns out to be as delicious and satisfying as my bread. Because I'm done fermenting. I'm ready to cook.