This past Friday, the 27th, marked three years and six months since my mama passed. For a time, I’ve been wanting to write a post, a fictional piece, on what it’d be like to have a heart-to-heart conversation with my mama. I figured I’d do it now. What would make it fictional? Because in my fantasy, my mom would be well. She wouldn’t be suffering mightily from her untreated serious mental illness like she was for the last 1/3rd of her life.
By the time I was 24 years old, my mom was beginning to show signs of her serious mental illness. As time went on, and it went untreated, I would have to be extremely careful about what I shared with and told my mom. For one, I didn’t want to cause her any more stress. A stressful situation or event could induce an acute psychotic episode. Two, it could cause conflict with us in some way, since she could integrate anything I’d tell her into her delusional world. For close to a decade, she’d often implore me to quit my teaching job in San Francisco because she didn’t want me to teach “in a city with Satanists,” for example.
As a grown man, I could have used my mom’s support and advice about such things as work and relationships. I didn’t get that, though. Not the way I should have, anyways. So here is what I imagine a conversation would be like with me and my mom if she was of sound mind.
Me: “Work is a drag. They are cutting our pay substantially. But, of course, I still have as many students as ever in my classes. I’m never going to be able to buy a house in the Bay Area at this point. I’m fed up. The situation sucks the joy out of teaching.”
Mom: “Those devils. They certainly don’t appreciate the work you do as a teacher. You should pray on it and think about what you want to do. And, you know, it’s not too late to go back to school and get your Ph.D!”
Me: “I know, mom. But I don’t want to go back to school. Academia isn’t really for me. I don’t want to be a poor college student again and I can’t really stand the culture. It’s too snobby. I’ll try to stick it out at work a little longer. You remember how happy I was when I received the job offer?”
Mom: “Yes, of course. And your father and I were very happy for you. I tell everyone I talk to that you’re a community college professor.”
Me: “I know, mom. I was just starting to make pretty good money too, after 15 years of teaching. If I knew when I was 20 years old how much I’d be making, at least before the pay cut, I’d have been thrilled.”
Mom: “You’ll be a success no matter what you decide you want to do.”
Me: “Yea. It’d be nice to find something without the long work hours. Maybe I’ll move back to Fresno soon enough.”
Mom: “That would be nice for your father and I. But what about your female friend? What’s her name again? Stacey?”
Me: “Yes. We aren’t seeing each other anymore. I broke it off before it could get too serious. She was hinting at wanting something exclusive. Ever since my relationship with Marie, I’ve had trouble opening up to women I’m dating.”
Mom: “That relationship was not healthy for a large portion of the time you two were together. That was, also, some time ago now, though. I know your father and I argued a lot in front of you and your sister when we were married, but we did try, as you know. You should try not to repeat our mistakes.”
Me: “I know, mom. You made us go to family therapy. I didn’t appreciate it or really get it at the time, but I think it was admirable and smart for you to do, looking back.”
Mom: “Yes, therapy helped a bit, but your dad was set in his ways and emotionally shut off. He changed when he came back from Vietnam.”
Me: “Yea, when you first told me that, I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe you. But then cousin Melissa confirmed that you said that about dad back then. Whatever it is exactly, it prevents him from even listening to me when I want to talk to him about important things, unless I demand it. I practically have to yell at him to listen to what I have to say sometimes. It’s going to be hard on me if you end up passing before dad. He doesn’t understand me or just the world like you do.”
Mom: “Your dad has a big heart. Just try to be more patient with him and watch your tone when you speak to him. You get impatient quickly with people.’
Me: “I know… that’s what Marie said. That’s what Stacey says. That might be a little bit of what I picked up from dad growing up. I’m trying to improve that.”
Mom: “Maybe go see a therapist. Hahaha”
Me: Maybe…Are you proud of me, mom? At the man that I’ve become at 45 years old?”
Mom: “Yes, of course! Why are you asking me that?!”
Me: “Cause I’m a very different person than I was 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. I have a demanding job with a lot of responsibilities and, I’m not complaining about this, but those years I had to help you when you got sick were hard on me. I feel like I didn’t really enjoy my thirties and now, at 45, I’m single and don’t own a home. It makes me doubt myself.”
Mom: “I’m very proud of you. I couldn’t be prouder. I, of course, wish you would develop a closer relationship with God. But that’s between you and him and I know you try in your way to have a spiritual practice. I think you live by your principles and genuinely care about people and others. And your smart and successful, yet humble and grateful for everything you have. God will continue to bless you because he knows your heart and sees your actions, and I take comfort in that. Knowing he will look after you, even when I’m gone.”
Me: “Well, I’d hope that you’d look after me too, assuming you could from the afterlife.”
Mom: “You may not be sure, but I am. The love I have for you and our family is undying. You’ll see!”
Me: “I know, mom. You are a wonderful mama. You did a great job.”
Mom: “Thank you, mijo.”
I’ve decided to try and convert this blog to a promotional page for my film, Benevolent Neglect. Having a website for my film is one of those marketing aspects I haven’t been able to create yet, given I’m a one person operation and my regular “day job” keeps me way too busy. I’m content with the positive responses my film is garnering, but I know it has the potential to attract a bigger audience. That’s the only way any politicians are going to take it seriously, I figure. I’ve sent it to officials to watch, but haven’t received any response or feedback from them. Typical, I know. In the least, it will give me something productive to do when I feel my advocacy is fruitless. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet, but I still plan on blogging on occasion, once it’s converted.
In the meantime, here are some short videos I took when I went to visit my mom at the cemetery on Mother’s Day. I was feeling somewhat creative and wanted to give a more personal feel for what it’s like when I’m there. I’ll usually stop by on my way to Fresno and then, again, on my way back to the Bay Area. The first video is the Friday, two days before Mother’s Day.The second video is on actual Mother’s Day. A mariachi band greeted me as I arrived. It was lovely.
It was the third Mother’s Day without my mom. I would normally take her to Marie Callender’s, her restaurant of choice for the occasion. I turned 45 years old this year. I should still have my mother.
I guess it has been a minute since I’ve done a proper blog post. It has been more than a year, in fact. My advocacy time has been mainly spent on promoting my film. And I don’t even have a lot of time for that, given the demands of my teaching job. Remote teaching this past academic year has been, frankly, the pits, in terms of the workload.
At times, in the past, I’ve felt impelled to write a blog post, as a way to “reclaim my time” from the demands of life. I’m surprised, though, that hasn’t occurred once this past year, even when February arrived. That month made 3 years, 3 years since my mama passed away to, hopefully, be with her “Heavenly Father.”
In a sense, not writing about it is perhaps an indication that I’m continuing to heal. While I was contemplative and sad, it was nothing like the 1st year anniversary. Then, it wasn’t just the approaching day of her passing, the 27th that weighed heavily on me. When the month of February arrived, I began to experience nausea; the same nausea I last felt during the 9 days my mom was in hospice care. Each subsequent day, she deteriorated. “Near death symptoms” would begin to develop and I’d increasingly worry I wouldn’t be able to “keep her comfortable,” which is the main aim in hospice care. As the day I brought her home from the hospital to hospice care approached, I felt impelled to chronicle it some: February Musings #1: Mom Enters Hospice
By the time the 2nd anniversary arrived last year, I was in Berkeley and fortunate enough to be working on my film as part of my sabbatical project. Though I was just in my early scriptwriting stage then, I think working on my film provided me with some sense of catharsis. Even when my mom was alive, as futile as it often was, doing advocacy was important for me to at least feel like I was doing something to help her and my family. Making the film was no different, in that respect.
The challenge I knew I was going to have, though, was processing and accepting that the same amount of time had passed as we had spent living together. Those 2 years together were exceedingly difficult. Truth be told, I know damn well it was more like 4 years, physically and emotionally. My body and mind are still exhausted from the ordeal. Still, as trying to live a more “normal life” has shown me, I know 2 years is practically nothing in the context of being a responsible adult. Admittedly, it actually causes me some guilt knowing that I was only able to provide my mom 2 years of adequate security and safety out of what was at least 15 years of her living with an untreated serious mental illness. That was fully a 1/3rd of her adult life she lived that way!
As can often be the case, my mind can be in a bit of an unpleasant place. “Two years ain’t shit!” “Her kidney disease robbed us of having a so much better of quality of life.” “God, or whoever may be listening, why the hell did it take so long for me to find a place for us to live? Where have you been in all this?” These are just some of the things I thought about and said out loud the week of hospice, at times, leading up to the 27th of February last year.
As the 3rd anniversary approached, it was hard to wrap my head around it. The grief is still intense at times and the circumstances surrounding the Pandemic have been terrible for my healing. I haven’t been able to do Aikido, for example, with the closing of the dojo. I’ve been pleased with the response of my film, but the gnawing sensation that I should be doing more mental health advocacy is a constant.
I knew this year should be better for me than the first two. But part of what makes February hard is that it’s also my birthday month. Unfortunately, my last birthday with my mom was depressing. That morning, on February 6th, she’d decide to stop continuing dialysis. During our dinner out to celebrate, I got frustrated with her and complained a little bit about our situation. My mama, at that point, was very withdrawn, given her declining health. She didn’t respond to anything I said. We ended up barely talking over dinner at all. That memory pains me a lot.
On my birthday this year, I noticed a hummingbird had started building a nest in a tree on my patio. The tree was just 5 feet away from my kitchen window. On the 14th, the mama would lay an egg. Two weeks later, the baby would hatch. It’d grow and gain strength quickly.
Within almost two weeks of hatching, its head was just about as big as the mama’s. Watching it feed, its head bob up and down rapidly, was a beautiful sight. Seeing it lift its rear end up to defecate outside the nest was hilarious. In a short time, it’d begin to exercise its wings, usually after the mama would leave after feeding it. It was trying to mimic mama, I thought, because she’d hover a little before taking flight. The baby then began to perch itself on the edge of the nest. And, finally, I’d see one of its first flights, before leaving the tree for good.
My mom asked me one time, many years ago, if I’d ever stopped to enjoy the flight of a hummingbird. I was able to do that many times and more with this experience. I’m grateful for what the universe gifted me during what is an exceedingly hard time. I like to think the universe was letting me know it is looking out for me, much like the hummingbird mama did its baby even during stormy weather. My mom and I rode out many storms together and I know, as estranged as we were from each other, her love for me and her family was undying.
I had a friend interview me about my documentary film, Benevolent Neglect. In it, I talk a bit about the film’s response, thus far, and my own healing process. Thank you for all the support so far!
I was lucky enough to have my film, Benevolent Neglect, reviewed by national best selling author and mental health advocate, Pete Earley. Pete knew my family’s story somewhat, from when my mom was living with me in Modesto. As a way to raise awareness about our plight and to possibly have people at the ready to help me shame local government to help my mom, I had asked Pete to run a couple of my blog posts on his blog. He obliged.
I was hoping Pete would like my film. I wasn’t expecting him to give it such a glowing review, though. I’m so happy he did. Mom would be proud of me, for sure. Here are some excerpts:
“A Modesto police officer refuses to involuntary commit Josie so she can go to the hospital even though she is clearly a danger to herself. Why? Because she is able to tell him what day and month it is, along with the name of her street. A hospital supervisor ignores Estrada’s pleas even though his mother has nearly died because voices are telling her not to take her diabetes medication. Why? Because Josie wants to be discharged and the supervisor doesn’t want responsibility for her. A California Department of Mental Health employee rebuffs Estrada when he says his mom has been kicked out of so many apartments, she now is homeless. Why? Because she is living in her car and therefore has a roof over her head.”
“All of us rejoice when we read accounts about individuals, such as my son Kevin, who get treatment and the tools needed to control the symptoms of their illnesses and do well in life. I believe most Americans with mental illnesses can but Estrada’s film reminds us that getting that help often proves impossible.”
You can reach the whole post here: http://www.peteearley.com/2020/09/28/14812/
It took me longer than I wanted, but the first cut of my film, Benevolent Neglect, is completed. I’m circulating it to a small group of people for feedback, but plan on being completely done by the end of August. I wanted to share the news and opening scene with my “followers” on here. You can view it below. Thanks for the support, especially to those of you who have been following my blog for some time now. It never got the attention I would have liked it to, but every visitor and follower mean a lot. I know the story has the potential to resonate with many more, so that’s why I decided to make a film. Feedback, so far, has been very positive.
Kickstarter Campaign is here: Benevolent Neglect
Even when my mom was homeless for close to two years, living in a car, I always made time to see and visit with her on Mother’s Day. She always wanted to go to Marie Callenders for the occasion. This past weekend, like I’ve done the two previously, I went to the cemetery to give my mom flowers. I made it a point to do some filming, too. What I’m sharing with you, below, is the closing scene to the introduction to the short film. Of course, there will be narrating and music added.
There are two days left for the fundraiser. Though I’ve made my goal, I am still fundraising to cover the costs of some unanticipated things like buying historical film footage and hiring someone to do some graphics animation. I’ll be lucky to break even, when all is said and done. So, please share the campaign link to others who you think might be willing to support my project.
I haven’t been posting because I’m working on a video project, while on my sabbatical from teaching. For my followers and visitors, yes, this project is a new phase in my advocacy work for my family. It’s a short documentary on my family’s experience with the mental healthcare system.
As those things go, costs accrue, related to production and planning. They’re relatively low, since I’m doing this project as an “amateur,” someone who has no formal training and experience with filmmaking. It’s something I feel compelled to do, though, and feel pretty good about the prospects of completing something valuable and important. If you could take the time to considering donating to my fundraising campaign for the film and sharing it with people you know, I’d greatly appreciate it. Here’s the link to the Kickstarter campaign (click on “campaign”).
Below is a snippet from the campaign website, followed by a short video segment of an interview I’ve already done with a family friend. Thank you for your consideration and help!
“This short documentary is my latest attempt at advocating and seeking justice for my mom and family. I have no formal filmmaking training or experience, but am determined enough to make something meaningful and impactful. I’ll be incorporating a significant amount of my own knowledge, experience and research in the film…
I’ve, also, been lucky enough, through making connections, to make plans to interview people who have worked on the “inside” of the mental healthcare system. One person used to work on a community mental health crisis team and another was a doctor in a psychiatric emergency room. I’ll be using my training as a Political Scientist to include a Politics of Mental Healthcare section in the film, as well.”
As a former caretaker, The Joker movie hit me in a raw way. I think the movie accurately portrays how society mistreats the poor and people with serious mental illness (SMI). I saw this, firsthand, in trying to help and take care of my mom, who struggled with schizoaffective disorder.
My mom wasn’t able to take care of herself adequately. She, in fact, had been suffering mightily and deteriorating for years. I couldn’t take it anymore. She deserved to live with a semblance of dignity.
When I started taking care of her full-time, we didn’t have a lot of family around and I didn’t have a lot of money saved up from my teaching job. So, my mom and I were pretty isolated socially and very reliant on the government for her healthcare and welfare needs.
I was able to stabilize her medically (physically) enough and keep her safe for two years, but society made it exceedingly difficult, in every respect, for me to do so. As it was, it never provided us with sufficient help and respect, since the onset of her SMI. My mom needlessly suffered for more than a decade. She would never be treated for her SMI and stabilized. She was discarded. We were discarded.
“They don’t care about people like you, Arthur.”
Those were the words spoken to Arthur Fleck by his government social worker (SW). She was referring to the policy makers (officials) who decided to close her office and, thus, cut Arthur off from his psychiatric meds. But as was clear in their interactions, even the SW didn’t seem to care all that much about Arthur’s struggle. As Arthur stated moments before she told him the news, “You never really listen to me.” He’s of course saying she doesn’t really care about him.
This was all too common an experience in trying to access MH services for my mom. For example, there was the time when an intake worker/clinician at a county Behavioral Health Department, in flagrant violation of county policy and state law, outright denied my mom MH services, because my mom, like many people with SMI, denied having a SMI!
The worker was cold and impersonal from the minute we met. I remember saying, angrily, on my way out of the interview/assessment, “I’m waiting outside, mama. All she’s doing at this point is filling out information so they can get their money for seeing you from Medi-Cal.”
There was the time when a hospital nurse and supervisor unsafely discharged my mom against my wishes. My mom was clearly in a psychotic state and unable to make a competent decision about her own care. My mom didn’t even believe she was in a hospital.
Despite this and her physical condition being fragile (She would be treated for sepsis and was just two days removed from a ventilator.), hospital staff would wheel her to a cab. They couldn’t even be bothered to do a psychiatric evaluation to see if she fit involuntary hold criteria.
This incident was an extreme example, but our experiences with various hospitals taught me they don’t give a shit about people with SMI. Whenever my mom started to become non-compliant, due to her psychosis, staff would become less attentive and they’d begin preparing her for discharge, even if she wasn’t medically stable.
And this is what they were willing to do regularly in front of me. I can only imagine what they did all those times I wasn’t with her before she lived with me!
“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”
That’s what Arthur asked his social worker during one of their sessions. She responded by saying, “It’s tough times. People are struggling with no work.”
Her comment is a reference to the larger political and economic situation the movie is based in. It’s a pretty subtle backdrop, but the movie itself starts with a radio report of a pitched labor battle, a garbage strike, to help make that very point.
It lasts weeks and leads to increasing piles of garbage on city and neighborhood streets. Tensions build and, eventually, protests breakout at what’s clearly deep frustration with economic inequality and uncertainty, and government mistreatment and negligence.
Arthur’s access to his meds and social worker getting cutoff epitomizes how poor people with disabilities are some of the biggest victims of these conditions. Social scientists actually have a name for such government practices. They’re called “austerity politics.”
In a basic sense, we have been living under an era of “austerity politics” for decades. Since the 70s, governments, at every level, have been cutting costs and services (i.e. downsizing), in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and in order to foster a better “business environment.” It’s a process, a project really, that started as a result of a sluggish economy, increased foreign competition and lower corporate profits. The movie is set in the early 80s, the decade when the process accelerates. (My mom would actually lose her job with the State of California in the late 90s, due to layoffs.)
Mental health services have not gone untouched. People like to blame the Republicans and Ronald Reagan for the closing of state psychiatric hospitals. But today, even in “Liberal” San Francisco, we have a local government severely neglecting the needs of its own SMI population. So much so, we have local MH workers themselves speaking out against the inadequate conditions and publicly protesting. In fact, former Chief Psychiatrist of SF General Hospital, Robert Okin, describes the situation as a “war on the mentally ill.”
Arthur’s social worker’s full comment actually was “They don’t care about people like you, Arthur. They don’t care about people like me either.” I’ve had my issues with regular staff and frontline workers. In fact, a friend my mom and I made at her dialysis center even told me, in a private conversation, that her coworkers don’t care about the patients. They only care about the money.
This regime we are living under of austerity leaves me with no doubt, however, that high level administrators and public officials are the biggest culprits of all. They make it too difficult, if not impossible, for even the best and most empathetic workers to do their jobs.
“Society decides what’s fun-ny.”
Arthur says this after embracing his homicidal, violent urges and becoming The Joker. It’s the beginning of a strident public criticism he makes, while appearing on a late-night talk show, to explain his rage and motives. His criticism really is the first time he says something so politically cohesive in the movie.
In a basic sense, he says society made the rules and the rules were made to keep him marginalized and an outcast. He worked hard and honestly, but he lost his job cause of a dishonest coworker and cold-hearted boss. He wanted to get better, but he was cut off from his meds. He cared for his ill mother the best he could, but in the end, she was his biggest betrayer and abuser.
My life experience hasn’t been so bleak. In fact, there were many people, workers, clinicians and strangers that were nice to me and my mom, and did try to help in some way. And my mama knew I loved her and I know she loved me, even though her SMI strained our relationship.
But I damn well know there are too many people who have it worse, like Arthur. And some of them, unfortunately, do lash out with violence. As it is, I’ll never forget what was done to me and my family. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive. Society will try to focus on individual motives or psychological reasons for behavior it doesn’t like, but the fact of the matter is society, is too often, the monster.