My mama passed away in late February, my birthday month and almost two years to the day I moved her in with me. The immense grief has gradually decreased, as I read and was told it would do. But some days, the grief, and the guilt and sadness associated with it, hit me intensely. It combines with my “PTSD.”
I say PTSD because of the intensity of the painful memories and feelings I experience and relive at times. Partly situational, there are a number of things that can trigger it. Most recently, it has been facilitated by the arrival of the cold weather.
The cold is a raw reminder of the time my mom was homeless, living in a car, for around two years. The whole ordeal was traumatizing and depressing. I would, in fact, be put on an anti-depressant for a short time then.
In the Central Valley of California, the weather is similar to that of a desert. In the summer, it gets hot, over 100 degrees many days. In the winter, it gets cold, into the 40s and below freezing at night.
Making it through the cold winter nights was very difficult for my mom. She would have to turn on the car and run the heater throughout the night. How I hoped the car engine or heater wouldn’t go out from her doing so! My mom was tough and, actually, didn’t complain much at all. But she’d of course ask for help at times.
In a letter she wrote, asking me if she could come live with me, she specifically mentioned the difficulty of surviving the cold. I bought her blankets and clothes to help and checked in on her regularly, but it wasn’t enough. She didn’t know, given her serious mental illness, but I suffered too.
I had tremendous trouble sleeping during cold nights, knowing my mom was out there. It was agony. And just stepping outside in the cold weather would strike me with dread and despair. The first winter my mom was homeless, I lost a lot of weight. By the second, my stress and anxiety reached the point that my doctor suggested I take a leave from my job.
The cold weather arrived a few weeks ago, freezing temperatures this past week. With it at times, the feelings and memories of those two years. Each time, I’m there again, in that time period, in a moment, seeing her and hearing her suffer in some way and feeling the dread, agony and heart break all over again.
If it’s not the cold directly, it’s seeing homeless people trying to survive it, like the woman I saw as I drove to work the other day. In a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, I noticed her as she sat up. She sprung up and made a facial expression of great discomfort and pain, mouth wide open, eyes closed, like a silent scream. That moment took me right back to my mom.
At these times, and whenever the grief is great, I take deep breathes and try to remember all that I did to help and take care of my mom. That includes advocating for her fiercely when she was homeless. And I’d still visit her when I could, including for Thanksgiving. I’d usually take her to Marie Callender’s, her place of choice for the occasion.
In a few days, it will be the first Thanksgiving without my mama. I’ll miss her company. To help get through it, I’ll be spending it this year in the warmth and company of my extended family, my aunt (my mom’s sister) and cousins. It’s what my mama would want: warmth, instead of cold, connection, instead of estrangement, hope, instead of despair. I’m trying, mama.
I haven’t been too motivated to blog. In fact, it has been three months, since my last post. It can be time intensive and I don’t receive a lot of traffic on it, but I should just write to get better at writing, I think sometimes.
Besides, eventually, I may want to write a memoir or screenplay and writing regularly can act as a kind of journal of my life to help with that. I already regret not writing more about my experiences with mom or video recording her more when she was alive, after all.
And the number of views and followers shouldn’t really matter. As my experience with my mom taught me, even if you reach or save just one person, the love and value expressed in that transcend space and time. There is no big or small. And it’s the love shown for others that help one protect themselves.
Given this newfound perspective, I’ll be writing a new post in the next couple of weeks. It will be on a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for months: my experience as a caretaker for a parent. It’s unique and the story should be shared.
For some context, know that many mental health advocates are parents and many of them are caretakers for their children, who are recovering from serious mental illness. Parents, understandably, feel an undying loyalty to protecting their children. But what familial and emotional obligations do young adults hold for their parents?
As my boss has told me, I put my life and career on hold to try and help and take care of my mom. And, frankly, I don’t think many young adults would do what I did. As my mom’s heart doctor told her a couple of times when my mom was being uncooperative and defiant, “I hope that you appreciate what your son is doing for you. Many sons would not do this for their mothers. I know. I’ve seen it.”
I miss my mom, but I don’t miss her suffering. And caring for her was exceedingly difficult, since my own health suffered and declined, including my own mental health. In talking to my therapist, it turns out that I have chronic depression, dysthymia. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as chronic depression, until I was told in a grief counseling session.
While visiting my dad in Fresno last weekend, I told him I started seeing a therapist for my depression. I explained how it feels and how long, I believe, I’ve been living with it. A grey cloud in my head has been discernible since at least ’07. That was the year I started to try and get help for mom.
My dad listened mostly. I figured he’d be understanding, even though I know he has trouble understanding why I’m grieving, as much as I am, about mom. I told him specifically about two times late last year when I had trouble getting out of bed. That had never happened to me before. It no doubt occurred when it did because my mom’s health was declining and so poor, due to her kidney disease. He seemed the most concerned about me when I mentioned that.
I, also, told my dad I don’t need medicine for it, but that I do need more things to look forward to. I asked him to get the boat ready to go fishing. He said he would. He charged the batteries on it today and surprised me by saying, on the phone, that he was thinking about buying a bigger one. That brought a smile to my face. “Sounds good! Let’s go shopping!” I replied. That will definitely help get me through the year.
Since my mom passed away 5 months ago, I readily admit that I’m experiencing an existential crisis. My mom needlessly suffered a long time. Going back to when more obvious signs of her serious mental illness (SMI) began showing in ’03, we are talking at least 15 years.
My family and I had to helplessly watch her suffer too. For me specifically, I watched her suffer every day the last two years that she lived with me. Not a day went by that I didn’t deeply worry she could die or slip into a coma, so grave was her physical condition. Her psychiatric condition was such that I had to watch my mom live in daily distress. She was a prisoner to her delusions and hallucinations.
Her 8 days in hospice went well enough, all things considered. But for us, specifically our relationship, there was no real closure. You see, we couldn’t tell my mom she was coming home from the hospital to die. She didn’t want to die.
I nervously made conversation with her when she arrived back at the house from the hospital. It was difficult to find the right words. It usually was, talking to mom.
Me: “They [the hospice] came suddenly for you, huh?”
Mom: “Yeeaaa,” she replied disapprovingly.
Me: “No more hospitals?”
Her: “I hope not,” she said dejectedly. She loathed hospitals and was very tired and weak, after stopping dialysis.
Me: “OK,” I said. I didn’t tell her my full thoughts, though. “OK mom…no more hospitals.”
My counselor says I’m doing surprisingly well. I attribute it to my family’s strength and fortitude, particularly my mom’s. What a fighter she was! I, also, attribute it to the grieving and heartache I experienced all those years prior to my mom moving in, though.
The first year of the two she’d spend homeless living in a car, for instance, was probably my lowest point. Getting through that intact helped me weather future storms.
Still, I know my ability to find adequate peace and happiness, moving forward, will largely depend on my ability to understand my mom’s suffering in a way that provides me comfort and mitigates my deep anger and sadness. This is largely a spiritual inquiry, I realize
I don’t really know where to begin, though. I’m not religious in the Christian sense, at least not anymore. My mom loved the Lord and she instilled her love and understanding of the bible’s teachings to me and my sister from an early age. Going to college, as it can do to people, made me more secular, though.
There was a time in my early twenties that I considered myself an atheist, in fact. As time went on and I reached my late twenties and early thirties, I became more agnostic. I don’t doubt part of that change occurred from the heartache I endured, seeing my mom’s initial onset and then condition deteriorate over time.
I’d gravitate a bit towards Buddhism, mostly through my training in Aikido, a martial art. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, consciously developed Aikido as a physical embodiment of his spiritual views and principles. He specifically adhered to Shintoism, an ancient Japanese religion. By the time Ueshiba began practicing it, though, it was heavily influenced by Buddhism. There are definite similarities.
Like Shintoism, there are many deities and prayer rituals in Buddhism. My interests, though, are in cultivating certain principles and “states of being” valued in Buddhist philosophy such as empathy, peace and harmony with others and the environment, and being in touch with the present/one’s surroundings. I’ve found developing these very useful in helping me deal with immense stress and anxiety.
Indeed, I believe both my Aikido training and study of Buddhism helped me become more aware of my internal emotional processes. This allowed me to better mitigate my pain and fear, my depression essentially, through the years, especially during the time period when my mom was homeless.
This isn’t to say I didn’t ever pray or show reverence to Christian tenets and practices. I prayed with and for my mom. I even visited a Catholic priest with my aunt years ago to get insight as to what was happening to my mom. He assured us that it wasn’t demonic possession (I already figured as much.).
This continued when my mom moved in with me in February ’16. When I prayed, though I may have said the word “God,” I didn’t really pray to the Western, biblical one. To the extent I was praying to something at all, it was to the universe or to my ancestors. I prayed at times to my grandma, my mom’s mom, to help us in some way, too. I essentially prayed to anything that could and would help. It didn’t seem like anything was listening, though, at least at the time.
Now that my mom is gone, I’m trying to remain as open as possible to the spiritual possibilities and facets of life. Admittedly, I contemplate from time to time that there may very well not be anything greater than the physical world and, maybe someday, I’ll draw that conclusion. But right now, for me to accept that entirely would lead to the most cynical and depressing states of mind.
Fortunately, my perception has, also, changed already, in a way that allows me to see things anew. I truly believe my mind and senses are the clearest they have been in years. This has made some of the journey a bit more painful, as the depths of my mom’s suffering are easier to see and feel. But it has also helped me see and appreciate certain events as something greater than mere coincidences. In other words, as assurances from the universe, and even maybe my mom, that things are going to be OK and that I do have help. I wasn’t able to see this before.
To share just one example: After some mulling, I decided to buy the cemetery plot next to my mom. While we buried her in the same cemetery as her parents, she’s immediately surrounded by strangers. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, ultimately.
I didn’t realize it right away, but the account number I was assigned for my plot is “5150.” I couldn’t believe it when I noticed it on the paperwork, while sitting at my office desk at home that day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that that sequence of numbers fully characterizes the nature of our relationship for the last 10 years. 5150 is the California legal code for involuntary hospitalizations and something I would try to have done to my mom multiple times, in the hope she would be stabilized.
If my mom was trying to send me a message, that would be a way she’d do it. She had a sharp sense of humor and was definitely blunt when she needed to be. When I saw the numbers, I just smiled, shook my head and said, “OK mom. Good one.” I didn’t feel like she’d be mad at me, though she’d despise me trying to hospitalize her, while she was alive.
After all, she used to like to tell me that someday the “truth will set me free.” She’d say it in reference to her delusions and hallucinations. They took a very religious form. When I’d get frustrated, I’d sometimes throw it back at her. “The truth will set you free, mom.” I can only hope that she would know and accept the truth now.
To touch on some science, I know the mind can see what it wants to see. But events like this one seem too improbable to accept as just coincidences. And I know one thing is absolutely certain. That things like this, patterns or connections between events and my family’s history, didn’t happen before my mom passed. If they did, my mind and heart weren’t open to them. The suffering and depression were too great. An event like that above, I’d just as likely interpret as more “bad luck.”
That was confirmed as much by a Buddhist counselor that spoke on trauma at a recent meditation workshop. He said that people need adequate breathing space and refuge, in order to cultivate their minds, bodies and spirits. He’d go on to say that people who are in life and death circumstances, especially those who have developed trauma, have a much harder time cultivating the calmness and clarity (i.e. being present) necessary to make and feel connection with people and the world/universe around them.
Heck, when I think about things in hindsight sometimes, I now see that, as hard as things were, things worked out OK for us in many ways. There’s also the “coincidence” that my mom nearly passed away exactly two years after she moved in with me. It was like the universe or God was saying, “I’m or we are watching and with you.” That was confirmed recently by the pastor of a local church my mom and I attended. In assuring me that my mama was looked after, even through her sickness, Pastor Lyn said, “Jesus is behind us, beside us and in front of us through our trials.”
Whatever the “truth” is, I’m grateful I’m finding some solace in things I’ve experienced and seeing things anew. Little rituals, like honoring a family altar I put up in my living room, help too. I don’t know where this path I’m on will end. But I do know that as long as I let my love for my family and principles, like justice for the poor and misfortunate, guide me, things should workout. I got through the worse of it, after all, OK. I’m pretty sure both Jesus and Buddha would agree.
It has been a little more than three months since my mom passed away. Sadly, her scent is virtually gone from her room, but I am doing the best I can to honor and cherish her memory. Indeed, this is a central part of my healing process.
I try to visit her grave weekly in Madera. I’ll usually stop there for around thirty minutes, while on my way to visit my dad in Fresno. On special occasions, like Mother’s Day, I’ve stayed for more than an hour.
Last Friday, June 1st, was her birthday. Mama would’ve been 67 years old. For the occasion, I dressed up and took her a dozen red roses. She loved roses. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to enjoy them for around the last ten years of her life. She, in fact, didn’t want any roses or plants near her because she thought that toxins could enter her body through them.
That’s what my mom’s untreated serious mental illness made life like for her. She literally couldn’t stop to smell the roses. Every day for her was a struggle. Seeing her suffer and deteriorate was a living nightmare for me.
One of the first things I did after my mom passed was throw out all her medicines. At any given time, my mom was taking around ten different ones for her various serious conditions. She was prescribed dozens of different ones in recent years. This includes “anti-psychotic” drugs like Zyprexa and Risperdal, but she never stayed on those long enough for them to have any effect on her.
The Risperdal was, ironically, prescribed to her during one of her last hospitalizations in January. They had never bothered to try and treat her SMI before when she was hospitalized. Predictably, she refused to take it after the first dosage because it made her feel drowsy.
I actually told the hospital staff to not give or prescribe it to her. What was the point? Why prescribe her psychiatric medicine without her being under the active care of a psychiatrist? The hospital didn’t even bother giving us information as to how to find one. They prescribed it anyways. It was waiting for me the next time I went to the pharmacy. Money, money, money! The game is rigged in the favor of the pharmaceutical companies.
Anything left from her week in hospice I threw out immediately too. My house and her room are going to be a sanctuary of peace and good health only. I returned pictures she had placed in plastic bags and drawers to keep safe from “being stolen” to their original locations. I placed her personal possessions, like her Bible, to prominent places on her dressers and book shelves. I bought a house plant for her corner table because I want something alive and beautiful to be in there.
These rituals and acts seem to be helping me. The feelings of guilt, which experts say are inevitable, are subsiding. Increasing my physical activity, reconnecting with extended family and attending counseling are all helping too. My trauma counselor told me yesterday that it was like I was in a war and I was the medic, the frontline and the commander all at the same time. I know it’s going to take great effort and time to calm down from that and sort things out.
He also said that I’m doing really well. I like to think it’s because I have my mom’s fortitude. She was so strong. Her faith never wavered! I, also, like to think that I have her guidance now. I’m asking her for it every day.
My world has been turned upside down. I’m starting a journey without the constant anxiety and fear of what may happen any minute to my mama. That struggle went on for at least fifteen years. I know she’d want me to do what makes me happy. I’m trying, mama.
The homelessness crisis in San Francisco has put a spotlight on another crisis, the plight of people with serious mental illness (SMI) who are too sick to help themselves.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), approximately 3.3% of the U.S. population (8.3 million) live with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
As any SF resident knows, the intersection between homelessness and SMI is a significant one. According to TAC, around 30% of the chronically homeless are reported to have a SMI.
Of course, mental health services for this group are available. But for too many, they are inadequate, if not impossible to receive. In fact, about half of people with SMI are untreated at any given time. Without effective treatment, too many are left to suffer in the streets or their cars, under bridges or subway tunnels.
To address this crisis, local State Assembly representative Scott Weiner, with support from SF mayoral candidate London Breed, is sponsoring SB 1045. The bill would make it easier for a court to place a conservatorship on individuals who are deemed unable to adequately take care of themselves, as a result of their serious mental illness. As a former conservator, I understand they are absolutely necessary for many people with SMI, but Weiner’s and Breed’s solution falls well short.
In socially liberal San Francisco, from Patient and Disability Rights groups, to the ACLU to social justice activists, the bill has plenty of critics and opposition.
Yet, how humane is it to let people with SMI suffer from psychosis, and in many cases, untreated and deepening psychosis? The research is clear that the longer people go without adequate treatment for their SMI, the more difficult it is for them to recover. This group is also extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual violence. On Twitter, Wiener regularly makes this point.
And the reality is current law already allows authorities to involuntarily hospitalize (i.e. 5150) someone. Part of the problem is that the legal concept “gravely disabled” is interpreted far too narrowly.
Basically, one is gravely disabled when he or she is unable to provide food, clothing or shelter for themselves, as a result of their mental illness. However, authorities, from police officers to field clinicians, often say that homeless people are “self-directing” enough to not warrant a 5150 hold “as long as a person on the streets can say where they are going to sleep for the night,” even if it means sleeping behind a dumpster.
This despite the same person endangering themselves by running in traffic thirty minutes earlier and not actively being under psychiatric treatment for their known SMI.
Weiner’s bill recognizes this absurdity and includes a person’s medical and psychiatric history in evaluating whether or not a person needs to be involuntarily hospitalized and placed under a conservatorship.
Where will these people be treated, however? As mentioned above, about half of people with SMI are untreated at any given time, meaning their chances of experiencing acute psychotic episodes are very high. They will require immediate stabilization. For many, that means both medical and psychiatric stabilization and treatment.
Are there enough inpatient psychiatric beds available for the necessary medium to long-term stays? Nationally, the number of inpatient beds available has been slashed in the U.S. over the course of many decades. For example, from their historic peak in 1955, the number of state hospital beds in the United States had plummeted almost 97% by 2016.
This no doubt has contributed to the fact that prisons and jails are the biggest mental health treatment centers in the country.
Beyond a small number of advocacy organizations and outraged family members of loved ones with SMI, nobody talks about this national disgrace. As one such family member, imagine my surprise when I learned SF mayoral candidate Mark Leno makes this very point.
From his webpage: “Mental health policy experts recommend supplying 50 in-patient psychiatric beds for every 100,000 residents in the total population. In San Francisco, that would add up to over 430 beds. And yet, a 2016 policy analyst report showed that San Francisco only offers 163 beds.” He goes on to say that he will add 200 inpatient mental health beds, doubling the supply.
Without doing this, Wiener and Breed are putting the cart before the horse. At worse, it looks like they are trying to appease business interests in the city that want the streets desperately “cleaned up” more than they are trying to help those with SMI and their families.
Because you have to wonder, why is this all of a sudden an issue now? No SF official was interested in helping me when my mom was living with me in SF in ’09. In fact, SF General Hospital released my mom prematurely on more than one occasion, even though she clearly needed psychiatric treatment. They fail to treat or release people prematurely because they don’t have the bed space. A representative in SF Behavioral Health told me as much. I was her conservator at the time and the city failed to help me help my mom.
So again, why? Yes, part of it is the increase in the homeless population. The other part is the “nuisance problem” being caused by increased homelessness. It is hurting the business climate, plain and simple. This should not be the main basis for helping people that are homeless, especially those with serious mental illness and addictions.
The U.S is ranked 29th among 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in supplying psychiatric beds. It is a sign of inadequate healthcare, not freedom.