February Musing #3: Hallucinations or Visitations?

A year ago, today, would be day 6 of hospice for mom. By then, she wasn’t eating and was physically very weak. She needed substantial assistance to get out of bed to go to the bathroom or another room.

At one point, I believe on day 5, she asked one of my cousins why she was getting weaker. My mama truly didn’t understand. Such was the state of her serious mental illness (SMI); She’d have little self-awareness about her true medical condition.

Indeed, since my mom first started exhibiting signs of a SMI, this had been a constant feature. Even as her physical health sharply declined over the years, her lack of self-awareness just became more elaborate.

“The machines (blood pressure and glucose monitors) work when they want to.” “The lab results are being tampered with.” “The medicine is what’s making me sick.” She’d say all these things and more on a regular basis.

In fact, to my mom, the beginning of hospice just confirmed her belief that she would start getting better, since she could stop taking her medicines (In hospice, a patient’s regular medicine is stopped and the focus becomes on keeping him/her comfortable. Yay for morphine.) This is what she was saying God wanted, before hospice even started, after all.

While we were careful with our words, in response to my mom’s question, my cousin could only tell her the truth, “It’s your kidneys.” Mama didn’t respond. It was taking a lot of effort for her to talk at that point. Perhaps she just decided to save her energy or just pray silently. But I’m sure that didn’t make any sense to her at all. My mama was expecting to get healthier and stronger, not sicker and weaker.

As if navigating the situation and counseling her weren’t challenging enough, given her delusions, she’d also experience intense hallucinations.

Now before hospice, as part of her SMI, mom had regular audio hallucinations. But aside from occasionally seeing things that weren’t there, like cameras on the walls (They were usually just spots of sunlight coming into her room.), she didn’t really have visual hallucinations. Visual hallucinations began appearing relatively early in hospice, though. Being new to her, this understandably confused and, at times, distressed and scared my mama.

They’d begin on day 3 and, curiously, would begin around the same time she’d start developing severe apnea. My girlfriend and I were talking to my mom by her bedside in the evening, when she seemingly started nodding off to sleep.  She closed her eyes mid-sentence and her head began to lower.

Around 30 seconds later, she raised her head, opened her eyes and asked us:

“Do you see them?”

“See who, mom? It’s just us. What’s there?”

“There’s some people standing over there. Shadowy figures. I can’t make out their faces.”

“Are they scary, mom?” I asked. To my great relief, she replied, “No.”

This continued around an hour that evening. Mom wouldn’t see things every waking minute, fortunately, before finally falling asleep. But she’d continue to see the shadowy figures and would begin to see flashes of light. She’d also say she saw a woman she didn’t recognize, sitting in the room with us. Thankfully, mom wasn’t frightened, but she was perplexed by these new experiences.

Disturbing and scary hallucinations first appeared in the form of several faces she would see. One appearing minutes after seeing a little girl. We had just convened in the living room with my aunt and cousins.

“Do you see the little girl?” she asked, as she pointed behind the couch.

“No mom.” “No Aunt Josie.”

The little girl disappeared and we continued talking and interacting with her, as normally and supportively as possible. My cousins, being older than me, had a lot of good memories to share with my mom and I about my mom’s younger days. They were reminiscing when my mama let out a sudden shriek and pointed towards one corner of the room. I don’t remember the exact words she used to describe the face, but she described a ghoulish or devilish morphing one.

Unfortunately, these scary visual hallucinations would continue when mom had acute psychotic episodes. I believe three altogether.  In the evening on day 6, for example, she started complaining that her feet were getting really hot. She pleaded with my girlfriend to take her socks off. “Hurry! Hurry!” she said frighteningly.

She then described seeing the earth opening up below her and became afraid she was going to fall down through. We did the best we could to keep her calm and assure her Jesus wouldn’t let anything happen to her. “Focus on Jesus, mama. Look for Jesus. Nothing sinister is welcome here.”

JesusPic
A picture/illustration of Jesus mom had in her room. a caption

The hospice chaplain recommended we tell her to look for Jesus and the light, when she started seeing things. During another acute episode, I read her favorite verses from Psalms for close to an hour. My aunt and cousins prayed with her, recited the Rosary and had salt at the ready for the duration of their stay.

I saw my mama suffer tremendously throughout the years, physically, mentally and spiritually. It traumatized and saddened me, for sure. And seeing her scared during hospice was particularly heart wrenching and painful, since she was in her final days.

Not being especially spiritual or religious, I found myself asking my grandmother, my mom’s mom, to help me and mom, out of desperation. I think she visited us on day 7, in the early morning. I’m pretty sure I smelled her, after not smelling her in more than 20 years. I, also, think mom sent a humming bird to visit me this past Monday, what would be the first day of hospice last year. I’ll elaborate on that event in a subsequent blog post.

Hospice was life changing. I’ll never be the same again.

(To Be Continued)

One Journey Ended, Another One Begins

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.

IMG_2497
As my mom’s health worsened, I’d have to check in on her when she was sleeping more frequently.

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.

UeshibaPrayer
Ueshiba praying and giving reverence to nature and the divine.

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.

IMG_0072
The center piece to my family altar. My family’s ethnic and racial heritage and history are themes.

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.

Tribute: My Beautiful Mom Showed Me What Strength and Courage Are

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” –Michel Foucault

Despite my family’s best efforts to care for her and make sure she received adequate medical and mental health treatment, my beautiful mama passed away prematurely on February 27 at the age of 66.

IMG_2618
My mom at around eleven years old

My mom was the daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers and the youngest of eight children. She graduated from high-school and received her Associate’s Degree from Fresno City College, despite having to work in the fields with her family starting from a young age. She would marry her high-school sweetheart, my father, shortly after his return from the Vietnam War.

My mom was a devoted wife, mom, sister and aunt and would defend her family fiercely from all injustices and dangers. One of my earliest memories of her protecting me involves her confronting an older boy who was bullying me when I was in first grade. In talking with him, she convinced the older boy to act as a bodyguard for me against any further bullying from anybody.

When she was not busy working or advocating for us in our schools, my mom enjoyed hosting and feeding extended family and our friends. Whether with her lasagna or albondigas soup, my mom would regularly showcase her excellent cooking skills. Her menudo was particularly good. To this day, my dad adamantly says he has never had menudo as good as my mom’s. In recent weeks, my cousins have reminded me how central my mom’s love, charisma and generosity were to our larger family’s closeness and happiness.

My mom also loved and served the Lord dutifully. Indeed, the two things that made her happiest were being with friends and family and praising and sharing the “word of God”

IMG_2640
My mama with my sister and me.

with others. Her faith in and love for God shaped most of her relationships and many of her decisions. The joy she expressed in her faith would provide the ultimate benefit to one of her childhood friends when they would reach their 20s. My mom gave her friend religious testimony and counseling that literally saved her friend from a dark, depressing time. I learned about this in the tribute my mom’s friend gave at the funeral service. “I wanted that joy,” my mom’s friend said.

While the immediate cause of her death was kidney failure, I know the main culprits are a negligent and abusive healthcare system and callous and inhumane government. My beautiful mama began exhibiting signs of a serious mental illness as early as 2003. She began claiming people were out to get her and that microchips and hidden cameras were being used to track her movements and interfere with her thoughts.

After years of witnessing her neglect her diabetes and put herself in dangerous situations numerous times, I began intervening to try and get my mom help in the summer of 2007. By then and much to my agony, my mom was hearing voices and talking to herself. Little did I know how virtually impossible it would be to get the help my mom desperately needed.

IMG_2157
My mom and me at my graduation from U.C. Berkeley.

From top to bottom, the healthcare system showed a constant disregard for my mom and our family. Medical doctors and hospitals had little patience and sympathy for someone who frequently would become distrustful and non-compliant (Patient Dumping from a Son’s Perspective). Skillful and caring counselors and psychiatrists we’d interact with were few. Even then, there was little they could do, given my mom did not believe she was ill and refused to take psychiatric medicine.

And while there is a legal basis to involuntarily hospitalize someone against their will, authority figures would regularly find my mom “self-directing” enough as the reason for them not to take action. For example, numerous police officers would say like pre-programed robots, “A person has to be lying down naked on the railroad tracks for us to take them in.” Hospital social workers would ask me “What does your mother want?” when I would request a psychiatric evaluation. Me saying “She wants to be with her family,” would garner little sympathy.

When she was homeless and living in a car for a time, I pointed out to a representative from the Californian Department of Public Health that she meets involuntary hospitalization legal criteria, since she was homeless as a result of her mental illness. I was told that, “Technically, a car roof is a roof over one’s head.”

IMG_2479
Mom and me visiting Monterey, CA in Dec. ’17.

Ultimately, in the end, though they were claiming to respect “civil rights,” they all were actually aiding and abetting a system that refuses to provide quality psychiatric hospitals and treatment and, instead, prefers to leave too many people to suffer, estranged from family and friends in the streets or thrown away in jails or prisons.

I moved my mother in with me in February ’16 because I could not continue to see her suffer and estranged from the family she loved and did so much for. I lost my mama twice, the first time to her mental illness and the second time, years later, to her physical illness. I was never able to have her be a fully healthy part of my life during most of my 20s and all of my 30s. Now I am 42 years old and will have to figure out how to rebuild and live my life without my beautiful mom.

28783368_1906526199359606_5814926190774121318_n
Mama was laid to rest wearing her favorite peach dress and white sweater and the necklace I bought her for Christmas.

I am currently seeing a grief counselor and it is clear I have a lot of trauma, emotions, and anxiety to work through. What will help me heal and prosper are the strength and courage my mom showed through her adversity. She never wavered from principles or lost her faith in the Lord or her will to live. I hope to become half as strong and half as principled in my life, particularly in my advocacy for a better healthcare and support system for caregivers and families. We deserve better. My mama deserved better. We love and miss you mom.