Sunday, August 23, 2009

Survivor therapy

Several people suggested I go to grief therapy following my son's death from suicide. Hospice offers group and individual therapy, so I called and scheduled a session six weeks or so ago. My fiancee, Lee and his son Taylor and I have attended three sessions so far, and I am hoping to bring Bill, my ex, and my daughters Jayne and Rebecca to future sessions. I had one scheduled for last Monday and Bill and Jayne were planning to go, then the therapist had to go out of town unexpectedly, so I will have to try again. It's so hard to get everyone's schedules together, but they won't go on their own. It's like trying to get someone to AA: the window of opportunity is very small and you have to get to a meeting when they are in the mood, or it closes. But I will keep going, join the group if I can, and lead by's the only way I can help my family. It has already helped Lee and Taylor. I think it has helped me some...

Mostly my therapy has been in reaching out to friends and acquaintances through Facebook. I have shared with some old friends and they have shared back. Private emails, instant messages, daily posts and threads all help. Even the silly games provide a good distraction. I am doing more things with friends than I used to. I hiked today with my sister-in-law. I've gone to the gym with a co-worker. I had lunch and browsed fabric stores and art galleries with a friend. At my son's memorial service I promised so many people we would get together for lunch and so forth, and I am slowly following through.

It's comforting to know that Andrew shared so many of the activities I am doing now...he loved to hike around the trails in SLO county. He and my daughters lived in Los Osos for a year together and he explored the nearby state parks that I am frequenting. He enjoyed art, and he even bought some fabric for me as a Christmas present one year...I used some of it for some quilt blocks. He cooked, and I bought him some cookbooks. I am trying to grow tomatoes, while Jaynie has been keeping Andrews tomatoes and zucchini and the rest of his plants alive for the past 4 months.

Andrew was a worker, so when I am doing a chore or cooking or recreating, it is impossible to do so without some memory of him. I try to honor his memory in performing each task.
I am so glad that his life was full of good things...his mental illness hadn't destroyed his basic lifestyle. In my work I see people who live on the streets like animals. They are lost souls. At least Andrew had a roof over his head, his own room, a job to do and people around him who loved him. He had his father, his sisters, his cousins and me. He also had a huge extended family who all looked upon him as a favorite son.

We couldn't save Andrew from himself, but we loved him and tried to reassure him every day. He scared us...we all knew he was a danger to himself. It's just that we thought we could talk to him and straighten him out, but it only helped temporarily. He needed medication and professional therapy, and I couldn't make him get it. In that, I failed, and I have a lot of remorse in that failing.

Therapy didn't have a chance to work...

My son Andrew committed suicide on April 14, 2009, six years after his first major psychotic break. His father found him at home, lying on the floor. At first he thought Andrew was sleeping. Andrew had suffocated himself while his father was in taking a shower. He had just finished breakfast. It was two days after Easter, and Andrew had fasted and given up meat for Lent. When I wrote the following essay, I had just gone back to work after being off for two weeks to plan and hold his memorial services and take care of matters with the family. I knew I would be writing about this and sharing with others about my wonderful, inspirational son, Andrew. What level of sharing remains to be seen. Now four months has already passed and life has resumed in its familiar fashion. Most people think that I am doing okay. I am, but Andrew is constantly in my thoughts. We all miss him...

April 30, 2009 -- I always dreamed of writing the Great American Novel…but recently I read in “People Magazine” that my idea has been done by Jeffrey Zaslow with “The Girls from Ames”. Seems his non-fiction book is about some girlfriends who grew up in a small town and then all went their separate ways, but kept in touch from time to time as they go through life’s joys and agonies. They are all very different, yet very connected to each other.

Really, that was always my idea…to write a semi-fictional tale using my real-life friends from high school as character models, and explore our stories of marriages, births, divorces, illnesses, deaths, successes and failures. Relate how our lives had taken different paths, yet we shared common feelings and experiences. A few of us are still married, some are divorced, single parents, in a new relationship, have become grandparents, stepparents, or are childless. One went to Hollywood and is now a successful choreographer-director, never married. Another manages a lucrative title insurance company and has a beautiful home in Santa Barbara, but no children. I raised my children in the same town that I grew up in, then moved to the “big city” 20 miles away after getting divorced and started a new job and a new life. Many of my friends have made and lost small fortunes and started over. We’ve lost parents, brothers and sisters, and a few children. I started to outline the characters for my novel a long while ago after I attended a Writer’s Conference at the local community college. That was back in the early ‘90’s, and then I got sidetracked with life…my three children, my husband, extended family, work and the rest…so my novel went on the backburner.

Fast-forward 19 years and here I am, two weeks after the suicide-death of my beloved 26 year-old son and four days after his memorial service in which I was reunited with all my old girlfriends, trembling at the thought of resuming life-as-usual. They all called, emailed, sent flowers and cards and attended the service. There were so many people there that I only had a few moments to greet each person and didn’t even have a conversation with most of them…but they were there, and we were flooded with memories of the times when our paths had crossed over the years…memories of weddings, baby showers, our children playing sports, attending school together, sharing birthday parties and that great big graduation shindig that we parents had planned and prepared for three years leading up to the event.

I remember thinking as I greeted each person and group in the reception line following the memorial service that this was like my life, or Andrew’s, passing before me. His first grade teacher was there, his youth coaches, high school coaches, our neighbors, old friends, new friends from work, former employers, our huge extended family, ex-inlaws, people from church, school, and Andrew’s friends or their parents.

Even my friends that didn’t have any children still ached for my loss in the same way those with children felt it. They had nieces and nephews who had known Andrew. At this point in our lives, several close friends of mine had lost a loved one and we had grieved that person together. It was a familiar drill. We suffered through divorce one by one, and then celebrated new relationships. Some had battled cancer and as 49-year-olds, we were all experiencing pre-menopause, high cholesterol and weight gain. I had led the way by having a mild heart-attack at age 47.

My friends’ brought their families to the memorial: not just husbands and children, but their brothers, sisters, parents…whole families were there to grieve with my family. We pulled together, my ex-husband, my two daughters, my nephews that lived like Andrew’s brothers with him, my fiancĂ©e and his son, my former mother-in-law, our brothers and sisters, the cousins—everyone came together to honor my son and celebrate his accomplishments in life. A couple of my nieces had taken over the planning for the memorial service. My sister-in-law read Andrew’s obituary during the service. Our lifelong friends and the parents of Andrew’s best childhood buddy organized the potluck luncheon in the park. Everyone came together to support us. They all loved my son.

Writing was a passion Andrew and I shared. I had always wanted to be a writer and landed a job with the local small-town newspaper where I got to write features and do publicity articles. One aspect of my job was writing obituaries. I have written several for various members of our families who have passed on: grandparents, my parents, two uncles. Most recently, last June, actually, I had written one for my sister-in-law, the one that had become my ex-husband’s companion after her husband died. Preparing the obituary notice was one thing I could do for them during a difficult time, and after all, I knew her as well as anyone did. So I sat down with her mother and we reminisced about her daughter. It was like old times, talking and laughing about the silly things that happened with the children and family. We all share so many of the same memories. It wasn't so difficult a thing for me to do, and it was really rather therapeutic.

I wrote Andrew’s obituary. As I typed his life story, I remember thinking that it should be a hard thing for a mother to do, but it wasn’t. It was easy to think of things to say about him, and I wouldn’t have passed on that assignment for anything. As I typed his story into the computer, I remember thinking how I was on my own with this assignment…usually Andrew had proofread my other obituaries prior to publication. Oh, the irony! So I asked Rebecca and Jayne to do the proofing...

Andrew was a gifted writer in grade school, and in high school he joined the school newspaper and began writing sports articles. He had played sports all his life. He was a star growing up in youth sports. In high school, he might not have been the most valuable player or the most talented, but he was always the team motivator. He was often selected as Most Inspirational. He wrote sports stories from a players’ point of view.

He applied for a scholarship from the county-wide newspaper and won, inspiring him to study journalism at the community college. He wrote features and sports articles there, ending up as the Sports Editor in his second year. While still attending college, he landed a job with the bigger county paper and began to really delve into the craft of writing to meet a deadline, being accurate and hooking the reader all at the same time. “A beacon of concentration in a swirl of confusion. That was Andrew,” wrote his sports editor in a note to me and the family after learning of Andrew’s death. It was a profound statement, and we used it on the funeral cards. The statement seemed perfect when paired with a painting Andrew had recently completed of a ship in the midst of a storm.

Ironically, it was his inability to focus any longer that led to Andrew’s suicide. I scooped up his notepads from his bedroom a few days after he died and skimmed over the writings. He had written about all the different thoughts that were bombarding him all the time. He tried to block them out, stay busy doing projects, push all the thoughts away, but it was too much. He tried to keep up with his dad, who typically worked seven days a week. He finally was able to outwork the old man, and after the workday, he did projects at home. He repainted his truck—twice. He built planters and did all the yardwork, constructed arbors, planted a garden. He was exhausted and wrote that he just wanted to be able to focus on one thing at a time. He wanted some peace.

My husband and I had separated following the death of his brother, Andrew’s uncle, who had died in a tragic car accident in 2000. My ex and his sister-in-law turned to each other for support and ended up together. Their relationship provided her three boys a semblance of familiarity and normalcy, in a weird way. Bill became their father-figure and Andrew became their brother. They looked up to him and adored him.

It was all sort of Jerry Springer-ish, and may have detracted from us being able to really understand what was going on with Andrew. The illness hit Andrew in his early 20's -- classic timing, I'm told. While attending college, he had begun to exhibit signs of paranoia. He was going to school fulltime and had landed this great part-time job with the newspaper. It was like a dream -- perfect steps in his plan for the future. Then, eight months or so into it, he just quit…walked away, dropped out of college mid-semester, and said he just wanted to work with his dad in the family plastering construction business. I was devastated because Andrew had seemed to be on the path to success and I didn’t want to see him go into a downward spiral. I knew he was having some emotional conflicts, but who wouldn’t given the circumstances? He was worried about me, his dad, his sisters, and his cousins. He tried to be the perfect son, and mostly he succeeded.

But then he had a real psychotic break. He locked into a total paranoid mentality where he thought people were coming after him and trying to kill him. He mentioned some real-life characters from junior high and high school that he had had some confrontations with, so it didn’t seem that far-fetched. But we could tell he really needed some intervention. Someone directed me to French Hospital and, once Andrew agreed to go, a mental health crisis person met with him for an evaluation. She recommended that we take him to a mental hospital in Ventura and made the arrangements. I would have to drive him there as soon as possible.

I remember going to the house and packing a backpack for Andrew. My older daughter Jayne helped me as we humored Andrew’s paranoid comments and tried to mask our sense of urgency. He was looking out his bedroom window, scanning the cars that drove by on the roadway out front. Someone was coming for him—Mexican gangsters. They were going to shoot him. He named the boy he had been in a fight with in 8th grade. He was scared to death. We were too, but we tried to hide that from him. We were steering him down the sidewalk to the car when suddenly he turned and wanted to go back into the house to get his running shoes.

“Its okay, Andrew, your flip-flops are fine. Just please get in the car,” I pleaded.

“No, Mom, I need my shoes. If they come after me, I can’t run fast in these,” He replied. Jayne and I exchanged looks, and we dashed back into the house with Andrew to change his shoes. I didn’t breathe until I finally had him in the car and we hit the freeway for our two-plus-hour drive to Ventura.

When we arrived at the hospital, it was dark and the front doors were already locked. There was a bell with a sign saying to ring it, and I did. The person who opened the door for us was a Hispanic janitor, much to my dismay. I was afraid Andrew would make some sort of Mexican-gangster connection and refuse to enter, but miraculously he didn’t. I let out a huge sigh of relief. They would help him here, I just knew it. Some doctors would fix him and he would go back to being my wonderful son on his way to a promising career. I stayed with Andrew through the intake process, then finally it was time for me to go. They had taken his shoe laces and issued him some hospital clothing. They gave him a toothbrush. I hugged him tight and promised him everything would be okay. Trust them, I begged. They will help you. Bill had arranged for a motel room for me in Ventura, but I cancelled it and drove home that night. I cried the whole way home.

The staff told us we would need to leave Andrew there for four days. On the last day we could come for a family counseling session. We got to talk to Andrew on the phone a couple of times before we went to pick him up, and he cried. He was so scared there. People were messing with him. A hospital worker stole his toothbrush. Other patients were so weird and they drooled. No one looked normal like Andrew. "Please come pick me up," he begged us.

We drove down in separate cars on Sunday. Bill smoked and didn’t want to inconvenience me. I also suspected my sister-in-law might not appreciate us riding together. Oh, brother! When we arrived we had to hunt for a parking spot because the parking lot was full. I ended up parking on a maintenance road above the facility behind a car that displayed a license plate frame with the statement, “You’re just jealous because I can hear voices!” Fat chance! I laughed that nervous kind of laugh you do when you are just about to crack.

We went to the family session. We saw the other patients. In our meeting with the doctor, he simply said Andrew had had a psychotic episode and would need further counseling by a psychiatrist. He said he could take it on, but due to the distance, he recommended we find a doctor in our area and gave us several references.

Andrew said he never wanted to go back to that hospital. We didn’t ever want to have to take him back. It took us three months to get in to see a local doctor. In the first session, Andrew made his case for all the reasons he didn’t want to continue with therapy, and so he didn’t. Actually, I think he might have gone to one more session. The psychiatrist was, of course, intrigued with Andrew, who he said was intelligent, good looking, athletic and yet, had this one tiny thing that no one could see by looking at him that was off…fascinating! I got Andrew to go see one other psychiatrist, a woman, but after two sessions he was done. He wasn’t going where ever the counseling tried to take him. He didn’t feel safe. Back at the Portola house where he had grown up, or working with his father, that was the only time he could feel secure…not entirely, but reasonably.