Smiling Faces Tell Lies

Hurricane Mom strikes again!

With my mother out of the hospital, no one is sure our family life is structurally sound.

The mental health system in the United States is a terrible failure. Mom has been released from a second institution, again unmedicated, driver license intact, refusing outpatient therapy. She does not believe in her diagnosis. Yesterday, Mom appeared at my door and told me she’d just come from her best friend’s house where her best friend came home from visiting her husband after brain surgery and found Mom arranging flowers in her dining room. Mom is not a violent person, but that scared me, and I imagine scared her best friend.

I spent an hour talking to Mom. She brought me things she could have just dropped into recycling but didn’t, clothes she no longer wanted but that I would never wear, clean Ball jars. She filled the air with words, but couldn’t get to a point. She wanted me to do something, but couldn’t tell me what it was. I was relieved when I walked her to the door, but on the porch, she saw my neighbor’s very young son and turned back. She said she’d approached the little boy and my neighbor told Mom to stop talking to the little boy. Mom said she then walked into my backyard and visited with the chickens for a while before ringing my doorbell. My heart sank. Mom could be anywhere and in contact with anyone.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have an appointment tomorrow morning for bloodwork, and my doctor wants me to see a cardiologist. I don’t think I have a heart problem. I think I have a someone else’s problem problem.

Took Me Years To Write

Yesterday, my mother went back to the hospital. She’d been out of the hospital and on a rampage for two weeks. The house is a shambles. My stepdad has been bunking in hotels. The family is exhausted and angry.


For the last two weeks, my mother tore about in the house, packing my stepdad’s stuff. She’s decided it’s over between them after 43 years. She says he’s cruel and after 43 years we know he’s not. It’s part of her mental illness in which we are all her enemies.

Yesterday, Lena, a social worker from the county, talked her way into Mom’s house while my sister Anya and I were sitting in the living room. Lena and I had made an appointment, which enraged my mother. Lena’s questions enraged my mother. Anything we said enraged my mother. Lena’s taking me aside to talk enraged my mother. Mom demanded Lena talk in Mom’s presence, but Lena and I walked away. Mom came after us  and told us we were doing the exact thing she’d told us not to do.

“Mom,” I said, “she has procedures.” Mom slammed the door. Lena initially told me she did not see enough evidence that Mom was either suicidal or homicidal. She consulted with her supervisor and told me Mom was going to the hospital, we could drive her or the police could take her. I was devastated. We went inside so Lena could deliver the news, which went very badly.


Lena had spent hours with us and had to leave, but she gave Mom a deadline: she would let Anya and I drive Mom to the hospital, but in 45 minutes, she would call the facility, and if Mom wasn’t there, Lena would call the police. Mom was fully enraged by then and would not hear a word I said when I suggested she pack a bag.

Lena rang me from outside to say it had been determined that Mom had violated a court order, so the police would have to be involved. It was awful news but came as a relief to Anya and me that I wouldn’t have to drive her to Somerville across some of my least favorite highways while Mom said terrible things to us. Things happened quickly after that: a police officer arrived, then another, then an ambulance, then the ambulance left on another call. Meanwhile, Mom ran around frantically, packing a bag she eventually had to leave behind anyway. When she finally got into the police car and they drove away, Anya called her dad, who was waiting around the corner. This is what we have been reduced to by my mother’s mental illness: we talk all day every day about one person’s problems and spend all our time and energy coping with them.

By the time I got home from this 3 pm appointment with Lena, it was three hours later. My husband Pete had rearranged our bedroom. My cats weren’t sure I was sufficiently worshipful. I talked about what had happened for over an hour before we made dinner. My brother called and shouted for half an hour because he’s been so upset with Mom for weeks and feels powerless in California.

This morning, I woke up early and at 7 am, a social worker called to say Mom was being transferred back to the facility she was released from two weeks ago. I begged her to find a closer hospital. She promised to try. It’s been two hours. I am waiting.

orchid abode


Be Just Like Starting Over



While the temperatures here topped 90 degrees every day for over a month, I got sick and couldn’t shake it. I had a headache for over a week; a pinched nerve in my neck made cycling impossible. During the Olympics, I spent a lot of evenings lying flat and watching TV with one eye open. This has put me in a MOOD.

slicker than a greasy ticker

Red peppers, looking sexy.

My doctor, to whom I’ve been a consistent source of amusement for about 25 years, retired at the end of June to move to the West Coast and spend time with family. I understand that other people have their own lives – in theory! – but this is very inconvenient. To me. One day, I was so sick Pete poured me into a car and took me to the doctor’s erstwhile office, where a young sports doctor looked me over and was very confused about how I was balancing an ice pack on top of my head and making conversation. I liked her very much, and she was very helpful, but I’m used to working my comic stylings before an older demographic.

Pickled. You heard me!

Sometimes I too feel like I’m full of tiny bubbles.

Though it was above 90 again today, the spell is broken. I am pale and out of shape, but feeling like myself again. The fall semester begins in just about a week and I’m registered for a class I’ll do well in. Most of our jarring season is behind us now.

I’m ready for things to cool down just a little. I’m ready for things to heat up.

To Where We Started From

I got a little sidetracked this morning, which is my way of saying I sat down to write, but sitting down is currently very difficult and not advised by my orthopedic surgeon, so I spent a few hours finding synonyms for, “Ow!” This meant I wrote nothing. The page remained blank. Whaddyagonnadoo?

A week ago Friday, I went to the Hospital For Special Surgery to have a meeting about my left hip with the above-mentioned orthopedic surgeon that he likes to call total hip replacement surgery. Twenty-five months ago, we had a similar meeting concerning my right hip that magically transformed me into a middle-aged poster-child; thus, I had every reason to believe the meeting would go well and it did. Hooray! I woke up in the recovery room, my gurney parked next to a teenager whose cousin had run him over, forgotten to put the car in park and ran him over a second time. This was the kid’s third hospital and seventh surgery, and instead of falling back to sleep or drifting in and out of consciousness, I talked with him for a couple of hours, telling him he was in the right place finally and with the right people. The boy’s father came to visit twice while we were in the recovery room: well-dressed, dignified and deeply hurt that his son was so terribly injured. I’ve thought about them both in the last week. I wish them well.

Finally, a tall nurse arrived in recovery to take me to my room. He assured me he would take good care of me. I told him – I told everyone I saw – this was my second hip, I was fine and everything would be okay. The first night was a little rough, with instructions I wouldn’t remember, faces I had trouble remembering and conversations that later seemed like hallucinations. In the recovery room, I now remember, the nurses gave me rehydrating frozen treats and told me the boy wasn’t ready for his and I shouldn’t tell. I didn’t, either. In the night, I threw up into the hospital puke tray like a pro, unlike the last time, when it came as a total surprise that 12 hours after surgery I might hork up something blue. I slept in fits and starts as medication and periodic vitals readings permitted. My TV was tuned to the Food Network and Guy Fierri yelped quietly all night. In the morning, someone brought me a mostly liquid breakfast of Cream of Wheat, peach yogurt, coffee, apple juice and milk. I hadn’t eaten in more than 36 hours, but I am living proof a cup of hospital coffee can save your life.

During the day, my aide brought me warm water and soap, but I really couldn’t figure out how to freshen up much. I have never been so happy to brush my teeth. People constantly came to the doorway or the curtain, calling my name or my roommate’s name. Some came with clipboards, lunch or dinner menus, medications or to just check on me. I was overjoyed when the physical therapist turned up; she was overjoyed that I was ready and anxious to work. I wanted to rest, yes, I was exhausted, but I wanted up and out of bed. Apparently, my attitude was so unusual the physical therapists came to get me for fun.

Two years ago, my surgery had been first thing in the morning and the physical therapist got me out of bed that evening. Even summoning all my strength, I could only take four steps, but it seemed like a miracle. Last week, my surgery was midday and I didn’t get to my room until close to midnight, so getting out of bed was a mid-morning affair. I struggled a little with the walker, but together we walked around. It was my first view of the floor I was on and it was odd. During my second jaunt around the floor, the therapist taught me how to walk up and down the stairs. It was not as difficult as one might think, so I did a few laps of the practice stairs. My third excursion included walking in figure-eights around the nurses’ station and more laps of the stairs. The therapists were invariably students in medical or nursing school, so it was interesting to talk with them.

It was during this time that things started to get a little weird. My roommate, a nurse from Lenox Hill Hospital who’d been in HSS for over a week, needed someone’s attention all the time. She talked to me a bit. I had brushed back my mile-high hair behind a cat ear hairband and regularly applied red lipstick, so about every hour, someone with a clipboard would peek around my bed curtain and ask, “Are you…are you wearing ears?” I was pleasant, positive and nodding off most of the day, but I did notice that when no nurse, aide, administrator, dietary assistant or roommate was talking to her, my roommate would moan in a rather able vibrato and in gradually increasing volume. It would start with, “Nurse…nurse…” which was stupid, because all she had to do to get the nurse’s attention was push a button. It continued with, “Why doesn’t anyone help me?” and when that went nowhere, she’d finally push the button and ask for help. Before dinner, her daughter turned up to visit, dragging along her boyfriend. The daughter seemed to be a nurse, the boyfriend an EMT. My roommate’s voice lost its warble and became firm and purposeful for the length of the visit. Afterward, I was in for it, as she would sometimes call my name and beg me to call the nurse. Twice, I pressed the button and said, “My roommate needs help,” though what I wanted to say was that she needed a good beating.

I had trouble sleeping the second night, which I expected. I didn’t want to be in a hospital bed with inflating pressure boot things anymore; no, I wanted to cuddle up with my cats and my handsome husband. Fortunately, sometimes the boots inflating felt like Sweetpea, my largest cat, throwing herself against my leg. By Saturday afternoon, the medication drip that let me catnap was cut off, so I was worried I wouldn’t sleep. Somewhere between 2:30 and 3:30, my roommate’s complaints about constipation abruptly turned into desperate bleating about diarrhea in bed.

This went on for 12 hours.

For 12 hours, my roommate moaned and made a disgusting mess of herself and her bed and the staff scurried to deal with this over and over and over and over again. I plugged my headphones into my TV and tried not to add to the staff’s woes by puking unprofessionally. No amount of lipstick and no cat ears could fix this. Meanwhile, I tried desperately to figure out a way to ask someone to get me out. My doctor seemed to think I was staying another night. The nurses and therapists were convinced I should be leaving. It took an hour for Pete to come from New Jersey to get me and I knew he was bringing my parents. For perhaps the first time in my life, I knew my mother was going to appear at the door, and that was going to spring me from this revolting situation.

I love this hospital. I love my doctor. I love the staff. I put my lips next to my aide’s ear and whispered, “She’s crazy.” When the therapist took me past my nurse at the nurses’ station, I told my nurse to please find a way to spring me, I couldn’t stay in this disgusting situation. When my mother appeared in the doorway, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, fully dressed and in pain I was too depressed to complain about. I’d had a very quiet talk with my aide, who was cleaning up this Poopsplosion for hours on end, and I told her she deserved a medal. I hope people appreciate her. She is a gem.

A statuesque aide wheeled me to the front door, where I stuffed myself into the back seat of our Honda Element, but I didn’t care at that point if someone had thrown me into the trunk of a Volkswagen.

So things are looking up. The next morning, I woke up in my own bed, with my own cats and my own handsome husband. The visiting nurse and visiting physical therapist turned up and were the same guys I worked with two years ago, which is a total win! We were all happy to see one another! They can trust me to eat well, take care of myself and do my exercises. They get my jokes!

Zomigod, I’m exhausted now. Sweetpea’s pressed against my leg. It’s late, and I could use a catnap.

Of the World Looking Over the Edge

About twenty-two years ago, I was standing in my kitchen first thing in the morning with an eerie feeling, when I turned around and saw Sam standing in the doorway, pale as a sheet. His hand was bandaged. Sam had spent the night at the hospital. He asked if I could pay the cab driver.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

I grabbed my wallet and ran outside. When I came back to the kitchen, he told me he’d put his hand into a saw and nearly cut off his fingers. In the days that followed, he couldn’t even look at his injuries. I cleaned and bandaged them. He recovered. We had a four- or five-month disastrous relationship and an agonizing breakup that burned a hole through me I try not to remember in any great detail. We both behaved very badly; we could not be friends.

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Sam was whip-smart, funny and genuinely interesting to talk to. We’d gone to art shows, music shows, poetry readings. He introduced me to great music and made me a wooden cassette case to get all my tapes off my bedroom floor. Knowing him changed the way I viewed myself as an artist. He could be a complete bastard or a patient best friend. We took pictures of ourselves and each other. Later, when I got this roll of film developed, I had someone else look at the pictures. It was too painful to see him. The pictures languished in a cigar box. In some of the others, I look so young to me. After I finish this blog post, I’ll put these pictures away. I may never look at them again.

Thursday night, one of my old housemates emailed that Sam was dead, died late last year. A little googling revealed that Sam went missing in November, 2013. A month later, his body was found. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

Samuel P. Hoyt, 46, according to his stepfather, is believed by investigators to have jumped from the Lee Bridge in Richmond on Nov. 22 after being seen at the Virginia War Memorial by a guard there.

Most of his personal belongings, including a recently issued prescription for high blood pressure [Note: no one gets a prescription for high blood pressure, idiot.], were found at the memorial on South Belvidere Street, where witnesses described him as “disconsolate and troubled,” said stepfather Bruce Littman.

An autopsy showed that Hoyt drowned and suffered internal injuries consistent with a fall, Littman said. Hoyt’s body was spotted by a tugboat crew below the Osborne Boat Landing in Henrico County on Dec. 31 and was recovered by county water rescue units.

Hoyt’s mother, Catherine, and Littman said a cousin in Ashland visited by Hoyt was concerned about his well-being after the self-employed, unmarried carpenter expressed paranoid thoughts and was having difficulty separating reality from bursts of delusional thinking.

An aunt and uncle in Richmond also feared for Hoyt’s safety when they saw him take a knife from their kitchen. They took him to an area hospital, where he was assessed by a psychiatric social worker, Littman said.

And now I’m angry.

Littman said a psychiatrist was not consulted, nor were other family members contacted who had more knowledge of Hoyt’s past. Hoyt, though, had seemed rational for much of his life and worked as a carpenter and Web designer, needing help with finances only in recent years.

“He kept his secret (of delusional thoughts) well,” Littman said. Hoyt was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School and Virginia Commonwealth University and had attended graduate school at Rutgers University on scholarship, Littman and his wife, Catherine, said.

The morning after being released from the hospital with no finding of mental issues that warranted detention, Hoyt threw furniture in the uncle’s home through a window and left.
Littman said that when he was found in the river weeks later, Hoyt was identified from the hospital bracelet on his wrist, from documents left at the war memorial, and a DNA sample from his mother.

“We are very sad about what had happened and are concerned that this is happening at a time when Virginia is considering important changes to its laws dealing with the rights of mentally ill people,” Littman said last night.

Littman stressed that procedures need to be tightened that mandate more thorough assessments of a person’s mental condition, especially people without insurance such as Hoyt.

The stigma of mental illness is deeply ingrained in us. The half-assed article’s author struggled with language throughout, but most obviously here:

A man found dead in the James River on New Year’s Eve had been missing for more than a month and was feared by family members to be suffering from a mental condition.

What is that, I ask you? His family knew well that Sam was ill. Sam joked that bipolar disorder was “the family bug.” I accepted this without judgment because mental illness hasn’t visited my family so much as moved in and ordered pay per view. My father’s grandmother spent much of her adult life in institutions and died under suspicious circumstances in a notorious asylum. Many members of my family have mental illnesses, both treated and untreated, and I was seeing a therapist at the time, so Sam’s problems didn’t feel unfamiliar or threatening. At times, he was very far away and negative. His mood would spiral and he would be unreachable. Kindness didn’t help; he could not accept it. He needed treatment, but I see now he didn’t get it. He didn’t even get evaluated by a doctor on his way to committing suicide.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

This is the system we live with now. Unless the patient is cooperative and wealthy, we can’t find help – and almost no patients are wealthy and cooperative. In New Jersey, family members can seek court-monitored outpatient treatment for violent patients in denial, but without a history of violence, the courts don’t get involved. Even the expanded program can’t order patients to take their medication. Those programs can be effective for patients with documented problems, but people like Sam aren’t violent and have no documented medical history. You can know that your family member is very ill, but you may be unable to demonstrate that illness to medical or legal professionals, as Sam’s family was not.

Sam in our backyard

Sam in our backyard, inventing the selfie stick.

This problem may be more common than our society is willing to acknowledge. My mother’s first cousin suffered a breakdown and became homeless; we do not know if he’s dead or alive. My extended family faces a similar ordeal: a family member who at one time sought medical attention in Utah, was diagnosed borderline schizophrenic and prescribed medication. He soon stopped taking the medication and has for some time been living with a girlfriend, but he hears voices and files lawsuits and calls the police to report his hallucinations. I talked to his local, rural police, who were well aware that our family member – let’s call him Tommy – was mentally ill and not trying to make trouble. The police agreed that he was no danger to them, but Tommy’s delusions were eating up police time and resources. We believe they charged him with something small. Next thing we knew, Tommy drove across country and turned up at his father’s house. It did not go well there. Tommy’s father wanted him to stop doing all that stuff, meaning hearing voices and talking to them. They argued and Tommy came to New Jersey. During the day, Tommy looks fine. At night, his symptoms are much worse. He is staying with a friend. We expect that situation will break down fairly quickly and have been searching for what to do next.

While he is in New Jersey, we will look for help here. Tommy does not have a job or insurance or a fixed address. We don’t know if he’s going back to Utah. He may be homeless. He says he’s thinking about going to Florida, but doesn’t know anyone there. He is looking at apartments here in the small town. I suspect I’m going to spend a lot of time on the phone and Pete is going to work hard to protect Tommy from the police. We cannot expect the police here to be understanding. We can’t prove Tommy needs help before something happens, and that is where we as a society fail our mentally ill cohort. Seeing a therapist is fucking expensive and treatment has not advanced a whole lot. Medications don’t work on everyone and work differently on different people. The whole thing is a crapshoot and try getting insurance with this pre-existing condition. Even so: treatment is better than no treatment, and maybe if Sam had been treated and his illness taken seriously, he might still be alive.

It has taken me days to write this. When I mentioned I was having trouble putting all this into words, a mutual friend wrote me:

I remember helping him mount a piece once. It consisted of two huge counter-rotating sheet metal cylinders one inside the other with openings arranged so that as the cylinders spun they would only occasionally line up. Once you’d gotten inside you had to wait inside that barren metal space till the openings lined up again and you could get out. I remember asking Sam why while we were wrestling the metal into place and he said he wanted to ‘force’ people to be inside their heads, to be alone.

I can’t help but think of that now.

It’s cliché but I can’t think of a time when I saw him without a smile. I really can’t. the only time maybe was when we were at the barracks breaking up radiators for metal casting. My sledgehammer bounced back and hit me on the shin and I had a piece of iron in my leg (still have the scar and a divot in my bone). I don’t know who was yelling louder, Sam or me. He was so upset. He gave me all the money he had on him at the time for the hospital because I had no health insurance. Fuck you Virginia.

You say he loved to say his name, it gave him pleasure. You say he always smiled, that he helped, that he gave a shit. You say he was a good sweet guy who drew people to him like a candle draws moths. You say no fucking more. No more senseless waste of such beautiful life, no more because we can’t take responsibility as a society to help those in need, no more shit heel politicians trying to slip out from the blood and misery on their hands, no more people alone and staring down a world gone completely sidewise and strange, afraid and desperate and doing stupid things. No more. No more.

Let us say all that and one more thing.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

In the winter of 1992-1993, we had snow storm after snow storm. My car was frozen into a bank of plowed snow. During one blizzard, Sam and I suited up in our winter warmest and made an Arctic expedition down our street. Where the road stopped, we made a tricky descent where we knew a path into the park lay. The ferocity of the wind made breathing arduous and visibility was limited to a few feet. We trudged through the thigh-high snow across the park. Sam was very strong and not afraid of pushing through the seemingly endless snowy hills and mountains. At one point, we took refuge behind a building to catch our breath. All familiar landmarks were obscured by the vast whiteness, so we climbed a steep hill and emerged from the park in a place between some trees. Triumphant and exhausted, we found our street and made the climb up the hill to our house. A bunch of people were snowed in at our house. When we realized they would be hungry, we made a second Arctic expedition to the grocery store four blocks away. This is how I wish to remember him: smiling, capable, strong. If we were a just people, he might have grown old that way.