How do you have a conversation with your father when he isn’t quite himself? I’ve been learning to navigate this recently. Tonight I called him to check in on the state of things. He informed me that his sitter had been ensuring that he eats and drinks. He also gave high praise to the people working at the hospital, telling me that they were kind and helpful, but not too helpful because they had to push you do things for yourself as much as you could. He told me about his foibles and again brought up the name of one nurse named Rosa, whom he particularly favored because she was “perhaps even bossier than your mother”.
“What are your big plans for the night?”, I asked him.
“Well, they’ll give me medicine soon that’ll knock me flat,” he answered.
“What will you do in the meantime? Have you attended any classes today?”, I inquired.
“Nope, I just stay in bed most of the day and think about things,” he answered.
I then remembered that I had in my possession several novels by one of his favorite childhood author’s, Ernest Thompson Seton. He’d given me these books 3 years ago and I remembered him telling me he thought my students may enjoy them, but I never did take them to my classroom.
I am glad I didn’t, because I decided maybe it would be a good idea to read to him. So I found the novel, Wild Animals I Have Known in my upstairs library. The first story in the novel is about Old Lobo, a very clever and powerful wolf who evades the exasperated humans. It was written in 1898 and the setting is in Northern New Mexico. My father has always been a nature lover. I stopped every couple of paragraphs to reflect on the story with him and he knew all the characters and the highlights of what we were reading-he told me he’d memorized all of Seton’s stories. I enjoyed reading to him and after about 30 minutes or so, decided it was time to stop and save the next chapter for our next phone conversation. He told me he really liked hearing the story and that it made his evening even better. Before I got off the phone I told him about a dream I’d had two nights ago. I was at the home of his parents. I walked around all of the rooms and though I did not see them, I felt their presence in their home. I walked him through each of the rooms with my words and he recalled those places in his own mind.
After we got off the phone, I remembered a poem a friend had posted recently, The Peace of the Wild Things. And it gave me pause because it is exactly why my father has always held an affinity for nature. I look forward to more adventures with Old Lobo, for he has more days to live yet.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that… In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.“-Albert Camus
A is for Aprazolam
B is for Buspirone
C is for Cymbalta
I can name many medications in the anti-depression/anti-anxiety and mood stabilizer categories that begin with almost all of the letters in the alphabet. I’m familiar with many of them. They’ve been thrown around since I was 16, when I discovered my youngest sibling on a terrifying downward spiral mentally.
I am familiar with psychiatric care and with alternative methods to regulate a hijacked amygdala. I’ve seen the evolution in psychiatric care over decades and I’ve seen the stigma associated with it diminish in the last decade the most. I’ve seen the greatest breakthrough in a reckoning with mental healthcare in the last 2 years, mostly due to the pandemic. For the general public, words like “trigger”, “anxiety”, “impulsive behavior”, “suicidal ideation”, “depressive episode” are now part of a common awareness that didn’t exist (out loud) when I was 16. Back then, those words were not casually thrown around in conversation. Back then, they were whispered in hushed conversations and even considered sinful (I grew up Catholic-you didn’t talk about attempted suicide or suicide at all. Like sex, if you didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen). I had to learn all of these things during the course of my life. They were things I feared and wanted nothing to do with, but you know, what you fear the most is often what you end up having to face.
I’ve had to be on suicide watch, use my mindfulness/yogic breathing to help bring loved ones back to the present and to help me come back to the earth more times than I can count. Each time it has been an opportunity for me continue learning.
The first time I learned about anxiety was when I was in college and I was experiencing a panic attack. I had no idea what was happening to me. It was frightening. And, because it was not something you talked openly about to others, I suffered quietly. Until I couldn’t. I got physically ill and could not eat. A dorm mate, whose name was also Carmen, must have had some understanding of what I was going through. She held me and rocked me through a particularly bad panic attack. Finally, I went back home to speak to the same psychiatrist that my younger sibling saw. I just knew I was crazy and something very terrible was wrong with me. When he explained what was going on with me, it was such a relief. And years later, when the anxiety popped up again, the therapist I saw helped me further by explaining what was physically happening to my brain/body when I had a panic attack. That helped me the most, I think. It seems so simple. But it was a stepping stone to what we now refer to as “mindfulness”, which is something I now teach to others. Being aware of your body, your breath, where you are in space at the present moment. It came in handy when my own children suffered with their mental health struggles.
The Body Keeps the Score (written by Bessel van der Kolk), the go-to book for understanding trauma and how it is stored in your body, was introduced to me by a Somatic Therapist in 2016. I knew a thing or two about trauma at this point in my life-I’d attended trauma therapy with my daughter from the cancer she’d experienced and from the divorce I subsequently went through afterwards. I thought I understood trauma after that. I recall the therapist explaining how the mother suffers acutely when faced with her child battling cancer. She taught me that when the brain is in trauma mode, a person’s thoughts and behavior change. I was making connections with prior trauma that I’d experienced and how it triggered anxiety. But there was more to learn.
This Somatic Therapist and I met at a Shamanic Women’s Group that I attended weekly. She taught me about trauma that is bone deep. And ancestral trauma-how it is carried from one generation to the next. There was still more to learn about how to slow down and to be present. I gave the book to my daughter, a few years later, after she came home from treatment of a major depressive episode. She’d learned about it in treatment already. She also came home talking about DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). She’d superseded me in her knowledge. I observed how we return to a situation when we haven’t mastered the lesson. That is exactly what life does to all of us. Life was nudging me, saying ”you’re not finished with the lesson”. There was definitely more to learn.
My father has suffered with his mental health, as well. In the last year of this pandemic, it has been especially difficult, but truly the last 7 months have been a living hell for him. My mother, a nurse by profession and caretaker extraordinaire, has been dealing with the day-to-day duties of supporting a loved one (yet, again) with depression. She is in her 80’s, but here she is learning more about mental healthcare. My daughter visited her grandparents and could empathize well with her grandfather. I can chat away with my mother about all the therapies and medications and the caretaker perspective. But there is still more to learn. And I like to think, with each layer that is peeled back, we are learning and we are healing. We are learning how to maneuver collectively. Learning about acceptance, love and facing our fears. Learning how to tap into that Invincible Summer Within.