Shocked into submission…

Between about 1981 and 1995, my mother was a resident at Riverview Hospital, our provincial mental health facility. I was probably about 15 when she was admitted. It was the last and most drastic move in a series of difficult moves for her.

The reasons for her landing in Riverview went something like this:

  • In 1977, she tried to drink herself to death, self-medicating through a serious depression. She almost succeeded, but survived and came out of Burnaby General Hospital with permanent brain damage and a different, more simplified personality.
  • We could not keep her at home, unsupervised – she would need some kind of constant care and supervision – so she was admitted into the first of what would be a few different private care hospitals around Vancouver. (I remember one out in the Old Orchard neighbourhood of Kingsway in Burnaby, and later, Como Lake Private Hospital in Coquitlam.)
  • She was, I was told, difficult to care for, and at Como Lake had to be strapped to a bed on one occasion. Apparently, after she struck a nurse and walked out into the snow, trying to find her way home, Como Lake Hospital said that she had to go.
  • I really don’t think those private hospitals were equipped to handle her manic-depression or emotional outbursts. So, after that, she went to Burnaby Psychiatric Centre, near Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby. I thought she seemed to be doing much better there. It seemed like a more professional and structured environment. Dad told us that it was basically a “holding pen” for Riverview.
  • Dad said the word “Riverview” like it was a threat – a bad consequence that Mum would get if she didn’t behave herself. She’d been there before, back in the early 70s, when I was about 8 or 9, so she knew what it was like. I think Riverview was not anywhere she wanted to be, but by 1980 or so, that’s where she ended up.

I was very afraid of Riverview with its high ceilings, large heavy doors with their loud metal locks, and the wide linoleum floors surrounded by windows covered by metal grills.

The women’s ward that my mother was on in what was called “Centre Lawn Unit” was, to my young eyes, identical in age, layout and spirit to the men’s ward shown in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or to the wards seen in the movie “Awakenings”. Not kind of similar. Almost identical.

It was heart-wrenching to leave Mum behind in there after our first visit. She cried and pleaded to come home. She kept asking us “when can I come home?”. It hurt so much to not know what to say, or worse, to know that there was nothing that could be said, that she might never ever leave, and that she either didn’t realize it, or worse, that she knew deep-down, but couldn’t accept it.

Gradually, over the first year or two, our Sunday drives out to see Mum at Riverview lessened to only every two weeks, and then even less, as I recall. It seemed to have become too much for Dad, and on our visits, he began to claim that a sore back prevented him from climbing up the stairs to go inside, leaving it up to me and my sister Kim to go in while he sat in the car and smoked. I saw through his smokescreen, and in my teenaged binary thinking, I deeply resented him for being a coward and for leaving the burden solely for his kids. Looking back now, Mum’s near-death and physical and mental degradation must have broken his spirit and defeated him utterly. It was the final break-up of their marriage – a consequence of things that I only partially had seen as I grew up, and the full truth of which I will never really know. He still loved her, so he told me later, but he always talked about her in the past tense even while she was still alive. Nobody really talked about my Mum Angela after she went to Riverview. She was out there, but she was also just… gone.

Eventually, after Dad had a heart attack and multiple strokes in 1983, his driving days were finished. In 1984, I went out on my own on the bus to visit Mum a number of times. I wanted to take some responsibility for her in a way, and I wanted to see her and maybe try to know her in some way.  I also didn’t want her to be basically abandoned by her family.

By 1984 or 1985, she seemed to not recognize me any more or to remember my name. It was painful to try and remind her every time, but I perservered, and would also bring her a chocolate bar and enjoy her enthusiastic, child-like chewing. She was toothless by this point and ate with the enthusiasm and impatience of a toddler, sometimes coughing it out onto a bib or towel around her neck. She was reduced to a baby’s kind of existence, and I never knew if it was due to some of the meds she was on, or to some mental degradation from years of minimal stimulation.

Over the first couple of years that Mum was in Riverview, we noticed her behaviour change. Her emotions seemed dead and gone, as if her remaining spirit and personality had left her. She had become quieter and distant, and would only speak in monosyllables. In the years later, she would rock back and forth, somewhat extremely, or tremor or shake her arms up and down on the sides of her wheelchair. I never knew what her body language was telling me. Was it involuntary, or was she agitated or excited about something?

Once, after one of Mum’s cousins visited her in Riverview, we heard that the cousin had claimed that Mum had undergone electroshock therapy, nowadays called E.C.T. It was, to me, at the time, a barbaric idea, and I didn’t want to accept it. It felt like that was the worst stigma of psychiatric treatment, like a form of modern-day torture, and I didn’t want to think that my mother would be put through something that I thought was so violent.

But, there’s every likelihood that Angela did go through E.C.T. at Riverview. I’ve read recently that it was a fairly commonly-used therapy at Riverview until maybe the early 2000s.

I’ll just leave this here…  http://www.ect.org/news/130shocks.html

Dear Dad…

I was looking at some letters I’d sent you on Fathers Day in the past few years, and it made me wonder why I don’t write you more often. You know, aside from the fact that you’re dead and all.

1989 is a long time ago now, but whether my letters are five minutes late (as I was for our last hospital visit), or thirty years late, the mail must get through somehow, right? I’ll write to your ghost, wherever you are.

Some people believe in an afterlife – heavenly or hellish planes where you are rewarded or punished according to the net positive or negative balance on your books when you die. That always sounded like bullshit to me, even as a kid. I was proud to know that you had the same opinion. I probably learned it from you anyway.

Did you really ever believe in god? You said that you did, but I never saw any evidence of spirituality or mystery in you. You called our family Agnostic, which was never properly explained to me. In fact, it took me many years of reading to decide that it was, for us, just another word for atheist, in a world that would not look favourably on that idea.

I think you shunned the religious orientations of your parent’s generation. I think your family was Protestant, because we have one old Protestant bible that probably came down from some Love family bookshelf. Your mum and her sister were religious and talked about and sang to God, but it really seemed like some kind of power struggle for you. Was it that way for the Love men? Was it pride? Was it a rebellion from old values? Were your brothers that way too?

You always seemed to chafe against the institution of religion, and you personally resented its agents when they came to your door. So, while I was a kid, living with you, I could count on one hand the number of times we went to church. The motivation was usually social convention: we were new to a community, or we did it to fit in with our neighbours or because other family members expected it.

But personally, in your own heart, were your values idealistic and moralistic? I can never know how deeply rooted they were. In our house, some commandments were broken like dinner plates. Usually, some deeply-held trauma, guilt, or resentment would breach your surface out of a sea of alcohol and repression, and nothing good would ever come of it. It was the irony of the toughest man on the block, shamed to near-tears and clenched fists, facing shit that he couldn’t deal with. I’m sure your ego punished you and called you a failure inside. You had nobody to pray to, to ask for redemption, and no friends around you to confide in, at least that I ever saw. Everything in our family, and in your heart, seemed to happen behind closed doors.

Wow, that was a big load of judgement and assumption that I just laid at your feet Dad. I will never know what was in your heart, and it’s hubris for me to assume things about your character. I think that now your vision and compassion are infinite. It’s unlikely that you will give me a response, but I probably have been too hard on you for too long. There’s not much gained by punishing you posthumously. If there is a cosmic scale to be balanced for you, its not my right to load up one side or the other. I believe that the universe will absorb it and balance itself out, the same way your matter and energy have long ago been redistributed, and the atoms you used from 1921 to 1989 have long gone back into the service of other people and things.

In my teens, you did teach me that energy cannoy be created or destroyed, only transformed. You wanted me to understand a little physics and math, and to see the world in a rational way, the way modern scientific and technological men did. I’ve really worked at that over the years.

So now that your form has been gone for almost thirty years, I should leave my angry feelings in the past too. If there is an afterlife, there’s no way I can reach you in it – at least not for another 30 or 40 years if I take good care of myself. If there’s no afterlife, then you’re now infinite and redistributed, and beyond my reach anyway.

But even though you’re gone, I can still write to you, and not just on father’s day.

I’ll try to listen for your reply.

I love you.

John.

Remembering where your tether is…

From time to time, I realize that I feel lost, as if my grounding has given way, leaving my identity floating and vaguely unclear.

In these moments, I ask myself where my feet are, and I worry that I’ve lost or forgotten myself in some way.

This disassociation from my identity seems to come after I’ve spent time projecting myself into the middle of other people’s problems, struggles, or dilemmas. You put your mind and your compassion into play as part of your identity as a Helper. If you do that often, or too frequently, you may hit a saturation point where your needs have been eclipsed so often that you cannot find them when you want to use them. So, you say “I need a break, but what should I do?” I’m sure parents go through this reconnection dilemma every summer. I’m sure caregivers do too.

The story I tell myself, the narrative I’ve nurtured in the past ten or twenty years, is that I want to be a Helper, and being able to help others gives me satisfaction and feeds my pride and sense of worth. In the past five or ten years, my wife has convinced me that I am empathic, and tend to experience others’ emotions to the deteriment of my own. Basically, I treat others’ problems and feelings as if they are more important than mine.

Every family has some kind of drama, and occasionally, some very serious emergencies. My family is no different, and I will always be there to help in whatever way I can. My upbringing from about 3 years through 23 years kind of conditioned me to be the good, responsible kid, to help clean up messes when parents could not, to make the visits to hospital, and to be responsible around the home when nobody else could. Now, past 50, I find that in little ways, my recent moments of loving family support are really reflections and echoes of past events. I get triggered a bit, but in a good way – with a little voice that says “you’ve been here before, and you know what to say and how to act, and how to help”.

Thinking of those moments as positives, as evidence that my love and caring can be communicated and can make a positive difference, is one way my heart and mind feel rewarded and replenished. Another way I recharge my battery is to spend quiet moments with myself, reflecting, and sometimes just enjoying silence; allowing my mind to rest, and to just enjoy pure moment-to-moment sensation, without the personal, internal monologue. In those times, I recognize myself and appreciate the feeling of my existence. I give myself a hug internally, and reassure myself that I’m good and will always be good. Those are times to let the caring fold back around towards yourself, and charge your own batteries.

There are previous generations of Loves, Clarkes, Owens, and Markses who lived their own dramas, faced their own challenges, and left their footprints for me to find. The strongest example would be my maternal Grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, my namesake and my beloved “Poppy”. He was a good man, and I need to believe that there are still good men in the world. My Dad’s legacy went down the family toilet posthumously, but Poppy’s legacy, for me, never will. That is a tether I can hold on to when I need to.

Finally, there is my internal imagery regarding my parents, which for forty years has wavered between sadness, fatigue, desperation, and worry, and in the last ten years transformed into bitterness and resentment. My father severely damaged both his families, and in the past few years, I’ve seen evidence that time doesn’t really heal all wounds. I feel heavy and tired in my resentment of them.

But their legacy doesn’t have to only br framed by loss and sorrow. I have also had a few beautiful moments remembering them at their best, brightest, and most virtuous. I can celebrate Angela’s inner and outer beauty, her idealism, and creativity. I can celebrate James’ tenderness and care, remembering calloused hands being used gently on me to heal an illness, or his strong voice going quiet to speak in gentles tones to a small child or the neighbour’s puppy.

Their unrealized potential, their unlived idealism, stands out for me like a reverse shadow, like a glowing aura. That is another strong tether to hold on to.