The Beginning of Sorrows

Me and my brother, Robert.

The thing about tragedies is that they can catch you by surprise.  You get up in the morning and lazily eat breakfast as if you have all the time in the world.  You pick out something to wear (as if it mattered), and lackadaisically wander through the routine of a morning.  You think your meaningless thoughts, none of them giving you any warning as to what’s about to come.  All the while a tragedy, is secretly unfolding, sneaking up behind you, changing your life forever.

As far as my part in it, it began with a phone call from my mother, but it had been put into motion hours before.  If only I had known…

My older brother Robert and I were extremely close.  So close, even his wife was envious of our relationship.  We could be in a crowd of friends, look across the room at each other, and nod, as if to say, “yeah…I get it, I am thinking the same thing as you.”  As my psychiatrist, Dr. Teemis told me once, my brother and I had to keep close to each other just to survive our childhood.  We remained close even after I had gotten married at sixteen and was pregnant with my first-born son and he was a world away, fighting for his country and his life in Vietnam.  He was eighteen-years-old.  I tried not to let my worry consume me, but I kept a good luck charm for him on a shelf in my living room.  Some days I would take it off the shelf and hold it in my hands, hoping it was working its magic and keeping him safe.  But fear still gathered in my stomach and buzzed in my ears when I thought of him there, alone, without me to watch over him.

When he got back to the states, he had seen too much, done too much, to ever regain the innocence of youth.  He self-medicated with drugs, and got kicked out of the Army with a “bad conduct” discharge after getting caught stealing pills out of the pharmacy at the Presidio.  By the time he got back to Los Angeles, he was suffering from major depression and the after effects of malaria.  I watched him sometimes, while he slept with his eyes open.  I worried more about him now that he was home then I did when he was in Vietnam.

Several years went by; Robert had married and I had finally gotten away from Michael the Archangel.  Both of us were suffering the horrible effects of our childhood and our own choices.  His depression was as bad as my anxiety.  He was living with my parents, and I was frantic, trying to get him help.  I took him out to the Veteran’s Hospital, but he was turned away (bad conduct discharge).  I took him to the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department.  Before we went for his appointment, I called and made sure they understood the problem in case he wasn’t exactly open about it.  I told them that he had tried to kill himself by swallowing pills and that I was really worried about him.  A week later, he left the appointment with a 30-day supply of Elavil.  (His estranged widow later won a lawsuit involving this incident).

The call came at noon.  “Linda, I can’t wake up Robert!  I’ve tried all morning long.”

“All morning long?  I’ll be right there,” I said.  My legs turned to jelly.  I got my boyfriend to drive me to the apartment, about five minutes from my place.  I ran into the bedroom and shook him.  “Robert,” I yelled.  He was lying on his side with one arm over his head.  He looked peaceful, as if he had just fallen asleep. When I shook him and yelled his name again, he grimaced, and the word “seizure” entered my mind for the first time.

I ran into the living room and grabbed the phone.  I called for a paramedics and waited for what seemed like a half hour.  Once they got there, they took over.  I waited in the living room with my mother and tried to listen to what was going on in the other room.  My fear kept me frozen to the chair.  I kept waiting for one of the paramedics to come out and tell me that he was sitting up and talking, but all I heard was the beeping of some machine they had taken into the room.

“Seizing! Seizing!” I heard one paramedic shout. The two young paramedics burst out of the bedroom, and wheeled him quickly through the living room and out the door.  He looked gray.  One young paramedic attempted to reassure me as he passed by, but even he looked scared.  By that time my father was home and we all jumped into his car and followed the ambulance to the hospital.

As we got about halfway there, the paramedics suddenly pulled over and tried to wave us on.  My father pulled up behind them and stopped anyway.  I was sitting in the middle of the front seat, hanging on to the dashboard, unable to sit back into the seat.  I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and my breath caught in my throat.

One paramedic jumped out of the van and threw open the back doors.  I watched as he frantically pumped on my brother’s chest.  The other paramedic shut the doors behind him and jumped back in the driver’s seat, turning on lights and siren as he screeched away from the curb.

Once at the hospital, I did not see Robert again.  By the time we parked and got through the emergency room doors they had taken him away.  We gathered together in the waiting room.  No one said a word.  Finally, a doctor came in and shook his head.  “I’m so sorry,” he said.

For some reason, all I could think was that I had to call someone, a pastor who had been counseling both my brother and me for free through the Salvation Army.  I had called him as soon as we arrived and asked him to pray.  I stumbled over to the pay phone and placed my quarter in the slot at the top. I needed him.  I needed him right that second. He answered on the first ring.  “Wilber?” I started.  I heard myself start to scream.  “No!!!!” I wailed.  I screamed again.  My knees buckled and the receiver flew out of my hand.  A young woman, sitting by the pay phone, jumped up and ran out of the room.  A doctor hurried in and told us it would be best if we went home.  There would be nothing left for us to do there.  We had to leave my brother in that cold, unfamiliar place, all alone.  Robert.  Robert Bruce Amthor: March 27, 1950-August 24, 1975.

Free Fall

Year Two, Day 26: A Touch of the Crazies

Year Two, Day 26: A Touch of the Crazies (Photo credit: Bryan Gosline)

(If you are new to this blog, a good way to read it is to start with the very first post, “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night.”  This is a memoir, the story of my life.  If you are offended by expletives, you may want to skip this post.  I do not use them to add shock value, but to just tell the story of what happened as honestly as I can).

The terror was relentless.  It punctuated every waking moment.  On the worst days, I lay on the floor all day long, just attempting to breathe. My thoughts went pinging around my head like a highly polished steel ball in a pin-ball machine.  I lost all ability to daydream, as I attempted to control each thought; making sure one didn’t get away from me like a runaway semi-truck.  There was no emergency ramp in sight, no way to put the breaks on going very quickly and completely insane.   I didn’t understand what was happening, how I could suddenly lose myself so quickly, so easily.   I had no name to pin on it.  I knew no one who had ever experienced it.  I felt alone in my madness.

I went to my physician and he put me on Valium.  He sent me to a psychiatrist, Dr. Teemis.  Every two days I waited in Dr. Teemis’ waiting room until he called me in, holding the door to his private office as I walked through to the inner sanctum for those privileged enough to have gone crazy.  Then he shut and locked the door, then shut and locked another door, which was right in front of the first one. I thought all psychiatrists must have double locking doors, although for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why this was so.

I sat in a chair, as far away from Dr. Teemis as possible. Each visit began the same way.  He’d lean back in his black leather and chrome office chair and put his feet up on his desk.  He folded his hands in his lap and stared at me from across the room. I would wait for him to speak, to take over, to offer a solution, some answers.  But he almost never spoke first.  Once in awhile, he broke the silence by asking a question, but he never seemed satisfied with my answers.  He asked about my relationship with my parents, the alcoholism, the neglect, and traumatic events of the past.  I left every session feeling worse about my life than I had when I was actually living it.  There was no way I was going to talk to this guy about Michael the Archangel.

Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside. Then, depending on how the rest of the family is feeling that person is kept inside or snatched out, to prove something about the family’s mental health.”
― Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

Dr. Teemis always asked what it was that I was really afraid of.  I was afraid of being afraid for no apparent reason!  What’s not to get about that?  Didn’t he understand that one day I felt fine and then the next day I felt such horror and dread I thought I would die from it?  I believed Dr. Teemis had the key and was waiting until just the right moment to give it to me.  I grew to rely on him to keep me sane enough, to keep me from ending up back in the state mental hospital.  I didn’t think he liked me very much but he seemed resigned to see me week after week nonetheless.

As the fear increased, my world narrowed.  It became terrifying to drive a car.  At first I just stayed in the right-hand lane so I could turn the corner and take the side streets back home if I had to.  That worked for a while, as long as I didn’t have to get gas and sit there, waiting for the attendant to take the nozzle out of my gas tank.  I was sure that one day I would panic and drive off, pulling the hose right out of the pump. Another day I panicked in line at the market, and I realized that even if I told myself over and over and over again that I could make it through just a few more minutes while the checker rang me up, the truth was, I couldn’t make it.  My fear was that one of these days I was just going to start screaming at her and run out of the store without bothering to pay.  I left a full cart of groceries in the middle of the store more than once, and drove quickly home, picturing the ice cream melting all over the floor before the cart was discovered and the food put back on the shelves.  Shopping soon became a thing of the past.

Depression piled itself on top of the fear, and suicide became an option.  I thought about it all day, and then at night too, when I would wake in a sweat, my breathing shallow, and my heart racing.  The thick wool blanket that felt like the top of my head got heavier by the month.  Soon, I spent most of my days in bed, just trying to make it through the next five minutes.  I would watch the clock as the minute hand ticked on, and felt good about making it through another day without dialing the number that would bring the paramedics to my door.

During one of our sessions, I began to talk to Dr. Teemis about how these crazy feelings were affecting how I felt physically as well.  At times I was sure I was having a heart attack.  I ended up in the emergency room at least twice a month, positive I was close to death.  I explained how during the week before, my left leg had felt numb.  Dr. Teemis explained how being a psychiatrist meant that he had medical training as well, and he asked me to lay down on the couch while he checked my femoral artery.  He pulled down my pants and pressed his fingers on the artery, close to my crotch.  He stared into my face, attempting to gauge my reaction.  I went stiff and silent.  Disgusted, he pulled my pants up and told me to have it checked by my own doctor the next time I went.

I worried about that femoral artery.  I was sure it was clogged and I was about to stroke out.  That look on Dr. Teemis’ face was proof something was wrong!  Who cares that most twenty-three year old young women don’t have strokes? Maybe it was the years of drug abuse.  Maybe it was the blows I took to my face and head at the hands of Michael the Archangel.  I had to do what Dr. Teemis told me to do and ask my own doctor right away.

“What did he tell you?” Dr. Hutchinson asked.  I noted the tone of his voice but chose to ignore it.  I repeated the conversation I had with Dr. Teemis and how he felt my artery with his fingers and told me to have it checked.  Dr. Hutchinson paused, watching my face, then quickly looked away and began writing in my chart.  “Nothing is wrong with your femoral artery,” he said.  He sounded irritated or impatient.  I couldn’t tell and I didn’t understand.  Certain thoughts ran through my mind but I couldn’t let them land.  After all, if there was something wrong with my psychiatrist, then I was done.  There was no one else who could help me.

Months went by, and I continued to deteriorate.  I believed my visits with Dr. Teemis were the thin thread keeping me hanging on to reality.  I sat in his waiting room, two or three times a week, trying to make it through the ordeal of being out, away from the one place I felt somewhat safe; my bed at home.  One day his receptionist sat behind the tall counter and chatted away on the phone.  It sounded like a personal call, but I didn’t care.  Where was Dr. Teemis?  Thoughts of suicide had overloaded my brain that week, and I did not think I could live through another day without a session.  I waited for 45 minutes and finally got up the courage to interrupt her and ask where he was.  She covered the mouthpiece with her hand.   “I’ll try giving him a call.”   She hung up the phone and dialed another number.  I heard her ask someone if he was there, and a few moments later she said, “Linda is here to see you.  She’s been here for quite awhile.”  She hung up the phone without another word and told me he’d be there in a few minutes.  She quickly redialed to continue her own call.

Another fifteen minutes passed and suddenly the door to his private office opened.  I sighed and smiled as he asked me to come in.  As soon as I entered the room I smelled the alcohol.  He loosely waved his arm at me, gesturing at me impatiently.  He seemed angry.  He leaned back in his chair and it tilted back a little too far, forcing him to grab the edge of his desk for support.  He swung his feet up on the edge of the desk and laced his fingers behind his head.  “How’s the fucking?” he asked.  My stomach lurched and I stared down at the floor, unable to speak.  “How’s the fucking?” he repeated, more forcefully.   His tongue tripped over the words and it sounded like he had too much saliva in his mouth.

“I don’t know.” I stammered.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” He sneered and I looked towards the double locking doors.  “Well, I don’t really feel like it much right now,” I offered.

“I bet you’d feel like it if a sexy neighbor down the street asked your husband to screw her!”

“I guess so,” I said.

“I guess so,” he mimicked.

We both grew silent. Dr. Teemis can’t help me, I thought.  I was at the bottom of the pit now.   There was no deeper, darker place to go.  But unfortunately I was wrong about that.  I had stepped off the edge and was in a free fall.  But I was just bouncing off of ledges.  The bottom was there, and eventually I would hit.  And when I did, I would lay there for a long while, stunned, and unable to move.

Over the Edge

English: Purbeck : The Pinnacles & Chalk Cliff...

English: Purbeck : The Pinnacles & Chalk Cliff A steep drop – so don’t get too close to the edge of the cliff. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year passed, and we were still living with the guy I met at work…the one who rescued me from Michael the Archangel.  We just sort of settled in, pretending to be a family.  Except for flinching every time he tried to put his arm around me, I thought I was doing fairly well, considering.  Then, as fate would have it, I got invited to a Tupperware party.

I really disliked Tupperware parties.  Oh, I loved all the little squares and rounds with their matching, color-coordinated lids.  I just disliked the parties.  I always felt guilty when the hostess looked me in the eye and told me how many points my friend would get if I would just host a party of my own.  I also hated the drive home, thinking about what a disaster my kitchen cupboards were, and how, if I only had a spare $327, I could reorganize my entire food supply.

Weaving my way in and out of the typical Los Angeles area work traffic, I checked my watch.  I hoped my friend Theresa would already be there when I arrived.  I knew that she would be the only person I knew at the party.  What I didn’t know was that after this particular Tupperware party, it would be years before I would go anywhere alone again.

The music I usually enjoyed blaring from the car radio was starting to get on my nerves, so I flipped it off.  The normal traffic noise seemed louder than usual.  I checked to see if my windows were up.  I began thinking of all the excuses I could use to leave the party early.  My husband is ill.  I’m not feeling so great myself.  I need to help my son with his kindergarten homework.  Our pet pig got stuck in the dishwasher.

By the time I pulled up to the house, I had my excuses in order, but I was hoping that seeing my girlfriend Theresa would help me forget about my nervousness and I wouldn’t have to use any of them.  I walked into the house and put my coat and purse where I could get to them quickly.

The women were clustered in little groups of two or three.  Theresa was nowhere to be found, and no one made a move to try to include me in their conversations.  I felt invisible, and alone.

I got up and looked out the window.  Where was Theresa?  What’s wrong with me tonight, anyway?  I began to imagine myself flippantly tossing out one of my excuses and casually walking across the floor, picking up my coat and purse, and heading out the door.  “Ta-ta!  Hope to see you gals again soon!”  Instead I felt glued to the chair.  I was positive that every one in that room would know I was lying and give me a silent glare.  I finally got up the courage and mentioned to a woman sitting next to me that I had to go, grabbed my coat and purse, and almost flew out the front door.

THE EDGE, there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

Hunter S. Thompson

As I got into my car, I started to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  My thoughts raced through my brain so fast it seemed as if I was interrupting myself.  My palms were slippery on the steering wheel.  I pictured myself passing out.

The traffic on Hawthorne Boulevard had gotten worse.  With each red light the feelings became more intense.  My arms and chest began to feel numb.  I wondered if I was having a heart attack, at twenty-three-years old.  The urge to jump out of the car and run down the street screaming for help was so strong that looking back, I don’t know how I kept from it.

I managed to make it home and got into bed, pulling the covers over my head.  My breathing slowed, and eventually I got to sleep.  The next morning, I hit the snooze button on the alarm clock and lay in bed for a few moments, trying to get my bearings.  I had a vague feeling of unease.  Did I have a bad dream?  No.  Is something wrong with one of the kids?  No.  Oh yeah, last night!  With that thought came the memory of the nightmarish rush home from the party.  As I replayed it all in my mind, my breath began to accelerate.  Then my hands went numb. I froze. I had walked too close to the edge one too many times. This time, there was no regaining my footing.

Shades of Grey

shades of grey

shades of grey (Photo credit: nahlinse)

A link to my first blog post on Lucinda Bassett’s blog, Truth Be Told:

 

http://luncindabassetttruthbetold.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html

(Having problems with links.  Copy and paste into address bar please)

This is a blog post about how I dealt with the suicides of both my brother and my father.  These events will be coming up soon in “Light at the End.”  Stay tuned…

And for those who have not read my blog before, it’s a memoir, which means it is best read starting at the very first post, “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night.”

Please, always feel free to leave comments or questions for me.  I love to interact with others.  Thank you!

Making My Move

Michael the Archangel and I had finally found our way back to Los Angeles.  His mother had allowed us to temporarily move in with her.  She already shared the three-bedroom bungalow with her elderly mother, who had lost a leg lifting a car off of a six-year-old girl.  We were supposedly saving money for our own place.  I had a different plan in mind.  I just hadn’t figured out how I was going to pull it off.

The next time I felt Michael’s fury,  the blow to my face was so loud it woke his mother out of a deep sleep.  She flew into our room, screaming for her son to get out of the house.  Instead, he dashed into the bathroom and ran a razor blade over wrists already scarred from previous attempts.  Somehow his mother kept him in the bathroom so he wouldn’t bleed all over the house, but neither one of us made an attempt to call for help.  We just stared at each other, as if daring each other to make a move to the phone.

Finally, his mother made the call and an ambulance arrived. This time Michael landed himself in a facility for a three-day evaluation, but as always, he convinced the docs he was ready to face the world again.  Looking pale and haunted with his wrists bandaged up, he attempted to gain my sympathy.  He related how the EMT told him that if he really wanted to end it, he would need to slice vertically up his wrist, and not waste his time marking up his arm side to side.  Information offered too late.  For the next several weeks I hid out, not wanting anyone to see my face in public.

As soon as my eye was almost back to normal, I applied for a job where Michael’s mother worked.  Garrett AiResearch manufactured and sold turbochargers to the military, so to even get into the plant I had to drive up to the guard shack and show my photo I.D. badge.  Once in the building, I felt safe.  Michael the Archangel would not be allowed in.  But my children were not there with me.  So I waited and then made my move.

I was hardly ever left alone, but one day Michael decided he could trust me long enough to take my car to the repair shop.  He’d hitch back, so I figured I had about 45 minutes.  I carefully pulled the curtain aside and watched as he backed out of the driveway.  I waited about one minute and then ran into the kitchen and pulled a large green garbage bag out of the cabinet.   Scarcely breathing, I pulled socks, underwear, pants and shirts for my son, diapers for the baby, bottles, a couple of toys, and tossed them without looking into the bag.  I threw the bag into my son’s Little Red Wagon and pulled the baby up onto my hip.  “Come on!” I told my four-year-old.  “Follow Mommy!”  “Hurry!”

My son didn’t even question me.  It was as if he knew exactly what we needed to do.  The three of us raced out of the house, with Michael’s grandmother helpless in her recliner, yelling at us to stop.  I walked as fast as I could and still keep us all together.  We went around the corner, up a few blocks, down a street, up another block, zig zagging away so as not to be found easily.  I was petrified, sure that if Michael found us I would be killed.

I knocked on a door in the middle of a block.  A middle-aged woman answered the door.  She took one look at us; me at eighty-two pounds, long, stringy brown hair, shaking like a leaf; my son, a look of bewilderment on his face.  And then there was the baby in my arms.  “Could I use your phone to call a taxi?” I said.  She hesitated, folding her arms.  Surely she’s not going to say no!  I almost began to scream, “Let me in your house!!”  “Please!”

There are far too many silent sufferers.  Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one who cares.
― Richelle E. Goodrich

She let us in and with fumbling, shaking fingers I looked up the number and made the call.  She asked us to wait on the porch, exposed.  I saw her watch me out the window.  Thoughts of being killed in front of my kids raced through my mind but I felt trapped, cemented to the spot.  If I left the taxi would not pick us up.

The driver looked incredulous as he lifted the red wagon and the garbage bag into the trunk of the cab.  I wondered if he was going to call the police on me, as if I were some fugitive from justice.  I gave him the address of a guy I had met at work.  He had stopped me in the lunchroom one day and asked me what was wrong with me.  Why was I so thin?  Why did I shake?  I unburdened myself and he offered to help.  I was sure he didn’t really expect me to take him up on it and show up on his doorstep, but I gave the driver his address anyway.  It was our only chance.  I felt myself begin to breathe again as we drove away, and I melted into the back of the seat.

I didn’t stop shaking for weeks.  I never saw Michael the Archangel again…ever.  I never showed up for another day at Garrett AiResearch, and within a week we were living miles away in another city.  I heard years later that Michael had died of an overdose in a fleabag hotel in San Francisco.  As for me, I made it for another year before I really began to unravel, before I began to lose myself completely.  It was finally safe to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth Be Told

I will be interviewed on the radio Thursday, October 4, 2012, at around 11:45 a.m. PST.  The show is Lucinda Bassett’s new radio show, “Truth Be Told”.  She will be interviewing me about how I was affected by the suicides of my brother and father and my experience with agoraphobia.  You can tune in live at www.latalklive.com or watch it back on Youtube.  Please post any comments or questions after the show and I’ll write back!