Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ships That Don't Come In

So here's my predicament: I haven't blogged in months because I want to be funny, sweet, entertaining, uplifting, and positive. To sum it up: A bright spot in my readers' (reader's?) day. I don't want to be depressing, blah, or serious. If you know me in person, I can have all sorts of shit hitting the fan and I will still come across as generally upbeat. Is it a facade? No, not really. More of a coping mechanism. I can't let life get me down. Happiness is a choice, you know? And if I smile and laugh and push aside some of my worries (at least, for most of the time), I'm good. I'm truly happy. I have had friends compliment me on my positive attitude, or actually tell me they're envious that I'm "always in a good mood." Let me tell you: it takes work. I have to do it to survive! I always have. But when I go to write, the "real" me wants to emerge--the deeper me. And it's here that I can't always feel fun and witty when I'm actually feeling heartbroken, frustrated, resentful, and alone. Lately, I've been dealing with lots of thoughts in my head about my mentally ill brother, and they're not fun. They're just.... sucky. Sad. Bizarre. Embarrassing. Hard to share with anyone.

So that's why I haven't written.

And then today, I thought... you know what? I need to write. I need to get it out. And if you hate what I'm writing, just don't read it. If it's depressing, please move on. I mean it. And I mean that in the nicest way. Heck, I wouldn't want to read what I'm about to write! But I'm writing for ME. It's therapeutic. I need to get it out. Sometimes I wonder how much more my husband and co-workers can take of my venting. It's not that I'm always whining, per se... I just probably share too much. I'm not a person to keep secrets... at least not of my own. I am an open book to the Nth degree. I can't hold anything in. As my other dear brother Paul once said, "God, Susan -- does every thought that enters your head have to come out your MOUTH?"

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it does.

So here we go.

I'm not sure where to start. My brother Mark is a paranoid schizophrenic. I always knew he was different, but much of his uniqueness was due to his hydrocephalus (water on the brain) which was a physical challenge he'd dealt with as a preschooler on. It's easy to chalk up peculiar habits to a physical ailment, especially when you're talking about a child who had to wear a football helmet to school after surgeries to protect his tender little head, or a teenage boy who had to shop for a wig because it wasn't cool in 1976 to be bald with a big scar down the back of your head. He had been sheltered by our mother and never had had many friends. He'd missed a lot of school and was pegged as "different." And, let's face it: I was almost 10 years younger, so when he was 20 and started exhibiting some of the signs of schizophrenia, this 10-year-old girl didn't notice. I didn't know it wasn't normal to pace back and forth for 45 minutes, or talk to yourself, or laugh too loudly, or quote "All in the Family" ten times a day. I just thought Mark was different, not ill in the head. He was still good to me; always had been. My first word as a baby had been "Ma" and that wasn't for Mama--that was for Mark. He was my everything when I was a little girl, so when I saw him gradually becoming this different sort of person, it didn't really matter much to me or make a huge impression. He was who he was! Different, unique... but with a very big heart.

Mark moved out of our home when I was about 13 and he was 22-23. He lived with a couple of friends for awhile--the few years where he actually had a few (always women; men never accepted him). He worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance. He went to college at Golden West, made the Dean's List, got an associate's degree. He was smart and moderately successful. Normal on the outside, at least, but ever changing on the inside.

My parents and I moved out of Orange County, CA, and up to the desert three hours away. He stayed in the OC for a few years and eventually moved up to the desert and in with us. He no longer could seem to hold jobs for long. He was becoming less capable--more dependent. He couldn't remember things and had to be told what to do, the way you'd instruct a kindergartner. His mannerisms and habits were more noticeable, and I think employers picked up on them. I think my mom noticed the oddities but she lived in denial when it came to Mark. If Paul or I ever dared mention the things he did as being unusual, she snapped at us and defended him. She couldn't handle anything else being wrong with any more of her children, especially him after all of his years of hospitalization for physical ailments. (Plus, our sister was bi-polar and drug addicted...and later, Paul became severely brain injured in an accident.) She also was going through her own challenges with cancer (breast and, later, lung), the death of her only sister, and my dad's cancer... so now it makes sense -- the denial. I often wonder how she didn't completely snap herself. I would've gone off the deep end somewhere around 1970, if I'd been her.

Once our mother died in 2001, Mark slowly fell apart. The darling, clean house they once shared became the home of a hoarder. He lived in filth. Many times, Joe and I (and even his parents) would go over and clean it for an entire day or two...only to have it ruined again in no time at all. Mark's appearance went downhill drastically. He went from being clean shaven and handsome to looking homeless. He stunk. My kids would ask why Uncle Mark smelled bad, or why they weren't allowed in his home. I would invite him over for dinner and then tell him to relax in a nice, long bath (he claimed, because of his balance/hydrocephalus issues, that he didn't feel secure bathing alone at home) and I would wash his clothes and all of his laundry....often twice in a row just to get out the stench. I would sometimes buy new clothes for him to change into after his bath, even down to underwear and socks. We paid utility bills for him, brought over bags full of food, did everything we could to make his life more comfortable. I just wanted him to feel loved.

I actually felt guilty that my own life was so good. I clearly remember driving (I do this a lot when I'm alone, getting lost in my thoughts) and being so appreciative of my life -- my family, friends, job, home, community, health.... and then thinking, How dare you, Susan! Your brother is miserable with no friends! Why should you feel happy? Why did God give you a good life and make his so awful? It was like some sort of warped survivor's guilt of sorts. (Keep in mind that my sister had also taken her own life by this time, and Paul lay suffering in a neuro care home, completely dependent on others for his care.) It took me about a year to convince myself that stopping my own happiness in its tracks was gaining absolutely nothing for him.

Things were going okay, more or less, until he lost our parents' home to back taxes in 2009. I found out he hadn't paid any taxes in 6 or 7 years...and although he didn't owe much, the house was in shambles and wasn't worth holding onto. It was disgusting and ruined. I was able to get him into a brand new apartment complex for the mentally ill; it felt like a Godsend. It was built and opened to new tenants during the same month he became homeless. It was meant to be, and it felt like Divine Intervention. I thought my mother somehow had a hand in it, from way up there in Heaven. I cried tears of happiness. Finally something good was happening for Mark! A nice, new home. A community where he could fit in! But the funny thing is, even with all the relief and thinking my problems with him were basically over.... Mark was instead on the verge of getting worse. Much worse.

To be continued...


I could tell he'd had a tough life
By the way he sat and stared
And me, I'd come to push and shove
So I pulled up a chair.

We talked of roads untraveled
We talked of love untrue
Of strings that come unraveled
We were kings and kindred fools
And just when I'd hit bottom
That old man raised his glass
And said at least we had our chances
There's those who never have.

So here's to all the soldiers
Who have ever died in vain
The insane locked up in themselves
The homeless down on Main
To those who stand on empty shores
And spit against the wind
And those who wait forever
For ships that don't come in.

He said it's only life's illusions
That bring us to this bar
To pick up these old crutches
And compare each other's scars
'Cuz the things we're calling heartache
Hell, they're hardly worth our time
We bitch about a dollar
When there's those without a dime.

And as he ordered one last round
He said I guess we can't complain
God made life a gamble
And we're still in the game.

So here's to all the soldiers
Who have ever died in vain
The insane locked up in themselves
The homeless down on Main
To those who stand on empty shores
And spit against the wind
And those who wait forever
For ships that don't come in.


Busy Bee Suz said...

It is cathartic to write your issues down...lighten the load in your heart.
I am so sorry about all that has happened in your family. But please, don't ever feel guilty for having a good life. Your life is your own, and you should not suffer just because others do.
Keep writing, it will do you good.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

While you're feeling like your mother should have collapsed, I'm full of admiration for YOU.

I want to hear your story and you need to tell your story. Please keep writing.

And listen to Suz--she knows what she's talking about.

Anonymous said...

So glad you decided to write it out. You know me, I pretty much put it all out there on my blog. As Busy Bee said, writing is cathartic! It helps get all of those jumbled up thoughts out of your head, and into print. Sharing it with the world makes it even more healing. I hope you'll start blogging more often.

Also, I just want to say that I'm so sorry your brothers have been dealt such terrible hands. They are lucky in one way though - they got a wonderful, loving sister.


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