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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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October 2015

Who’s Crazy Now?

HomelessSign The stigma of having a mental illness can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. In our society, the mentally ill are often regarded like beggars on the street corner. The well-dressed folks walk by, step over them and refuse to acknowledge their presence. As a society, do we fear mental illness is something we can “catch”? Do we think we can deny it into non-existence?

If that’s true, who is the crazy one?

Like cancer or heart disease, mental illness is a sickness, a sickness of the mind as opposed to the body. It can be as mild as a summer cold or a full blown attack with the most disastrous of consequences. Sometimes it’s effects are fleeting and sometimes they are permanent. Mental illness is scary for many reasons. There is the fear of it taking away what we believe and know as our “self”. It is not a disease that you can see with the naked eyes, but you will surely notice its symptoms. It cannot be removed like a tumor or infected limb. It is something that is difficult to measure and qualify and because of that, there are folks out there who may or may not believe that it exists. Maybe it’s simply evil? Maybe it’s homones? Maybe it’s sadness or maybe it’s anger? Maybe you’re not really an addict? Maybe you didn’t raise your kids right and you never taught them to behave?

It’s the 21st century but there are those out there who wonder if we shouldn’t call in the exorcist?

One thing is for sure. If you have it, both you and those around you must live with it. Shame and lack of available treatment options are just a few reasons mental illness often goes undetected and untreated. Mental illness is like cancer.  As it worsens, the mind can turn on itself. It wants to convince us that it is not sick. It plays tricks with reality, distorts the truth, devours the spirit and takes with it, some of our humanity. our human-ness.

I understand the fear associated with mental illness. If it were possible to pretend it did not exist without incurring horrific side-effects, I’d be right there with my blinders on too but I cannot do that. I’ve seen too much.

How could anyone believe the numerous and recent tragic shootings are anything but the work of a sick and unsound mind?What is there to do when the mentally ill will not seek treatment or take their medications? How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we continue to love and care for the mentally ill person  without endangering ourselves and those we care for?

The reality is that there is very little safety net between us and a lot of potentially dangerous people. The mental health system in North Carolina (as with many states) is practically non-existent. Over the last decade and a half, our state has closed down most of the beds in our mental hospitals and reduced the numbers in our federal prisons by enforcing mandatory sentences that keep misdemeanor offenses constrained to our county jails. I’ve seen this firsthand, seen the judges with their hands tied giving out mandatory jail sentences when they know it is not doing a thing to help solve the problem.

It’s a perfect storm. And yet, as frightening as it can be to watch someone’s life implode under the influence of mental illness, we must also look after ourselves first if we are to help anyone. “How to do this” is a question I’ve been asking myself lately.

I am beginning to accept with resignation that there are certain lines we can and cannot cross regarding mental illness. While we cannot “make” a mentally ill person accept treatment, we can show compassion. We can talk to them in nonthreatening and non-judgmental ways. While we can have bad days, the mentally ill can have really bad days everyday. We can and should open the door to treatment but we cannot make them walk through it. Through communication, if not with them then with each other, we can begin to erode some of the stigma associated with the disease.

Also, we must protect ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. Set realistic boundaries. Asking “where does my responsibility to the situation begin and where does it end” is imperative. Some forms of mental illness are like drowning and a drowning person will push another under if they think it will save themselves.They will suck all the oxygen from the room if you let them.

We must examine our own behavior for co-dependency. Because a predisposition to mental illness is often genetic, many of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where the disease was never acknowledged or diagnosed may have adjusted our behavior around that sickness. Subsequently, we fall back into those same predictable patterns when faced with similar circumstances. It has been a personal lesson in self-awareness to notice how easily I could slip into old modes of co-dependency.

My mother had some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, similar to bi-polar or paranoid schizophrenia. It was made worse by alcohol. My mom did not always seem to “have” the disease and much of the time she was a good mom, but there were times when I was a child and teenager that life was very difficult. I learned to adapt my behavior to her disease. I became adept at walking on eggshells, did my best to diffuse hostile situations and learned to avoid confrontation by becoming a sounding board for her concerns while diminishing my own. Now that I am an adult, when I am faced with stressful situations, I have to ask myself  if my actions and reactions stem from the comfortable pattern of old behaviors or a realistic assessment of current circumstance. I am learning to trust my intuition, which was another huge gift of my dysfunctional upbringing. If I feel my interactions with someone is not working, most likely it is not. I am not a person who likes to give up, but sometimes the best thing I can do is to distance myself from that person, no matter how painful or cruel it seems. Just because I behaved a certain way at one time in my life, it may not be in my best interest to continue. The co-dependent among us cannot always see the blurred line of separation between helping and not helping. I’d like to think I could save the world if it needed saving, but the truth is, there is very little good we can do in this world except to be compassionate.

Although I was a child in a dysfunctional family, as an adult, I make the choice daily to accept that it was part of my journey, to be grateful for the things that experience taught me and to do my best to live a self-aware and examined life. Yes there are things that go bump in the night of my gene pool but they look much less scary where there is light shown upon it.

 

 

 

 

 

A Touch of Royalty

West Davidson High School Class of 1980: Susie Swicegood, Tracy Bauernfeind and Lisa Jacobs
West Davidson High School Class of 1980:
Susie Swicegood, Tracy Bauernfeind and Lisa Jacobs

Along with soft sweaters, pumpkins and the red tinged leaves of the dogwoods, I am certain that fall is in the air when my husband mentions going to the the county fair. When I was young, my family attended the Davidson County Fair but these days, it’s the larger Dixie Classic in Winston- Salem. At the fair, my husband, Perry’s goal is to eat his way around the midway in search of the perfect cheese steak sandwich, hamburger and bowl of chicken and dumplings while I look forward to the fried apple fritter that comes at the end in “Old Time Village”. In between, we pass the carnies hawking their games, listen to kids screaming above rock music on the Himalaya, stroll through the wilted flower, art and photography exhibits and of course visit the livestock barn. This is when the goading starts. Perry says, “Honey, don’t you want to get on stage? Doesn’t it bring back memories?” We are walking close together and he elbows me. He laughs and makes a sound like Dr. Evil.

Now, there’s no need for you to curtsy, No, no, save your knees. But lest you forget let me remind you from the comfort of my Birkenstocks and mom jeans that once I was a Beauty Queen.

For those of you who know me, you know I am not Beauty Queen material. I am not sure  how I earned this honor, but thirty-five years ago, I was somehow elected to be my high school’s representative in the Miss Davidson County Fair Pageant. I certainly felt inferior to the other queens. Our school’s “Miss West Davidson” was the beautiful Lisa Dawn Jacobs. Even Lisa’s name was pretty. Twenty years after we had said goodbye to our Candies and shoulder pads, she still had the same Farrah Fawcett hairstyle yet appeared ageless and completely in vogue. As part of her duties, Lisa rode atop a convertible wearing a beautiful dress and fur wrap for our town’s Christmas parade. She had long since mastered the queen’s wave. Lisa was stunning.

The next queen was our school’s Homecoming Queen. My best friend, Tracy Bauernfeind won this esteemed honor. As I recall, this queen was voted on by the football players; therefore this queen had to be a lot like Sandra Bullock: beautiful, well- liked by the guys and not a skank. Tracy was and is beautiful. Clean as a whistle. Because it was 1980, Tracy also wore her hair in the same Farrah Fawcett hairstyle as Lisa Dawn Jacobs.

The third Beauty Queen, Miss West Davidson County Fair was arguably not a beauty queen at all. As I recall, she simply had to be liked enough by her class-mates to be voted in, which of course means she could not be hated by most of them. This eliminated many of the beautiful and truly popular girls because many of them were not well- liked. I was too non-confrontational to have a beef with anyone and besides, I got bonus points since I grew up handling livestock and driving a tractor.

On the day I heard my name announced over the intercom, I could not believe my good fortune. What an honor! Yet, my thoughts quickly turned to dread when I began to wonder what I would wear. I was a tomboy and had not actually worn a dress since the fourth grade. My sister generously stepped in to assist in my transformation.

The single duty of our high school’s representative would be to compete against girls from the other area high schools at our county fair. The judging was held on a Thursday evening at the fair grounds in the same barn and on the same night as the semi-final judging of the cattle and other livestock. Every year my husband points out this was no coincidence.  “You know the fair organizers used the same judges for the Queens that they used for the Holsteins”, he says and I’ve no doubt he’s telling the truth. In the afternoon, Elsie the cow was led in wearing her new stiff black halter and in the evening, I wore the equivalent ensemble, courtesy of my sister and The Dress Barn. When nerves almost caused me to have an accident in my underpanties, I only needed to look offstage to the right and feel comforted that Elsie had already broken that ground for me!

Any bit of false confidence I might have felt vanished as I walked onto that stage. Hundreds of pairs of eyes in the audience and the distant mooing of Elsie and her friends made me feel as conspicuous as a cow headed for the slaughter house. I made it down the runway on my 4″ heels without falling on my face or tackling the other contestants, but whatever occurred at the end of the ramp I cannot recall. Anything could have happened. Were there questions about starving children in third world countries or feeding the homeless? Was there a swim suit competition? Did I yodel or play chopsticks on the piano for the talent competition?

This, I do not know for sure.

I do believe, however there is an inner mechanism that prevents us from processing too much trauma. Mine kicked in whenever I reached center stage that night. I froze. I am certain Elsie the Cow, chewing on a cud, looked more intelligent than I did that night. My husband still teases me that when I was asked a question by the emcee, I simply stomped my hoof two times for “yes”, and three times for “no”.

He’s merciless, really… 

Needless to say, I did not win. I apologize to my classmates with whom I most surely let down. I feel bad my sister worked so hard in giving me a beauty overhaul. Personally, I confess, any regret I have over my failure to bring home the blue ribbon sash stems  more from a personality flaw of competitiveness rather than vanity. Admittedly, I am a little sad I will never again be a Beauty Queen, but then again, a tiara just wouldn’t be appropriate for the rest of my wardrobe.

 

 

Special Day

Daddy in 1959, 3 years before I was born with my brother and sister.
Daddy in 1959, 3 years before I was born with my brother and sister.

I never remember the date but I always remember the day as the Monday after the first Sunday in October. Twenty three years ago, on this day, my father committed suicide.

What do I remember?

Our family had just celebrated a big family reunion with my mother’s family, the previous Sunday. This is how and why I associate my father’s death not with a certain date but as “the Monday after the first Sunday in October.” We scheduled the reunion that way so year after year, it would be easy for everyone to remember. In retrospect, everything seemed normal that day but I wonder if there was something I might have missed? If I could take a magnifying glass and review that day in detail, was there something that could have been seen that might have triggered this chain of events ? Or was the timing purely coincidental?

In 1992, I was already a grown woman, thirty years old and my still brand spanking new baby boy was just 6 months old. I’ll admit I was distracted by the baby. I had recently returned to work on a part-time basis. My husband received the phone call that day at his work and came to tell me where I worked in nearby Winston-Salem.  I remember seeing him walk in my office, smiling at the surprise and thinking “Why are you here?” Then, when he told me what happened, I screamed…  “Noooo!”  How can you possibly hear that kind of news without screaming? We left, me still shuffling my papers and tending to meaningless details. We stopped by our home before heading to my parent’s house about an hour away on Goat Pasture Road.  As we pulled in the driveway, my husband and I were talking about something. It was late afternoon and the sun was sitting low in the sky. For an instant, I “forgot” what had happened to my father; it simply left the forefront of my mind for an instant. I looked up, saw a figure standing in the driveway, silhouetted by the setting sun and I remember thinking “Oh, that’s daddy!” Then reality hit me with a snap. I knew it was the light, the coincidence of my uncle’s posture to my father’s and I knew that my eyes were playing tricks on me. It seemed like a cruel trick and it almost broke my heart for the second time.

The last thing I remember about that day was all the people coming in and out of the house. The food. The people. If you were there, most likely I do not remember seeing you. I was sitting on the sofa beside my cousin Patty and I suddenly dropped, I just passed out. This would happen again, several times over the following years and I would learn I have vasovagal syncope, a condition that caused me to faint under certain circumstances. For me, it was brought on by a bent or stooped posture, low blood pressure, dehydration and pain or stress, all of which were probably at work that evening.

People always ask this. No, daddy didn’t leave a note and in fact, I don’t recall having quizzed my mom afterwards on what had happened. Surely someone did but I didn’t need to because somehow I knew. My mom and dad did not have good relationship. I am certain they argued that morning before my mom drove off to run errands. I should preface that by clarifying that it was my mom who argued, berated and cursed as was her habit when she was “worked up” and my father had little to say in return which frustrated her even more. This was the script they followed for most of my life and the best reason I swore I would not have a marriage like that. When my mother returned home that day, she found my dad in the car port. He had rigged his shotgun with a straight wooden chair and shot himself in the chest on the exact spot in our two car garage where my mom parked her car. More than anything, the deliberate placement of that chair on that spot seemed out of character for my father. I’ve no doubt, it was a message meant for my mother. Like he had taken all he was going to take from her. She would have rounded the corner to pull the car into the garage and would have seen him, up close with no warning.

The depression that preceded my father’s death came without warning. Following his retirement a year or so prior, he began suffering to the extent that he told my sister and I about it; together we sought help. My mother did not believe that he was really sick and accused him of being a child, of simply trying to get our “attention”. I imagine she resented that it took a bit away from the “attention” she mandated. The depression seemed unusual because if my father had suffered from it at other times in his life, none of us had ever been aware of it. It seemed to hit him at a later onset than one might imagine someone becoming afflicted with an initial bout of such severe depression. Looking back, after daddy’s death I could see how clearly he’d been depressed and how he wasn’t really “there” most of that last year of his life. He came to visit at my house with mama to see the baby but he wasn’t really present. He was lost in his mind, already gone, had been gone for months. The suicide was the final act. It was closing the door after the lights had been turned off.  

Over twenty years have passed and I look back on this catastrophe with the perspective of time.

  • There are the “what if’s”… I cannot help but wonder if mental illness did not have such a stigma, might my father have sought help sooner or  taken his medications more regularly. I wonder if my parents had divorced like we urged them to do years before, might my dad have had a happier life? Ironically, neither of my parents was ever willing to try separation much less divorce.  They seemed to prefer being married to the misery they knew than they were willing to risk looking for the joy of a better life. That says so much about human nature, doesn’t it? About how willing we are to stay miserable before we are willing to assume risk of the unknown. In retrospect, I knew I had tried to help dad and I did not feel guilty about having abandoned him in any way but did I wish I could have done more? Yes, of course. Yet I know for certainty, I saw it first hand, how you cannot help someone who does not want to be helped.
  • Then, there was the simple need to survive. The going through the motions, the putting one foot in front of the other for days, weeks, years… I don’t think I took time to grieve. I told myself I didn’t have time for that. I was a young mother and I had a child to care for, a family, a job, a community and I dug my nails into all those things with as much ferocity as I could muster. On some level, it seemed like if I could be the good wife, the perfect mother, the exemplary employee I could keep the grief from crushing me. I could be and would be a survivor. Whatever got my daddy would not get me. Later, I read a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon and it reminded me of that time, about the shock. You tell yourself these completely illogical things just to keep going.
  • And lastly, there was the collateral damage this kind of event does to a family that takes years to unfold and can only be accurately seen in a reverse perspective. I think we – my brother and sister, my mother- stayed in shock for years. We were each our own emotional islands, each of us locked in our own form of emotion: grief, shock, denial, anger. You hear about the stages of grief as if they come in an organized, predictable manner but they seemed to hit each of us differently and at random moments. I have a strong family; I am especially close to my sister but nothing really helped the grief but time.

Today, this day, the first Monday after the first Sunday, is a special day for me. It is no longer marked with an acute sadness but is a day that becomes more precious with each passing year as my grief has given way to acceptance and then peace. I wish the disease of depression had not blocked dad’s ability to sense the light and love that was coming to him through the darkness. I wish it had not prevented him from being able to see how much he was needed; yet I know firsthand that depression is a dangerous veil that separates us from the world and those we care about. I give thanks for my daddy who was a wonderful, funny, kind, supportive, hard-working and gentle man. I am so glad to have had him as a father and I hope he is proud of me as I am of him.

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