Friday, July 28, 2017

What on Earth... for Heaven's sake.

I wanted to talk to her yesterday, so very much.  I was looking at my own bloods and body tests and there seemed to be really not good things happening all up in my stuff.  (My stuff is generally defined as life, mental health, physical health in cases such as this).  I know she would know exactly what each test result meant, and what I needed to do to make the results more in congruence with the general population, or if I needed to go see a doctor immediately, and, "Why hasn't your doctor told you that this is very dangerous, and you really should be..."  My nanny.  My nanny always knew.

Her obituary didn't reflect the exceptional and superior knowledge my grandmother retained about all things medical.  It was all true, whoever wrote it didn't get anything wrong, but they missed the most important parts of Estelle Eleanor O'Connor Barry.

BELLOWS FALLS - The world lost a beautiful soul on Sunday, July 2, 2017, when Estelle Eleanor "Topsy" Barry died peacefully at her home, surrounded by her loving family.

Born in Claremont, NH, on May 28, 1925, to Stella (Frenette) and James O'Connor, she became known as the TOP BABY, hence her nickname, "Topsy," was also born. She was lovingly known as "Nanny Tops" to her 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.Topsy was raised in a home that valued faith and family above all else. She spent her childhood in Bellows Falls and was a 1943 graduate of Bellows Falls High School. From there, she went on to graduate with an RN from the Bishop DeGoesbriand School of Nursing in Burlington, VT.

In 1947, she married the love of her life, John P. Barry. They enjoyed 63 happy years together, until his death in 2011.In the early 1950s, John and Topsy moved back to Bellows Falls where they raised their five children. Topsy was a wonderful mother and always had an open, welcoming home to all friends and relatives. She had a special love for children and honored their free spirit. Her living room still has boxes of toys for any child who visits.

Topsy was an insightful, creative person and had a gift for saying just the right words to people in need. She was an avid reader with a curious mind and pursued a bachelor's degree later in life from St. Joseph the Provider College in Rutland, VT. 

Topsy also enjoyed cooking, birding and nature.Topsy always enjoyed the beauty of an ordinary day; she could be found in the woods and fields picking the pussy willows and May flowers of spring, or she could be found standing on her front porch to enjoy the first snowfall of winter or a beautiful rainbow in summer.

Topsy was a lifetime communicant of St. Charles Church, Bellows Falls, and a woman of very strong faith. She prayed the rosary every day.

My grandmother died on July 2nd, 12:30 am,  She went so peacefully, family sitting next to her didn't realize she had stopped breathing.  I was terrified to see her like my grandfather, who seemed to suffer so greatly as he was losing his battle with life over three days.  She told the hospice nurse, "I think I'll live three more days."  I saw her on the second day.  Grandchildren who came to see her on the first day didn't get to talk to her.

She wasn't lucid at most points, or was in a state where she couldn't be very responsive.
(That's what my cousins told me.  They didn't have the chance to talk to her.  I did.  I did.  I did).

And that was our box of toys, by the way.  I brought the box, more than 9 years before, filled with a wooden train, and books, and matchbox cars, and little dolls.
Before I went back to teaching, I visited at least twice a week alone with them, and then we'd also meet at Church in Springfield on Sunday evenings.  I am so glad I wrote about it all in journals and took pictures.

What On Earth (Will You Do For Heaven's Sake)
Did you walk that second mile, turn a frown with a smile?

Did you give a little more than you could take?Did you shine your little light upon the children of the night?What on earth will you do for Heaven's sake?

My babies saw her that first evening.
It was a Thursday. It was the same day that, although everyone had described her as fairly unresponsive, when Michael and Stella came through that very door which opens in full view to the chair my grandfather always, and where she was recumbent, her eyes fixed on them, she smiled, and she "woke up."  She hugged them and was able to talk to them and smiled at them the entire, when she wasn't too exhausted by the battle she was entering...

They hugged her happily, as they always have when they visited, and she hugged back as tightly as she could, and didn't let go quickly.  She didn't want to let go.  I know she wanted to say goodbye to them, but she didn't want to let them go.  She asked them questions about what they would do in their future. She, in her wisdom, could always see them as adults.  She could see what they will look like.  I look at them and I can't even try.  I guess I expect I'll be there for that "big reveal."  I see them as babies...  I can see them as little kid, and hear their voices.  Nanny wanted to look at them and know what she wouldn't see.  Not on Earth.

Did you feed the poor in spirit, and befriend the persecuted?
Did you show the bound how all their chains can break?
Did you sow the proper seed? Would you work out among the weeds?
What on earth will you do for Heaven's sake?

I had explained everything to them before they went with Sam that night, and they understood she was leaving, and would be with Grampy John in Heaven soon.  They knew she was going to die.  I also told them not to be afraid, and I knew they were sad:  Of course they would be sad. Heavens, and how strange it is to go to visit anyone, particularly someone you love, and talk to them, and hug them, and hear them speaking, and see them animated and alive, knowing that person would not longer be alive in less than a week? That is what my adult brain couldn't process, yet the twins were ready, and wanting to be with her.

 I told them she would want to see them as they were, and who they were, and it was okay for them to talk to her about their school accomplishments for the year, and what they hoped to do this summer.  I told them if they needed to cry, they should and could, but it was okay if they didn't feel like crying. They would make her smile, I told them, (just as she has lighted up every single time she sees them since they were tiny, newborn baby bundles), by acting like themselves.  I said, "Don't be loud or ruffians, she will be tired and she is in pain, but you can show her you are just as you have always been, and will always be."

I mean, I didn't want them feel terrified to see their beloved Nanny Tops while she was still here.  I couldn't go that night, or

Did you turn the other cheek, are you counted with the meek.
Did you lift a lonely heart bound to break?
Did you also give your cloak, to he who took your coat? 
What on earth will you do for Heaven's sake?

I saw her the next day.  The first evening, I understood that if I went with Sam and the kids, I would ruin her enjoyment of the kids, because I was sick from grief.  I couldn't stop crying.  I was vomiting, then dry heaving over a bowl on my bedroom floor.  (I also know I have major depression issues, and I was luteal).  I didn't do any of that in front of my children. Yes, they can see I am sad, since she passed away, but I don't want the death of loved ones to scare them.

I pulled myself together, for my Nanny (and for Grampy John, because he would want me to), and I was there.  I crumpled over her, my face on her hands, crying.  I didn't mean to cry.  I breathed and wiped my face, and I rubbed her forehead the way Michael loves me to do.  One of my hands held hers, and lightly moved her gray hair to the side with my fingertips.  She closed her eyes and smiled.  The kids had kissed her cheeks, and touched her hand.  Everyone let me be alone with her.  And she was smiling with her eyes closed, just like my babies did when I was helping them go to sleep, and drifting off, when my uncle and sister came in to give her medication, and I had to let go.  I had to let go.

Did you feed the poor in spirit and befriend the persecuted?
Did you show the bound how all their chains can break?
Did you sow the proper seed? Will you walk out among the weeds?
What on earth will you do for Heaven's sake?

-Johnny Cash

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Far too often, the statement: "A person has to hit rock bottom, to get better or change," is made by people who probably have never been heading down in the first place.
I have heard that statement.  People have said it to me about students, family, and I thought it was a ridiculous idea, every time I heard it.
Hit rock?
Hit bottom?

It's not like people bounce when they hit very hard surfaces; rock for example.  It's not a falling, and falling, and falling, until we stop falling because we're at the bottom, and, with springs in our legs, coming up to salvation.  That's not what happens to the human body.

When human beings hit rock, they don't bounce... up.  They don't move up at all.  Their bodies smack, smash, shatter, break.
Critical injuries.
Survival unlikely.

They say, "You're a little much for me, you're a liability
You're a little much for me,"

And, I don't know if it's television and movies, or just our own understanding of the medical monitoring of human life and death that makes us think that a person can flatline and then be brought back to life. Because that's not true.  Flatline means you're dead. That's the end.  The whole paddles and code blue, drama is when someone is going into arrest. Their vitals are weakening to the point of flatlining, but they haven't flatlined yet.  They have weak signs of life, but they aren't dead.

Don't most people think when the rhythmic zig-zags on the monitors, being watched so closely, the blip, blip, blip sound... when those things change to a straight line, and the endless beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, there is still hope?  That's when doctors rush in and do their magic?  Maybe on TV.  But, not in real life. No. That's when they know they can't do anything more.  It's all over.

So, think about a person going blip, blip, blip, in life, and then they fall.  The air as they descend to "rock bottom" is the endless beep sound whistling in their ears.

Wouldn't the prognosis for recovery be worse as height you fall from becomes greater?  Consider the homeless population. Consider how our incarcerated population. Consider how many people are seeking mental illness support, and either not getting any help, or spending most of their lives being "treated," but never feeling better.  Consider how many people accept apathy and depression as their norm, and don't remember how to feel happy.  Look at the statistics on drug abuse, alcoholism, cutting, and suicide in our country.  People are at rock bottom and they aren't bouncing up, coming to some great understanding of how shitty things were, then worse, and "finally getting the help they need."

So they pull back, make other plans.
I understand, I'm a liability;

Someone has to want help to really change.  
You can't help them if they don't want help.  

No and no.

I want help.  Fucking help me!  People have tried, on some levels, but it's really hard to help someone who is suffering from depression, or anxiety, or PMDD...  Especially PMDD.  Fix my hormones, right? Come on, fix all the chemical that control most of my body.  I get it.  I understand why people can't really help.

I understand.

I have written it down, how to help my children, if they ever end up in a place like I have been for 5 years.  I know, that you can't just ask the person what you can do to help.  

"I'm fine."  

You can't put off what seems drastic-- bringing and/or admitting someone suffering from mental illness to a hospital specializing in the psychiatric field of medicine-- because... will because that person tells you they are fine.  You see the signs, you don't wait.  Don't wait.  Years can go by, and listen, you're suffering too, not just the person with depression or any other mental illness, and your life will be greatly altered.  Don't let years go by.  This kind of thing doesn't clear up by itself.  You know your love one more than any doctor, and if you see that a simple prescription antidepressant isn't making a significant difference, help them do something more.

Get you wild, make you leave.
I'm a little much for e-a-na-na-na, everyone...

Literally, I understand a person may not show the signs you feel like you should see, or you're too busy to see...  You don't see how they are laying at rock bottom and not getting up.  Look at Evelyn McHale, "The Most Beautiful Suicide."  (No, wait.  Don't do that.  I mean, it's morbid and horrible for anyone to look gawk at a dead person.  I was going to post the famous photo here, but I don't think suicide should be romanticized).  What I'm saying is someone can figuratively, and literally fall from a great height and hit rock bottom and maybe no one would see how messed up he or she is inside.  She is probably hiding the cuts on her arms or legs she self-inflict, when she wants relief from mental pain. I've seen too many scars, or new scratches and deeper slices on my students' bodies.  I see.  I saw.  I know my sister's scars.  They are fading, but sometimes, they bleed.  Because who the fuck is listening if they can't see blood?  And what do they say, but, "What the fuck is wrong with you?"  Truly, there is a human desire to believe we may lose someone before we fight for them.  Before we fight... to help them... to keep them here... and that might be too late.

We always think we have more time.
We always think the zig-zag will go on.

They're gonna watch me disappear into the sun.
You're all gonna watch me disappear into the sun.

Does anyone really think someone has to fall so very far, to help them?  Do we think that person won't need help getting up?  Won't we understand that that's when our someone's body and mind is so destroyed that their legs probably won't even be able to walk, and they won't remember how to walk even if they could?

Friday, May 19, 2017


It wasn't just a Tylenol headache.  I knew I had a different kind of sick in my head.  I knew I'd have to see a doctor and get a prescription medication for this brain pain. I already knew.  My mother had been dealing with major clinical depression for as long as I was old enough to understand my mom was human and not just, "Mom."  And you know, I was never going to feel the same again. 
I just didn't know it then.  

I was in college.  It was the beginning of my depression, and then end of my "mental healthiness."  
Honestly, though, how many girls really made it out of college without being a little messed up?  
I mean, I had experienced difficult things in my life already, to be sure.  But I was doing pretty okay, and I was 19.  I though I was...

However, there I was at the beginning of second semester, and a survey handed out to the 200 student-huge-lecture-hall-freshmen-general-education-requirement-Psychology 101 class told me I needed to seek professional help immediately.  Immediately!  I looked around, as my classmates were either still filling it out, or falling asleep, or just fucking around with their fingernails or gum or writing implements.  I was always a stellar student, so I took that survey-quiz thing like it was my job. No fucking around or sleeping on the job for me, ever.  Never.  Hmmmm...

But, damn, my Psychology 101 class materials were telling me I was totally fucked.  I should have had a really awesome reaction to my survey results...  There were so many opportunities for craziness, but I was in shock that I was crazy, so I didn't think of them!  Like, if I had only stood up after tallying my score, announced my results loudly to the auditorium-sized room, and said, "Whoa, I'm fucking crazy. I need to find a doctor Stat," then run up the aisle and through the double doors, and out of that room.  I mean, maybe I could have gone shopping with my friends on Church Street that afternoon instead of shifting uncomfortably in the crappy fixed-row, fold-down seat, listening to all the causes and symptoms of mental illness.  I obviously had experienced most of them.  It said it right there on the survey.

Oh!  alternately, I could have done this: (Why the F didn't I think of this one?) I could also have raised my hand, waving it wildly until I attention up front (because who asks questions in a lecture hall class?) and asked the rotating professor (or TA) of the day, what I should do with my results. They made us take the test, didn't they?  What did they want us to do with that shit?  

Or! I should have descended down the aisle from my theater seat, taken over the microphone, and began a discussion about me, beginning by listing each item that led me to the score of, Girl, you be crazy, get some freaking help, then asking, "So... How?  What? Let's open this room to discussion, instead of another boring lecture."
         I am thinking that my classmates would be absolutely unaware that the professor wasn't lecturing still, or think, "Girl you be crazy," but I would persist.  
"What do you think about the score on this life event I experienced?  Yes, you there, in row thirty in the red and yellow striped rugby shirt." (Then it would dawn on me, Hell to the no, that isn't the guy who grabbed my arm and pulled, until I fell into him, and then tried to make out with me, his arms "hugging me,"at the frat party on Friday night after he did a Milwaukee Best keg stand, vomited into a cooler, and proceeded to do another keg stand? Yes, he sure looks familiar.  I was leaving the party, and standing alone on the sidewalk waiting for my friends.  He followed me outside.  Wouldn't you know it, it is the same guy! Of all the coincidences...  That guy who called me a bitch, and a fucking tease because instead of letting him kiss me, I pulled my head back away from his face with disgust, wriggled myself out of his arms, finally pushing him away and saying, "Gross, let go of me. I just saw you puke." I didn't have to point out that I had never spoken to him... ever...  Luckily my friends stumbled down the porch steps towards us, because he looked like he was going to, well, slap me.  I was a freshman, so I thought he would slap me...  [Thank goodness I didn't enjoy drinking "The Beast," as we called the cheapest beer frats could purchase to get girls drunk, or accept any of the Jello shots offered to me several times before I convinced my friends that maybe it wasn't very fun there.  And I had spent way too much time in front of the big trough of water teeming with little, swimming goldfish, which was apparently provided so guys could prove how manly they were by scooping up the water and fish into their red cups, and swallowing the fish alive.  Nope.  I was going to guard the fish.  Poor little fish.  I would guard the fucking goldfish.  I failed at guarding the fish; very few guys cared what I had to say about those poor living creatures dying a slow death, either suffocating in their esophagus, or drowning in stomach acid. No wonder guys were puking. And holy shit: were the fish coming back up still alive, and then just dying in vomit and beer puddles?] 
Perfect! that's the guy.  His opinion is most helpful in determining why this generic psychological quiz deemed me mentally unwell).  

None of those awesome things happened.  I mean, I didn't do any awesome things during my Psychology class that day, the puke guy story was absolutely true.  I didn't raise my hand. 

To be honest, at that point I didn't think I needed professional help, or that I was in danger of anything psychologically serious.  I was well adjusted, considering everything I had experienced in my life that far.  18 years.  Let me think about that a bit.  What happened that led me to feeling the need to hide the survey in my backpack, as soon as I had tallied my results, so the people sitting around me wouldn't be afraid to be sitting next to a woman on the brink of insanity?  

    Let me see...  

  Well, my parents got divorced when I was 6.  I didn't really remember my biological father being in my life at that age, (like him even being home), so it wasn't something that could touch me deeply at that age. Although staying with him during his custody agreement weekends, not being sure if it was sexual abuse, or just fucked up neglect to leave us alone in his house, while he worked at the attached mom and pop grocery store, the house filled with pornography, and my older sister putting on movies that showed people being mutilated and violated--I still see every scene so vividly--The men fighting to the gorey death by huge mallets in medieval pits of violence, where guts and blood were shown dripping off weapons, and then the survivors raped naked women chained to walls.  It would be turned off.  But not by my older sister.  When this all started I first I cried and said I was scared, and my sister pulled my hair and told me to shut up.  But then I figured out if I pretended I was not upset long enough, and she wasn't paying attention, I could run through the door that connected the store to the house, through a garage-type redemption area that smelled like garbage mixed with Sunkist Orange Soda, and open the door into the butcher department, where my father would be working, and if I made enough of a scene, crying and begging him to come and stop my sister, he would... and he would spank her.  He wouldn't even take his apron off.  He smelled like raw meat.  But I would cry more, because I didn't want him to spank her, I just wanted to not be nine years old, and traumatized...  He had to work. He would turn it off, go back to work, but then my sister would torture me until she got bored. I quickly learned not to run and get my father, or ask him for help, but to hide from my sister and the television and the magazines, until the store closed.  My little brother would have just stayed watching, or hide in the bathroom looking at Hustler and Playboy, which were in a stack next to the toilet.  He was seven. I was nine, and I remember pulling the magazines out of my his hands, and dragging him away from the smut, and I began standing up to my sister, and she didn't like it.  But she was kind of scared when I finally fought back... 
       Sigh... my older sister.  She told me she hated me and I was ugly for most of our young lives.  She also used to stab me in the stomach with pencils, and pull my hair, and tell me scary stories, and not let me cover my ears.  She was not awesome.  
     I was sad when my great-grandfather died when I was eight, even though I didn't know him as I wished I could have.  My mother told me the most wonderful stories of growing up with him as a central part of her life, because she lived in a multi-generation family home.  Her grandparents were right upstairs, in a small apartment, and she saw them every day.  Her grandfather, my great-grandfather, had a stroke before I could remember, and couldn't talk well, or get around.  I was devastated by the grief of my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. 
       I know many people are close to their grandparents, but not the way my mother and aunts and uncles grew up.  And although I didn't live with my grandparents,  I grew up less than a from their house.  My great-grandmother, Stella, still lived upstairs until she couldn't...  She had alzheimer's disease, which seemed to come upon her out of the blue, because it progressed so rapidly.  I was the closest of all the great-grandchildren to Nanny Stell, (I named my daughter after her), and as a teenager, I used to stay with her most weekends, and during the summer days, and after school quite often, because she couldn't be left alone, and my grandparents needed to live.  I'm so glad, looking back, that I had that time with my Nanny Stell, but also because it allowed my grandparents, who I can see now were still but young, to be alone together.  Even before they knew she had alzheimers, I would go over to sleep upstairs with my great-grandmother, so she wouldn't be lonely.  She brought me or a butterscotch hard candy, or homemade applesauce to eat, when I was coughing at night, and she would sit on the edge of the couch and talk to me. She couldn't sleep anyway, she'd tell me, when I expressed regret in coughing so loud to wake her.  She would comfort me until I fell asleep. Within two years, I was sleeping there because she couldn't be alone. She would wake me, but now it was to ask me where her baby was.  She asked me to please not make her be in the Saint Patrick's Day play at school the next day.  She'd wonder who had the baby.  That was difficult, but I loved her, and knew how to comfort her until she fell asleep.  
       Being raped at 17 was traumatic, but it was a "thing" I could ignore.  I had blocked it out, really.  That seemed like a healthy coping tactic to me.
       I was horribly sad and lonely leaving my younger sister to go off to college.  She was born when I was ten, yet she was my little best friend. I came home often to see her and that comforted me.  I could go home or my parents would bring her to Burlington any time we were missing each other.  Missing Mikhaila felt like a punch in the stomach, but I could still live my life separate from my home life, and enjoy my friends and my classes and experiences away from home.
I guess I should have known and I know now, that it didn't matter really what happened to me in my life, before I broke.  I mean, I've read so many times, it's now what you experience, it's how you react to it, that makes or breaks you.  I didn't think I was broken, yet.  Yet I also know, now, that depression was already dormant in my genetic makeup all along, just waiting for me to hit my head and crack it open. Looking back, (and I actually had to reach into the depths of my memories to think all this through: when did you become crazy, Joanna?), I attribute it to the phone call from my mother, while I was in Burlington, telling me my grandfather, one half of the golden center of my universe, had prostate cancer.  I realized that was the first time I remember feeling absolutely depressed, and unable to shake the feeling...  It was the first time I could not cope with the emotions I was experiencing on my own.  I mean, my mom had always helped me cope with anything that needed some coping. She would tell me things would be alright, or tell me what to do to make it alright, and I would listen. She couldn't tell me everything would be alright and I had no resources inside my own self to make it all feel better.

See, when my mom told me my grandfather had cancer, she was telling me something I would never have control over.  I wanted to control things in my life.  I needed to.  I started questioning everything about my life, and my capabilities. That day the dark, numbing substance that entered my ear through the phone, swirled around my brain, and found its way into my weakest parts, and opened them, gaping, filling them up with their poison. Everyone has weak parts.  I knew that.   But...

I had to go to my afternoon classes, but when my mother called, I was thrown into a state of disbelief.  I didn't know how to be myself. As I listened to my mother, that denial allowed reality, (which was just the truth of humanity), to lift me off the ground and slam me against the cinderblock wall;  instead of cracking the mortar and concrete, my own foundation shook, weakened, and shifted.  I didn't know I would never be completely balanced again. I didn't know how to keep acting like anything was normal, when it wasn't! I was not a weak person, but I so clearly remember that I was suddenly sitting in one of my many literature classes, and I didn't remember dragging my body across the quad to get to class, or that I was crying the entire time, until it was obvious I looked a hella mess sitting at the desk in the classroom, and my professor walking over to hand me a tissue.  I looked up and realized everyone was looking at me..  I was sobbing.  Oh my.  That wasn't like me at all.  "I'm sorry.  I just found out my grandfather has cancer," I blurted.  After that no one minded that I put my head down and just listened, covering my face for the 80 minutes, even though I was usually the most vocal, involved, and attentive student in the class.  Haha, can't hide under my crazy freaking wings today, guys.  Hope some of you actually did the reading.

I had lost control and lost my composure.
It was the cracking of me.  
Perfect family, me.  
Perfect life, me.  
Perfect everything, me.

Didn't you know my life was going to be perfect?  I did, when I was 19.  It would be perfect. Everything would be fucking perfect.  It had to be fucking perfect.  I had it all planned out.  I saw it all.
I knew.  And then I didn't...  I can't believe that I'm such a mess now... but here I am... Just a living wreck.

I'm telling myself to get my shit together right now.  I think I end every piece of writing either stating I need to get my shit together, will get my shit together, or should get my shit together...  

Yeah! Get your shit together!  That's exactly what my younger 18-22 year old self would say to myself right now... (Ah, because compared to now, at that time, I was posed, plastered with a smile, and perfectly coiffed in a pink box in the toy aisle.)