Wednesday, October 18, 2006

One Day at a Time

On Monday, Luke and I drove up the New England coast, from Gloucester on Cape Ann above Boston, along New Hampshire's brief shoreline, to Kennebunkport in Maine. It was my son's 39th birthday, and I joked with him that, like comedian Jack Benny, he could now stay 39 forever. But Luke does not want to stay where he is.

"I'm Luke, alcoholic." Last night, my son took me to an Alcoholics Anonymous "newcomers" meeting in the cafeteria at McLean Hospital in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. It was the location for Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl Interrupted, the story of her two-year treatment for borderline personality disorder after a suicide attempt when she was 18. It was made into a film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Luke has a DVD of the film and it's one of the reasons he is now in Massachusetts, on disability and in treatment at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in for psychological problems and alcoholism. At the meeting a number of people told heartbreaking stories of lives almost but not quite destroyed by alcohol and drug addictions. There were people newly graduated from McLean and patients on temporary leave with tell-tale blue bracelets on their wrists.

In the afternoon, we met with Luke's therapist, Erin, after negotiating the labyrinthine corridors of St. Elizabeth's to find her office in the outpatient psychiatric clinic. I found her to be understanding, sympathic and blunt as she explained to me the services available to Luke. The challenge is for Luke to stop drinking and abusing prescription medication, which he does to numb the pain of anxiety and depression, and instead let the doctors and support groups take over. He has been diagnosed with a bewildering variety of psychological conditions -- bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, hypomania -- and takes dozens of pills every day. But despite treatment, he "slips" frequently, cuts himself, and has been hospitalized three times since April. Last year he suffered a number of seizures. Getting the medication right is difficult; on our trip he was jittery, his muscles tight, and he had difficulty speaking and seeing. This was not caused by alcohol, however, but from the wrong mix of drugs. Erin scolded Luke for not calling his psychiatrist and getting the prescription adjusted.

At the AA meeting, a woman sitting at our table told the gathering how she had been prescribed codeine for pain after an operation, and how when the pain passed she worried about the unused tablets sitting in her medicine cabinet. They were a temptation for her. And I realized that I, too, was an addict, for not that many months ago I was given codeine after a tooth extraction, and long after they were needed for pain I continued to take the remaining pills to relax. Codeine is a definite temptation for me.

For a little while, Luke was able to get out of his uncomfortable skin and enjoy the autumn scenery with me. Winter is on the way but it has been mostly warm and sunny this visit. We took the back roads from Gloucester up to the New Hampshire border. Displays of pumpkins and scarecrows competed for space with signs for political candidates; the upcoming election has been much in evidence. In Vermont I thought Marie Osmond's brother Donny was running for a state office, but it turned out to be Donny Osman, no relation. Crossing over into New Hampshire was a revelation. U.S. Highway One was lined with strip malls, fast food franchises, outlets and brand name shops. Perhaps the lack of a sales tax makes it a prime shopping area for south of the border residents. Unfortunately, it seemed tacky. Mostly landlocked, the state was making the most of its tiny seashore.

Yesterday afternoon we drove over to Cambridge and explored the campus and Harvard Square. In the Old Yard, a ride-on mower was sucking up leaves as soon as they fell. Tourists were taking pictures in front of the founder’s statue and his foot was rubbed to a golden shine by visitors wishing for good luck. We peeked inside Memorial Hall to see the baroque dining facilities for students and the stained glass. And we browsed the bookshelves in the Harvard Co-Op and looked over CDs on sale at Tower Records which is going out of business. The square was full of beggars and buskers under cloudy skies.

In a little while I leave this home away from home and head for Logan to catch my flight back to San Francisco. Hotels are discovering innovative ways to cut costs. For example, this one provides no maid service for stays of less than four days. So my residence is showing a bit of wear and tear. A TV set dominates the room, and I have once again been able to experience the banality of American television. All those channels and nothing worth watching. Fox News is a scandal and CNN is little better; both present idiotic variations of "Entertainment Tonight" with celebrities indistinguishable from politicians. No wonder Americans are the most ill-informed nation on earth, and consequently vote for mentally challenged politicians.

I have enjoyed my journey through New England, and even managed to see a corner of Maine for the first time. All of the cliches are true. If you get off the interstates and onto the back roads, New England is a panorama of rolling hills and small towns with charming two-storey houses clustered around tall church steeples. The range of colors in the autumn leaves constantly delighted me, and I will remember them for a long time in my winter dreams.

No comments: