Putting My Brain in a Box

Talking to my homeless, schizoaffective, and alcoholic brother is an exercise in futility. He bellows, doesn’t listen, is relentlessly and terrifyingly angry. I wouldn’t talk to him, but I’m trying to get him out of here, back to a place where maybe he can get a pension along with food stamps and Medicaid in a state where the pot he needs to help him sleep and to keep his psychosis at bay is legal.

The worsspeedt problem for me (besides his continued presence) is not letting his anger affect me. Sometimes when I am listening to his incessant nastiness and feel his fury coursing through me, I have to clench my fists to keep from beating him into silence. I believe this reaction is the accumulation of his fury assaulting my psyche rather than any innate violence, particularly since the moment I remove myself from his presence, my own anger disappears. I have to make sure I am more than arm’s length from him, because the closer he is, the more I feel the effects. Of course, my backing away infuriates him, so he advances, and we do a strange sort of dance.

The other day I tried to calm myself by doing the port de bras I learned in ballet class, bringing my arms into a circle over my head, opening them to shoulder height, turning my palms to the floor, and letting my arms gently float to my side. It did help me keep my calm, but my movements, which I’d intended to also calm him, only infuriated him further. He seemed to think I was doing some sort of clumsy Tai Chi or Yoga.

Today a friend told me another way of maintain equanamity — put my brain in a box. She counseled me to mentally construct a box. (Mine looks like a treasure chest with red plush lining.) Then open my head, gently lift out my brain, put it in the box, close my head, close the box. Finally, put the box in a closet and shut the door. That way I can get through times of pain or anger or aggravation without feeling anything because, of course, my brain is in the box.

Seems to work. After I put my brain in the closet, I was able to deal with my brother, my father’s needs, some siblings’ requests for information, the plumber, phone calls, and various and sundry other frustrations.

Maybe I’ll leave my brain where it is temporarily. It seems to be resting peacefully.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Struggling With the Vicissitudes of Life

I’m still struggling with the vicissitudes of my life. The major stress continues to be my homeless brother. He is camping out in the garage, which isn’t a problem. Nor is it a problem for me to buy a few groceries for him, do his laundry, sympathize with his plight, and even, on occasion, get him a beer. I’m glad to do what I can for him, even if only out of a perhaps misplaced sense of guilt that I have it easier than he does.

If he would leave me alone, I’d have no objection to his being here, but his anger seems to be centered on me. He speedblames me for his estrangement from our father, he blames me for . . . well, just about everything. I suppose, from his point of view, I am to blame. When he gets in one of his “states” (whether bi-polar, the manic part of manic-depression, narcissistic rage, or whatever his as yet undiagnosed problem is), he is truly appalling, demanding attention by banging on my windows, sometimes up to forty times a night, calling me an evil bitch, screaming invectives at me, explaining ad infinitum that I, as a woman, have no integrity. (And these are the most pleasant things he says when he is in his manic mode.) Afterward, he doesn’t remember how ghastly he behaved. He only remembers my reaction. And there is no right way to react. If I yell at him in frustration, trying to get him to shut up, he perceives me as the instigator of our conflict, never remembering he was the one who banged on the window for my attention. If I have no reaction, that too is an affront to him. If I ignore him, he goes into rage overdrive.

I can’t track his moods. He likes to read the newspaper. Sometimes he gets mad at me if I don’t remember to give it to him. Other times he gets angry when I do give it to him because I am “invading his space.” (This is the same man who, when he stayed in the house for a couple of months, came into my room every single night to harangue me.) He hates that I buy food for him (hates the food I buy even though I buy things on a list he once gave me), and yet, most nights, he knocks on my window to see if I have something for him to eat. If I’m nice to him, he gets upset with my “sugary sweetness,” seeing it as phony. If I stop doing things for him, he gets angry with my selfishness.

In addition to his mental issues, he has a lot of physical problems. He goes for days without being able to keep food down, but he won’t let me take him to the emergency room. Oddly, when he is at his sickest, he is at his calmest. Either his anger at me cools because he needs my help, or else he is too weak to sustain a rage-full state.

Added stress comes from the situation between my father and brother. My father doesn’t want to deal with my brother, though he likes the idea of helping him. So it’s up to me to be my father’s surrogate. Not a pleasant situation, by any means.

The hardest part for me was when my brother’s anger would bounce through me and back to him, because I was afraid I’d fatally hurt him. (I even kept a journal for a while in case I did hurt him and needed a defense.) I don’t have that problem any more. I make sure I never get close to him when he is in a rage.

But still, it is an awkward situation. When he goes through calm times, I feel like an ogre, keeping him from the comforts of the house, but always his cycle comes around to rage again, and I am grateful that he is locked out.

I wish he were strong and healthy. I wish . . . oh, I wish so many things, but my wishes tend to have little strength. Writing about the situation gives me no peace, no answers, but it does help to vent my frustration and my sadness, which is a big help to me if no one else.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Destination: Joy

I’ve been writing about my problems dealing with my emotionally unstable brother, and the writing has been helping me find peace and sanity in the madness of my current life. Normally, my brother wouldn’t be a major issue, but he is currently camping out in my father’s garage and seems to think I am here for his convenience, to be his scapegoat / sounding board / disciple. When my brother goes into one of his demanding (demented?) states, he continually bangs on my windows for attention. I usually respond to the first few raps, but when he gets abusive, I ignore him. bookHe does not like being ignored, and will pound on my windows until I respond. If I don’t respond, he keeps rapping. Relentlessly.

I’ve been keeping a journal of his actions. The other night he rapped forty-one times. Actually, it was more like 123 times since each time he tries to get my attention, he knocks on three different windows in two different rooms. Finally, he got so angry at being ignored, he broke a window. This panicked me. I was afraid that the patterns of childhood would repeat themselves, and he would be punished unmercifully for his actions.

I’m ashamed to admit, I screamed at him. Until he came here with all his emotional baggage, I haven’t screamed at anyone since childhood, hadn’t even known that it was still in me to raise my voice in such a manner, but I was furious, fearful, faithful to old conditionings I only vaguely remembered. My father had said that if my brother broke a window, he’d have my brother arrested, but when I told my father about the broken window, he just shrugged the matter off, which gives me hope that some of the old patterns of fear and punishment are finally being destroyed. At least in me. I truly do not know if there is hope for my brother because he doesn’t seem to see a need for change.

I came here to my father’s house to look after my aged parent, of course, but I also came for redemption, though I’m not sure what or whom I am trying to redeem. I just know I didn’t want to be carrying the same patterns of thought throughout my entire life, and I somehow felt that looking after my father and allowing him to be as independent as possible would help close the circle of the past. If the universe is unfolding as it should, it might not be an accident that my brother showed up here, too. (In fact, he has often told me he doesn’t know why he is here.) He is a big part of the puzzle of my youth. I’ve always felt torn between my brother and my father, as if I were the rope in their tug-of-war. Each seemed to want my total loyalty, though neither ever really did anything to warrant such loyalty.

The shackles of the past seem to be diminishing rapidly now. Oddly, I woke up this morning with an inward smile that has been with me the whole day. It could be that I really am doing some good here, perhaps even finding that redemption I am seeking, maybe even finding a bit of freedom.

I used to think that freedom came from being unencumbered by the past, that I could only be free when both my father and brother were out of my life, but now I see that one can be free even while cumbered. It’s a matter of gracefully and lightfully carrying one’s past and present as one travels into a more joyful future.

A friend sent me this quotation by Danielle La Porte in response to yesterday’s blog, I Come From a Narcissistic Family:

Freedom does not come from a checklist, and a ‘zero inbox’ is not a life aspiration.
If liberation is a chore, it’s not really liberation.
You can’t contract your way to freedom.
You can’t punish your way to joy.
You can’t fight your way to inner peace.
The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.
Let me offer this again, in reverence to your life force:
The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.
And again, with respect to your potential:
The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.

Since my destination is joy (I didn’t realize until this very moment that joy is in fact, my destination), my journey also has to feel like joy. And my inner smile is telling me that it is possible.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Am a Fourteen-Month Grief Survivor

Fourteen months sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? Plenty of time to get over the death of one’s lifemate/soulmate/best friend. And yet, those who have been where I am today know you don’t ever truly get over it. You deal with it, you get on with your life, but there is always that niggling feeling of something being not quite right.

I still feel bad for him that he’s gone, that he suffered so much, that he died too young, that he is no longer here to enjoy something as simple as eating a bowl of his chili. (Though the batch I made today in his honor wasn’t worth coming back from the dead for. The kidney beans were overcooked, the onions undercooked.)

I still feel sad for me, that I’ll never get to see him again in this lifetime, that we’ll never get to do all the things we planned, that his smile exists only in my memory, that I’m alone. I’m glad we had all those years together, but that doesn’t ease the loneliness he left behind. It is odd, but for some reason I never expected to be lonely. I’m used to spending time alone, I know how to entertain myself, and I’m quite capable of taking care of myself (though the thought of growing old alone makes me panic at times). I also have more friends now than I’ve had in many years. But still, I’m lonely — lonely for him specifically, and lonely in general. Perhaps my loneliness is another stage of grief rather than a character flaw. Perhaps someday it, too, will pass, as have other manifestations of my grief.

One stage of grief I am clinging to is anger. Not rage, just a quiet pilot light of anger. I accept that he is dead in the sense that I know he will never be coming back (though I still long desperately to go home to him, still yearn to see him one more time). But I cannot accept the rightness of his death. It seems so terribly wrong that death was the only resolution of his illness, the only solution to his pain. And that does anger me. Anger is generally considered to be a negative emotion, but during the past few months I’ve found that in small doses, anger is a positive thing. Anger can give us the strength to survive. Anger can give us the energy to do things we couldn’t do under normal circumstances. Anger can give us a feeling of control in uncertain times. Anger can keep us going when we want to give up. Anger can give us the courage to live with the injustice of death. Anger can motivate us to find solutions to problems, can motivate us to undertake dreaded tasks, can motivate us to change our lives. So, yes, I’m clinging to whatever vestige of anger I can. It’s the only way I can get through these lonely days.

I am now more aware of the years looming in front of me than the years behind me, those years we shared. I’ve been saying that I don’t know who I am now that he’s gone, but I do — I’m still me. Still the person I’ve always been, just older and sadder. I’ve mostly untwinned our lives, no longer see me as half of a couple. And yet, something is missing. I don’t cry much any more, but sometimes I find myself crying for . . . I don’t know what.

It’s a relief to be telling the truth. I’ve been keeping upbeat the past few weeks — preparing for my presentation at the writers’ conference, traveling, being around people who only know me as an author, posting photos of my adventures. It was wonderful, but it’s only half my story. The adventure ended, and now here I here I am. Fourteen months of missing him, and still counting.

Let It Be . . . Me

I know you’ve seen the video, everyone has. It’s been emailed and remailed, Facebooked and Twittered, blogged and Gathered, clogging cyberspace with the message: Let It Be. At first I thought that perhaps this was the answer to my confusion over the death of my mate of thirty-four years. Just go on with my life and let it be. Forget my grief. Forget the pain of losing him. Forget trying to make sense of it all. Just . . . let it be.

My second thought as I continued watching this very looooong and repetitive song (Sheesh! What was Paul McCartney thinking when he wrote it? Not much, apparently) was how my mate would have enjoyed seeing all those faces as they are today. We have so many of them in his movie collection, and they are always that age, the one they’d reached when they made that particular movie (such as a much younger Sherilyn Fenn in The Don’s Analyst or a very young and fit Steve Guttenberg in Surrender).

My third thought was let what be what? And that’s where the thoughts stalled — in a semantics word jam.

I finished watching the video, thinking nothing, just watching the parade of faces, but now I’m wondering if Let it Be is really a philosophy I want to embrace. It seems too accepting of life’s vagaries and not enough of . . . well, embracing.

The whole purpose of going through grief is to process the pain and the loss, to mend your shattered life and heart so that one day you can embrace life in its entirety once again. I haven’t dealt with all these months of tears, anger, frustration, emptiness, loneliness, pain, just to spend the rest of my life letting it be. I want to let it be me —  the one who’s strong enough not to have to simply let it be.

Grief: Loose Cannon on Deck

A loose cannon conjures images of a weapon wildly firing in all directions, but it actually refers to a cannon on the deck of a ship. Cannons needed to be lashed down, but in turbulent waters, cannons sometimes came loose and rolled around the deck. Their great weight (some weighed as much as 1800 lbs!) made those loose cannons a dangerous liability and they could crush a hapless sailor who got in the way.

That’s exactly the way grief feels. Every time you feel as if you’re getting a solid footing despite the turbulence of your new life, whack! That cannon comes loose and crushes you again.

It would be so much easier if the so-called stages of grief were actually stages that you can check off after you’ve experienced it. Denial. Check. Pain. Check. Anger. Check. Depression. Check. Acceptance. Check.

All done, right?


After you’ve gone through the list, there it comes again, the pain or the anger or the disbelief that he is gone, and you have to do it all over again. Add to that the innumerable stages that aren’t commonly known such as isolation, anxiety, low self-esteem, confusion, panic, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, bitterness, missing the person, fretfulness, hanging on, waiting for you know not what, and dozens of others. Not everyone who has experienced a significant loss goes through all the stages, but no matter what, we’ve all felt that loose cannon and wish we could just tie the dang thing up and get on with our lives.

So we do.

And then, comes another storm, there’s that loose cannon again.

Can you sense the pettishness of my tone? Must be another stage I’ve never heard of. Well, check this one off, too.

On Writing: Characters and Grief

For characters to be realistic, they need to experience the same emotional arcs that we experience in our lives. A grieving person, for example, undergoes several stages, including denial, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. Chip, the hero of my current work loses everything and everyone he loves in a single day of earthly upheaval, but so much was thrown at him so fast, he barely had time to comprehend it all, let alone go through protracted stages of grief.

Still, he did experience a period of denial; how could he not? What happened to him and the world was unbelievable. He also felt guilt, wondering why he survived when so many others didn’t, but again, he had little time to indulge in the feeling — he had to learn to live in a plastic world. (Plastic, in this case, meaning capable of being molded and re-formed.) He dealt with it all until the final insult — the loss of the candy that was his one indulgence — and then he gave in to a fit of anger.

These first three stages, as I mentioned, were brief. Now that he is in a place of safety, away from the upheavals of his world, he could revisit those stages, but I don’t think it’s necessary. No point in taxing a reader’s patience with repetition of effects. So that leaves me with the two final stages of grief.

At the end, Chip will come to accept what happened to him. He will also come to accept his new role in life, but until then he will need to go through a period of depression. Should this depression be as short as the other stages? Should it continue for a while to make his predicament seem more normal? I don’t think it’s necessary. A character in a constant state of depression is not a vibrant character by definition and, anyway, this story is supposed to be lighthearted, a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy.

I’m thinking on the fly here, letting you see how I develop a character. That’s not strictly true. I’m doing it because I need to figure out my hero’s next stage of development, and I need to post some sort of bloggery. I end up getting so many people to guest, that I forget the main purpose of this blog: me. Well, me, my novels, and my characters.

But for now, I do know where I stand with Chip. He will be going through a period of depression, but also he will be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or will he? I’ll figure that one out tomorrow.

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