Count All This is not light reading, with themes of breast cancer and schizophrenia, but it's good strong stuff. Visit http://www.countallthis.blogspot.com to read a chapter each Sunday or buy the whole story here.
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Count All This~The Paperback
Count All This~The Serial
Jo Kasten’s middle child has always been difficult. Fiery, defiant, startlingly handsome and hyper intelligent, Eddy’s childhood years were full of turmoil and conflict. But when he reaches manhood, things change--for the worse. Eddy’s struggle with schizophrenia begins in a men’s bathroom at a local junior college and carries him to the deepest recesses of the human mind. In the midst of his descent, Jo is diagnosed with breast cancer. Count All This is a story of love, madness, death, family loyalty and the primal bond between mothers and sons. Set in the frightening landscape of mental illness and physical disease, Count All This is a story of survival.
I’m going to try to set this down faithfully, without concern about whether what I write is literature, or if the dangly earring he wore from one unpierced ear Thursday should symbolize latent homosexuality or a mystical connection to the unseen forces that shift beneath our world.
The beginning, I suppose, was the night Eddy instant messaged me that he had just taken psilocybin, caffeine, methylenedioxy, and methamphetamine. “I am ecstatic,” he wrote. It turned out later to be a pun, because after much frantic messaging back and forth, he revealed that methylenedioxy and methamphetamine are the ingredients of the drug Ecstasy. I expressed alarm, of course, and concern. I asked why he was doing two very powerful drugs at the same time. I warned him about unpredictable interactions. And I think now that if he could have predicted what was going happen next, he wouldn’t have taken Ecstasy and magic mushrooms together, or separately.
Then again, perhaps he would.
That’s the source of my anger, the acrid anger that underpins my sadness about my son. Even knowing the path they would set him on, even knowing that he would lose his backpack, his passport, his driver’s license, his cell phone, his money, his place to live, his ability to communicate, his coveted chance to go to UC Berkeley, his personality and his mind—even knowing all that, he still might have taken those drugs, driven by a deep curiosity, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and that sense of invulnerability and longing for adventure that impels so many 18-year-old boys.
But, of course, he couldn’t predict the outcome. He couldn’t even accurately predict my reaction that night. “I’m so glad you aren’t like other mothers,” he typed. “My friends (was it Jean who first led him over the brink? Was it Carlos? Was it a stranger, some random drug user he met at College of San Mateo and brought back to his apartment at the eco-commune to get high?) wouldn’t dream of telling their parents what we are doing.”
As it turned out, I was like other mothers after all. I scolded. I complained. I was angry and afraid. I criticized him continually until he signed off of Instant Messenger, ending our communication. But I didn’t do anything more. I didn’t rush to his apartment. I didn’t call the police. I didn’t insist he enroll in a drug treatment program, or move back home with us. I didn’t manage to protect or save him. So perhaps I was unlike other mothers, after all.
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Karen said three months later, leaning a little closer to convey her sincerity, extending a hand to cover mine. “I hope you are getting help for yourself.” The dining hall was full of 130 dusty and tangled people, talking and laughing over dinner, clattering their plastic plates, eating at huge, heavy wooden picnic tables with bulky benches to match. There were parents with children, single mothers with babies, packs of teenagers, pods of adults, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends. Our small group of middle aged women sat together at the end of the table closest to the front door: me Patty, Karen, Jen. All eyes were upon me until Patty’s husband Steve came up with a plate of food and squeezed in next to her on the bench. The table was littered with the implements of dinner: white and tan plates of industrial-strength plastic, shiny silverware, little red plastic cups and big, clear serving bowls full of food. There was barbecued chicken, ribs, and salmon; steaming corn bread and bowls of butter mixed with honey to spread on top; crisp green salad with slivers of fresh purple beets. Plastic pitchers of water, apple juice and iced tea were scattered about, along with squeeze bottles of three kinds of homemade salad dressing: bleu cheese, ginger sesame, balsamic vinagrette. Besides all this bounty, vegans and vegetarians could go into the kitchen to get servings of nut loaf and vegetable stew. The Tall Trees Family Camp we’d been going to every summer for the past nine years was renowned for its food.
“Is this your cup?” I asked Patty, indicating a small, red, empty container. “Yes,” she nodded. “This one?…This one?...” lifting up each of the tiny receptacles arrayed around her plate like a small brigade. She nodded each time, a smile flitting behind her lips. She must have been planning to drink some of every beverage being served that night. “Well, maybe I can snag this one for myself,” I announced, reaching down the table into another social group to grab a cup when no one was looking. I filled it with water and settled back on the bench.
Jen, a woman who sometimes sat in the lodge reading before a small bank of lights aimed at her face in a therapy meant to alleviate depression, resumed the conversation. “I saw Eddy yesterday,” she said brightly. “I was just relaxing in the lodge, and he approached me. ‘Might I inquire what you are reading?’ he said. I told him and we had a conversation of about two or three minutes. Frankly, I was flattered that he wanted to talk to me, since we hadn’t had much interaction in the past. Here was this good looking young man coming over to talk to me. He seemed fine to me,” she beamed.
I was glad Jen thought Eddy seemed fine, but not relieved, because I knew he could seem fine for a few minutes, to strangers, whom he was more interested in talking to lately than friends, since friends were much quicker to notice the empty loop of his language, the odd connections, the pulpy bruise of his brain.
“I saw him in the shower yesterday,” said Steve, who had worked with Eddy in the kitchen every summer since he was 8 or 9 years old. “He seemed pretty out of it.” I nodded and winced.
“I asked whether he was coming to Labor Day Camp and he said he hoped so, if he wasn’t in jail.” Steve paused to look at me with concern, his bright blue eyes piercing through thick, wire-rimmed glasses. The orbs seemed too large, floating behind their lenses. His face was salted with white whiskers.
“I told him, ‘We better hope that doesn’t happen,’” Steve continued. “‘What makes you think you might be in jail?’ He was vague and didn’t really have an answer. Then I started telling him about some of the horrible things I’ve seen in jail.”
Steve works as a guard at the Solano State Prison. He used to be head chef at the landmark Nut Tree restaurant on Highway 80, just outside of Sacramento, which occupied a huge complex that included a souvenir store, a mini railroad for the children and an airport for small craft, among other amusements. That was where he got the experience he needed to run the kitchen at camp. But when the Nut Tree closed, he quit cooking and got a job in prisons, the biggest industry in California, which has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world--a statistic that does not comfort me.
“Then he asked me why I didn’t do something about it. But that’s like asking a bank teller to do something about capitalism,” Steve said a little defensively. “What am I supposed to do?”
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing he could do.
“What’s Eddy doing?” Steve asked next. “Do you know?”
I took a moment to answer. All the women looked at me and waited. Betty, who had been aligned with another group towards the center of the table, leaned her left ear in closer to hear my response.
“Well, we don’t know, exactly. He keeps changing his story. But he told us a month ago that he’d been using crystal meth.”
“Oh no,” Steve’s voice dropped. “Unfortunately, that’s one of the worst. We get some crystal meth addicts in there, and all we can do is lock them in a cell by themselves. When they go through withdrawal, they defecate over themselves and everything else.”
I felt a gush of liquid emit from my left nipple as I thought of Eddy’s lovely 18-year-old body curled up on a cot in a prison cell. Brown eyes with a starburst of green around the pupils. Skin the color of red tea with cream. Slender fingers with wide, spatulate nails like his father’s, adorned near the cuticles with pale white half moons. Hands like that could catch babies in a labor room; fix complex machinery with fine, shiny instruments; or hold my own when I’m afraid. Wisps of facial hair, a recent addition to his gypsy good looks, seemed brushed on in small patches near his earlobes and on the crest of his square but slightly lopsided chin. “Well that proves it,” I thought, looking down at my shirt. “This lactation is related to stress.” Still, I would be relieved to get the mammogram over with when we returned home.
Eddy wasn’t in the dining hall. He hadn’t been coming to meals all week. He’d told me, the few times I’d run into him since we’d arrived Sunday, that he couldn’t handle the crowds. That meant he was outside in the redwood forest, in the dark, barefoot since he’d forgotten to pack his shoes and lost the flip flops I’d gone to town to buy him on the third day. Perhaps he was huddling alone by the hammock he’d strung between two trees above the creek, chasing scary thoughts around in his brain; or perhaps he was sitting near the campfire being stoked for the sweat lodge, worrying the other teens with his circular, unanswerable questions; or perhaps he was seeking out the company of a stranger, as he had a few weeks ago in Santa Cruz, walking up to a random cabin and asking whoever answered the door if he could come in and talk.
“Just remember, in 10 or 20 years he’ll get through it,” Steve was saying, bringing my attention back to the table. I choked down a laugh. Was that supposed to reassure me? Ten or 20 years? I wasn’t sure I would make it through the next day. “I did drugs when I was his age,” Steve went on. “I even had to move home with my parents for awhile. And look at me. I made it. Let’s face it, we all did.”
But Eddy hadn’t “done” drugs for at least a week, unless you counted the marijuana he was undoubtedly smoking with the cadre of potheads who populated the camp, and still his brain wasn’t working normally. Steve didn’t know that. And Steve didn’t know about my schizophrenic cousin, who had committed suicide by jumping from a water tower at a mental institution when he was 25; about my father, whose crazy bipolar binges sometimes delighted and sometimes terrified me as a child, but always embittered my mother, who checked out via breast cancer when she was just 55; or even about the way I feel when walking my bike on the Peninsula Avenue overpass in San Mateo—the one with too-narrow sidewalks and unreasonably short railings separating pedestrians from the traffic hurtling past on Highway 101 below—how my heart always starts beating rapidly, and I avoid looking down into the traffic because of a kind of hungry longing. Steve doesn’t know I’m afraid to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
The moisture on my shirt front felt cold as I stood up to take my plate to the dishwashing station in the kitchen. Glancing down, I saw a wet circle crowning my left breast.
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” Karen was saying again as I left the table. I smiled my thanks for her genuine concern. “But this isn’t happening to me,” I thought fretfully. “It’s happening to him.”