All posts by Carla Russell

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher, may she Rest In Peace, battled her mental illness for years, sometimes quite publicly. But I was surprised to learn that she credited electro-shock therapy with helping her to cope with the depression. My Grandma Layton didn’t have the positive experience of that therapy. But, at one of her darkest hours, it offered hope, and her thirteen treatments were completed before she found the healing art of Blind Contour Drawing. An excerpt, titled “Transverse Shadows”, from her biography/memoir, Signs Along The Way:

I was cold, hard marble. Despair and fear are at least feelings, and very intense ones. And affection is better than none. Having once been sensitive, I recalled the sensations, and as with pain, I could and did hold and ex­amine them. Now I was unable to experience them.

In this vacuum I wanted to make dejection and fear my friends, the way a person in unbearable suffering makes friends with his pain, groping the way to death.

I wanted to feel my way back to life, even if I had to endure death to do it.

Different experiences with different results. But Carrie and Grandma shared a common denominator: living with, and battling to overcome their disease by expressing themselves –  some way, somehow. Carrie wrote, acted, and advocated. Grandma Layton wrote, drew, and advocated. I am glad they both have found peace. – Judy Kay

Collective Scream

One Sunday morning Liza woke up with a start when she felt arms laid heavy on her chest. Mrs. Burress was kneeling there, her head on the bed. She stood up, picking up a little suitcase. The catch opened and a potted Easter Lily fell out. The pot cracked, spilling dirt all over the floor. Mrs. Burress took hold of the bloom and raised the plant high. Dirt dropped off of the roots and onto the bed. “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder!” she cried loudly, “I’m going back to my husband! God blesses marriage. We are still married, and he wants me back!” That said, she returned to her room.

Liza ran downstairs and called Mr. Burress. He came right over, and together they persuaded the woman to check into the nearby rest home. Liza went to visit her for three days, then the lady in charge said, “We couldn’t handle her anymore, had to tie her to the bed, so we sent her to the insane asylum.”

“There but for the Grace of God, go I,” Liza whispered.

From page 126 of Signs Along the Way…

June 2016 was a good month for bad news. A co-worker, Barbro, lost her battle with cancer… I thought for sure she was too stubborn to let go. Mary, another co-worker, lost her husband to cancer within a couple of weeks of Barbro’s passing. Orlando Florida lost 49 souls at the Pulse nightclub terrorist attack, the deadliest attack in US history. A couple of days later a two-year old boy was pulled into a lagoon by an alligator at a Disney World resort, and in spite of his father’s valiant efforts to save him, was killed – his body recovered days later.

And then we have our personal daily life obstacles and burdens. Judy Kay was reluctant to talk to her sisters about any of her job related stress – she figured her problems were not as abysmal as my marriage dissolution, or as agonizing as Kathy Beth’s rheumatoid arthritis. I really didn’t want go on and on about my endless, bizarre arguments with my meth-damaged husband – everybody else seemed to have much bigger miseries to bear. That’s the humanity in us, I suppose, to feel empathy and sympathy for our fellow humans and critters when they are suffering and sad. While I usually don’t think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”… the first words to myself are often, “My troubles aren’t that big…” Until Kathy Beth told me and Judy Kay about a conversation between her and her RA doctor concerning Kathy’s close friend, that went something like this: “She had just been diagnosed with RA and I told him I felt bad for her, that she would have to deal with the pain and all that goes with RA. He patted my leg and said, ‘Kathy, very few people have RA as bad as you do’. I’m glad for her!”

Yes!!! That was my reaction. Let me explain… The doctor’s simple mention of the severity of Kathy’s RA was an affirmation of sorts – that yes, it’s a deep trouble.

What I am about to relate is not a woe-is-me, self-pity rant – it’s just a simple statement: My marriage is bad – very, very bad. Unbearably horrid. And it’s been like that for the past three years. Before that, I thought we were pretty darned good together. I’m not going to go into the bizarre changes in his personality, suffice it to say that I thought he had a brain tumor, and was desperate to help him. Stupid me. The day I tried to sit him down and talk him into seeking medical help is the day my love for him vanished; he was cocky, mean, ugly, defensive – and tweaking. No brain tumor messing with his head, he proudly admitted, meth was his madness. Months before that day this monster had been accusing me of witchcraft, porn making, hiding money from him – at one point he even accused me of kidnapping children – and of being an actual stolen child myself. I have found seven hidden (well, not very well hidden) mini-recorders, two super dooper motion-activated video camera’s (one was in my bedroom, and one was in the vent above the toilet). There’s a lot more, I could write a book! Turns out he had been spying on me incessantly, I can’t even begin to describe how violated I feel…
Apparently all meth addicts behave in this manner, it kills that part of the brain. But you can’t tell them that – they live in their own perverted fantasy world. My emotions have ranged from compassion to fury, all the while attempting to keep up the house, my job, and my own sanity. And my money. Part of his insane delusion is that I pretty much own the internet, along with China, Germany, Canada, Gill Studios, horse stables, etc. Since he is unable to maintain steady employment, he wants all he can get from me. Oh, and he has a girlfriend. Which tickles me to no end, although I did hope that he would find somebody who could support him financially. But I should have known that he doesn’t run in those kind of circles…
So for now, my entire life is carried along in my purse, truck, and office desk drawer, for thirty-four days, when our divorce is final and he is out of my life for good. Thirty-four more horrid days with a meth addict, free-loading off of me while recording my every move, and accusing me of impossible, disgusting things. I feel better already, admitting to myself that yes, this is a very, very bad trouble. Oh wait – he’s leaving town with his (slightly) younger girlfriend! For three glorious days!!! A taste of the freedom yet to come! So by next Friday I will have only thirty-one unbearable days to go…
– Carla

Hand-Made by Mom, with love.

A few months ago I had the bright idea of incorporating material from our old dresses – prom, bridesmaid, school clothes – even baby clothes (if there was enough material). My plan was to use bits and pieces as yokes, collars, panels or pockets. I have lots of old patterns from the 70’s, and have become quite retro as I age. Anyway, I came across this box of dresses that Mom had made for her three little girls – and was whisked back in time as I washed, sorted and ironed the tiny creations. I imagined Mom at the iron (at least 54 years ago), and had small flashes of memories – especially while pressing my favorite gold and black dress. Dad had left before I turned four, so I imagined there were a lot of tears shed while doing such domestic work, on top of her job at Sears, and while ironing clothes for neighbors, and caring for her daughters on one income. Mom was an excellent seamstress, and I marveled at the perfection of every detail. So – I won’t be cutting into these dresses any time soon… I really miss Mom, and am comforted to hold onto pieces of her love.

Gas lighting…

For three days all went well. Then the old familiar pattern of drinking returned. Liza found half-empty whiskey bottles under the bread in the bread box, under the corner of the mattress, tucked behind the cushion of the easy chair, and behind the side rafters in the garage. One night after closing the café, Clyde picked up the large meat knife, ran his fingers over the blade and with a mean gleam in his eyes lunged at her. “You can’t do it!” Liza yelled, and stood her ground. Clyde dropped the knife onto the table and backed out the door. Liza sat on the back step a long while that night, pondering her marriage.

He took most of the money from the café register and spent it in the taverns in the towns surrounding Wellsville, or bought whiskey to bring home. Liza knew how mean the whiskey made him – the few nights they spent together now were nightmares. He was never satiated, she could do no more than acquiesce, but she felt so reviled and dishonored. Liza could see no solution, ‘He can’t keep on living this way, and neither can I.’ She became frantic and confused. ‘I’ll put warfarin in his coffee, a little at a time. Maybe it will make him sick, maybe in time it will kill him…’ Liza took the can off the top shelf and spooned a little poison into his coffee. Clyde took a few sips, and then fell back on the bed, dead drunk. “I’m going mad!” Liza wailed, and pounded her fists against her head.

From page 154 of “Signs Along The Way”…

“Gas lighting” is an insidious ploy used by drug-damaged souls to gain control over those closest to them – by making their target think they’ve gone crazy. Whether intentional or just an ingrained personality trait of an addict, the relationship damage is severe and lasting. Gaslighters are usually not aware (or don’t care) that they are the problem, and Gaslightees are often the caretakers, so they are not accustomed to ask for, or even recognize, that they desperately need help in dealing with their addict.
It took several decades for Grandma Layton to contour draw her way out of that crazy rabbit hole, and she didn’t go that journey alone. Her parents tried their best to help, and eventually her children did what they could, going as far as committing their mother to electric shock therapy. Grandma finally took her mental health matters into her own hands, and went to counseling. Her sister Carolyn opened the door to healing when she suggested art classes, and Grandma jumped in with both feet – and, as they say, the rest is Herstory!
Mental health counselors are there and waiting for those who will seek them out. When loved ones are seeing changes in your behavior and personality and begging you to get help – get it. The only way out of that deep dark hole is by asking for assistance, you cannot go it alone, especially if the cause of the destruction is alcohol or drug related.

Elizabeth Layton’s drawing is: MY CRACK BABY – A BIT OF TRASH IN THE GUTTER
November 6, 1989

“A dog raises its leg against this street-corner fire hydrant. Part of his puddle trickled down on to the baby. A nerd on the curb relieves himself directly into the baby’s mouth. The baby lies in a gutter strewn with crack paraphernalia, beer cans, whiskey bottles, cigarette stubs, marijuana stubs, and a dead body whose hand has relinquished a blood-covered knife. Passersby on the sidewalk walk over the police’s chalk outline of a dead body, and amidst more guns, liquor bottles and paraphernalia. Not many rainbows here, but on the storefronts are signs – People Who Care, Foster Grandparents, NA, AA, and Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers.”

The Future is Weightless

So, tomorrow afternoon, I took out My Dietary and on the second page I wrote, and I will continue to write:
Tuesday May 3 – 3:30:12 p.m. Went to Doctor. Weight 191 and 3/4 pounds. He gave me a diet to follow, 800 calories a day. I will start on it at supper and afterwards I’ll take the vitamins he gave me. This is going to be fun.
Wednesday May 4 – 300 calories a.m. I put it down that way, instead of 7:32:45 a.m. because when I’m on a diet, my time is very important. It isn’t past, the future is weightless. There is only an eternal present. And it is counted in calories, not in hours, minutes, and seconds. Instead of 24 hours in a day there are 800 calories. Hours between meals are fatuous and vacuous, there is nothing in them. The day becomes divided into three parts. Only the moments at breakfast, when I can have 300 calories; luncheon when I am allowed only 100 calories; and dinnertime, when I’m done again with Duke Humphrey, and I feast upon, but do not fatten upon, some 400 calories, actually matter.
This is the second day of my diet. Already there is a gnawing in the pit of my stomach. I await the next meal with great anticipation, although I know that the realization will not satisfy me. Even the rehash will not satiate. Just as my breakfast and thinking about it afterwards left me down in the mouth. Can I make it till lunch? I am swallowed up by self-pity.

From page 192 of “Signs Along the Way”.

I hear you, Grandma – I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t worried about calorie intake… and don’t EVEN want to think how hard it would be to stick to only 800! My Fitness Pal allows a generous 1220 calories for the whole day, but I can’t for the life of me stay under that amount. Keeping track of intake/calories burned is a whole lot easier now than it was when Grandma Layton was dieting, there are all kinds of apps, devices, and of course you can always google how many calories are in that malted milkshake…
It’s true, growing old is not for the weak of willpower. Gray streaks in my long locks don’t concern me, and I have sadly accepted my sagging and crepe paper-thin skin – even my old-lady elbows and knees. But my lack of self-control and expanding waistline is an issue I have decided to tackle head-on, fearlessly, the same way Grandma Layton responded to societys misconceptions and ignorance of the aging process through her art. Will I draw myself naked on a scale? No. I will simply pull up my Big Girl jogging pants, suck it up, and seriously count calories. Right this minute: Monday Sept. 7 – 300 calories p.m.

The Truth about Grandmothers

Even though it had been ten years since the last electric shock treatment, the sisters were still uneasy when their mother would offer to take her grandchildren out for the day. They could never be sure if Elizabeth was suffering a manic phase, or dare to hope that this might be a hint of the return of their once adventurous mother. Elizabeth was adept at masking her depression when she had to, and keeping busy with the grandchildren added some structure and light to a boring and restrictive household routine. Besides, she loved being a grandmother, and was determined not to let anyone hold her back from fulfilling those duties.

…from page 228 of “Signs Along the Way”

It is so good for us that Grandma Layton was so involved in our lives, in spite of our mother’s initial resistance. I can’t even imagine my childhood without Grandma in it… Would I know how to swim? Or sew? Or read, or write a book? Or spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Or learn grace, independence, and how to write a thank you card? I don’t know – maybe. Well, probably – Mom was taught well by her mother, and she passed along a lot of those finer qualities – but it was a lot more fun with Grandma!
Mom adored her grandchildren, and she led them down a more cultural path: weekends at the Renaissance Festival, art shows, National Geographic magazines, telescopes, microscopes – and attended every school function she could – proudly applauding with every award collected by her little geniuses.

Alas – half-truths and outright lies, ulterior motives and control issues (among other character flaws) from a certain in-law have fathered family estrangements, and I have been branded a pariah by some souls I love the most – unable to heed my grandmotherly calling. The truth about grandmothers is that we are also mothers. And granddaughters. We’ve lived the spectrum, and will never settle for any of those roles by title only. What woman wants to go through the hard work of raising a child, and then be denied the joys of playing with her grandchildren? I would have been a wonderful grandma – I did learn from the very best!

Grandma Layton’s Mother’s Day drawing is at the head of this conversation, the caption reads: “Here sits the Matriarch on her throne, taking, taking, yet demanding more. I call this my sick cow look.”  I couldn’t have gifted this drawing to a more deserving person…

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

In July, the great flood of 1951 spread over the valleys of the Neosho, the Marias des Cygnes, the Kaw and the Missouri rivers. Nothing was sacred to the boiling waters, leaving only silt and wreckage in its wake. It filled the people with despair and discontent. In Clyde, it left not only these emotions, but also a desperate need for help. He found it in a whiskey bottle…

Excerpt from Signs Along The Way

We had only four days without rain in the entire month of May, and people are getting a little testy. Critters too – the dogs actually want  to go out in the pen, and the chickens are literally cooped-up! I can pop a D vitamin to make me feel a little sunnier, but that doesn’t change the depressing atmosphere. But we hear that relief is right around the corner, so we will keep on keeping on…

Grandma Layton suffered from bouts of depression for much of her life – deep despair that could not be brightened by a sunny day or a vitamin dose. Thirteen electroshock treatments didn’t work, neither did drug therapy or a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

Signs Along the Way, a biography/memoir about Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton, tells of her journey from discontent to joy. Maybe it will encourage others as well. Carla

P.S. The sun just came out!

Signs Along the Way

 

 

Vintage Poetry

WELCOME TO MAY

We’re glad to have you with us,
Dear little month o’ May,
For you are sweet and smiling,
And bonny, bright and gay.

Your sister, dainty April,
Was pretty, but oh my!
The time she spent in pouting!
And then how did she cry!

And noisy March, your brother,
Was turbulent and wild;
On scarcely would have thought him
To be sweet Spring’s own child.

But you, of all Spring’s children,
Are most beloved and dear;
So, merry May, we’re happy
To know that you are here.
– by May Frink Converse

3 Clicks to Horrific

Grandma Layton was an insatiable reader and prolific note-writer. Which both helped and hindered our efforts at putting together her biography, “Signs Along the Way” – with literally thousands of slips of papers, backs of envelopes, napkins, old receipts, etc. to go through, it’s a miracle we ever finished the book! Many were simply lists of words, or simple phrases she hoped to use in a short story, or perhaps to help develop a character. Other papers were filled to the brim with notable quotes, news of the day, something she had read or wanted to know more about. Say, for instance, she found an especially beautiful flower, nestled in a crevice by the side of a dirt road deep in the heart of Franklin County. And it was pale blue, with little flecks of purple, and touches of white. Grandma would have to know its name, because that’s just how she was. The resulting search could possibly take days, even weeks, reading through flower books, magazines, encyclopedias – and probably calling friends and neighbors if necessary. While retyping one of Grandma Layton’s short stories, I came across “Henry’s Flivver”, and thought it was misspelled, because I’d never heard of such a thing. In about ten seconds I discovered that it was a car – one of the first Fords – without leaving my chair… I began to imagine how much time that would have saved Grandma, how much she would have learned on top of everything she already knew, and how intriguing she would find that journey.
I forgot about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (yes, I had to look that up). I have found that an innocent internet search can go from pleasant to horrific in as few as three clicks of the mouse. Watching Dressage videos, the Dancing Mare in particular, is one of my favorite computer entertainment pastimes. Well, I wanted to see more. Three clicks later I was into the middle of a rodeo video that I wish I could unsee. After three or four such excursions, I have learned to stay on topic. I’m too old, and have seen enough tragedy and cruelty to know that it exists, and that I can’t save or change the entire world, just do my best in my small part of it.
Grandma Layton’s life and art work dispels the myths and misconceptions of mental illness and old age, and she did it all the old-fashioned way – without the internet! — Carla