Friday, February 22, 2013

Two Years of Life Strife, Then Diagnosed With a Brain Tumor?!

"Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift." ~ Mary Oliver  

"Brain Storm" Holga photo of Alice McMahon by Tracey Russett

Gifts sometimes come in unusual packages. I feel so grateful to have another chance at life and love after surgery to remove a golf ball sized meningioma brain tumor. (Read more about my surgery and recovery at Alice Recovery Fund.)


December 17, 2012, at noon, I was in my Galena apartment art studio having lunch and an owl (Great horned owl? Barred owl?) crashed into my second floor studio window just a few feet from where I was standing in the living room, and then it fell to the ground below. Crows mobbed the bird and were causing a ruckus! I was happy to see that the owl was able to fly enough to perch in a nearby tree but it may have been injured - it hit the window hard and I only saw the flurry of brown and white feathers so wide it filled the entire width of the window, after the loud crash! A year earlier I had drawn an owl into my piece “Persephone” and had only just the day before posted the emblematic image as my banner on my Facebook page. It seemed as if this was a metaphoric sign, the incident seemed so surreal to me and startled me not just because of the loud sound and the drama of the scene but it also felt like a wake-up call, something was trying to get my attention in that instant, but what was it?  

Here is a brief background before my Dec 26, 2012 diagnosis with a meningioma brain tumor:

Many of you know me and my career quite well because you are fellow artists, and some of you may only just be getting to know me because I am new to your area. Some of you may have lost touch with me in the past couple of years because I have been struggling to get my life and career back in order and I have not been keeping up with my family connections, my art contacts or my social networking. When I have been networking, I have kept most of my story to myself because it has been messy and complicated and just too painful and personal. Out of necessity and because so many have asked about my current situation, I will share more with you now.

I am a fine artist and mother of three young adults. I have been married to my high school sweetheart for 32 years, but we have now been separated for two years. The past few years have been extremely difficult – having about every possible life stress in the mix. Times are hard, the economy is a disaster and everyone has their stuff right now. My family was not excluded from these trials and this is our story.

The beginning of the end was our move about 3 years ago from our home in the south side Beverly neighborhood of Chicago, to open an art and music café business in the tourist town of Galena, Illinois. The family business we started with much thought, creative energy, hope and enthusiasm began strong and with great reviews, but at a cost of family and financial stress to the point of disaster. In hindsight, could my slow growing brain tumor have caused or added to some of the problems that lead to our breakup? We will never know for certain but it is a fact that I did suffer depression and anxiety beginning with the move away from our family home, along with some other physical symptoms I attributed to aging and stress. Leaving my art career and close knit extended family in Chicago for the drama and extreme intensity of small town America in the height of tourist season would be enough on it's own to drive me to the edge. We were all stressed, we all were acting out during that first year.

Our family of five all worked together to bring this dream to fruition and Rendezvous Coffee & Tea was and still is a great café. I will always be proud of the ways my kids all contributed so much of their own strengths and talents to help build that café and my youngest son is still an excellent barista there and works with his dad. Maybe given time and more counseling, more patience and more financial backing, it could have worked out, but most likely our marriage was bound to break up as people do grow apart over time even with great love and best intentions. Too much family togetherness, my menopause and my husband's bipolar symptoms, disagreements over management and money, Main Street politics and gossip, all these mixed up into an unhealthy brew and I all too soon left the family home and business and although we tried, we were never able to patch things up enough for me to return.

Having no job skills outside of art, café management and mothering, I went through seven odd jobs at minimum wage in two years and moved five times in the same space of time. There is no family savings or retirement fund left, I lost my credit, our Chicago home is owned by the bank, the property we shared on Main Street in Galena was somehow never in my name, and for some reason my name was never on the family business either, although most of the café debt was in my name only. How did that happen? I did not know any of this until we were separated. I do not know to this day what happened but trust was broken on both sides and there was no point in trying to heal those wounds and if I tried I was met with stoney indifference or downright aggression. I lost my health insurance and I was dependent on public services for food and health care. I drive a fifteen year old car with a cracked windshield and finally, just recently, I did have to resign from my Chicago art gallery connection because of financial and logistical reasons. I borrowed money from my family for divorce attorney fees and I have received no maintenance of any kind during the separation. I received free legal and psychological counseling but it was not much help and the divorce is still in limbo after two years.

I even lost touch with my own children in the end which has been the worst thing imaginable for me. It has been hell and I was beginning to wish I could just slip away.

"Shades of Gray" 2012 self portrait installation, mixed media

Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments of deep joy for me during these difficult times – often coming from my realizations about the meaning of true friendship and trust – love and patience and understanding of people’s foibles. My art is deeper and has been informed by the trials. The works have been few and far between because of stress and my deep need to be in a good frame of mind to work. There are far fewer hours to spend on art with 40 to 60 hours of day job work, and in off hours I was hanging out with friends just to feel something and to make connections in my new location.

The “Ophelia” works were heartfelt because of my depression of leaving the past 50 years of family life in Chicago behind and starting something that was not really a dream of mine, just at a time of hormonal change and the real trauma of the empty nest.  In hindsight the depression and anxiety may have been aggravated by the growth in my brain.

“Out of Khaos Came Gaia” is about my relationship with my 3 kids – about the longing for the lost closeness with them in childhood and wistful hope for their future, my new found closeness to Gaia, the land – in the driftless hills of the tri-state region of Galena. Even the bats that visited my apartment during this period are depicted and dissected and examined in my blog about this piece, and reveal the true good karma inherent in the bat's symbolic and actual presence in my life during those months. I recall sobbing so hard my heart hurt while drawing the Gaia piece - and researching at the time that there is a real heart/mind connection and people actually can do damage to their health from a "broken heart." My pain was an actual physical ache in my chest and my mind was numb trying to make sense of the emotional cruelty that was coming at me from all those I loved and cared for most in the world.

My diptych drawing "Abduction of Persephone" is an interpretation of the mythological story that explains the seasons and relates to my relationship with my artist daughter, coming of age. Thankfully some of the family stress is finally beginning to heal and for this I give great thanks to my daughter for doing her best to be open minded and diplomatic.

 "Narcissus and Echo" Walnut ink on vintage handmade paper with imperfection - 14 x 10."

I am fortunate to have found a great group of supportive friends in my new community and if it had not been for them I do not think I would have survived these trials at all. After being frustrated and under-appreciated in dead end job after dead end job, in July of 2012 I was fortunate to be hired full time at Thomas Mangelsen Images of Nature Gallery in Galena. That has made all the difference in my switch from survival mode to thriving art consultant and I still have time at the end of my week to get back to my career as a fine artist! I have had benefits only a few months now through this job, which has been phenomenal and just in time to save me from sure financial disaster from medical costs. I will be able to take advantage of disability leave during my recovery, what a life saving turn of events! Out of pocket expenses will still be a great challenge for me since I am already financially strapped, and so my Recovery Fund helps to lift a great load off of my troubled mind right now. Thanks to all who have helped in ways both great and small!

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our Attitudes.” ~ Charles R. Swindoll