This is Julia Hugo Rachel. Like millions around the world I was accused of having a mental illness, had my child taken away from me and spent years in mental and physical agony. Then I found I was not mentally ill but instead had a virus and was cured. There are many people like me and this book, Viral Assault, will show victims, families and friends that there is hope. This is my story.
At first, High School in Malibu was a great experience. Fun people and I loved learning with the result that I got As and Bs in everything. At the same time, I was swimming competitively around 2-3 hours each day and life was filled with fun, laughter and exploration.
That all changed when I was 15 and what should have been a time of dating, falling in love and beach parties turned into a nightmare of exhaustion and what felt like inexplicable failure. The morning routine was Latin, chemistry, creative writing, biology or Spanish while the afternoon was Math and sports. I had always loved Math and sports of all kinds but suddenly it seemed I had neither the energy nor the will for either. I remember sitting next to one of my good friends who loved math as well and seeing the enthusiasm on her face while I struggled to even understand what the teacher was saying. It sounded to me that he had started speaking in an alien language and there was no translator to explain what was happening.
From straight As in math, my grades collapsed to Ds and Fs and after the lesson all I could do was go home and collapse on my bed and sleep or stare vacantly into space while I waited for my energy to return. My parents thought I was going through a teenage phase of rebellion and at first ignored my pleas for help and guidance. Eventually they took me to a doctor and he diagnosed mononucleosis and gave me a sick note that excused me from all strenuous activities for six months.
That was 39 years ago and amazingly the diagnosis and treatment remains largely the same. According to the Mayo Clinic, “There's no specific therapy available to treat infectious mononucleosis. Antibiotics don't work against viral infections such as mono. Treatment mainly involves bed rest, good nutrition and drinking plenty of fluids. Occasionally, a streptococcal (strep) infection accompanies the sore throat of mononucleosis. You may also develop a sinus infection or an infection of your tonsils (tonsillitis). If so, you may need treatment with antibiotics for these accompanying bacterial infections.”
I am convinced that more could and should have been done. Everything I’ve learned since then tells me that mono is a kind of gateway illness for CFIDS and other sicknesses and early preventive treatment can reduce the impact of mono and the potential onset of more severe illnesses.
I knew nothing about any of this at the time and, like any 15-year-old, believed implicitly what the doctor was telling me. He told me that all would be well in 6 months and I expected that to be the case. But, the reality was that I got progressively weaker. Swimming, horses and even playing classical guitar were abandoned and it was all I could do to get to school in the morning. Eighteen months later, I was weaker and struggling to get decent grades in the morning before going home and collapsing until around 7:00pm when I could gather enough energy to study for the next morning’s class. Such a routine meant that I had little of the social contact that is a part of High School with friends becoming more distant and relationships vanishing as I spent more time in bed than I did with friends.
Graduation was a disappointment in that I’m driven enough that I wanted to be class President, Valedictorian and get a scholarship to a great university where I could study accounting or law. The reality was quite different. Still struggling with mono, I graduated – just – but there was to be no scholarship and no college just a life that continued to be filled with illness that a succession of doctors told me was simple fatigue and that I needed to take better care of myself. So commonplace was the diagnosis and so familiar the feelings I routinely experienced that I came to see my abnormal life as normal and simply accepted the new reality. And because my health problems would come and go, I learned to live with them. Never did I think that the complications that eventually ruled my life would be passed through my very own blood and genes.
Had I known what I do now, I would have spoken up sooner, told the doctors and my mother that I wasn’t just tired from a long day of school, I was exhausted without having exerted much effort, and that wasn’t right. Had I known what I do now, I would have tried to find support earlier. But the first thing I would do, could I go back, is realize that something was really not alright with my son.
Right after high school I moved in with my friend Georgia who had moved west from Texas with her father who was a major Republican donor and later become an Ambassador under President Reagan. We had bonded over polo ponies when I was 9 and she was 11 and it was her first day in California. She had brought some polo ponies with her and one of them had colicked on the plane. Maria and I helped walk the horse all night long, but within 2 days the horse passed away. Georgia and I have been friends from that day.
Georgia’s house, which her father had bought for her, was a lovely 2 bedroom, 2 bath charming little Spanish villa on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. I was working full time at a medical company near Santa Monica airport so the commute was perfect. I signed a 1 year lease, and they allowed my dog Zeus, a German Shepherd, to live with us.
One day I came home from work early feeling ill and sick. The house was located on an alley and was the last house on the block. I heard Zeus barking and thought it was just his normal welcome home bark, but it sounded pretty coarse in tone. As I turned the key in the lock and opened the front door, the horror hit me. The couch had big slashes in it and the stuffing was everywhere. Pictures were slashed and everything was turned over in what felt like acts of enormous and random violence. I heard a noise from Georgia’s bedroom and realized that the house invasion was still in progress.
I ran to the left of the house and called Zeus through the chain link fence. He was barking ferociously and wouldn’t come. I then saw blood smeared everywhere and I ran to the neighbors for help. The first neighbor told me to go away, the second didn’t answer and the third, an elderly lady stalled for five minutes and then let me in. I used her telephone to call the cops. I also called Georgia and she came home right away from work.
Several hours later, the cops had still not arrived and we walked cautiously back to our house and could see Zeus, who was normally white with a black blanket. We could see that his fur was covered in blood and we figured he must have gotten a hold of the bad guy and the blood belonged to one of the robbers. When we walked around the back, we could see that the thieves had climbed a cement block wall and then got through an open back window into Georgia’s bedroom. The entire wall was bloody and we realized that Zeus had been hurt while trying to claw his way up the wall to reach the thieves. We washed him off on the front lawn and found his pads were ripped and his nails has been torn off on the cement wall. We bandaged his paws and put ointment on the open wounds.
Eight hours after I had first called, two detectives complete with blazers, button down shirts and polyester pants finally turned up. As we went through the house, it was shocking how much damage was done. I walked into Georgia’s room and screamed. There on the floor was an enormous buck knife. It had gold and colored detailed with ornate engraving on the handle. What struck me at the time was the size of the blade. I had seen knives like that used to gut deer on hunting trips.
In Georgia’s room, all her jewelry and silver had been stolen while the damage in my room was quite different. My jewelry was still there but my clothes were everywhere and my drawers filled with underwear had been turned out.
The detectives did their best to reassure us pointing out that gangs almost never struck the same place twice and this was likely the work of a new gang as they had seen several robberies like it in the area. They said it was very unlikely they would ever catch the thieves. We found none of this very reassuring but at least Georgia’s boyfriend came over and offered to stay for a week with his baseball bat.
Three days after the robbery, I came home to find one of my undergarments hanging on the front door knob. I looked more carefully in my clothes drawers and realized that a bunch of my underwear was missing. I barely slept that night with Zeus by my side and the next morning I packed up and left to stay with friends who had a good alarm system.
Georgia was really disappointed in me as I had broken the lease and I didn’t feel comfortable telling her about the undergarment on the doorknob. I’ve always felt guilty about breaking the lease and I’ve tried for decades to make it up to her.
Little was I to know, that wouldn’t be the last time I would see an undergarment on the door knob of my front door.
With Blake on my hip, I began my journey into motherhood alone as his father left when my child was six months old. It was just me and my new son learning how to live on our own.
My mother was unhappy about my pregnancy and looking back, I am not sure I blame her. Although all of my aunts came to visit about a month before I was due and brought a stroller, a car seat and other baby items, my mother didn’t come until two weeks after Blake was born.
She arrived at the ranch and came towards me with open arms. My friend was in back of me holding Blake, I thought my mom was rushing towards me- which was an unusual display of motherly love and I was overjoyed. But as she approached me, it was clear she was going to bypass me as she started saying “oh, look at you my grandson,” with a cooing voice. As she passed me, she said in a growling aside: “If you slip up once I’ll take this boy away from you in a heart-beat.”
The threat was said just loud enough for me to hear, but not aloud enough for my friend and Blake to hear standing 5-10 feet behind me. It was always like that – threats just out of earshot from others.
When Blake was around six weeks old, I went back to work at a tech start up that had moved out of Silicon Valley to Salinas where I was now living. We were living in a rental on a farm but then my father helped me buy 20 acres on a river nearby. It was a beautiful spot and I renovated two cottages on the property as rentals to pay for the mortgage while I lived in the main house with Blake.
As a side business, I also took in several horses which needed time to recover from various injuries. I would tend to the horses in the early morning and evenings and between them and Blake I found a certain peace.
Although I had little money to speak of, I loved to drive older Porsches, a brand I had adored since my early teens. I would find 1965-1969 Porsches, mostly 912’s, that were considered undesirable to the 911 crowd. I bought them for around $1500 and would drive them until they died. Then I would park them somewhere and buy another one when I had enough money saved. Along the way, I started learning how to work on the 912 engines and was taught by some of the legends such as Harry Pellow, aka The Maestro, who was the recognized expert on the 365 pushrod engine. In a repair guide Pellow wrote, he referred to "Forensic Porsche Pathology," in which he assessed the "terrible tales of tragedy" behind broken parts he discovered. "Those failures caused by Nature, those failures caused by Man, and those unmitigated disasters caused by Ignorant/Stupid Turkeys," his term for butcher mechanics whose work he would often correct.
Another tutor was Duane Spencer who wrote the definitive book on the 365 engine and several other Porsche Club members. One time when Blake was only 12 months old, I was driving a 1967 912 from Salinas to Yosemite to meet family for a Holiday stayover and dinner. The car died on a lonely stretch, but by happenstance right in front of a gas station. I pushed the car into the gas station and the mechanic came out.
The mechanic looked at the engine, had me try to start it, monkeyed around a bit and said: “It’s not your battery it’s the coil.”
“GREAT,” I replied. “Can you put one in for me?”
“Sure, I can get one here in a week.”
I looked at Blake in his child seat and just then it started to snow. I asked the mechanic what the coil did- in my opinion, it was basically a copper coil inside some kind of protective case that hooked on to two very noticeable points about 6-8” apart. I thought a minute, asked a few questions, then asked If I could move the car over to the side of the garage where it was protected.
I opened the trunk of the car up front, pulled out my dry cleaning, took a sweater off a hanger, put the sweater on then looked at the hanger which was made of copper. I wound the coat hanger up in a coil like spring, attached each end to the points on the engine and she started right up.
When I got back home, I asked The Maestro if he would put a new coil in my car and he said “Why? That is a work of art and it works, so don’t mess with it.”
Blake was my chance to escape from the life I’d led before, my chance to improve and move forward. I’d been unguided before having Blake, and I wanted to make things as best they could be for him. And I knew I wanted to give him the life I’d never had, a mother who loved him and who cared where and how he was. I never wanted him to know the emotional and physical abuse that had shaped my early childhood and the rest of my life.
It’s the pattern that we so often see in families, a mother who is strict will have children who parent with a much more laid back style. And parents who are penny pinchers and who grow their wealth as much as possible in a lifetime will often have children who squander and are frivolous with their money. It’s our desire to be nothing like those who raised us, and it’s exactly the mentality I had going into rearing my son.
Being a mother, I finally felt like I’d found my place. I loved to care for and protect my son. It gave me a real sense of purpose.
We lived in the same house in Salinas for a time and established a daily routine which was up at 6:00 to feed the horses, feed Blake, drop him off at the sitter and then work from 9-4 and home by 5:00. For a while it was a stable and happy home. From time to time the special forces boys would come and visit but there was a general rule in that crowd that kids could create a vulnerability that the bad guys would be happy to exploit so visits were always covert and short although the guys were generous with their gifts for my little boy.
Though we were happy on our ranch, just my son and I, we were forced to leave after a horrible incident one night.
Blake had just turned one at the time, and after a long day, I’d returned home for a relaxing evening with my young son. I took a long shower and made my way to the room we shared to take him for his nightly bath.
But as I walked across the slatted floorboards of my house, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t yet night, so I was still able to look around the room without a light. I felt as though I was being watched, and living as far from the town as long as we had, it wasn’t a feeling I had experienced in a long time. I glanced down as my feet hit each floorboard and I found the source of my panic: two eyes looking back at me from behind my wooden shutter closet doors.
An unfamiliar knot formed in my stomach, a knot of fear, gripping as the eyes blinked. I knew if I were to run or make a scene, it would only serve to make the situation worse, scaring my son and giving the intruder exactly what he wanted. I was most concerned with Blake’s safety- not my own. My gut told me to save Blake.
I calmly tightened the towel around me and leisurely strode to my son’s crib, with each soft step my heartbeat raced faster and faster, but on the outside, I kept a calm. I didn’t want to startle Blake and had to keep myself from screaming, so I kept cool and collected. As I hoisted my son into my arms, he didn’t fuss or make a sound. It was if he knew the situation and mirrored his mother. Blake has always been like that. In the face of danger, he becomes stealth. He had been crying only moments earlier, which is why I was getting out of the shower.
I slipped out the door of the bedroom and finally let my emotions out as I ran down the hill from my house, gripping Blake with one arm and my towel with the other. My legs remained strong as we made the half mile run down the hill to the barn on the property, never looking back and praying the intruder wasn’t following. From the barn, I called the Sheriff out to my ranch, and as Blake and I waited, the knot in my stomach grew and began to burn.
When the police finally arrived, we met at the barn and I explained what had happened. I returned to the calm manner I’d held in the house as I explained the situation, but before I could tell them that I thought the stalker had followed me before, he started to taunt us from the house.
From down the hill, we saw all of the lights in the home turning on, one by one as he made his way to each room of my home, flicking on the lights and establishing that he meant business. He made a further jab by turning on the stereo in the house, blasting music to disorient anyone who was brave enough to enter the house.
As the sheriff made his way, the man slipped out the back door and into the night, but the local law enforcement didn’t let up. They called in the cavalry with dogs and helicopters.
But even with the extra manpower, the sheriff couldn’t find him. They did locate a few clues to determine that he was probably an ex-Army soldier based on the gear and other clues they found at his campsite just a few hundred yards away in the forest behind my home. He had been meticulous in making sure no fibers or fingerprints were left behind.
This was just the latest of several incidents that perhaps had begun with the incident of the undergarment on the doorknob in LA and had continued with a series of obscene phone calls to my office at the tech company where I worked. The cops had been called before and had even taped some of the calls but they had never been able to identify the caller.
I’ve racked my brain for years trying to determine who on earth could be stalking me, but to no avail. One officer instilled an extra bit of fear in me when she told me that this stalker wasn’t one who preyed on numerous victims, but instead someone who had focused on me specifically. While some assailants are content to target numerous people, this man had chosen me as his victim, and he didn’t let up no matter where I moved or how far away.
At the time, I didn’t know just how serious this man was about tracking me, so Blake and I moved that night, thinking it would rid us of him forever. We moved further out of Salinas, down towards King County to a guest house on a ranch owned by a medical doctor who became a lifelong friend.
Not long after moving I was hanging out with a woman friend, Mel, who was a cook in a local restaurant. As I’m the world’s worst cook, she used to make me food in exchange for washing dishes in her restaurant. One day I bumped into Mel’s boyfriend at the Safeway meat counter. He introduced me to his buddy, Gus, and we chatted for a while and then moved on. A couple of days later Mel called to ask if I was willing to go out with Gus.
I had actually met Gus four months earlier when I stopped by the ranch where he worked to ask if he would rent out his barn. He said his boss wasn’t interested but had noticed Blake in the back of the car and he seemed kind, sweet and caring. He had a very laid back nature that was really appealing to me compared to the hectic life I had lived. It felt rock solid and we fell madly in love. People used to say we were such a cute couple.
We married out of respect for one another. I had a son and he wanted to make us a family, something I wanted too.
Gus, Blake and I stayed in our home for a couple more years, but we soon realized that between him having a physically demanding job with no retirement and me wanting to get away from cities of any size, a move was in our future. During this time, too, I was having more health problems with crippling pains in my stomach. It was only after several visits to the hospital that I learned I had a malformed pancreas and that if I was not careful, the handicap could kill me.
I really wanted to return to my familial roots and at the same time, we realized that an acre of land around us was going for a million dollars, a sum we could never afford. We used to go camping and fishing in Northern California and we and our cousins kept an eye out for a job that might fit Gus.
We heard about a government vacancy but there were already 245 applicants and Gus thought the task was hopeless. But, I encouraged him to apply and he was then asked to fill out a five page application form. He threw up his hands at the third page but I called friends, went to the library and completed the form which I persuaded him to sign.
We had one of our first fights that night and I saw an angry side of him and realized for the first time that my ambitions might be greater than his. I was the pusher and goal setter, he was the laid back spoke in the wheel, never wanting to venture outside that spoke.
To his surprise a few weeks later, he received a letter asking him to interview in person. He interviewed, then drove the 12 hours back. A week later he received a call for a second interview so he drove up again. He stayed in my Great Aunt’s basement; the same basement I had grown to love as a young child. Summers there were magical. There was a pink bathroom, a playroom, a living room and a kitchen and laundry down there. It was homey and safe.
When Gus walked in the door from the second interview- it was about 6:00 pm. He hadn’t been home 10 minutes when the phone rang, it was the supervisor and they were awfully sorry but could he be back up there by 10 am as they were trying to make a final decision. I packed him a cooler with food and he drove all night to get there. He landed the job the next day. They called to tell me to tell him, he had the job if he wanted it. We had a new life awaiting us and we were both thrilled. The benefits were very good, we had a chance of owning our own ranch and I could perhaps go back to school.
That year we made the move to a place called Red Creek Ranch near Red Bluff, California. We had purchased a small 5 acre place, but had some hard luck when the river flooded and caused so much damage that we had to take out a second mortgage at 10% annual interest to cover the cost of repairs. It was an additional cost that would haunt us for the next decade. On paper, it seemed we were making great money, but we always fell short. Gus would try to ignore the problem and buy a new car at high interest or buy season ski passes. He certainly deserved to ski in his off time, but he started not making a car payment in order to buy a season pass.
To cap it off, I started developing another batch of health problems. My local doctor had noticed that my hands were starting to swell and he suggested I see a rheumatologist but I refused. Five years later, I had lost 95% use of my hands and my body had swelled by 55 lbs. I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis which impacts around 200,000 new patients each year and is thought to occur when the immune system turns in on itself. The result is pain in the joints, inflammation with the pain ranging from mild to severe. There is no cure and patients either have to learn to live with the illness or it simple goes away on its own – a little like mono. In my case, the pain was often crippling and agonizing and I struggled to maintain a life.
I was started on an aggressive therapy and it took nearly 5 years to get it somewhat under control. Luckily, there were good rheumatologists in Sacramento, but it was a 2 ½ hour drive each way from the ranch and the travel expenses started to mount up.
I had enrolled in school in Red Bluff to keep busy and to learn to deal with my disability in everyday life. I still loved to learn and the college environment allowed me to focus my studies in things that really interested me.
I studied Biology and Environmental Studies, and they were the perfect fit. I loved plants, I love animals and just learning about the whole ecosystem. What was even better was that with those majors, get a little of everything: Physics, Chemistry, Geography, Geology, all of it. And the school was especially gracious considering my disability. They assigned someone who would conduct my tests aloud and write the answers as I said them to save me the pain of writing the words. They even provided a paid note taker to help with my class notes and studying, because at that time, I could not write, hold a pencil or type. Without the graciousness of people at the school, I’m not sure I’d have made it as far as I did.
But, my health was only made worse when my mother slithered her way back into my life just as she had whenever I’d begun to settle into a new place. Ironically, this time it was my fault because I invited her in thinking, naively, that because things had improved long distance, they could only get even better if we were physically closer. What a mistake.
I wanted her to move because I truly wanted her near. I’d been connecting with my extended family in the area, enjoying dinners and family gatherings together. I decided that having one more member of the family near would only do good for my mental and physical health.
Though the family living around Red Bluff with me wasn’t her side of the family (she often bad-mouthed them for being country-folk, unlike her prim and proper kin ), we learned to live as a unit, like families are supposed to do. We’d go fishing on the weekends all together and cook up our catches for dinner. The parties were a time of bonding, and with my son and husband in the mix too, everything was going smoothly.
Another reason I pressured her to move was that I knew she would be getting older and need someone to look after her. Even after the way she treated me, this was still my mother, my own flesh and blood and I felt a responsibility to care for her.
I felt things improving because I was able to forgive her for the years of distress she’d caused me. Blake had given me the ability to see that even while parenting can be difficult, family is what’s important.
It started gradually, then it swiftly became apparent she hadn’t moved to Red Bluff to be near me, she had moved to Red Bluff to destroy me.
Starting when I was about 10, my mother had begun keeping a ledger, a written record of all the slights and favors she felt in our relationship. I received a photo copy for my records whenever my mother felt slighted or angry. Some close friends who are also aware of the book call it “the log” where my mother keeps a running total of things she has done for me, how much gifts cost, and so on.
One particular mark in the ledger is for the gift she gave me for my wedding, a washer and dryer set for the new happy couple. But in the eyes of my mother, a gift is not a gift if you are undeserving or if you do something to offend her. So, if she gets mad, the gift is marked in the log, along with price and description, like a receipt that been running my entire life.
But this log doesn’t stop at gifts of material items, it also includes personal favors. How those translate into a monetary value, I’ll never know. But the ledger was a way my mother maintained control in our relationship even all these years later.
She used to leave “the ledger” lying underneath the front door at my Venice Beach house. She pulled out the ledger whenever she wanted to guilt me out, tell me how she was paying for Blake’s extra curricular activities in high school or when she bought a meal out when she visited that I never wanted nor asked for. I got to the point where I would sit at restaurants with her and I would refuse to eat lest it wind up on the ledger.
Yet even with a child of my own, I still didn’t understand just how dysfunctional my relationship with my mother was. I kept letting her back into my life because I just could never figure out the dynamics until I was older. But finally, years later, I put my finger on it.
Our relationship was like a washing machine. It just kept spinning and spinning and round and round with the same old things, and though the situations may change, the end result was the same. It wasn’t until years down the road that I learned I didn’t have to be part of it. I could get out at any time. But, being so young and naive, I continued with the cycle, letting her keep that hold.
A couple years after she’d moved near me, I noticed a shift in the dynamic between my extended family in the area and I. The parties and family get-togethers took a weird turn all of a sudden, and felt as though I was getting the cold shoulder everywhere I went. What had I done wrong? What was going on?
Just like she’d done so many years ago, my mother was trying to take away the things and people I loved and the things that she couldn’t take she turned away. And because she couldn’t simply tell my family to go away and leave me alone, she began to poison the well, spreading lies about me to push them away from me.
She called my rheumatologist to tell him I was a drug addict and that I was poisoning my son. She filed a sheriffs report accusing me of 17 counts of child abuse that Child Protection Services investigated and found no case. The police report also accused me of a criminal act, Munchausen by Proxy, under which I was investigated for nearly 3 years. That was a particularly vile accusation which meant that my mother was essentially accusing her daughter of fabricating Blake’s illness and his seizures. According to Wikipedia, in Munchausen by Proxy “an adult caregiver makes a child or elderly person appear mentally or physically ill or impaired by either fabricating symptoms or actually causing harm to the child or elderly person in order to gain the attention of medical providers and others. In order to perpetuate the medical relationship, the caregiver systematically misrepresents symptoms, fabricates signs, manipulates laboratory tests, or even purposely harms the child (e.g. by poisoning, suffocation, infection, physical injury).
It is hard to believe that a mother could make such a terrible and cruel allegation against a daughter but such was my relationship with my mother. So pernicious was her poisoning of the well that she convinced the entire family that Blake was not ill and that I had made everything up to get attention. Fortunately, my father never believed this , supported me and so did several other friends who are still with me today.
Under the circumstances, I decided eventually that I wanted to move further North. Blake was having severe headaches from a head trauma he experienced as a 5 year old in Salinas during a bicycle accident while playing at a friend’s house. Blake was in need of special education as he was having hearing issues and sound related seizures. The teachers at Red Rock got to the point where they wouldn’t let Blake attend school unless I was there all day with him as his seizures were growing in number and becoming a liability.
I needed to get him into a quieter classroom environment. His present school at Red Rock had 24 kids in his class and it was too much stimulation for him. I found a school up North near my Aunt’s ranch, where he would be in a classroom with 12 6th graders.
I was able to buy 140 acres of land next to a creek. An old family friend offered me a deal I could not refuse. There was a dilapidated farm house that I remodeled and an enormous barn. Blake loved playing in the pastures and began to really thrive with other kids and sports and his seizures lessened and then eventually disappeared as he adapted to this new world.
Gus stayed with his State job outside Red Bluff and we commuted on weekends back and forth. My earnings had been limited to the times I was well enough to work and I had also taken a deliberate “time out” from fast paced work in order to be Mom to Blake as he played 5 sports and needed an after school parent present. I shuttled to and from track meets, baseball games, football games and ski races. Although we were scraping by I made sure that Blake always had nice clothes and a happy home. Many families around us didn’t even have that, let alone enough food in the house to feed large ranching families.
I was going to night school to finish my bachelors of science and planned on getting my masters in science. I had worked with a local pathologist who thought I would make a fine pathologist. I had no issues with autopsies or working on the dead. I was scientifically interested in the hows and whys of death. If we could give the grieving families an answer, that felt like a job worth doing.
The pastoral Siskiyou county borders Oregon on the north and provided the perfect escape from the bustling cities I’d known as a child. The open and sprawling lands were the perfect place for my son and me to escape and grow. The new place I managed to buy gave Blake a sense of rural community, a place to grow his roots and a single-location upbringing, which was most important to me. It was a place where Gus could fish and I could breathe and be near family. Perhaps there was a chance for Gus and I after all.
My family had deep roots in northern California. My great great Grandfather was straight off the immigrant boat from Northern Ireland and became the very first US Marshal. He didn’t drive so he used to walk the entire county, knocking out criminals, then putting them in a wheel barrow and wheeling them to jail. He used to walk over a mountain range to dance with his future wife on Saturday nights. My Great Grandfather was the 1st chief of police and my Grandfather ran the mills in Happy Camp and Feather Falls. Another branch of the family was in beef cattle. We are a huge baseball family with some of the generations becoming professional players and all playing in college. Blake got his 1st hair cut in Hilt- where my Great, Great Grandpa got his hair cut.
It was a great way to live, kind of isolated and freeing, the complete opposite of how I was raised in southern California, which was part of the appeal. Another part of the draw to this small town area was the farm lands and ranches that allowed me to continue with my love of horses without the added difficulty of living in a city where you had to drive miles to the stables to see them. Here, I’d just step out my front door and there they were, backgrounded by open farmland, mountains and pastures. The range became a kind of horse sanctuary as people would send me their old or wounded horses from all over the country and I would nurse them back to strength.
Gus found his place at our new home too, painting landscapes on the weekends in oils and later in watercolors. Like all artists, he was irritated with what he considered his “poor quality” work and he would throw the rejects on the ranch dump. At night, I would put on a headlamp and hike over the hill to the trash heap and retrieve the paintings.
Even though Northern California is technically still part of the Golden State, this section of the state couldn’t be more different than the central and southern regions. This area is more like Oregon, it’s desolate and a reminder of the old west, with scorching summers and winters that chill, but there is seldom snow unless you travel to the hills in search of it.
The topographical uniqueness made residents during the 1940s want to call it a state of its own. Natives will frequently refer to this area as the state of Jefferson, a denied attempt by locals to cordon off a section between southern Oregon and northern California as an independent state. Jefferson may just have become a reality, had WWII not cut short the fiercely independent streak. The locals still have not had that sense of autonomy scrubbed from their personalities though. They are proud of their roots and proud of the land. With my family having lived there for so long, I soon gained that sense of pride in my community too.
Although I loved being back in a community where I felt I belonged, there was also a strange sense of isolation. We come from tough Irish stock and neither emotions nor sickness are discussed much. So, while I was feeling terrible for much of the time, I had nowhere to turn and nobody around me who was willing to listen. The fact that I stopped going to family functions because I was in so much pain or that I had to go away on trips to visit yet another new doctor, was never discussed. And if I did talk about it, there was a general sense that I was simply complaining, making a fuss where none was necessary.
Fortunately, my health problems began to subside in our new environment. I felt a freedom I had never experienced. Nature and the 365 days a year of ranching were something that I loved and cherished. I started taking small projects which entailed me travelling from time to time, which I scheduled when Blake was at my Aunt or with cousins. I started looking to what I would do in the future, after Blake graduated high school.
As I began to enjoy life once more, the foundation of my marriage with Gus began to break apart. Like many married couples, we’d fallen into our own routines that didn’t necessarily involve each other. Gus wanted to work, go home and sleep and ski on weekends. I wanted to look to the future and get back to the work I loved. I was growing tired of mini projects and had lined up an interview with a consulting firm that had global projects I wanted to make happen.
Blake was busy playing sports and being a social butterfly. He knew there was tension between me and Gus as we had routinely started arguing. I was sleeping in the guest bedroom for 2 years before the split and had told Blake I was sleeping in there because of Gus’s loud snoring.
One day, I looked myself in the mirror and confronted the truth of where Gus and I were as people and the effect the disintegrating relationship was having on me. I hadn’t worked on my beloved cars in years and had driven them just as infrequently. A hobby that had once been my source of enthusiasm had fallen out of my life and I couldn’t recover those years.
“You’ve lost your passion,” I said as I stared myself down in the bathroom mirror.
As little arguments grew into big ones, and Gus and I learned we were not meant to be, the strain only grew. The arguments tore us even further apart than our lack of zeal, like when I wanted to try planting the garden in a circle rather than a square, or when he wanted to watch tv and I wanted to talk. It just didn’t mesh.
Gus smoked marijuana once in a while. I think for me the last straw was when one of his friends offered it to Blake. But it wasn’t the fact that he was doing it that made me so upset, it was the fact that it was offered to my 12 year old son. For me, a non-drinker and non-user, that was the last straw.
I felt I was slowly being smothered, dying inside the relationship and I had to escape or risk vanishing altogether. He was devastated when I said I wanted to end it but, like the good man he is, it all ended pretty amicably. I was sad to see things end as there had been a lot of love in that relationship.
It was back to just my son and me for the first time since he was just over a year old and in our lives together, we found a new balance.
As Blake son grew older, he got involved in the community, playing sports, making friends, a totally normal upbringing which was just the reason I’d moved him to the tip of California. And as Blake got involved, so did I.
I became involved in all of the parental “asks”. If they needed someone to pick up uniforms, I was the Mom. If a parade float committee was needed, I would help out. I enjoyed doing anything and everything.
I had a group of girls that used to come to the ranch to learn how to jump their horses. These were the sweetest kids and their parents were hardworking good parents. In our weekly meetings, I held the kids’ attention and regaled them with stories of horseback riding in Malibu and the time that I saw my very first polo pony. Their eyes widened when I told the story of falling off my horse and the hours of agony as I waited to be taken to the hospital. The stories served to teach the children that no matter how much we love our animals we must remember that they are wild things and must be treated with the respect we show each other.
“Take care of them and they will take care of you,” I’d say.
The whole experience was just fun and I think it helped me just as much as it did the kids. I became part of something wholesome, and I got to know the other moms in the community as well. I had found my place in the neighborhood and a sense of belonging.
Even with the fluctuations with my arthritis, I found that involvement was key to keeping a positive outlook. My life was like a roller coaster, with highs of being with my son and taking care of my horses, and lows of setbacks with my mother and extreme, undiagnosed pain checkering those years.
My pain continued, and I started to notice a decline in my son’s health too. Near the end of middle school and start of high school, he became weary and easily tired, staying home from school or sleeping on my mother’s couch for a few days at a time.
Though this seemed totally normal for a teenage boy, there was something unusual about his fatigue, something that made me nervous. His weariness reminded me of my own at a similar age, my inability to walk home from school without lethargy taking over my entire body. My inability to pull myself from the couch once I actually made it all the way home. The similarities became eerily evident as the school year progressed.
Before that time, Blake was up early every morning, preparing for school and enthusiastically making breakfast. He loved school and never wanted to be late. He’d be dressed and waiting for me by the front door, eager to get to class. He was an A and B student and had a good group of friends. Blake hadn’t missed a day of school before, which made the change in his demeanor that much more difficult to comprehend.
At first, it was just a day or two where he didn’t look right, didn’t look like himself. In basketball, as Center, he got a wild look in his eyes and looked agitated and overcompensated in moves, like his adrenaline was surging beyond his control. In baseball, he started slowing down to the point the coach could catch him when normally he lapped everyone on the baseball field when doing sprints.
In one case, I was watching him play in a football game where he was a wide receiver. And when he caught the ball, he looked dazed and stunned. In other instances Blake would miss a ball coming right at him, a glazed look on his face separating him from the rest of the world.
He continued playing four sports and skiing, but day by day I could see he was on the decline. In the early days of his decline, he would just miss a day or two of school after an especially tough game or practice.
But he didn’t only change on the field, the effect could be felt in his grades too. He went from a 3.75 GPA to barely passing classes, and school became a chore rather than something he looked forward to in the mornings.
I began scheduling doctors’ appointments and visits to far-away specialists to try to get even an inkling of what was going on. These visits were not only expensive, but another chore for Blake. The travel became more and more difficult for him to keep up with and he seemed permanently exhausted. He’d sleep more hours of the day, and even when he was awake it was like a zombie had taken the place of my son.
This period of taking Blake to different doctors was especially scary and frustrating. One specialist would do tests and say I am certain he has this illness and then another doctor would tell me the first one was wrong and he had something entirely different. Back and forth, round and round with no clear answers from people who were supposed to have all the right answers.
In the spring of his sophomore year he ran track, trying to get back into his normal student-athlete groove. The 800 meters was his specialty event. And before the sickness hit Blake, he was a beautiful runner, his long legs striding through the two-lap race with ease. It was where he thrived.
But that year, his stride wasn’t as clean, The race was killing him with every step, and though his mind was where he wanted to be, his body just couldn’t keep up with the demand. After one particularly difficult run that year, he threw up blood on the side of the track.
I was terrified by what I saw, but my mother only made things worse, convincing him nothing was wrong and that the blood was just pizza from dinner two days before. And my son, not wanting to believe that he was truly ill, sided with his grandmother.
But I was the one washing his uniform, and I know that pizza stains come out. Blood does not.
This is Julia Hugo Rachel. Next week, I’ll be telling you about how so many of our veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and just why the treatments they are offered are so often out of step with what they need.
Julia Hugo Rachel
Like Mother, Like Son
One woman’s journey into medical hell and the lessons that will help cure millions.