Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is the editor-in-chief of Living the Country Life and executive editor of Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and moved to the Midwest to get an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, have three children and own a farm where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans. 

December 17, 2012

We need to talk about mental illness

In light of the dreadful news about another school shooting, I wanted to share some additional passages from my grandmother's journal about her struggles with her youngest son, my Uncle David. (The original blog entry is here: Mental illness, and how parents and society can deal with it, is still the great unknown. I am praying for answers.

March 1979 Dave was bought up to the county jail. This seems to me to be about the bottom of the barrel for Dave. Will the judge release him? He apparently threatened people with bodily harm. What will we do for him?

The present laws are not helpful in helping mentally ill patients. They cannot be committed unless they are suicidal or get in trouble with the law, and by this time they are very sick.

So, I am depressed and worried about Dave.

April 1979  Charges against him were dropped when he plead guilty by reason of insanity, as advised by his lawyer. He called me Tuesday to tell me that he was “out of that cesspool,” meaning the jail. He was quite agitated from the experience and had a black eye and bruises from a beating by another inmate.

The whole situation is appalling. The jails and prisons in this country, in their treatment of mentally ill people, is man’s inhumanity to man.

Where can he make a go of it? I have been warned of the possible danger of having him live with me. I remember Dave as a kind, gentle boy who loved animals and wanted to amount to a great deal. Mercy, Mercy!

July 1979  Dave is coming to live with me. Thus starts a new life of adjustment for both of us. It will be a challenge.

December 1979  With Dave banging away at the piano and talking to himself downstairs, this is indeed a different Christmas day. Dave has little, if any, Christmas spirit, although he did go to the church program. He gave no gifts, and so far today has opened only one of his four gifts, a watch I gave him.

We do have much to be grateful for. Thank you, Lord, that he has progressed this far! He has a long road yet to travel to live independently, to hold down a job, and to cooperate with others. Sometimes he is almost normal for four or five days, and then he becomes belligerent and berates everybody and everything. Dave is more particular with his appearance and showers, but he has put forth little effort to find work.

January 1980  I have just survived a horrible, frightening, demanding week with Dave and am shaken by it.

He has been going backward since December when he took to more and louder mumbling and talking to himself. Then the bus drivers went on strike and his car developed trouble with the starter. This threw him and he became agitated and started snarling, “The Communists are doing it.” He would not let anyone look at the car.

Monday night he went on a tirade, cursing and at odds with everyone and everything. He frightened me by his threats and aggressiveness and I went into my bedroom and locked the doors and called the emergency number at the mental health unit. They said, if necessary, a worker and policeman could come out. Then I called Rev. Rader and it was arranged that he would stop by early the next morning.

Dave ranted until 2 a.m., and then had his daily diet of six soft boiled eggs and half a fresh pineapple. When he got up the next morning he was tired, but more reasonable. Rev. Rader spent two hours with him.

On Saturday night, Dave again ranted for hours, going to bed after midnight. The next morning the bus strike ended. We survive!

February 1980  Another month is gone, in which Dave and I have survived. This process of recovery moves slowly and unevenly. Usually he is in a bad mood, muttering to himself and shouting to me, all in accusatory, threatening terms. He’s down on the Russians, Governor Thornburgh, his father, etc.

Last night he started shouting, asking ridiculous questions, answering them himself, and interrupting supper. I stood my ground and he gradually calmed down and we discussed matters more rationally. Progress has been made in my understanding of his moods and in his admission of his needs of daily medicine.

March 1980  The past two weeks have put me under severe mental pressure and I find it hard to record events.

Dave was coming home every night frustrated and angry, and he would explode on me. I shuddered to see him approach, and took my dinner into another room to eat. He used gutter language and cursed, usually in a high-pitched voice. He talked almost continually to himself if no one was around, or he would make phone calls, as many as 10 a night. He was very agitated.

On Friday afternoon he drove his car to the store for cigars. A half hour later a neighbor woman saw him walking with difficulty and bleeding. She helped him to my door. He was bleeding from the mouth and left ear, and said two fellows assaulted him. His car was sitting on the hill a block away. I was appalled and asked Dave to let me take him to the doctor or call an ambulance. He said NO to everything.

With Dave lying down quietly on his bed, I gave up trying to do anything except to keep a watch on him.

The next morning he was very angry and accusing me of complicity in the assault. It was impossible to reason with him, so I went into my bedroom and called the mental health base unit to come out to see him. Two women arrived and he refused to come out of his room. They were convinced he did indeed need help and provided the necessary forms for involuntary commitment for me to fill out.

An ambulance and crew of three arrived and then Dave called the police. A large cop soon turned up and convinced Dave that the mental health unit had the necessary authority for him to be taken to the hospital, so he went quietly. During this stress, I went into my bedroom and locked the door, coming out after the ambulance left.

A number of times before, I was ready to ask for Dave’s commitment, but endured that night to find him better the next morning. But this time, with him beat up, down to his last tranquilizer and saying “No” to all help, I was desperate and needed him to be taken where he would be taken care of physically and mentally. It was a heavy burden.

I believe he will be vindictive toward me, and I can no longer tolerate having him live here.

April 1980 I drove to the state mental hospital to see Dave. He was antagonistic toward me, and said he would “sue me.” He was clean, but pale. His hands and fingers were shaking. His neck under the injured ear appeared swollen. His social worker says Dave struck an employee. The whole situation left me weepy and depressed.

June 1980  Dave has improved and was released to stay with a friend. Naturally, the friend has already had problems with him not abiding by her house rules. She called the police one night when he spoke badly to her, and they took him to the station. After a discussion, he was released and later apologized to her.

July 1980 Last Thursday I heard loud talking and it was Dave by the garage, talking to himself. I called to him through the window. He replied with curses and accusations. “I don’t want anything to do with you!” He spent the night in the garage and left early the next morning.

When he came back the next night I called the police and they warned Dave off the property. He left and I haven’t seen or heard from him since.

Tonight, please Lord, don’t let him come back. I don’t know what he will do next or how to help. It is exhausting!

August 1980 Dave has moved into an apartment. I left a food package there yesterday.

I have been attending weekly mental health support group meetings and have benefited from them.

December 1980 My granddaughter saw Dave in a local store recently. He has a beard and looks unkept. The clerks were talking about him, calling him a “town character."

Dave’s condition is truly frustrating, defying solution. I feel guilty and somewhat responsible, although they say it is a chemical imbalance. It is hurtful to the patient to be shunned and segregated as if he has leprosy, when in fact he has a physical condition like diabetes.

Dave has been calling my friend. He told her he “was so lonesome, enough to drive a person mad.”

January 1981  I spent New Year’s Day traveling. When I got home there was a frozen cup of coffee on my doorstop. Dave must have walked out from town.

February 1981 When I delivered Dave’s food package last Friday there were no tracks in the snow at this door. The next day I received a call from the hospital that Dave had been admitted.

I went to see him yesterday and he seemed glad to see me. His hair is shoulder length, he has a full beard and mustache, and is thin. He seemed alert, if nervous, but in pretty good shape. The counselor said Dave was accused of stealing something and was brought to police attention. Charges were dropped when the base unit was contacted and he was committed. The report to me was scant.

March 1981  I visited Dave today and found him hiding behind the Coke machine. His appearance and behavior differed from nine days ago. There was a mad glare to his eyes, his hands shook, and he was not glad to see me. He said he was on different medicine and had frequent blood tests taken.

He showed me three citations from police, and said he had tried to call a lawyer without satisfaction. One citation was for trying to enter the town library after being barred, another was from the market for not paying for merchandise, and a third was from a restaurant for abusive language. All charges have been dropped. Today was the first time Dave told me why he was committed, and says he feels he was “framed.”

He gave me a fine water color he drew of a bird and asked me for a couple of dollars.

I was tired on my way home, and ran off the road twice.

Late March 1981 Yesterday I drove over to see Dave. I found him playing the piano. We walked outdoors and he was happy with the jacket I brought. It seems playing the piano cheers Dave. We went to the canteen and then walked around the extensive grounds.

His doctor told me that Dave would soon be discharged. According to him, it will be progress if Dave can live in resident housing (not with me), go to Counsel House, take job training, and visit me. I am to insist he be clean and on good behavior when he comes. He said Dave needs strict guidance and structure to his daily living.

April 1981 Yesterday I spent an hour and a half with Dave and we walked the lovely, spacious grounds, had coffee at the canteen, and were able to get into the auditorium. It is a newer building with a large stage, basketball court, and a grand piano. Dave sat down and played the piano so beautifully it brought tears to my eyes. He played parts of different compositions, as he had no music.

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December 13, 2012

Farmer nightmares

Do you have a recurring dream? Growing up I had one that barrels were rolling down the ramp from our barn and I was stuck in the mud and was crushed.

My husband, a veterinarian, still dreams he is in parasitology class and not prepared for the final exam. I have to remind him he graduated 25 years ago.

The other day, Bob was working cattle and he and the farmer started sharing dreams. The farmer said he has the same nightmare every fall: He's driving the combine into the shed after harvest and he doesn't turn the machine off -- it just keeps going through the back of the shed.

What's your dream?

Mike McGinnis, the markets editor for Successful Farming, probably has new nightmares after yesterday. Watch what happens 28 seconds into this video: Poor guy, but that's what he gets for doing the markets report in the hallway. (He is such a pro, he never flinches, just keeps going.)


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December 11, 2012

Peanut brittle

If you don't mind standing over a boiling caudron, stirring thick, sticky candy for hours, here's a delicious project. Peanut brittle takes time and effort, so it is not for the weak. Bob makes it every year, and says it takes him 12 months to get up the energy to make it again. This was the result on Sunday night. Yummy. It is tricky to get it to the right temperature and then to spread it out on heated pans. A copy of Bob's recipe is below. If you look at his numbers on the left of the ingredients, that is the batch size he makes (6 pounds of peanuts).


December 10, 2012

Leg of lamb for Christmas

We sorted another 24 lambs for the sale barn on Saturday, this group averaging 132 pounds. This is our third trailerload this fall going to Colfax Livestock Sales. The market price has improved each trip -- this time reaching $.99 a pound, the top price at the auction. That beats the $.80 we got earlier in the fall, but is far less than the $1.65 received last winter.

Our lambs are perfectly uniform, after 25 years of a closed herd on the ewe side, and extremely healthy. We don't even hear a random cough. Bob says their perfect health is because it was so dry this year and the hay was top quality.

We also took four lambs to the local locker. Bob picked up the meat today and shipped some on dry ice to my parents in Maryland. Roast lamb of lamb for Christmas!


December 6, 2012

Shop work

Bob's latest project is converting old cattle feed bunks into fenceline feeders for the sheep. These feeders allow us to give hay and corn to the ewes and rams without getting in the pen. This is a big deal to me. When Bob travels and I have to do the feeding, I do not like getting in the lot with our two rams. Never trust a male animal. Bob used to scoff at me until a ram knocked him down last year. He was checking a sick ewe and BAM. It was about that time he started working on these feeders.

December 5, 2012

Springsteen and Me

A new film is being made -- by fans -- about Bruce Springsteen, called Springsteen and I. The film producer is Ridley Scott and the director is Baillie Walsh. Fans all over the world can submit a video clip. The result will be a music documentary released in cinemas across the world in 2013.

I had to participate, of course, so this morning as soon as the sun came over the horizon I walked to the barn and shot 5 minutes of video with my Flip. The sheep stood silently in front of me as I told the story of kissing Bruce onstage in 1992. I set the Flip on a fence post and jumped around like I was in the pit at a concert.

It will be a miracle if any of the footage makes it in the film, but I gave it a shot.

Speaking of the pit, I was there last month when Springsteen played in Omaha, NE. Bob's sister Mary went along on my crazy adventure and shot this photo. When Bruce circled around to the back of the stage I slapped his sweaty hands and grabbed his leg. Whew. I could go on, but I will stop there.

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December 3, 2012

Hypoglycemic puppy

Last night Bob brought a little friend home from the vet clinic. Lucy was listless and nearly in a coma from acute hypoglycemia, a severe drop in blood sugar often seen in toy breed puppies. Lucy was an early Christmas present to an eight-year-old child.

With frequent feedings and a few other treatments all night, Bob was able to save Lucy. Here she is in our kitchen at 6 a.m., much more alert. In fact, she started barking at 4 a.m., so we knew she was probably going to be okay. She also peed on my bedroom rug, but I forgive her.

Bob is working cattle all day, so he will be ready to put his feet up and sleep through Monday Night Football.

November 30, 2012

Ram on the lam

A ram escaped from a home in Des Moines today (yes, that owner has been fined) and ran though downtown streets. You can watch the ram on the lam here. Pretty hilarious.

Several people asked me if it was one of our rams. Not unless they know how to commute 20 miles. Besides, our two rams have plenty to keep them busy with 40 ewes in the back pasture, if you know what I mean. Why would they leave heaven?

This is a photo of one of our rams last year. He could take down that Des Moines ram in two shakes of a lamb's tail.


November 28, 2012

Mom's fruitcake

A box arrived from Maryland yesterday with two of Mom's moist and delicious fruitcakes -- one for me and one for Grandpa Freese. The holiday season is officially here. A piece of fruitcake with a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese and hot tea is the perfect way to end a long, cold day.

You either love it or hate it. Tell me what you think:

My sister took this photo in Mom's kitchen on baking day.