Monthly Archives: April 2007
I’ve got loads of new photos. Here are just a couple:
Have a nice day, everyone!
Whoever invented 1-CLICK ORDERING must have great insight into the bipolar mind.
I don’t have bipolar disorder, but it seems I’ve been doing a lot of spending lately. I’ve been spending money I don’t have. I mean, I really, really, really don’t have this kind of money. I get about $750 a month. I have no money for “extras.”
As many of you recall, I went on a wild spending spree trying to cope with QB’s death. It was horrible. I went into credit card debt like I’ve never seen before. I was just about caught up, into three digits of debt instead of four finally; I was so proud of myself, and now this.
Looking over my records, it all started on the 14th of this month. That’s less than two weeks ago. It’s the freaking 25th. I was pulling an all-nighter then, too.
Gimme a sec, I’ll look over the e-mail receipts and tell y’all what I bought………
I have made Amazon.com sooooooooooooooooo rich……
Expensive photo paper, 8-1/2 by 11, two boxes of it
A new photo printer $85 great value for the price
Photo paper 4×6
Headphones I don’t need
Ink and yet more paper
A new digital camera. I’m moving up in the world and I don’t need to and can’t afford to.
Kenny’s book (this I’m entitled to. He’s my advisor, after all)
A case for my new digital camera (now I need polish for the case, right?
Something’s not right with me. If you have any ideas, let me know.
Hi everyone–Yes, I’m pulling another all-nighter! I want to share with you some information about a book I just purchased. It is called The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory by Kenny Fries. I happen to know some inside information about this book! I know that the original title didn’t include Darwin’s theory. So the title went through an evolution of its own. I heard Kenny read from his book long before it was published. The excerpt was about rock climbing and (please forgive me here) it was indeed a cliff-hanger as the piece described Kenny and his friend attempt a very difficult section of rock–and their circumstances are unusual–you’ll just have to read the book….
I was honored to have Kenny as my advisor for two semesters when I was at Goddard originally. It was 2004 and it seems like eons ago. I will never forget those Advising Group meetings with Kenny; I even remember the room where the meetings were held; supposedly the laundry room was in the same building. There was a woman named Jane in the group. He called her Juana, which she hated (this she confided to me before lunch one day). I could never figure out why she was writing a thesis about the Son of Gilgamesh, but “whatever floats one’s boat,” as they say….There were three people with last names that began with Z in the group. Then there was me. He called me Gail by accident, and from then on, he referred to me as “Not Gail.” I’ve never liked the name Gail. We got off to a great start.
But really, advising group was great. We looked at both poetry and prose, and we also workshopped people’s pieces. I know, I know, “workshopped” isn’t a word–that is, it isn’t a word unless you’re in an MFA program. It means you sit around in sort of a circle and discuss someone’s work, while that person remains silent. Hopefully you all say nice things about it at first, constructive stuff, ways to improve it, problem areas, all tactfully of course, never criticizing the person, always talking about the work itself. So that’s what we did. We also talked about published works. We all got very passionate about writing; the whole week was like that, a bunch of nutty people in the freezing Vermont countryside getting revved and ready to sustain that enthusiasm, writing like a bunch of enthusiastic scholarly nuts for five months, only to return to Vermont, this time in the blazing heat, to get recharged and obsessed yet another time. We’re all bonkers. And Kenny, along with the other faculty, was wonderful enough to be responsible for allowing all this to happen.
Yes, I know exactly what Kenny is going to tell his advising group when he meets with them this summer: “Don’t base your character on your mother. Just don’t.” Because that’s what I did with my former thesis. Readers, you know my relationship with my mother is strained enough. Basing my character, Irma, on my mother, Erna, turned out to be–well, you guessed it. Not a good thing. Don’t base your character on your mother. Just don’t.
I think the reason for this problem is because a character is a being (being with a lower case b)–that is, a person you can attach a personality to, and an appearance, etc. But the main characteristic of my mother, to me, is not her presence, but her absence. It isn’t so much what she did for me or to me that hurt me. It’s what she didn’t do. She didn’t pick me up from Hebrew School on time. She didn’t love me. She wasn’t close to me. She didn’t listen–she never, never listened. So in writing about a character, I was writing in the wrong direction. I needed to write about a void. Irma had a dead husband. Maybe it was Irma who should have been the one who was dead.
At any rate, here are excerpts from the reviews of The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, by Kenny Fries. And here’s the link to the book on Amazon:
“An amazing book–beautiful and unique. Kenny Fries makes dazzling connections between the most intimate details and the most sweeping panoramas, and left me changed by his insights.” — Joan Silber, author, Ideas of Heaven
In The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory Kenny Fries tells two stories: the development of the theory of “survival of the fittest,” as articulated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; and the history of his ever-changing, made-to-order, orthopedic shoes. The famously important first story, as told by Kenny Fries, is a condensed and colorful account of the race between Darwin and Wallace to formulate their groundbreaking theories. At the same time, Fries tells a deeply personal story of the evolving consciousness of his own “adaptations,” represented by his shoes.
Although only the “fittest” may survive, Fries learns that adaptation and variation are critical to survival. What is deemed normal, or even perfect, are passing phases of the ever-changing embodiment of nature in our world. In the end, Darwin and Wallace’s discoveries resonate with Fries’ own story, inextricably leading us into a new world where variety and difference are not only “normal,” but the ingenious origins of survival itself.
“In this quietly revolutionary book, Fries gives us his own story, side-by-side with that of Darwin’s. The juxtaposition is startling, revelatory, and ultimately redemptive. Big-hearted, generous, deeply human, this is the next wave in identity politics, and you’re going to love it.”– Alison Smith, author, Name All the Animals
“Kenny Fries explores both ‘able-bodiedness’ and the legacies of Darwin’s theory while literally traveling the world. There is no book quite like this and no one who reads these pages will ever forget them. This is a history of our bodies and a travelogue through landscapes and cultural signs that everyone should read in our post-colonial millennium” –Stephen Kuusisto, author, Planet of the Blind
Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He has been a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan-US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College. Visit him online at http://www.kennyfries.com.
The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory
By Kenny Fries
Carroll & Graf | May 2007 | Trade Paper
0-7867-2007-7 | 224 pages | $14.95
Here are the latest photos of Puzzle:
I want to describe what happened yesterday:
Dr. P said I’ve been having too many mood swings lately. She’s raised both my Topamax and my Lamictal, which are both used as mood stabilizers.
Over the past couple of days I’ve felt “high”–an elated feeling, a feeling as though everything in the universe was falling into place, and that I had a special place in the universe, and that life couldn’t be happier. One night I put my hair in a crazy hairdo and wore it that way in public (which isn’t my habit). I’ve been spending more money. I’ve been studying like crazy–like crazy.
But yesterday it went over the top, and yet I’m not certain that what I experienced was mania. I felt as though I had special powers, and that Puzzle, too, had special powers, and that there was some sort of Presence in my head, not a Being but something like The Thing that could control me, and this was very scary, and my thoughts were scrambled so I couldn’t put a sentence together and couldn’t accomplish any task whatsoever–I just sat there–and things didn’t seem wonderful anymore but deformed and awful.
I couldn’t do a thing so I just sat still, and didn’t answer the phone when it rang, because I knew I couldn’t speak with anyone and make any sense at all–how could I? My thoughts were so mixed up that I had no idea what I was thinking from one moment to the next. I paged Dr. P, but I struggled for a long time to recall her name. Everything was the wrong color. My apartment had several doors out into the hallway; in fact there is only one. I began to get messages from the Presence, but these were very faint; meanwhile I had taken not only a PRN (meaning extra medication allowed by my doctor) of 100mgs Thorazine, but 10 extra mgs of Abilify and another Thorazine, and I felt sleepy.
Goldie (my therapist) called, and by that time, all the medicine had started to do its job, so I was reasonably sane again, though rather shook up. We talked for a while. It was rather late. I overslept this morning and today feel a bit drugged.
Good afternoon, readers! I’m in the middle of a marathon study session, revising my Crossroads Day Treatment paper, the one I posted here–scroll down or go to http://blog.juliegreene.name/2007/04/14/day-treatment.aspx. I also fixed and expanded the last few pages of “Hunger,” as I had planned. It is much improved. The Crossroads piece needs a lot of work, but my advisor specified exactly what she wanted. What she had to say in her comments made lots of sense and I totally agreed with her suggestions.
I went to see Dr. P yesterday. Dr. P, as you know, is my psychiatrist, the doctor who prescribes my medications. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) who has gone to medical school just like any other doctor, while a therapist could be a doctor but generally isn’t. A therapist usually has a different type of degree. At any rate, Dr. P told me that I’ve been having more mood swings lately than I have the whole time (six years) that she’s known me. I believe I wrote about the intense depression I experienced a couple of weeks ago for about two and a half days. When I walked into Dr. P’s office and she asked me how I was doing, I replied, “I’d better not tell you or you’ll give me one of those looks.”
Her reply: “So how are you doing?” (Raising an eyebrow, I imagine, but I wasn’t looking.)
“Yes, you’re right, I’m going to give you one of those looks.”
She asked me many questions. I told her school was very exciting, that I was working very hard at it, that I loved working hard, that I am sort of an overachiever anyway, that Puzzle had made remarkable progress and was doing well, my mood was fabulous, I could concentrate, read, and write, and that life in general was terrific and very, very exciting. I was talking kind of fast.
“So you can concentrate? Really?”
I could hear her breathing a sigh of relief. “Well, let me tell you what I think.” And she told me exactly what she thought.
She said that my mood was “too elevated,” and that it had frequently been too high lately, with interludes of intense depression. Not good. Two weeks ago she increased my Lamictal. Now she’s increased my Topamax. Both these meds are used as mood stabilizers.
This is what I think: Whenever I have a period where I am too high, whether I am aware of it or not, it is inevitable that I am going to decelerate eventually, or crash. When this happens, I am always aware of the lowered mood, especially if I have sunk into a deep depression. My attitude is that I had a “high” and was excited for a while, and accomplished a lot of work (whether it amounted to anything useful or not) and now I was depressed, which I surely deserved after having it good for so long.
It served me right for having fun. I had some excitement in my life and that, according to some kind of “morality” in my head that believes I’m Evil, means I have sinned. I indulged. My cup ran over. And now, with this depression, I was paying for it.
That is my goddamned attitude. Why can’t I simply accept the fact that I’ve got an illness that involves mood swings and leave it at that? Why do I have to bring Good and Evil into the picture?
At any rate, I’m having loads of fun doing school work. Here in New England the weather is wonderful. Have a nice day.
I feel that the last piece ended too quickly. I shouldn’t have written “I developed an eating disorder” without any explanation. Who’s going to understand that except a small fraction of people, the fraction of those who have developed eating disorders who actually understand how eating disorders are developed? I’ll work on that one tonight and tomorrow. Puzzle’s going to Pooch Palace www.thepoochpalace.com to have fun and so that I’ll have a day of complete quiet and privacy to work on all this stuff. I’ve got a revision I want to do, too. More…soon!
The first part of this document was published on the 14th of April, and it was titled “unfinished document.” You can find it by looking over on column on the right and clicking on the link; that’ll bring you right to it. Read the first part first, if you haven’t already.
There was a part of high school that was so painful that although I have written about it in the past, I find it too difficult to write about at the present time; I rarely speak of it; even to therapists the topic is rarely discussed. It involves an unusual relationship I survived that I kept secret from everyone, including my family. It involved my best friend; from her I endured countless cruelties in the name of love. It was not love. The day “love” was mentioned between us–our freshman year, somewhere on Marrett Road across from the old reservoir–she wearing a black wool jacket, the kind a man would wear –the air quite chilly, the leaves brown and dead–was the day she began to abuse me; on that day I began to hate her. I hated her secretly for four years. Then I ran away from home.
In other words, I went off to college. I majored in music and I suppose that in doing so, I was seeking those campfire songs I still craved. Freshman year, I purchased my first Joni Mitchell album, For the Roses. I listened to a heck of a lot of classical music, which was a given in the music department, trumpet music especially. We listened to every rendition we could find of “the Haydn,” meaning the Haydn trumpet concerto, or the Humml, or the Second Brandenburg. We played crazy duets and talked about “chops.” People thought I was weird, not just because I studied and got straight A’s but because they couldn’t figure me out. I told no one that I had just escaped abuse. The few that I did trust let me down or betrayed me, so I quickly learned that if I were going to succeed in life, I’d have to tread alone. I ran away from college. It got too scary.
I took a job as a nanny for a family in Vermont, seeking love in a family other than my own, hoping this was the answer; it was not. After a year I took a vacation and went hitchhiking across the country with my dog, still searching, and I found yet another family in California, this one a religious group.
This occurred one year prior to the onset of my illness, and this is important because many people have religious experiences just prior to illness; whether the “religious awakening” is genuine, or a symptom of the illness, that is, delusional, is subject of debate among people with mental illnesses, in particular psychotic disorders.
Are people natural seekers of God? Would we seek God if we had no preconception of one? Certainly, getting a taste of God, a first-hand revealing of this God to us, no matter how brief, would whet our appetites, like the action of heroin, making us want more. With this religious group I had such an awakening; prior to this I had been unconvinced that there was any god; now I knew I had to have God, as had been revealed to me, and I would give anything to get this God back.
I sometimes wonder how common it is among other people to crave God. The God I sensed, deep in my heart, was a parent-god, a God who guided me, a God who showed me the way. I could pray to this God about a problem I was having in my life, and God would provide a solution, or help me figure one out. God would help me grow. I realize now that I craved this parent-god because while my parents may have taught me about life, they did not guide me with the love, patience, and understanding that this God would provide, this God I needed like a drug.
I returned to my nanny job but found myself unfocused on the children and focused on my search for God. I tried several churches in town but found no God there. I swore off sex. I prayed several times a day, but gradually my connection with God became more weak and remote. I prayed harder. I felt lonely for God and lonely for God’s love and the love of the “family” in California. I wistfully recalled the songs the “family” had sung together in California, how we had slept together under the stars, sung songs to God with guitars, held hands and wept together–hadn’t it been almost exactly like summer camp? One day I went to a music store and poured through religious songbooks, trying to find the songs we’d sung together: Wasn’t one called, “They’ll Know We’re God’s Children by Our Love,” and one called, “Sailing with Our Father,” and one called “No Man is an Island”? I bought several spiritual songbooks that I still own. I tried to sing the songs and accompany myself on guitar. I wasn’t very good at it.
I pursued God with such mad frenzy! My frustration increased. I kept my quest secret, for what reason I didn’t know, and now, I can only speculate on my reasons for secrecy. I was becoming ill, and had many secrets; many were delusional. I couldn’t reach God so I reached for food. Late at night, when the children had been put to bed and the adults had retired to their rooms, I made peanut butter sandwiches on home made bread and spooned leftover potato-leek soup into my mouth directly from the cold pot in the refrigerator; sometimes I had bowl after bowl of Life cereal in a Bennington Potters mixing bowl. Once, I found some delicious crackers in the cereal cabinet; they were somewhat like graham crackers, but sweeter and creamier. One of the adults (there were three) had stashed them there. The crackers were all the more delicious because they were so very forbidden. I ate because God had slipped away from me; I ate to compensate for my loss, I ate to forget–to forget that I had been singled out by God for what I believed to be a special purpose, and now that my link to God had been severed, all was lost; God had cut me off, pushed me away; I was marked, I was despicable, and Evil, Evil, Evil–this I couldn’t get out of my head.
I was marked, too, because I had gained a little weight. Ten pounds. To me, it seemed like 50. I thought about it constantly–and it was at this point that my obsession–for “obsession” was the word for it now–shifted over, from a God-obsession to weight-obsession. I could not get the ten pounds out of my head, and this I kept secret as well. I bought a scale and kept it secret, hiding it on a shelf where no one would find it, and weighed myself carefully so no one would hear the springs, naked, first thing in the morning, every day. I wrote down my weight in a little yellow notebook that I no longer have.
When I finally went on a diet, I became anorexic, and had a host of other problems. My illness manifested itself in full from that point onward. I have never been the same.
I see my problems as three-fold: First of all, there is the eating disorder, which has never left me; it has improved considerably, but I carry around ghosts of it that will affect my body for the rest of my life. I have osteoporosis, which is irreversible. My eating and weight are still an issue.
The second problem is my sense of being Evil, and the psychotic elements that accompany my belief that I am marked, of which I am completely convinced, even as I write the word “psychotic,” which means perception of something that isn’t real.
The third problem has to do with the consequences of the above. For who wouldn’t, if they had problems with Evil and Eating, not have trouble also with mood fluctuations? This problem tends to send me jerking
around, the way I do when I board a bus, and, while I am still standing, the bus stops suddenly, then starts again, and I am jerked around so violently that even my bladder mechanism is vulnerable.
As I write this, I realize that I am still ill, but something must have changed, enabling me not only to write these words, but to convey something to the reader that he or she can identify with and understand, not some gibberish about Evil Beings that only I can truly feel. Not only that, but I am a reasonable person, and I am happy. The quests for love, for true parents, for God, which perhaps constitute a single life quest, with individual variations are common to all of us, while the mutation of mine was caused by some defect of the brain that scientists are only beginning to explore. I am older now, and my drive to live fully has simplified over the years; storms have become quiet rains; the sun has peeked through the sweetness of new leaves, and I can rest, now and then.
Here is the paper I wrote tonight. I thought it would be of interest. Because I have to copy and paste onto Notepad, and then copy and paste onto here, the italics don’t come through. Pretend the titles of books are in italics. I knew you’d forgive me.
Anne Sexton was born in 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts. She married at the age of 19, worked as a model, then started a family. She suffered postpartum breakdowns, attempted suicide, and was diagnosed bipolar after the births of her children and deaths of her parents. She began writing poetry as therapy in the late 1950’s and was met with immediate acclaim. She is known as a “confessional” poet who writes autobiographically. She committed suicide in 1974. To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) is her first published collection of poetry.
Robert Lowell was one of the first “confessional poets” when he came out with his collection, Life Studies. To Bedlam and Partway Back, Anne Sexton’s first collection of poetry, follows in Lowell’s footsteps because it is “confessional”–that is, highly derived from personal experience; furthermore, both collections deal with the authors’ experiences in mental institutions. The two collections are surprisingly alike. They were published only a year apart. Lowell was the more experienced poet, eleven years older than Sexton, but they were both well practiced as the “gracefully insane,” as Sexton put it, in mental hospitals for the wealthy of that time period. According to information available to me, they both had bipolar disorder.
“Confessional” may be defined as the tendency of a poet to insert personal experiences into his or her poetry, in particular intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about him or herself such as contemplation of sexuality, illness or despondence. This movement arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in addition to Lowell and Sexton, these also included W.D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg.
I would define myself as a “confessional writer.” It is a given that almost all creative nonfiction writers are “confessional writers,” especially those of us who write about ourselves as mental patients.
As a “confessional writer” writing about my experiences as mental patient, I face the dilemma that Lowell, and especially Sexton, faced when writing their “mental hospital” (nuthouse) poetry: How much does the poet/writer assume his or her readers already know about mental illness and mental hospitals? The reason that this becomes a dilemma, the precise reason, especially in the case where patients were hospitalized for long periods (up until HMO’s became the relatively dominant health insurance providers; say, in the late 1980’s) is that patients are so immersed in their own care that we tend to forget that we once were outsiders and knew nothing of mental hospitals, mental illness, therapists, medication, and the like. We are so isolated in the hospital, talking only to other patients and the people that work there; if it weren’t for the ward television and occasional visitor, outside life could disappear completely and it would not be missed. In this way, perspective is lost, and continues to be lost long after we leave the hospital. So when I have been faced with writing about my treatment experiences, I sometimes leave out key facts not only about the programs and treatments I’m describing, but also about myself and my own illness and where it all fits into my life.
Keeping this in mind, let’s look at Sexton’s poem, “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn.” One of the first things we notice is that a prayer is inserted into the poem in italics. Here it is, extracted: though I walk through the valley of the shadow/I will fear no evil, fear no evil/in the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies This is David’s psalm, the scary lines isolated and repeated for emphasis. This narrator must be very frightened indeed. The tree is “suspicious” and “looks around for me.” The grass “reach(es) my way.” The sky “breathes upon my face.” “The world is full of enemies. There is no safe place.”
Note that the narrator sees herself as the center of the scary scene. Everything–the tree, the grass, the sky–is against her, everyone is an enemy, and no place is safe. Welcome to paranoia. No wonder the patient is praying. But for someone who has never experienced paranoia, the poem couldn’t possibly be as powerful, at least not in the same way; to the inexperienced, it would be more didactic or eye-opening.
There is other “insider” knowledge that supplements this poem. When a person has been locked up indoors for a long time, and then suddenly allowed outdoors, everything seems very, very bright, and the brightness stings the eyes, even if the sky is cloudy. Wind seems ten times windier. Grass and leaves seem too green. Also, the smell of grass, especially if it is freshly cut, is very strong. The world outdoors is much, much wider. Sexton is telling us exactly this, but if the reader doesn’t know this is actually being experienced for real, he or she may dismiss Sexton’s descriptions as “all in her head” instead of being part of an almost physical sensation shared by many patients.
We could spend pages examining the many poems in this collection that refer, in whole or in part, to the asylum or to madness, but I do want to look briefly at the title of the collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary V. 3.0 defines “bedlam” as follows:
bed·lam (bedÆlÃm), n.
1. a scene or state of wild uproar and confusion.
2. Archaic. an insane asylum or madhouse.
[a popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, which served as a lunatic asylum from ca. 1400; cf. ME Bedleem, Bethleem, OE Betleem BETHLEHEM]
—Syn.1. disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium.
I wouldn’t be surprised if “Bedlam” was an inside joke among patients while Sexton was hospitalized. It is common for patients in any hospital to have inside jokes; this is a natural response to the oppression they experience, in the name of “safety,” on the ward.
Why does Sexton only come partway back and not return fully? This is another aspect of the collection that can be supplemented by experience with mental illness: it is rare that someone comes back all the way following a lengthy stay in a mental institution. Earlier this semester I read Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness. Slater was hospitalized for lengthy periods in her adolescence and young adulthood. Although Slater makes a full recovery, she is deeply haunted by the past throughout the book; she is terrified that someone will discover her can of worms. In this manner, though she has impressively regained full poise, she only came partway back.
Why Part Way and not Partway? This is no accident. It can be read as partway back or part (way back). The term “way back” could mean a back ward (backward); it could also mean one’s head is way back, that one is insane.
In my own writing, I must learn exactly how much to “tell” the reader and how much I want the reader to infer. Telling too much has its natural pitfalls in any prose writing. Not telling enough will frustrate the reader. Ideally, I should give enough clues that the reader has to work a little, and see the fruit of their work as the writing unfolds. For the reader who is a mental patient, this may mean more fruit, not a bad thing; they say it keeps psychiatrists away.
“You have to understand. Some of the people here are very ill. They have just come out of, er, the state hospital,” and here the therapist, Diana, lowered her voice. “Urban State Hospital, you see.” She was seated next to a large, unused desk, with her arm leaning against it, and was dressed in a matching tweed skirt and blazer, and I, in attempt to look presentable for my first day at Crossroads Day Treatment, wore a plaid shirt, convincingly worn jeans, and a denim vest I’d bought at a thrift shop that I was convinced made me look thinner. Outside the office door, footsteps rumbled down the stairs. The window, to my right, was cracked open and a rusty October breeze slipped through, playfully sweeping the simple, white curtain to and fro. I felt pressured to say something in response to Diana’s comment, but I shrugged my shoulders, and, feeling stupid, said nothing. “So you will be with all sorts of people, you know, during lunch and on Wednesdays when we have our outings–we, er, go in vans, all together, as a group….” Diana cleared her throat. I tried to look at her but found my eyes resting instead on a green ceramic frog on the desk. She handed me a schedule of groups. “Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays we have regular groups, with a two-hour lunch break. Group Therapy meets on Mondays and Fridays, with Rick and me. Don’t miss Group Therapy.”
The door opened. I jumped. A large man wearing a t-shirt and tie loomed in the doorway.
“Kevin, I am in a meeting with Julie now.”
“A new client?” Kevin’s voice was a deep, friendly basso. “That’s a pretty name, Julie.”
“Kevin, you can meet her later.”
“No, I want to meet her now. She’s a pretty girl. When do I get my meds?”
“You can ask Emily. She’s the nurse. See you later, Kevin.” Diana resumed her explanations, running her fingers along the pleat in her skirt. “Wednesday the doctor comes. If you are going to be taking medication, you’ll meet with him then.”
Medication? At the time, it was beyond my perception that there were medications that might help me. My knowledge of psychotropic medication consisted of the sedative (“sedagive”) given to the Frankenstein monster in the movie Young Frankenstein. I had never heard of antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers. If I had known that there were medications that could have helped, even then, I certainly would have asked if I could give them a try.
“We have Family Issues group twice a week and Art Therapy in the building next door on Fridays. In the beginning of each day we all meet together for Community Meeting, and at the end of the day for Wrap-Up. Each therapist meets with her–or his–own clients for Administrative Group in the morning as well. I’ll be meeting with my clients here in the Blue Room.” Rooms in the building were named after the subway lines in Boston, the Blue, Red, Green, and Orange Rooms. Group Therapy always took place in the Green Room.
And then, quite suddenly, Diana set me loose at Crossroads Day Treatment, to acclimate and acquaint myself with the other clients before my first “group.” Already, ten or twelve clients had arrived, and several were strutting nervously in the kitchen. The building had originally been a church rectory; it was lacking the institutional feel I’d expected of a psychiatric institution. The kitchen was equipped with the usual appliances; coffee was brewing; for 50 cents one could enjoy a cup with Cremora or sugar or Sweet ’n Low. A sign above the kitchen doorway clearly indicated that the dining room was the only room where smoking was allowed. It appeared that the dining room was also the main social room, with its pine wood tables and chairs, ashtrays strategically placed at each table, and a large wastebasket near the door. Two older women sat quietly drinking coffee in the corner of the room; I later would see them in Group Therapy. The living room was up front; although smoking wasn’t allowed there, smoke from the dining room made visible beams of light streaming in through the front curtains; Kevin lay fast asleep on the couch, his shirt slid up exposing his fat, bare belly, his tie under his armpit. He snored loudly. I tiptoed back to the dining room, where much of the activity had started up. A woman who appeared to have Down’s Syndrome repeated, “Tim, Tim, Tim!”
The client who I later learned was named Tim turned to her and said, “Tina, shut up. You’re embarrassing me in front of the ladies here.” He was a large man; looking around, I noticed that everyone seemed overweight. I took note of this; I was later to learn that almost all psychotropic medications cause weight gain. Tim was sweating profusely; he wore a filthy sweatshirt jacket but I sensed that his sweating came more from nervousness than from hyperthermia. His leg bounced up and down while he sat, fidgety, in his chair. “And this one is Julie. She’s new. You look too pretty and too smart to be here, Julie. You’re smart, right? You look plenty smart. You don’t smoke? You Jewish? I can tell. Shawlom. I know a chosen one when I see one. In the end, all the Jews will convert and Christ will lead them–it says in the Bible–right guys? You don’t smoke? Why don’t you have one of these doughnuts? You’re too smart to be at Crossroads. You should get out while you can–right, guys? It says in the Bible–”
“I–I–I j-j-just wish he’d stop t-t-talking about the B-b-bible,” a young man’s voice said from the kitchen. I leaned over and saw a very tall bearded man shaking his arm in front of him while he spoke. “W-w-where’s Emily?”
“It depends on what you mean by television,” said Richie S. “Have a cigarette.” But he didn’t offer me one, and I didn’t want one. I hadn’t yet entered the dining room, and he in fact was not looking at me, but staring at nothing, or perhaps at a piece of dust in front of his face. Richie’s facial expression never changed; he was always profoundly troubled.
Tim D continued, “Betcha don’t smoke. You’re too smart to smoke.”
“No, I don’t,” I admitted. I would learn that besides myself and the five other members of Group Therapy, Tim was one of only a handful that could sustain a conversation.
“Everyone here smokes. Want one, Richie? Take one. Here.” He handed Richie a Parliament, then lit one for himself. “Nicky doesn’t. He shakes too much. Emily, she’s the nurse, she told him he better give it up or else he might set the place on fire. Blow the place up.”
Richie began to laugh, smoke emitting from his wide-open mouth. “Blow the place up, that’s very funny, blow the place up, ho ho, ho ho….” He coughed, then gathered up spittle, and spat into an ashtray.
I closed my eyes for a moment.
Tim continued, “What hospital you come out of? Waltham? St. E’s?”
“Where were you locked up?”
People who had just arrived in the kitchen were laughing–at what, I wondered.
“Um, I wasn’t. I just come to this program now.”
“Sucks, huh? A nice, smart girl like you, in a place like this.”
I was still standing in the doorway of the dining room, afraid to enter. One by one, several clients turned toward me, looked me over, then sat at tables, removed cigarettes from pockets and pocketbooks, and lit up. I would learn very quickly that cigarett
e smoking was, at the time, at the social core among mental patients. Where there was smoke, there was conversation. More “group therapy” happened in smoking rooms than ever happened in official Group Therapy run by staff; more friendships were started, more conflicts resolved, more communication, more love, if you could call it that, happened within the confines of those places where smoking was allowed. Now, of course, smoking is no longer permitted in hospitals and most places where mental patients gather; the magic and mystique of the smoking room is lost forever.
I had learned about the program from a family acquaintance who had had good results here; she was about my age. We’d chatted on the phone at length and she’d explained, “There are a lot of people there who come from the state hospital. They talk to themselves. You just have to tolerate it. After a while, it’s like they’re not even there.”
I backed away from the dining room doorway. The smoke was getting to me. A woman around my age, a pretty woman wearing jeans and a sweater who I would later learn was named Irene, invited me to sit with her. “In a while,” I responded. “Thanks.”
“You shy?” she asked. “C’mon, let’s talk.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I was in fact very nervous. It wasn’t so much the strangeness and newness of the place and the people but the mere number of people around me; by now about 20 clients had arrived and were milling around the place; the dining room had filled with smokers and people enjoying coffee and doughnuts. But no, in fact it wasn’t the sheer number of people at all, nor was it the fact that some of the people I was meeting were very different from me; it was the people like Irene I feared the most. She appeared too friendly. Don’t trust. Don’t tell her anything. Don’t eat lunch with her; don’t sit with her; don’t talk to her. Stay away. Making friends with anyone, ill or well, was one of the most frightening things I could possibly imagine, and here, at Crossroads, I was to face that possibility, and it scared me hundreds of times more than being in groups with Richie or Tim D or Kevin, or even becoming a lot like them.
“Does anyone have any community issues?” Community meeting had begun, and Diana had introduced me, telling the “community,” some 35 clients and therapists, that I would be in her “administrative group,” in other words, that she would be my therapist while I was in the program, which at the time I thought would be a few weeks. I spent nine months there.
“No community issues?” Rick asked. Rick was the therapist who ran Group Therapy, and he was running this group as well. I immediately liked him. He had more than a twinkle in his eye; his whole face twinkled.
We were seated, all of us, in a large circle. The church had rented their basement to the program to use for larger groups and groups that required lots of space. Cabinets on the far wall contained art supplies, I assumed. After I’d stared at it for a time, I noticed the basketball net up in the front of the room was twitching in the barely perceptible breeze.
“Yes, I have one,” said an older, hoarse-voiced woman. Her deformed hands were gripped around her belly. “No one throws away their coffee cups. I have to pick up after everyone. The kitchen is a mess. The dining room is a mess. Why do I always have to be the one–”
“Shaddup, Leslie,” said Tim D. “Every morning, the same thing, every morning.”
There was general hubbub in the room. Someone began to whistle. Rick held up his hands to form the letter “T.” Time out.
Rick said very quietly. “You both have a point.”
Leslie said, “He interrupted me. He interrupted me!” She flailed her arms in the air and shouted, “You! You! You!”
“Hear me out,” said Rick. “The coffee cups need to be thrown out.”
“But Leslie, you don’t have to take on the responsibility of cleaning up after everyone.”
“Tim, you need to be polite and tolerant. If there is anything further to discuss about this, we will bring it up in Administrative Group. And Group Therapy.”
Administrative Group was like a repeat of Community Meeting, only in miniature. Diana asked each of us, her specific clients, how things were going for us in general, whether we’d showered, if we were having symptoms–I’d showered, but I didn’t know what “symptoms” were, really, because I wasn’t aware that I had any sort of illness; I had problems; that was all that I knew, or would admit at the time. A young man named Kevin–a different Kevin–reported that he’d been hearing voices. “All the time, I hear them, Diana,” he said. He had deep, sad eyes circled with dark fleshy patches. I felt sorry for him.
“Kevin, we’ve tried every medication,” Diana replied.
“I still hear them,” said Kevin. “Even when I sleep, I hear them.”
“Maybe, then, the voices are only your imagination.”
After art group, lunch. I stole away to my car, avoiding Irene and Tim D; each had separately asked me to lunch. I didn’t want to eat lunch with anyone and I didn’t want to eat lunch. I was fasting that day.
I had two hours to fill. I didn’t want to drive back home, if I could call my parents’ home “home,” for it truly wasn’t. I was homesick for college, for music, for the love of learning. I wanted to banish the thought. But it was strange that I had hardly thought about school after I dropped out. I hadn’t composed a note of music or practiced trumpet once. I was deep, deep into something horrible, a stench, an enveloping goo, a dark, air-stripped tunnel of hate so intense that music, no matter how beloved, could not penetrate it. But now I had an idea. And I didn’t want it on my parents’ telephone bill.
I gathered together some change. Not enough. So I stopped at a nearby convenience store, bought a Fresca, secured some quarters, and located a reliable pay phone that afforded reasonable privacy.
I knew my advisor’s number by heart. I hadn’t dialed it many times, but the number was an easy one to remember. I didn’t know if I was shaking from hunger or from nerves. “Yes, Jeff?”
“Who is this?”
“Julie. Julie Greene.”
“What do you want?”
“I just thought I’d say ‘Hello.’ To let you know, to let you know I’ll come back to school, I promise, after I work a few things out. Just a few problems, that’s all. Like I explained when I left.”
Jeff Levine, as my advisor and instructor at Bennington College, could be intimidating at times; at other times he was kind; at all times he was an impeccable teacher and ally. But when I told him, back in July, that I was leaving school because of “psychological” problems, his demeanor changed. It was as if his attitude toward me had undergone an eclipse. His whole face sunk in. “You’re my top student,” he had said. “You’re doing so well.”
“I’m not, actually,” I had replied. “There are things–things you don’t know, nobody knows. I can’t tell you. I need to see a doctor. Soon. I need to move in with my parents. I can’t be alone anymore. I can’t bear this. Just believe me.”
“If you leave now, Julie, with only one semester left to go until graduation, don’t you think–”
Jeff shook his head. “Okay.” He sighed, looking out over the fields. “But there’s one thing, Julie. If you leave now, you’ll get involved in something. You’ll get distracted. I don’t think you’ll ever come back.”
The phone line crackled. “Jeff?”
“What do you want from me?”
“I just need to know that you still believe in me, that’s all.”
“Julie, I don’t have all day to talk to you.”
“Is there anything else?”
“I go to a program now.” No response. “A special program. I just started. It’s supposed to help me. Um, Jeff?” I breathed. “A lot of the people smoke there. Cigarettes, I mean.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“I guess I’d better go.” I hung up.
Contemporary Issues group consisted of watching a videotaped portion of the Phil Donahue Show. Donahue and his guests were discussing the blame and shame society placed upon people who received Welfare benefits. Most of the guests were Welfare recipients; one was a social worker. At the end of the segment, Rick, who was running the group, switched off the TV, and said to the seven of us who were in the group, “So, what does everyone think?”
“I think it sucks!” said Tim D from the corner of the room. He began to laugh loudly.
“Shut up, Tim,” said Irene.
There was silence in the room. Then a shy-looking young woman raised her hand. “I’m ashamed that I’m on welfare. Embarrassed.”
“If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em,” someone said.
“Strike three, group’s over!”
“Yeah, shut up!”
“Jenny, can you say that again? About being embarrassed? Can you say more?”
Jenny, the shy girl, shook her head. Her eyes were full of tears.
“How many people here are on Welfare?” Hands went up slowly. Someone burped. More hands went up, except mine.
“It’s a sin,” said a young man sitting up front.
“It’s no sin,” said Tim. “It says in the Bible that God forgives us for–”
“For what, Tim, for being a leach off of other people? Come off it! ‘Bout time you quit that Bible stuff,” said Leslie.
“I want a cigarette.”
“Here, have a fucking cigarette. It’s menthol.”
“I don’t want your fucking cigarette.”
Rick said, “What do you think, Irene?”
“I wish I was working.”
“I’m ashamed I’m not working. My kids are ashamed of me.”
Blood rushes to my face. I can feel it. They know. They know I’m embarrassed. They’re going to catch me in a lie no matter what I say. I want so much to belong here. I want–yes, I want to be like them.
“I had government assistance to pay for college,” I said. “I guess I was embarrassed.” A lie you stupid fool.
“You’re very lucky,” said Leslie, “to go to college. I would have liked to go to college, if I’d had the chance.”
Okay what I really mean oh god is that I’m fucking embarrassed I had it so easy, then, so easy, and didn’t have the strength to fucking struggle with real life the way you did, don’t have the calluses on my hands to prove it, I’m embarrassed that I’m different, I am ashamed of my fucking bank account.
“What are you doing here, then,” asked Leslie, “if you’re so smart? What’s your problem? Where were you at lunch? Why won’t you talk?”
I looked at Rick, who said, “Julie doesn’t have to tell us anything on her first day. She’ll have plenty of opportunity, though, in the next group, Group Therapy.”
Only certain “high functioning” clients were picked for Group Therapy, and I was one of them. “High functioning” and “low functioning” were dirty words I’d come across many times during my stay at Crossroads, which meant essentially that if you could carry on a reasonable conversation and relate to other people in a reasonable manner, you were high functioning. If you couldn’t, you were “low functioning.” It went deeper than that, but on the surface that was how it seemed. The six members of Group Therapy, besides myself, were Irene, June, Leslie, Jackson, and Roy; I knew their names already, so the silly introductions were superfluous.
Jackson appeared very nervous.
Leslie was applying hand lotion.
Irene said, “I don’t think it’s right that Leslie puts on hand lotion during group. It’s distracting and she’s not really participating, she’s putting on lotion and that’s not right. It means she’s not really paying attention.”
June whispered something about a tissue and started fishing for one in her purse.
“Jackson has an issue,” said Irene, “and nobody’s paying attention.”
“I’m listening,” said Roy.
“I know Jackson has an issue,” said Leslie. “He told me so at lunch.”
“Oh Jackson,” said Irene. “Look at Jackson. He’s shaking. He’s got so much anxiety in him. He needs meds real bad. Jackson, take an Ativan, for Gods sakes. Look at you.”
“Oh, Jackson,” murmured June. “Here’s a tissue. There. Let it out. Is it your mother again?” She turned to Leslie. “His mother, you know.”
“Yes, it’s his mother.”
Roy stretched. He was wearing a heavy cable-knit sweater and jeans. “Jackson, you’ve got to tell her to stop arranging dates for you.”
“Is that what she’s doing, Jackson?”
“Did Jackson tell you that?”
“Oh, Jackson. Let it out.”
Irene said, “She’s not your fucking matchmaker–”
Jackson wailed, “Don’t say fucking about my m-m-m-mother….”
June said, “Jackson, can you refuse to go on those dates, just cancel?”
“Tell your mother you won’t. Tell her.”
“Yeah, tell her.”
“Take an Ativan.”
“I c-c-can’t tell her. She’s my mother!”
“Blow your nose. Here. Blow.”
tell her tell her tell her tell her why don’t they–
“Jackson, sober up.”
“Ask Julie what she thinks. She hasn’t talked.”
“Not a word.”
My eyes were little slits. Paisley patterns thumped behind my eyelids, pissing fuzz in my pupils, tingles in my fingertips, rattles in my toes. The floor rose and fell; the earth itself rose and fell beneath me, and all went gray. I gripped the chair. Martians. I had to get out of there.
“Not a word, Julie.”
“Let her talk. Don’t interrupt.”
“Julie’s going to say something.”
Roy cleared his throat.
I said, “It’s very nice meeting all of you.”
Irene said, “She talked.” Her long, expressive fingernails were painted purple.
Jackson said, “I need another tissue.”
June said, “I only have a napkin from Dunkin Donuts.”
“Yeah, gimme that.”
And so, I settled into the routine at Crossroads. After a few months I had taken up smoking and had put on ten pounds, though I wasn’t taking medication of any sort. My hair became knotted from neglect, and I made a habit of wearing a hat to cover it. I dressed unbecomingly, choosing soiled clothing over cleaner clothes when I dressed each morning, my tattered old jacket over the newer down jacket my mother had given me, “With an adjustable waistband,” my mother had explained when I opened the package on my birthday. The next semester came without a thought; I was still at Crossroads, and, despite all the warnings I’d given myself, Irene was my best friend.
The subject was finally brought up, in Group Therapy, that I had not once discussed my problems, that I’d kept the focus on everyone else’s problems. I was supportive, the group said, but very secretive. “You’re either angry or scared,” said Irene, boldly. “Today is your day to talk. Do it today. Today is your day.”
The group murmured in assent.
“I fear,” I began, “I fear that I would end up screaming.”
Irene said, “That’s okay. That’s allowed, right, guys?”
Roy said, “There are other groups in the building.”
“Screw the other groups,” said Irene. “Let her scream if that’s what she’s going to do. The walls are pretty soundproof, anyway, don’t you think, Roy?”
Roy had been an architect once. “Not really, but–”
“Well, then, scream.”
Jackson began to laugh nervously. “You’ll get me going, Julie. I could use a good hullabaloo myself.”
“There’s such thing as scream therapy, you know.”
They said afterward that the floors heaved and spat up something like lava, shook the foundations of the building and tossed chairs and people helter-skelter, that pipes broke, toilets overflowed with a metallic, steamy liquid, the coffeepot imploded, Jenny broke her arm and Tina’s rubber boot went missing, right off her foot. I don’t know if that was exactly the case. People have a way of turning stories around. But after that, everything was different at Crossroads. I was one of them. There was no question now; I belonged.