What happened to me after Alcott, and text to the book launch speech I had prepared to give at Alcott, Walden Behavioral Care, in August 2012, but it never materialized
I was incarcerated at the Alcott Unit, Walden Behavioral Care, from July 19 (I ended up in the ER on July 18 and they had no clue what to do with me) until August 3, 2012. This was around the time of the release of the paperback version of This Hunger Is Secret.
The book is of course available for sale in .pdf form, Kindle form, and paperback form and everything is all okay and to my liking finally. If you want the Kindle form, you do not need a Kindle device. You can download the Kindle software for free and have a version on ALL your computers and other devices that will run the software such as ipads. It is adware free and will keep your page marked. To those who live near me, I have paperback copies available that I can sign for you, and will be giving readings locally, so stay tuned for news about upcoming appearances. If you want me to show up for your organization, let me know. I give an awesome reading and I’m also funny.
Anyway, near the time of my release from Alcott, around Aug 1, to bribe me into staying the weekend, the social worker promised me a book launch party. Wow, I thought this rather awesome. “Monday,” she said. “But you have to eat.” I got the idea. I knew the insurance company was on their back about me. They did not look good in the eyes of the company, because I had lost weight, and losing weight means bad, meaning maybe the hospital might not get money…I am not really sure how it works, just speculating. However, when I was admitted, my weight was not the issue, not this time, and even though my weight had dropped, my weight fell within “normal,” and I didn’t think there was any medical need to put weight on me so drastic that they had to keep me inpatient. Actually, weight loss mostly meant that the severe edema I had come in with had reduced.
I got panicky, thinking, “If I stay the weekend, I will get fat.” Of course, I nothing of the sort would have happened, but panic did set in. I was not going to let them have this control over me. So I insisted that they let me go on Friday, and they did, finally. I’m not sure what I weighed when I got out, but I had done so much extreme bingeing for months that I was still rather bloated, even after being in Alcott stopped the behavior and gave me a little break from it. I recall coming out, getting on the scale when I got home, and feeling rather devastated because I had hoped to have dropped more. It took a long, long time to recover from all those months of massive binge eating.
And by the way, my body does not throw up. It refuses. I’m stuck with whatever food (or non-f00d) I put in. Last May I got sent to the ER and had to have my insides cleaned out, that’s how bad the binge eating was. My feet were the size of my head and didn’t fit into my shoes at all much of the time. I was suicidal over the weight I had gained.
I was mourning the loss of thinness. When you lose the dips in your body (we all have ones we love), the bones that stick out that shouldn’t, and the skinny, skinny arms, we grieve. I found the grieving tough to bear. I had no one to talk to about it, no one to relate to, and if I tried to talk to anyone, I was told how wrong and sick I was, or I was told rather rudely to “get over it” or to “accept” it or “it will pass” or whatever…by people who had never been there or people who thought they knew all about eating disorders but really knew nothing at all. I was trying to find a therapist but no one took Medicare and Medicaid. Not only that, but I was suffering from severe paranoia, so I isolated myself to the extreme. It was hard for people to tolerate me because I was so isolated that on the rare occasion that I did speak with anyone, I had no clue how to act. All my “stuff” would come overflowing out of me all at once, all the bottled-up feelings.
It was a deadly situation. It’s sad that the hospital could not help me. They don’t treat binge eating at Alcott, despite their publicity and claims that they treat all eating disorders. They don’t. It says on their website that they do, but this is not true. Their admissions people will tell you, too, that they treat all eating disorders, but these admissions people are sales people and not clinicians. Their binge eating groups, at least at the time I was there, were held off the unit and I was not taken to these groups even though they said they would allow special exception and take me. They have a binge eating program, but it isn’t inpatient. My insurance does not cover this program, period. My insurance, public insurance, only covers inpatient. Their inpatient treatment is about weight gain and they added the “band” system for teaching people to stop vomiting in the bathroom, something I’m not going to get into because it didn’t apply to me.
What they didn’t know was the truth about my psychiatric condition. They never found out just how suicidal I was over my weight. They didn’t really listen to me. When I tried to talk to most of the counselors, they appeared bored, like they could hardly wait for their shift to end, so I just gave up. Only one nurse seemed to have both expertise in eating disorders and interest in my particular case, and she didn’t have enough time to talk to me. They never gave me a psychiatric evaluation, and as I said in my previous post, the psychiatrist barely spoke with me the whole time and took no interest in me. They may have thought I was nuts but even though some of the nurses spent time with me, they did not recognize paranoia. This wasn’t their fault. They didn’t have the training to recognize it, I suppose. People who are paranoid have ways of hiding it. We do this out of fear, terror. I did get some comments from the patients, little observations…it’s amazing….They may have guessed….I don’t know. I didn’t even realize how scared I was.
I didn’t realize they couldn’t help me at first. I kept an open mind. I was willing to give it a go. The head nurse, who is truly an exception among the staff, took me aside and spoke with me one day. I was impressed with her because she obviously spent her own personal time researching ED, unpaid time. She cared. She asked relevant questions. Then, it was like she disappeared, had no time for me, and I wanted desperately to speak specifically with her because she had the knowledge. She mentioned Naltrexone to me, a med for binge eating. I felt like an idiot because I didn’t write down the name of the med. She said she recommended the med to me, and would mention it to the doctor and have him put me on it right away.
Then, she was gone for days. Not one staff knew the name of this med. Not one staff knew what drugs were given for binge eating. The doctor didn’t even know. I said, “All I can recall is that it begins with N and that it is given for OCD off-label and for binge eating off-label.” No one could help me. Did they not have knowledge? Days passed. I wanted to start on this med and I felt that time was wasting, that insurance was paying for my time spent there needlessly.
Actually, all you have to do is Google “meds for binge eating” and eventually you’ll get to Naltrexone. It’s an opiate antagonist. I didn’t have use of my laptop at the time or I would have done this myself.
Finally, one of the staff did this himself. This in fact was A, the night nurse. He did it with his iphone. Any seventh grader could have done this Googling, too.
So I went to Dr. W and explained that M, the head nurse had recommended Naltrexone. First of all, for the first nine days I was there, Dr. W did not know I experienced binge eating because I guess he never read the admission notes. He said, “You don’t binge, do you?” I was shocked, too shocked to be enraged. Didn’t he even know why I was there? So I asked him to put me on Naltrexone, saying the head nurse had specified this drug. He flat out refused. A few more days passed, finally the head nurse cleared this up, a few more days passed and red tape, red tape, and six expensive days later, I was finally on it.
I felt no need to stay longer, feeling I was getting nowhere. I had no clue if the Naltrexone would work at all once I left and tried it out in the “real world.” I left Alcott, bewildered….Having received no treatment except a pill (it turned out that the Naltrexone never worked), no groups for binge eating, nothing….I knew I needed to leave and seek care elsewhere. I felt gypped and lied to. Not only that, but I had been sectioned there. It was all so confusing, and with people criticizing me for being so “down on the system,” saying I was the one who was wrong, that there must be something wrong with me because treatment at Alcott didn’t work, I felt so downtrodden….
A few weeks after getting out, I went to my own psychiatrist and the first thing she did was to recognize my paranoia. I hadn’t seen her for months. I had been avoiding her. She was shocked that the hospital had not properly evaluated me. I, too, am shocked that I went into detail with the hospital staff about some of my symptoms, but they did not recognize what was going on with me. I truly did ask them for help. I guess they are not properly trained to recognize psychosis. I now take a low dose of Abilify which tones down the paranoia enough to be manageable.
Dr. P put me back on Topamax. After Topamax had pooped out I had stopped it months previously, but when I restarted it late August, a few weeks after getting out of Alcott it worked again. So the bingeing nightmare ended right then and there, late August. I am grateful.
A week following, I brought in Puzzle’s papers for Dr. P to sign. I must say, life sure has been better since August 29, the day Puzzle moved up in the world.
But I need to deliver to you what I promised. The day before I left, I had hoped to have a BOOK LAUNCH right there on the floor, so I wrote a speech for everyone. I wrote two speeches, but I’ll include one of them now and one some other time. After the speech, I was going to read from the book, I forget which excerpt, but I had one planned out. The book launch would have taken place in a large room, known as the Group Room, where there would have been patients and staff seated and listening. This was the intro:
“That was the intro to the intro, of course so here’s the intro:
Hello, everyone, welcome to my book launch party. Most writers, of course, hold their book launches–well, where else?–at bookstores, but as circumstance has it, I have the extra good fortune of sharing today with the most resilient and strong-hearted people I know–everyone in this room, some of whom, like me, have eating disorders. It is truly an honor, and of course, a total blast.
Before I read from the book, I will tell you how this project came about, and I promise it won’t be boring. I began writing This Hunger Is Secret in 2007 while at Goddard College. I was studying for my master’s degree in Creative Writing. I told my advisor, Paisley Rekdal, that I wanted to write a memoir about my mental health history. All the folks at college knew that it isn’t everyone that survives over 50 psychiatric hospitalizations and then ends up in graduate school. Paisley suggested to me, one day over coffee, that I start writing the book with the story of my first hospitalization in 1983, and then move forward or look back as I saw fit. Winters are mild in Washington State, but cool enough so that Paisley and I were armed with warm winter jackets, and the steam rose from our coffee and clung to the window panes. Outside, the sky was dreary and the grass dry and dead, but the excitement and electricity that Paisley and I felt over this project was enough to warm the entire campus. I flew home and dug into my writing. Over the next couple of semesters, my work took on a solid shape. Under the tutelage of poet Beatrix Gates, I learned about color, balance, and rhythm. Darrah Cloud, poet and playwright, guided me through the final stages of the manuscript. I loved it when Darrah called me “Kiddo,” and it’s kinda funny that when all was said and done, Darrah knew one heck of a lot about me, even more than my therapist. Darrah was also one of the first to know that my anorexia was returning. She never judged, criticized, or lectured. A couple of weeks before my manuscript was due to be mailed in, my therapist was talking about hospitalizing me. I was scared, or maybe I should say, terrified. Darrah heard it in my voice right away when I phoned her. She said, “Send me the file as is, and that way, no matter what happens, I’ll have it. I believe in you, Julie, and I adore this book.”
The next bunch of weeks were tense, but my thesis was approved, and the last minute before mailing it, I changed the title from something I can’t remember to This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness. I stayed outside of locked doors. I was all set for graduation. By sheer luck, my therapist allowed me to fly back to Washington. I was required to give a reading from my book. Yeah, I was scared and starving, but for whatever reason, I read with a passion that I never felt before. A couple of hours later, I was among ten students to be awarded degrees. We all gave speeches.
My speech was the story of how I got to where I was. It could have been anyone’s story. I had defied the doctors, who had told me I’d never make anything of myself.
I’ll bet a lot of you in this room have been told that, patients and staff alike, that you’re a loser, that your take on life is skewed, that you have some chemical imbalance and that you only should hang out with other people like yourself in a safe little environment such as this. Should we believe this? Should we believe what those doctors, teachers, bosses, friends, family, and even parents said, that our bodies aren’t right, that our minds aren’t right, that we just don’t belong?
What I found out is that there is no wrong way to think. My mind works differently than other people’s. It’s a little uncomfortable occasionally. I’ll bet different thinkers–I’ll repeat–different thinkers, such as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Virginia Woolf, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein all had their share of anguish. And who am I to compare myself like that? I mean, look where I am! Alcott? Look at this! (Show hospital band.) Pssst…it’s not even green.
Are my words any less valid than those of the folks outside locked doors? I don’t think so, cuz you’re all sitting here waiting to hear my words. Yes, the whole world is waiting for each and every one of us.
When I was finished with my little graduation speech, which was not done behind locked doors, I turned back to Darrah to embrace her. She held me, and then, with tears in her eyes, turn me back around, saying, “Julie, look at your audience, just look!” What I saw before me were hundreds of people, some of whom I did not even know, clapping and cheering in a standing ovation.”
When I left Alcott, I was not allowed to read this. I was shooed out the door and barely anyone said goodbye to me or seemed to regret my leaving. I tried to read from my book at lunchtime, but I was told rudely to “hurry it up, we want to play Trivia.” Like Trivia was so important?
Actually, what I did read was barely heard. I don’t know why no one seemed to hear my words. I will repeat them here. I read the text to my second dedication page of the paperback version, 2012, of my memoir:
Yes, it’s official, Puzzle’s papers are all set and Puzzle is not a “pet” anymore. I guess she wanted to hold off for a few seconds. Normally, she does not protest putting on her vest…we’ve tried it on a few times of course before…but today, in Dr. P’s office, she backed up when I tried to put it on her.
This surprised me. Puzzle likes any type of “clothes.” But now that I think of it, perhaps she wanted to stall for a few seconds, just so that she could remember her last few idle moments as pet. Then, quickly enough, these last seconds were gone. Just a memory. I slid her little red vest over her head and fastened the clasp, then I re-fastened her leash, the fancy purple web lead I have that attaches to a loop around my waist. We trotted out of Dr. P’s office and into the world, Puzzle now a working dog.
But let me back up. This has been in the works for…how long? When did it begin? I’d say it was one of the residencies at Goddard, but which one? Maybe it was July 2008, around the time my eating disorder began. I was taking lithium at the time and falling asleep in the workshops, which was not a good thing. There were several residencies where I had trouble participating due to technical trouble such as this. Once, I had a bad cold. I also had a bad cold when I went to the reunion in 2010. Just bad luck. But in 2008 it was the Lithium that made me so sleepy I could not stay awake. I managed to glean what was necessary, and would go back to my room for a snooze whenever I could. I wasn’t yet aware that I was suffering from rape trauma or that the lithium was the culprit.
One of the faculty members, Aimee Liu (you may know her, she wrote Gaining) approached me and suggested that I bring Puzzle next time. She said that maybe Puzzle could be my service dog. Instinctively, she knew that Puzzle does a lot for me. We had talked about Puzzle. What she didn’t know was that Puzzle was so young and both of us needed to do a lot of work that I was not capable of doing. I could not handle Puzzle in public at the time. She pointed out some of the service dog laws. Our director, Paul Selig, has a service dog named Darla, a Silky Terrier. She is darned cute. She is so tiny that she fits into a little briefcase type thingy.
So I looked into it. One of the things I did was to go to a few psychiatric service dog websites. I researched quite a bit. I went to messages boards. Some of the folks on these message boards weren’t so nice. I was rather shocked. You’d figure folks would be open-minded and kind. So I went away.
But still, it was all in the works. As you know, Puzzle was very friendly and outgoing in 2007 and 2008…and then I moved and we had that little incident with the shopping cart lady here at our new residence. Let me explain for those of you who don’t know….
I moved here September 3, 2008. Now my eating disorder was just starting to take hold of me, which I didn’t know, not at all. And I was petrified. I had recently been raped and was moving here to get away from the guy. It was wicked hot that weekend. I came here with my boxes and the neighbors…I dunno, they were immediately hostile. I had no living room shades and they were out there on the balcony, and they could easily peek in on me anytime they wanted with no shades on my windows. It took a couple of months to get my big shade. The smaller shade I got months after that but I didn’t want to wait. I had covered that window with photos of Puzzle. Those photos are still up there. They finally came to bring the shade and I said, “Hey, I didn’t want to wait…someone else can have the shade.”
For the first week in the shadeless apartment I cried. There were boxes everywhere and I had no air conditioner. It was over 90 outside every day and it didn’t get under 70 at night. Inside, it was over 85. If you’re unpacking and crying at the same time, I guess your body heat goes way up. Yeah, it was unbearable. I begged my family for money for an air conditioner, and got it. Delivered.
Meanwhile, the shopping cart lady freaked one night over Puzzle. The shopping cart lady is a lady who uses a shopping cart instead of a walker and that’s why I call her that. She shoved the shopping cart at Puzzle. That did it. Puzzle’s personality changed as far as the neighbors were concerned. My personality changed as far as the neighbors were concerned. Maybe it was for the better and maybe it was for the worse. We will never know.
All that is beyond us now. The shopping cart is not part of our life. Puzzle has replaced that memory with better memories and experiences, and so have I. Puzzle is now a working dog and I am now the owner of a working dog and we have put that behind us. We have to. A working dog cannot be a skittish dog afraid of being nudged by a shopping cart.
Puzzle is the missing puzzle piece, the piece that fell into place. In the winter of 2011, I experienced It. You may recall It and how Puzzle helped me with It, but I could not handle a service dog at the time. Now, I can. See, I couldn’t manage a service dog on the bus and subway. I couldn’t manage myself on the bus and subway. Now, I can manage Puzzle. I can manage myself. I can be in the world a whole lot better if Puzzle and I are together because of how she helps me.
It’s extremely hard to explain. And maybe it’s the fact that it can’t be explained that’s the beauty of it. Or maybe that it’s late in the day, that we’ve been so busy, that we’ve done so much and taken in so many experiences today that I’ve worn myself out now and need to rest. I do know that suddenly Puzzle is a different dog, and I am a different person, from here on in.
It all goes back to why I began using Facebook to begin with. I resisted. A couple of years ago I was invited to Facebook and I took one look and decided I wasn’t interested. What on earth was it for? A public place to post photos? Show off where you’d vacationed? Tell everyone you showered that day? It seemed, in a word, stupid. I opened an account and never used it.
I called it “Fucking Facebook” because it seemed to take up way too much of everyone else’s time, especially those games, which served no purpose except to waste time. Did the games cost money? I never did find out.
There was this “farming” game that seemed very, very addicting and I thanked God (or whomever) every day that I was not addicted to this farming game. I never played it and it always seemed stupid to me. Absolutely idiotic. Like child’s play.
So then I realized that a whole bunch of Goddard students were on Facebook, and maybe it was a good way to keep in touch. I was in touch with my Goddard friends via phone, after all, and this was a way of keeping us all together.
Or so I thought.
Gradually, Fucking Facebook began to replace those precious e-mails and phone calls. It totally sucked. Instead of meaningful conversations, we had one-liners, such as, “I agree!” or, “I am keeping you in my thoughts,” or, “Yay!”
I mean, honestly. I don’t even hear laughter anymore. Hardly any complete sentences.
If I see one more quote from God I am going to scream.
I started posting my blog posts up on my wall, and this may or may have been a mistake. I got very few comments. All this fed into my paranoia.
Then, one day, I phoned a friend and decided to go check Facebook to see when she was leaving town. Perhaps she was out of town already. She is a non-Goddard person.
Then I saw it: No posts. Nothing. And this: ADD FRIEND.
Yeah, she unfriended me. And her partner as well.
Jaw drop. My heart actually skipped a bunch of beats. Or so it felt.
Was this really necessary? I didn’t think these people were that immature. Also, they are tech savvy and know how to “hide” people. But yeah, I’d been unfriended.
How did I react? I immediately felt extremely sleepy. I fell asleep for several hours. I woke up and thought it through rationally. Should I say something? Should I ask them why? Clearly, they chose not to approach me and chose not to say anything to me. So I decided to pretend I hadn’t noticed.
Then, later, I made the decision to get off Facebook entirely. I decided that if folks find (or, rather, found) me that unpleasant to be around, then I should bow out. And I did.
I have the diagnosis of paranoia, and it’s not good to hang around Facebook if you have paranoia, medicated or not. Paranoia can be paranoid schiz or paranoid personality disorder, and I have neither, just paranoia. I looked it up and it fits me to a “T.”
There is no cure…yet…that I have discovered from looking online. There are a bunch of things that can cause it including dementia. A lot of folks with dementia have it.
I had to concede to taking meds for it, unfortunately. And I feel one heck of a lot better. I am taking the minimum lowest dose to keep the paranoia at bay and I am watching for TD. I am not taking a med that will make me gain weight. It does not dope me up.
I searched and searched for alternatives to meds. They say B vitamins for voices…or live with the voices…but for paranoia, nothing…just meds.
The missing Puzzle piece: Tomorrow I am going to see Dr. P, bringing with me papers to sign….Puzzle will be officially Service Dog In Training! Yay!
Yes, I believe assistive animals can be key for people with illnesses such as paranoia. There are a lot of folks with schizophrenia who are helped by service animals. Puzzle helped get me out of the house while I was going through really bad body dysmorphia. I believe that body dysmorphic disorder is an illness that is so misunderstood and so underresearched that there is much to be discovered in the use of service animals for these sufferers.
It has been a few weeks now, and we have pretty much already made the “transition.” It is incredibly hard to describe this pet-to-SDIT transition to someone who has never been through it. I guess you can liken the depth of it to transitioning from one gender to another.
Looking back, no, it didn’t happen overnight. I think it started in May. The seed was planted when I started cooking for her.
I cannot begin to tell you how everything is now falling into place. I have had a rash of good luck. Or maybe it’s just how I see things.
No, I don’t miss Facebook. And no, no one has contacted me asking me where I’ve been. I don’t feel hurt by this. If I do go back, it will be as the This Hunger Is Secret fan page, in professional capacity. Well, maybe.
PS: No, I’m not going to stop the meds.
I’m reading tomorrow, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about reading strategies. I’ve been thinking of how the way I read aloud has changed over the years. When I first started doing it, folks told me that often people speed up when nervous. They explained the importance of rehearsing thoroughly, and timing the reading a number of times, not just once. Rehearsing gives the writer a chance to find the rough spots and smooth them over. Sometimes I’d find mistakes or places where words were awkward for me to pronounce together. I’d find places where there was no place to take a breath comfortably because the sentence was too long.
And then there is the dreaded page-turn problem. A page turn in the middle of a very emotionally-charged sentence can spell trouble. If the writer’s hands have the least bit of a tremble, turning pages can get cumbersome. If the lighting is dim, one might consider printing in 14-point font and perhaps boldface as well, but this means more pages to turn. And of course, at the last minute it’s essential to make sure all the pages are in the printout, and stapled in correct order. Lastly, don’t leave it at home!
I love lecterns. I feel so important standing at one. It’s security for me. I’ve got something to hold onto, like a hand to hold in tough times. I feel that it protects me and sets me comfortably apart from my audience, and at the same time, standing behind a lectern gives me a feeling of authority, like an assurance that what I’m about to read is worthy of listening ears. And here’s my secret, which isn’t really a secret anymore: if I’m nervous and my hands tremble, a lectern hides the tremor very nicely. Otherwise, the pages tremble when I hold them or turn a page, a dead giveaway.
I had an embarrassing experience when I was younger that I’d like to share. Of course, after a while most writers have their share of reading-aloud embarrassments. I think the worst was when I was on so much medication that the hand tremors I had were evident even to a casual viewer. Lithium was the main culprit, but the antipsychotics made it worse, giving me a coarse tremor along with the fine tremor from the Lithium.
This particular reading was for a contest. I had won prizes in this contest both times I entered, and was invited to read my winning pieces in front of a relatively large audience, I’m guessing maybe over 50, in an auditorium. It was an academic setting. Winning the contest was a delightful surprise. Both times, I won in both categories, poetry and prose. The first year wasn’t too bad. My prose piece, about the joys of smoking cigarettes (yeah, yeah) was a humor piece, or so I found out when I heard the audience’s reaction. In my writing at the time, I had this almost involuntary habit of doing this little round-up at the end of paragraphs, and it was these little temporary resting points that my audience burst into laughter. This was convenient, due to the natural pause at the end of a paragraph, which allowed time for the laughter to settle.
I admit, the prose piece wasn’t very good. The poem was much, much better, that is, for me. It was strange because the poetry reading came after my prose reading. The poem, too, was about cigarettes, and as soon as the audience realized this they chuckled. Then they realized this was a serious work. It came off fine and I went home feeling halfway decent about myself.
Next year of the contest went badly. I believe the hand tremor was far worse. My skin was badly broken out, a problem I hadn’t had in my teens but was now occurring as a side effect of Lithium. I wasn’t embarrassed about the pimples, not being one to fuss over such things, but I believe at that point folks looked down on me because it was known that I had a mental illness. They saw the teenager-style pimples and this further lowered their opinion of me. (Note that this was the 1980’s, before the ADA was enacted.) At the time, the eating disorder was not foremost in my life, thanks to Lithium. Otherwise, I was a sick, pimply, shaky mess, drank gallons of water every day due to constant thirst from Lithium, and had very few friends.
So after finding out I’d won in both categories, this time second prize, I believe, in both, not first like the year previously, I went up to read my poem. I must have looked awful physically even though I remember I read fine. Turned out everyone felt sorry for me standing up there. Then they had the prose readings second. The first prize winner read. Then, to my shock, the event ended.
What? I didn’t get to read? I was mortified. Was there some mistake? Not long after, within a day or two, I revealed my feelings to my friend who was on the faculty of the college. He was on my side. With my permission, he met with me and the person on the English faculty who ran the contest and had made the decision not to include me in the reading This was someone I’d worked with at a menial temp job, by the way, until she found the job at the college…at the temp job folks didn’t like her because she had an obnoxious voice, among other reasons, but that’s neither here nor there…or maybe all this history had something to do with her decision, whether she was aware of it or not.
Her excuse for not including me was a complete lie. She said, “I didn’t think you wanted to read because you shake so much.” My faculty friend and I agreed that more likely, it was a case of discrimination. We were glad that he and I had pointed out how shitty her exclusion of me made me feel, and that if she really cared about how I felt, she would have consulted me and asked if I would like to bow out of the reading. I went home and felt embarrassed and defeated. I didn’t enter next year’s contest because I had moved out of town.
So now I’m off all those chemicals and I have no tremor, no dry mouth, no extreme thirst, no stutter, and to my delight, my speech is no longer slurred. I think I speak clearer now than I ever did. I still have that strange vocal tic, though. It does affect my speech, but not when I read. I think the tic developed originally due to the fact that I am so frequently dehydrated.
I was sitting in the acupuncture waiting room after my last treatment and writing in my journal, waiting for the sedated feeling (inside nickname: acu-stoned) to wear off, and the vocal tic started up. When I am alone, which is almost all of the time, I make no attempt to stop the tic because no one is around to hear. But there I was in the waiting room with one person seated not far from me, and I couldn’t stop the darned thing. No, he was not immersed in a cell phone or ipod as these are required to be turned off there. This was the only time the vocal tic has reared its head in public. Only one person has commented on my speech, actually several times, sorry to say a negative criticism, something about taking a breath frequently and therefore appearing breathless or anxious. I hated that criticism and next time she says that, I’ll tell her to butt off. Politely, I hope. At least my speech is clearly pronounced.
For tomorrow’s reading, I have perhaps rehearsed more than I ever have. My reading is as good or better than it ever has been. I have always enjoyed reading aloud and never was overly nervous because it is so much like playing music in front of an audience. I got over that type of stage fright in early college as a music major. Almost all of us did. We had gigs all the time and it was a matter of getting acclimated to stage performance. The occasional paid gig further helped my confidence. I figure I’m proud of what I have written and my delight in sharing it overrides whatever self-consciousness I feel.
I’d say one reading I did that came off well but was extremely difficult was my graduation reading in July 2009. Many writers experience throat tightening while reading. It’s not so much nervousness but the fact that we’re speaking continuously. That’s why the throat problem has occurred even while rehearsing at home. I’d discussed this with faculty on a number of occasions and was glad I was not the only one that went through this.
So there I was, up in front of a huge audience full of fellow grads and students, a bunch of alums, the entire faculty, and a whole lot of guests such as family, friends, and admirers of the graduates. It was the largest graduating class so far at Goddard’s Port Townsend campus. I believe there were ten of us.
I began my piece. It didn’t take long for my throat to close off, this time worse than ever. I could barely choke the words out. Finally, I told myself I would have to stop, apologize, and step down. I didn’t even think that this might disqualify me from graduating. I only wanted to get the hell off the podium cuz reading was nearly impossible.
But something changed. I went on autopilot. I pushed through the tightness and kept going. I don’t generally like the autopilot mode while I am reading. I prefer to be entirely present and engaged. But now, my need to survive was in the lead. Not long afterward, I awoke from autopilot and began to read with all my heart. I began to feel tears form, a reaction to what I was reading, but this, too, I pushed through.
I absolutely loved the conclusion to the piece because it read so well aloud. So when I finished, quite emotional, it was obvious to the audience that I had concluded and after a split-second silent moment, they broke into applause. It was over. I was done. I felt wicked decent about it.
It seems that for whatever reason, the last few times I have read, I have not had the throat closure problem. I seem to enjoy reading aloud more and more each time. Perhaps this is a factor. Perhaps through practice I’ve trained my throat to relax and stay open.
What I’m working on now for tomorrow right now is my reading speed. This piece reads slowly, or at least I read it slowly. My challenge is to remember to speed up at certain times. I tend to have difficulty sustaining the faster pace, or I just plain forget. Of course many folks have the opposite problem of reading too fast. I was told that if in doubt, read slower.
Absolutely the slowest speaker I ever hear was Robert J. Lurtsema who did the radio show, “Morning Pro Musica.” Here’s the link to the wikipedia.org article on Robert J:
Note that right away in the beginning of the article, his slowness of speech and frequent “dead air” pauses are mentioned as something folks loved or hated. It was his intention to be soothing, but I believe it was in his nature to speak slowly and deliberately. He thought before he spoke. Slowing down gives us that freedom, especially when we need to think extra before we speak.
No, I’m not that slow when I read. I have always read relatively slowly. Some people are able to read aloud quickly but still be very effective. I am thinking of Goddard faculty member Michael Klein. He writes both poetry and prose, and I can’t remember how he reads his poetry, but when he reads prose the words seem to fly by. It’s absolutely wonderful to hear him read because he has the ability to come across clearly and take us off our feet. The rapid reading speed can often accentuate his humor, or drive a point home quite effectively. He also has a bit of cynicism in his voice, and in his writing, he’s direct and tells it like it is. We’re at the edge of our seats and am with him the whole way, so engaged that we don’t miss a thing. Not only that, but Michael is a singer with a big, big speaking voice. He has complete command over his audience.
I think everyone, all writers, need to have this big voice. You can speak or read any way you’d like, even softly, but if you have a big soul and believe in what you’ve written, then your voice will be big and will shine through. Try having a big voice today, and if you’re not a writer, pick up your pencil and start right now. I challenge anyone, especially those who have been silenced by society, such as us folks with eating disorders who are known to speak in whispers, to write, speak, and dream big. We are worth it and need to feel proud once again.
Michael’s latest work is a poetry collection called Then, we were still living. I’m not sure which link of his would be the best to send you to, but here he is writing for the Ploughshares online site:
I was highly influenced by his memoir, Track Conditions. Though from a distance, I have always felt a kinship toward him, because both of us were music majors at Bennington College in previous lives, and we knew the same faculty members. After an interruption, I took up my pen and wrote, and I guess that’s exactly what he did, too.
See ya later, alligators.
I got to feeling nostalgic, so I went through my files and found this paper I did at the end of my graduate studies. We call this a Process Paper. These vary considerably between students. Here’s what I came up with:
Flowers, Books, and the Making of a Dog Sweater:
My Life at Goddard College
Another vase of flowers awaited me as I returned to my apartment after the funeral. I didn’t know their names–I don’t bother learning the names of flowers–let it suffice that, for a change, they meant something to me. I unlocked my door, set the flowers on my table, and let my aging dog out of her crate. She peered at me sadly.
I had been brave. I had survived two wakes on Friday. Hundreds of people had shown up. I kept reasonably together at his funeral service. Yes, I nearly lost it when they put him in the ground and now I’m a damn widow–
I stopped. I told myself; don’t be so selfish. Think of the family. Think of your writing. At least you’ve got that much. And you have the dog.
A message on my machine. I would listen to it later. I stepped into my kitchen, and peeked into my refrigerator. Nothing good in there. In the bathroom, I ran the sink water and splashed cold water on my face. Oh god I look horrible….
August 19, 2003. The day my boyfriend, Joe died. Heart attack. I had seen him only an hour or so before he collapsed in his elevator. What would I do? Joe had been my constant companion, my only companion, for many years. We had done everything together, from coffee dates to baseball games to romantic dinners, and we’d seen each other through some hard times. You’d done things to make me mad before, Joe, but why’d you have to die on me? Why?
I returned to the living room, picked up the phone, then put it back down. I went through in my mind the things I had to do over the next few days. I had to go to UMass/Boston to register for my first graduate class: a poetry survey course taught by Lloyd Schwartz. It would keep me occupied until I was accepted into an MFA program. I had had my hopes set on eventually attending Goddard’s low-residency program in Vermont. But now, registering for just one poetry course–going into Boston by subway, and navigating a campus I barely knew–seemed impossible. If Joe had been alive, what would he have said? Would he have told me to give up? No. But I cannot do this thing. I am stuck in my tracks without you.
I sat at my table, eyeing the sports memorabilia that Joe and I had collected over the years: bobble-head dolls, mini-baseball bats, cards, and on the wall, a photo of him with my dog, Tiger. It was one of Joe’s dreams to catch a ball at a baseball game and give it to a child. He was a ferocious ice cream eater. We spent an occasional weekend during the summers at his family’s summer home at Humarock, a spit of land between Scituate and Marshfield, Massachusetts, one of the most peaceful places on earth. One phone message. I pressed PLAY. “Julie, this is Paul Selig, director of the MFA in creative writing program at Goddard College. I’m pleased to let you know that we’ve accepted you into the program, for the spring 2004 residency, which is in January. The admissions office will send you a letter in the mail in a few days, along with some information….”
I slumped on my couch. This couldn’t be true. A dream had become reality, a dream without Joe. The irony was too much to bear. I grabbed a Kleenex and sobbed.
The winter of 2004 proved to be one of the coldest on record, especially in Vermont, where temperatures reached under 25 below in the mornings. Being accustomed to Vermont winters–I had lived in Vermont for nine years once–I wasn’t fazed by the weather, but many Southerners at the residency were overwhelmed by the cold, and buildings at Goddard weren’t heated properly, either. One morning during the eight-day residency we were without power. Temps in the dorms dropped to the forties. I ventured to the “help desk” to assist by answering phones. People in charge considered evacuation of the campus, but fortunately, power returned at 7am. I jumped from my seat and screamed, “Yes!” with my fist in the air.
Joe was everywhere at the residency. I wanted so much to call him, to tell him of the beauty of the place, the long, blinding, white walk to the library–I nearly veered off the road and got lost in the woods–and the snow-topped trees. I wanted to tell him how annoyed I was that the place was not wheelchair accessible, that he would have had trouble navigating the narrow, gravel-covered paths if he were here. I told him these things in spirit, and was overwhelmed with grief.
I met Kenny, my advisor, who I found was also physically disabled, and I felt an immediate kinship with him. Advising group was lively, fast-paced, and challenging; the students were bright and on their toes. Kenny, always with a sense of humor, called me Gail by accident several times. From then on, I was known in advising group as “Not Gail.”
I wrote up a study plan and reading list, deciding to write about “madness, not what it is, but how it is expressed.” I was referring to my own disability, mental illness, which for now I kept tucked away, as it had not yet presented itself as a problem. Books to be annotated included Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the complete stories of Flannery O’Connor, and twelve more texts. The plan for creative work was to write short stories and a novella, though what panned out was to become a novel. I began writing immediately. Joe, you are right here with me…see how excited I am!
Back home again, I immediately ran into snags with the reading list. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez painfully tedious, and could not read another page past about one-third of the way through. I did, however, finish it, and wrote an annotation about Garcia Marquez’s marvelous invention of the “sleeping sickness” in which people forgot absolutely everything. I confessed to Kenny that I had skimmed portions of The Golden Notebook, and in my annotation clearly stated that I felt that the book was much longer than it needed to be. Kenny wrote: “I think you mistake length for what is organic and necessary,” to which I replied, “I feel the character centers her life too much on what happens in the bedroom…at her age she should know better….In the “Free Women” section it’s all expository dialogue and could contain more action.”
Finally, though, I found books that I liked, such as Jane Eyre and its complement, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Regarding the Rhys, I wrote, “Antoinette is powerless because she is a woman, and has inherited madness from her parents. It is inevitable and necessary to the narrative that Antoinette should disappear. She makes sure she has literally and fatally disappeared for good. Considering this, Antoinette has finally claimed her right.” I wrote my first short critical paper about two pages of Jane Eyre, dissecting Bronte’s methods of building suspense.
I was so moved by Virginia Woolf’s depiction of the mad Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway that William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a brilliant work in its own right, was somewhat of a disappointment, and this subject I took on in my second short critical paper. One should “show, don’t tell,” I pointed out–the old adage that isn’t always a steadfast rule. Here, I brought in The Golden Notebook, stating that Anna Wulf’s lame descriptions of her “anxious tension that [she] could positively smell, like a fog of nervous exhaustion,” noting that here Lessing had said positively nothing. Yet I wasn’t taking into account the fact that Wulf was an unreliable narrator, that her account of mental turmoil didn’t have to be eloquent, much as Styron’s account was meant to be tamer, more methodical, and more instructional than the wild fancies of Septimus Smith. I did, in fact, use Styron’s work, and not Woolf’s, for my teaching practicum, when I wanted to show my students examples of descriptions of mental illness.
My creative thesis was moving along at a reasonable pace. I fashioned my main character, Irma, after my mother, who seems to have some form of ADHD. The novel takes place at Humarock, where, as it turned out, Irma, then a widow, was time-sharing a cottage on the beach with her daughter, Megan, who has anorexia. I started the piece in third person, and fluctuated between Irma’s and Megan’s point of view, but then Kenny suggested the switch to first person narration, which I tried and stuck with, though I wasn’t certain it was the best choice. My creative work was not at all integrated with what I was reading. This would not begin to happen until my third semester, which was then light years away. Nonetheless, my writing took off under Kenny’s tutelage; he was very, very quick to point out problems with the building of tension in narrative and the discrepancies in voice and point of view. Whatever questions he had in his responses, I had to answer in my next process letter, and correspondingly, had to make right in my work.
All along, I knew I wasn’t working up to my potential. I knew that without Joe’s encouragement, school was a shell I couldn’t crack, a world not my own. It wasn’t that I was uninterested or bored with school. I lacked motivation and perseverance, the two qualities that Joe admired me for the most when it came to academia. I passed the semester, but I didn’t think Kenny was particularly happy with my work.
One struggle I had during the semester was that my puppy, QB took up much of my time. He was a difficult puppy, and more than once I considered taking him to the behavioral veterinarian recommended by QB’s regular vet. But I held off. QB would improve, I reckoned, in time. Meanwhile, the heartache continued. I missed my old dog and I missed Joe: what would Joe say about QB? What would he recommend that I do?
Two days after mailing in my last packet, I was hospitalized in a local psychiatric ward. Enough was enough–the stress was too much, and my psychiatric disability was getting the better of me. I came to my second residency with a secret plan to beg Kenny to change my grade for the past semester to an “Unsuccessful Semester.” Failure.
But Kenny didn’t fail me, and proceeded to write up another difficult reading list for me: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which would count as two annotations, since the book was so long, Grace Paley’s complete stories, stories by Anton Chekhov, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table, Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God, and others. I found the one teaching text, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, useful during my third semester when I finally wrote my long critical paper, and Kenneth Koch’s I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People was very helpful when I eventually did my teaching practicum, years later. And I found the old standard, Huckleberry Finn, to be an eye-opener when it came to inner dialogue, particularly when Huck wrestles with himself as to whether to turn Jim over to the authorities.
At my second residency, I was fortunate to have a wonderful roommate, Jennifer Rumford, who would subsequently become my mentor throughout my schooling. Although Jennifer was a semester behind me, she graduated before me, and guided me along the long road toward graduation, always supportive, always there for me.
During my second semester, I couldn’t pull together the required long critical paper, nor could I successfully plan a teaching practicum. Academically, things weren’t looking up for me, and in October, I was hospitalized again. The grief was too much to bear. I was able to get an extension on the semester.
I chose to attend the January residency, and was lucky enough to get permission to do so from Paul Selig. Unfortunately, I developed a bad cold while I was there. One night, while I was in the throes of a fever, Joe appeared to me in a dream: He was grinning. “You should see this place!” he said. “The food is great, and they have shows every night!”
I did finish up the semester, in March, by the deadline, but barely. One packet contained only four annotations and no creative work. Another packet contained creative work but no annotations. It was all I could muster. Kenny passed me. I don’t know why.
I spent the next year in and out of the hospital. The social worker and nurses there told me that I should give up hopes of ever returning to Goddard, and that I should attend a mental health day program, where I would attend “groups” all day long from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. I also enjoyed knitting, so they recommended a knitting club. These would provide the “structure,” the social worker said, that, according to her, Goddard did not provide for me, “and will give you something to do with your time.” I argued that though the program at Goddard did not have “classes,” it had provided “structure” and I was certainly busy with it. I became angry and despondent. There was one nurse who was on my side, but there was little she could do to change the status quo. “Just don’t give up hope,” she said. “I, for one, think you’ll make it back to school. Something has to give, somehow.”
I left the hospital feeling hopeless that I would ever improve, but something did change, suddenly and significantly. I was put on a new medication, Topamax, and that changed everything for me. I was able to write again and concentrate. I began a blog, and wrote regularly in it. I wrote furiously, and it became an outlet for creative expression for me. After the renovations were complete on the local library, I began studying there every day, writing in my blog, and gradually the quality of my writing improved. At last, I decided to take writing courses at the Boston Center for Adult Education, with writer Toni Amato, and finally, made the decision to return to Goddard at last. I had rediscovered myself as a writer, no longer writing fiction, but creative nonfiction as I was writing in my blog, and I took my writing very seriously.
It was then that I made the very difficult decision to abandon my first thesis, the novel, and go on with another thesis, a work of creative nonfiction. The novel was doomed to failure anyway. Why? It was because my character, Irma, was based on my mother, first of all–and secondly, it was because Joe was everywhere in my thesis. The story took place at Humarock, and Irma’s husband was dead, and his absence filled my pages like the grief I felt over losing Joe–and my father. I was not ready to write about Joe–yet.
My decision to change campuses came to me in a flash. I knew I needed a “geographical cure.” I needed a smaller situation, where I would know more people and not get lost in a crowd. At meals at the Plainfield campus, I had generally eaten alone. No one had bothered to sit with me. They all had their own friends and their own little cliques, sadly. And when I examined who was on the faculty at Port Townsend and saw the name Aimee Liu, I knew I had to make the change.
July, 1981. I was in the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, perusing the paperbacks, when one caught my eye. I liked the title: Solitaire. Didn’t that describe what I was doing with my life, playing against myself, constantly worrying about my weight, my body, restricting my food intake to the point of starvation? I glanced at my bony hands that shook as I held the book. “One young woman’s triumph over anorexia nervosa.” And what was that? Some kind of cancer? I opened the book to a random page: “Already I’m as thin as Twiggy. Kimmy’s mother is so concerned about my weight that she’s offered to send along an extra lunch to school each day for me. I graciously decline….I will eat nothing for dinner for a month….” I had to buy this book. And it was not from some therapist, nurse, or psychiatrist, but from Aimee’s book that I learned that I had anorexia. So when I saw the name Aimee Liu on the faculty at the Port Townsend campus, I took it as a sign of good fortune: I would switch campuses. And although I never worked with Aimee directly, I always felt a special connection with her. I felt as though she was looking out for me the whole time I was there.
I arranged with Paul Selig that I would come to Port Townsend as a G2, and subsequently complete four semesters, including a G5 semester, totaling six. And with two extra years in the middle (it would be two and a half including another semester I took off) my entire schooling took five and a half years instead of the expected two years, which isn’t bad considering it took me nearly three decades to finish my bachelor’s degree. I would attend a total of three residencies in Vermont and five residencies in Port Townsend, plus my graduation residency–nine in all.
Something tragic had happened, in the meanwhile, that would color my thinking every day of my life afterward: QB had become aggressive. After a lengthy ordeal and sessions with the behavioral vet, a Prozac trial, and biting incidents, I had to put him to sleep. I have thought of QB every day since.
Though I love airplane rides, it is traumatic to fly across the country to a different coast and a different time zone and climate. Though I came prepared with the right medications, clothing, school supplies, and books, I was still overwhelmed because I was in a new place, Fort Worden, and my mental illness flared up every time I came to the Port Townsend residencies. I found myself wishing that I could call Joe, and I imagined his gruff voice, reassuring me on my cell phone–but I was on my own now. Thankfully, I had wonderful roommates, and the general atmosphere around campus was caring and supportive. I was never completely alone at the residencies–there was always someone to help. At one residency, I was so doped up on one of my medications that I fell asleep in most of the classes, but thankfully people were understanding and kind, and somehow, I survived it all.
For my first two Port Townsend semesters I studied under the tutelage of Paisley Rekdal, who patiently guided me through the beginning stages of my new nonfiction thesis and some very interesting literature. It was serendipitous that I would start out with Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country, because this book formed the backbone of my study of literature for the four semesters I spent at Port Townsend. I identified strongly with the narrator, who had been a chronic mental patient and then had become a writer. Slater writes about her work as patient-turned-psychologist. Eventually she worked in the same hospital where she herself had been hospitalized. Later, in my G3 and G4 semesters (fall ’07 and spring-fall ’08) when I did my teaching practicum, I experienced first-hand what it was like to break out of the role of “patient” and become “staff,” as Slater had done. This book was also the case source for my long critical paper, “Traditional Narrative Structure in the Narrative and Non-Narrative Essay,” that I wrote during my G2 (spring ’07) semester. I made a vow to myself that after I graduated, I would write to Lauren Slater and thank her for writing this wonderful book, explaining its significance in my studies.
My creative thesis was underway. I started writing immediately at the residency, a piece about my very first admission to a hospital, a chapter which became the main story of my thesis. I later called it “A Forgotten Line,” because in the chapter I forgot lines from the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer that, as a Jew, I am not supposed to know, anyway. Because I was writing my creative thesis about my mental illness, I found Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression a particularly helpful book, because of Solomon’s lucid descriptions of his own and others’ depressions. I also attempted to write a story about my dog, QB. It would take three attempts to finally get this chapter right, but not for another year and a half. I read poetry by Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, essays by John D’Agata, Joan Didion, Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, and Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life With Autism. Susan Griffin’s What Her Body Thought: a Journey into the Shadows had particular influence on me both at the time and later on. I asked myself how Griffin could take two seemingly unrelated stories and weave them together, integrating them and finally bring both to a single climax at the end of the book. I wondered if I could possibly do something similar in my own work. I attempted this in miniature in my essay, “Pro Re Nata.” Later, I chopped up my thesis as a whole, and kept it that way, combining stories woven together to form a climax toward the end of the book. I knew I had always wanted to write like Susan Griffin; and there I was, living that dream.
My long critical paper, upon which I finally put the finishing touches in the beginning of the fall ’07 G3 semester, used Welcome to My Country and the essay “In Bed,” from Joan Didion’s The White Album. I wanted to show that the essay can have a climax, and can build in tension and in fact be built in traditional narrative structure. I framed my paper using John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Perhaps it was with a touch of sadness that I included Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “He and I,” about Ginzburg’s relationship with her beloved husband, which I had studied as an undergraduate at Emerson College while Joe was alive.
The other pieces I wrote that semester other than the beginning of “A Forgotten Line” include “Illness” (a piece I scrapped much later on); “Hunger,” a piece about hunger for love, God, and thinness; “At the Crossroads,” a piece about my attendance at a day treatment program; and “Pro Re Nata,” a piece about my stay at Metropolitan State Hospital and also about coping skills, which I reworked many times. Hunger has gone through countless overhauls until it arrived at its present condition. I also wrote a few short pieces about the drug Thorazine, that I did not use in the book. A portion of “At the Crossroads” was published later in Swamp Magazine.
Around the time of my fourth packet, I my mental illness surfaced for a brief time. I described the problem as “Evil Beings that lived in my head,” and the word “hospital” popped into my head–and my therapist’s head as well. But this difficulty passed, and I wrote in my process letter to Paisley: “It is incredibly difficult to write while my thoughts are totally scrambled. In a future creative bit, I’ll write some about what that’s like.”
During my G3 semester, I wrote three pieces that were of publishable quality but did not belong in my thesis, Paisley and I decided. These were “Lenses,” “Consumers,” and “It.” The latter was about Joe, and was a very private piece. “Consumers” was later published twice, in Pitkin Review and Breath and Shadow. Paisley asked me to consider seriously what my thesis was about, and decide what to write based on what was needed, so as to avoid writing unnecessary pieces (though they may be quality works). I agreed wholeheartedly that this was essential to my work, and that perhaps I should give my creative thesis a title, but I did not title my work until my G5 semester! I also wrote “Noid,” about paranoia, which I scrapped, because it wasn’t very good, and I wrote “Locker #47,” “Walking the Line,” “Kohlrabi,” and another unsuccessful attempt at the QB story. Kohlrabi was a two-page experimental story that was successful right away, to my good fortune. I did not have a complete draft of “Locker #47” until the end of my G4 semester; it is about my high school life. “Walking the Line” is an experimental piece about my illness later in life. The piece went through countless revisions and edits even after I finally had a draft at the beginning of my G4 semester.
During my G3 semester I read memoirs by Lauren Slater, St. Augustine, Nick Flynn, and Lawrence Sutin, poetry by C. D. Wright, and short stories by Amy Hempel. The high point of my reading for the semester was Michael Klein’s memoir Track Conditions, in which he described himself as a reckless man, doing things that could make him a very unlikable character–getting drunk, stealing a car, sleeping around–yet because of Klein’s love for horses and his general appeal as a character, I found myself rooting for him, wanting what he wanted, and even getting mad at him for making stupid mistakes. My dream was that someday readers would react similarly to my work, and get mad at me, too.
October 2007. _____Hospital, psychiatric day program, _________, Massachusetts. I stepped into “group” as “staff,” not as “patient,” for the first time. I wore a badge that had my name and photo on it and the word “volunteer.” I was dressed up sort of. I held my notes in one hand, a pencil in the other. We sat in the circle. My co-leader, J—, began, as she would every week: “This is Julie Greene, she is a student at Goddard College, and she is going to be doing a writing group with all of you….” The students were attentive. Some wanted to write. Some did not. The challenge was to keep them all engaged for the entire 45 minutes, and it wasn’t easy. Gradually, I became less nervous and learned to be flexible and to trust my instincts while teaching, to be totally prepared yet “go with the flow” and let the class take the lesson to wherever they wanted it to go. One exciting part of teaching was watching every single pencil scribble on the page during freewrite time. And of course it was always gratifying to hear people share their works. What amazed me most, though, was the role-reversal. I no longer had to knock on the staff office door to enter. I could hang my coat in their closet. Heck, I was staff!
In class, I used exercises suggested by my faculty Elena Georgiou and Jane Wohl and Goddard College, and Bill Holinger at Emerson College. I used quotes from William Styron and Andrew Solomon. I also used a song, “Lithium,” by Amy Lee and Evanescence, in one of my classes:
Lithium, don’t want to lock me up inside.
Lithium, don’t want to forget how it feels without
Lithium, I want to stay in love with my sorrow.
To illustrate mental illness, in my teaching essay, to those who didn’t understand what it was, I quoted Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Diary.
The next semester (G4, spring ’08) proved to be a rough one, and after the first packet, I chose to drop before the add/drop period was over. I tried to understand the packet response that my advisor, Beatrix Gates, had written for me, but I was too depressed to decipher anything. Everything seemed so flat and lifeless. Still, I remembered the nurse’s words, “Just don’t give up hope.” It was ironic that shortly after, my doctor put me on the drug, Lithium, and I was so doped up that I only woke up to do my teaching, and slept for the rest of the week. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to comprehend Bea’s packet response and revise my work. I came to the next residency and could barely get out of bed each morning, and slept through many of the classes. I took myself off the drug the following August, against my doctor’s advice, and woke up.
This time, I had another, more productive G4. I was now working closely with Dvora Zipkin, Goddard’s new disabilities specialist. Our weekly phone calls proved invaluable to me. We set up study schedules and modified them as I became more proficient at my work. From then on, I worked closely with Dvora, and I can truly say that I would not have made it to graduation as smoothly–or at all–without her.
Now, with Bea as my advisor, I revised previous works and wrote some new material as well. I wrote “Going Back,” “Jungle,” “Connections,” “The Farm,” and “Colors.” These were short chapters. I also finished and revised “A Forgotten Line,” “Locker #47,” “Walking the Line,” and “Pro Re Nata.” At last I was able to write a successful version of the QB story, called simply “QB.” “Connections” was a piece based on Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary, asking the same question Slater asks: What happens to the creative process when a person recovers from a mental illness? Then, I read Kenny Fries’ The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and it blew open my whole creative thesis.
Why? Kenny tells his stories in order, but they alternate. The whole book is done in such a way as to leave the reader hanging at the end of every story. I wanted to do this, too. I kept in mind Susan Griffin’s What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows, too. Griffin cleverly intertwines several stories in the book and then brings them together to a terrific climax at the end of the book. The connection seems far-fetched at first but gradually, the reader catches on, and when the reader realizes the connection, he or she also reaches an epiphany just as the book climaxes. Fries does this, too, by lining up the most climactic chapters back-to-back (his are divided into short chapters; hers are mostly divided into sections within larger chapters). I wanted this for my own work.
So I chopped up my thesis, in hard copy, and put it back together, in “braided” fashion, like my hair. This was painstaking work and involved the use of a notebook, lots of printer ink and paper, a paper punch, and a large table. Not long after, my chapters were spread out all over the furniture. Soon, though, I realized I would have to make an outline, and this would simplify the task. I wrote an excited e-mail to Bea explaining my intentions. To my surprise, she didn’t write back saying I was nuts.
I came to my last full residency in February 2009 excited–and a little scared–about the coming semester. As usual, I struggled with the rigorous residency schedule, but frequent contact with Dvora, planning out how I would take care of my basic needs, and which workshops I would attend, kept me on track, and the residency panned out with very few hitches. I sent off my manuscript–then titled Forgotten Lines: For an Occasion as it Arises, the subtitle coming from the definition of the Latin “pro re nata”–to my advisor, Darrah Cloud, and to Bea, now my second reader, to arrive February 25 instead of the assigned March 16 packet due date, because I had it ready, and was especially excited to get started on revisions!
In the meantime, I crocheted a sweater for Puzzle, my dog, a project I had been working on while on the plane to Seattle. (I always had a needlework project to keep me occupied on the airplane.) Then I took a leap, and began a new book–about my six years at Goddard, beginning from the moment I was accepted, and ending at the projected graduation date. What was most exciting about the project was my plan to use my first creative thesis, the short novel, embedded in the memoir! This, Joe, would be the book for you. Excited about the project, I finished seven pages–then Darrah’s feedback arrived March 3.
What Darrah requested was simple: the old adage “show, don’t tell.” What was summarized had to be fleshed out with scenes, she said. This had to be done especially in the essay, “Hunger,” but also in some of the narrative chapters as well. I was summarizing too much. There were places where I was too vague, and the reader was confused about which hospital was which.
I attacked the manuscript with fervor as I had never had before. The schedule I had set up with Dvora allowed for two hours’ study in the morning, just over an hour in the early afternoon, and two hours in the later afternoon. Instead, I found myself working all day, usually over seven hours a day, on the manuscript. After 17 days, I had added 7,000 words, and I had 144 pages of the revised manuscript. I wrote to Darrah, and she asked me to send the first 50 pages. Darrah responded by telling me, among other things, to make one of the villains “meaner.” I turned to my journals for ideas, and added yet more text to the manuscript. Finally, on April 17th, I made the last chapter addition to the manuscript: “Pool,” an experimental chapter, in which the villain forces me underwater, and holds me there. My first draft was 47,000 words long. I now had 62,500 words, and was on my way to completion of a third draft. I sent Darrah about 65 pages in my third packet. She explained that my entire manuscript was centered around the theme of hunger, and that I should follow this theme. This was very, very important.
But I had run into a snag. My mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had begun to starve myself. As time went on, I ate less and less. My concentration, mood, and motivation suffered. I nearly fainted on several occasions. The same theme that ran through my thesis was now eating at me. As I had written in one of my chapters, “My hunger was secret. My hunger was special.”
Why now? Did I not want to leave Goddard? The eating disorder had submerged me many times before, notably in 1981, when it caused me do drop out of school one semester before graduation; I would not let it push me underwater again!
No matter the reason, I had to take action. What would Aimee say? What would Joe say, if he were alive? I recalled the time he wheeled onto the unit at McLean Hospital, when he was visiting me there, with a brown paper bag in his lap. “I know you can’t stand the hospital food,” he said with a grin, “so I’ve brought subs. Meatball and tuna. I want you to eat the meatball right away, while it’s hot. Don’t argue.”
I made some phone calls, and arranged a meeting at a local eating disorders center, where they made some recommendations. I worked closely with my therapist and my primary care physician. Dvora, too, had some excellent advice, explaining that one never truly leaves Goddard. I asked for support from my friends and my brothers. I petted Puzzle–a lot. And I wrote.
And it was through writing–and leafing through some old Goddard papers, that I came across what I had written semesters ago: “In a future creative bit, I’ll write some about what that’s like.” What did this mean? Of course I knew what it meant! Someday, I would get through this, and gain perspective on it, enough to be able to write about it. It would pass. Somehow, the starvation would end.
But I was scared. I was worried that my therapist would hospitalize me. I made up my mind that I would mail in my thesis on the seventh of May. I had three days.
I set goals for myself. I worked extensively on “Pool,” which had become a poem. I plunged into my chapter, “Hunger,” and made numerous last-minute changes. I read a fair portion of the manuscript out loud to myself, and was surprised at how smoothly it read. At last, I mailed in my thesis, completed–twelve days before the due date.
In 2005 and 2006, when I took time away from Goddard and was hospitalized, doctors and social workers had told me to give up on the idea of ever returning to graduate school, and to attend a mental health day program and join a knitting club. I have, in part, taken that advice: I have indeed done plenty of knitting. I knitted many, many sweaters for my little dog, Puzzle. I knitted these sweaters to pass the time during my trip from Boston to Port Townsend, Washington, to attend the Goddard College residencies. Today, Puzzle wears these sweaters without a thought, but to me they symbolize not only a journey, but my refusal to give up, my defiance of those people who were supposedly treating me, the very same people who doubted my ability to succeed. Well, I have succeeded. My thesis has been accepted. On July 12, 2009, I will have my degree at last.
When I graduated from Emerson College, my undergraduate school, Joe was right there beside me. If he were alive, he would be attending my graduation for certain, despite the travel difficulties that his physical disability may cause. But he will not be at my graduation physically, or the graduation banquet; I am assured, however, that he is enjoying a great meal in Heaven.
Of course, I am very apprehensive about what the future may hold. But I will continue to revise my creative thesis, now titled This Hunger Is Secret, and work on my new book, which begins with a vase of flowers. I unlock my door, greet the dog, and pick up my message from Paul Selig, with news that will change my life forever.
May 31, 2009
A bunch of alums and students from Goddard got together on Facebook to discuss the sad situation of the dining commons food at the residencies at the Port Townsend, Washington campus. I joined in on the discussion. I even made like I didn’t even have an eating disorder, and had plain good fun talking about how bad the food was.
Talking about the Fort Worden food was like “old home week,” as they say, except home cooking it is not. I truly feel sorry for our hardworking residency staff, because they most likely read every swear word we have written over the many years that the Goddard campus has existed on the West Coast, but they have no control over what Fort Worden chooses to do about the food.
Goddard College rents the space from Fort Worden State Park. As a matter of fact, it’s only a small portion of the state park. We share it with a whole bunch of other folks, including private vacationers who rent the dorm buildings for, say, a week or so, and enjoy the goings-on around Port Townsend. The dining commons are in one of the main buildings at the park. It’s all very historic, and yes, it used to be a real fort with real guns and bullets and such and probably a bomb or two. I know all about this heavy duty war artillery, because for sure there will be a major attack if the kitchen keeps on doing what it’s doing.
In our little Facebook discussion, I stayed out of the musings of whether folks lost or gained weight at the residency because of the food. I wanted to appear as “normal” as possible. But I did remember, nearing the end of my studies, coming home from a residency, and for reasons I didn’t understand, hopping onto my scale quite soon after I came home from the airport. Not only that, but I stripped down and peed before I weighed myself. I should have known.
While I was busy at home all semester preparing my assignments, my major concern to do with the scale hadn’t exactly been over the weight of the papers I had to mail to my advisors and how much I had to pay for postage. Most likely, though, I covered up my growing concern over body weight with a great deal of fuss over the cost of Priority Mail. After I got my packets mailed off, early as usual, I came home, and before I began writing some more, I totaled up the calories I’d burned on the round-trip rush to the post office. Something else was rushing inside me. It got scary. I didn’t tell anyone for quite a while that I was relapsing.
When I came back, the dining commons scene wasn’t the same as before. The challenge wasn’t to find what was edible. The challenge was people. Yeah, I’d say people. And lying. Making it look like I was eating when I wasn’t. Going from one table to another so that I could cover up that I hadn’t eaten. Thinking up any strategy that I could. Looking at people’s eyes to see who was watching me and who was noticing me and who was scrutinizing me and who saw right through all my bullshit.
Of course I ate. People with anorexia sometimes eat, and I did eat at the residency. Uh huh. Lettuce. Veggies. Water. Black coffee.
Let me talk about Fort Worden veggies for a minute. No, they don’t do veggies. They do doctored-up veggies. They don’t do potatoes. They freaking add stuff to the potatoes. They add vinegar to everything. Those cafeteria folks hated me, even before I ended up with my eating disorder, cuz I grilled them on what they put into their food. “Did you put vinegar in this?”
“Er, lemme ask the cook.” Long pause. The kid comes back. “Sorry, he says there’s a little wine vinegar in the kale….”
“Oh, figures!” I’d make a face. Any of you who have seen my faces know I make some wicked ones. Actually, if you haven’t seen me for a few years, the ones I make now are ten times, hundreds of times worse. There are times when playing the “crazy lady card” comes in handy, much as I bitch and moan about being treated like a mental patient. And yes, I love having it both ways.
So it was great having it both ways in this Facebook discussion, griping about the food, enjoying my time with some current students and learning that the Fort Worden food, despite all promises, has never, ever changed, and is still as shitty as ever. I loved talking about food like a normal person, remembering that my feelings about it were just the same as everyone else’s, that even though my eating is now all messed up and I’ve messed up my body, I’m still human, and I still know what decent food tastes like.
The students were talking about having a potluck at one of the dorms. Even when I was on the normal side eating-wise, I was always kinda shy at those potlucks, not only because of the food, but because it was a little scary having friends. I get a little teary-eyed writing this. I remember those residencies feeling like I was accepted, and people weren’t treating me like I was weird or strange, but like I belonged. It was a community and I was part of that community as a contributing member. I felt valued. I felt wanted. I felt loved. I felt that I had something to give, and I wanted so badly to give everything that I had.
We had readings at the dorms sometimes. Some of these had a focus, say, poetry, or, “one-minute pieces only.” Some had booze and some didn’t. Some went late into the night. Some were more formal than others. It took me a while to figure out that these readings were happening. After a while, we started having them nearly every night. I forget what they were called. I grew to love reading aloud in front of an audience. It is so much like playing music in public, especially if I composed the music myself.
Perhaps my days of composing music are long, long ago, but those days have come alive in my memoir writing. I wrote about the days when my eating disorder began when I was a music composition student at Bennington College. It was not long before I was to graduate. One of my shrinks loves to draw parallels, and claims that I relapsed due to “school pressures,” but, hey, I’m not a twenty-something anymore. I have written about it, and written about it, and written about it, and learned.
When I was a kid back then, I lived in a teensy apartment. I mean, there was barely enough room to stand up in it besides just room for the bed and a tiny desk, stove, and bathroom. The apartment was cold. I complain about the cold apartment I live in now but this ain’t cold compared to the place I had in 1980. That was was fifty degrees in the winter, no kidding. I used the oven to warm the place. Being skinny didn’t help. The landlord asked me if I was cold. Well, get this: I didn’t think I was a worthwhile person. I didn’t think I deserved comfort and warmth and decent living like everyone else, so I didn’t say a word. I said I was just fine. And that’s how the winter went. I got by with hardly any clothes, just stuff from a thrift shop, hardly any money, hardly used any electricity or made any phone calls. And nope, didn’t need to spend money much, certainly not excess on toiletries cuz I wasn’t menstruating anymore.
As you can guess, my social life back then was rather sparse, or, rather, nothing. I told no one about the eating thing. I dressed in layers. Occasionally someone said something about my having lost weight, but I shrugged it off, making an excuse. I experimented with different lies. I was a vegetarian sometimes, or had had a bug, or an allergy, or that new milk and dairy sensitivity that people had. The stomach bug lie went a long way. I used that stomach bug lie over and over. And because I had no friends, I didn’t have to lie all that often, and no one noticed, anyway.
But at Goddard, a lot of people caught me in my lies. People told me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to get help. Sometimes, people stepped away, and I thought that they were giving up on me. But really, they were just giving me space.
I remember now that I am part of a community of writers, and that community isn’t going to give up on me. I saw that when we had that food discussion. I remember walking into the back door of the dorm building, struggling with the key, and then, finding, suddenly, that the door was open all along. A familiar smile behind the door. She says to me, “Welcome back, Julie!”
But for the sake of nostalgia, I’m not planning on putting wine vinegar on my veggies tonight, or doctoring-up anything with weird dining commons-type spices. I must admit those cooks must get their training in some very strange cooking schools. Maybe they do this deliberately to drive us together. Maybe the cooks did it to create these potlucks. Maybe they do it so that we’ll all have something to talk about on Facebook. Hey, you don’t know…those crazy cooks…maybe I put them up to it.
I have many thoughts today. Here’s one.
There was a conference at my college on March 10th, that is, last month, on the Occupy Movement. I just found out that this happened. I hadn’t known, cuz I was wicked out of it for a long time.
The conference was held at Goddard College’s Plainfield, Vermont campus. I watched a slideshow recap of the event. I looked at the people’s faces. Many people were my age.
When I came home from the hospital at the end of February, there was a lot of snail mail waiting for me to open. Maybe there is some snail mail from Goddard about the event, around here somewhere, in a “to be opened” pile.
It is 2pm. I haven’t gone to the mailbox yet. I am scared to walk from my apartment, down the hall, through the lobby door, to the mailbox area, and back. Someone will see me, and say, “She’s fat.”
For years, I’ve been collecting my mail when nobody has been around. Much of the time, when I walk the hall for any reason, I LOOK BOTH WAYS. And then I decide whether to proceed.
The other day, they were sitting there near the door, staring at me, with their little eyes. Watching me like they were going to pounce. I didn’t know where to put my own eyes. Should I look straight ahead? Should I look back at them? Tsk, tsk.
One has her knitting. She doesn’t actually knit, she just holds it. The others sit there and stare stupidly. Get a life.
Sometimes, to tell them Fuck Off, I wear short sleeves, open my mailbox, and slide my skinny, skinny arm all the way down into the way-back of my mailbox.
I love watching them shake their heads at each other and mumble in their language. Yeah, fuck off you assholes.
I’m sure that at the Occupy conference at Goddard there was no height and weight requirement. I didn’t see a scale in that slide show. I didn’t see any banners advertising diet pills.
I saw, “REMEMBER CHERNOBYL.”
You know, I do. That was one heck of a long time ago. 1986. I was in the state hospital in 1986, just down the road from here. The place is closed down now, just a bunch of grass and stones that I know of. I’ve lived in this town since 1987. January, that is. Same phone number. Still.
I had a TV in April of 2006 and I saw the news about Chernobyl. I don’t know what I thought. Probably not much. I was wicked drugged up. I got rid of the TV long ago and a lot of the drugs, little by little getting rid of the rest of the drugs.
I’m now at 250 Topamax, 150 Imipramine, 150 Trileptal, 200 Lamictal, and 100 Synthroid.
Topamax used to be 300, and was 350 for a short while. Trileptal was 600. Lamictal was a whopping 600. It was a wonder I could even stand up straight. A year ago I also took the antipsychotic medications Abilify and Risperdal. I stopped these cold turkey with no bad effects. A year previously I stopped Thorazine. I had Tardive Dyskinesia, according to my psychiatrist, in my tongue and one hand. I am fortunate that I have stopped all antipsychotics just in time and no longer have these problems. I now no longer experience any hand or tongue movements. Usually, TD is permanent. I was one of the lucky ones for whom TD was not permanent. I have seen some very, very sad cases.
After the Chernobyl disaster, many people and other living creatures developed cancers and all kinds of diseases from the radiation that spread all around the area. People were born with Down’s Syndrome, Spina Bifida, and other genetic alterations due to this radiation.
I remember there was the Star Trek episode where this kid had some weird power. He was an adolescent. He was playing chess with Captain Kirk. I guess he lost, and then got mad. He turned his head and screwed his eyes funny and melted the chess pieces.
I picked up one melted chess piece. It was still warm, but cooling quickly. It would never be the same again.
You have to be careful what you say to kids about their weight, cuz you don’t know how they’re going to react. If something you say, no matter how well-meant, hits them the wrong way at the wrong time, they may never be the same again.
That’s why I’m scared to walk down the hall right now, walk into the rental office, and pay my rent.
I have checked my bank account and I the check won’t bounce. That’s not the problem. It’s those ladies in the office. The way they look at me. Up and down. I always plan ahead when I walk in there. Always. Plotting and scheming. Engineering what I am going to say to them as I hand them the check. And I wonder what they’ll say about me as soon as I turn, receipt in hand, walk out of there, and the door clicks shut.
I’m thinking, “Phew! I did it! Another month!”
Welcome to my life.
A person with anorexia nervosa writes about her memories of Goddard January 2005 residency that popped into her head while browsing the Internet and drinking tea
I’ve been sitting here drinking a cup of tea, and my mind got to wandering.
Well, no, let me make a confession. I was drinking tea and doing something I admit I occasionally do: I was browsing the Internet looking around at sites that tell you ways you can lose weight. Are you surprised? Well, you shouldn’t be. I think a lot of people do this, not only people with diagnosed eating disorders. Do you? Do you then erase your history trail so your spouse or kids won’t see where you’ve been browsing? Anyway, I have never been to a pro-_n_ site. Why? For one thing, viruses. For another thing, I don’t know how well they keep your e-mail addy, etc, private, if they follow whatever privacy policies they claim to have, or if they put weird cookies in there. I don’t want to “join” these clubs, never did, and never will. Scratch that third one, that is, “never will,” cuz really, I can’t predict anything. Life can and does take funny turns. I don’t have a bit of pro-_n_ in me and I do not in any way think of anorexia as “lifestyle.” I think many people, whether they have anorexia or any other type of eating disorder or if they do not have an eating disorder, any of these, if they have spent all their lives, or just about all their lives dieting…this is not “lifestyle” this is suffering. This is being tortured by this thing “diet.” I am tortured by it daily. I am tortured by it 24/7…are you?
What is “lifestyle,” anyway? Low-carb lifestyle? Oh bullshit. It is just food choice. Living alone, for me, has something to do with lifestyle. I spend just about every day alone with no human contact. Lately, this has pleased me. I was standing in the kitchen maybe 45 minutes ago thinking, “Oh thank goodness I live alone! I might have this eating disorder, but I am SO much better off now than when I lived with other people! I have my privacy, I can do whatever I want…no one snoops around or asks to borrow things…no booze bottles…no one steals my stuff or opens my mail…tries to convert me to their religion…sits around and doesn’t say a freaking word to me…And no therapist to send me to a group home! I am free!”
Lifestyle…lifestyle can be culture. I grew up in a Jewish family with Jewish culture and religious practices and that was our lifestyle. The fact that my parents shamed me and used our Jewish beliefs as a way to do this…shaming is not lifestyle…it is abuse and abuse is not lifestyle just as dieting, restricting, and starving is not lifestyle…get it? No, I am not pro-_n_.
Sometimes, I live in this persona, and sometimes, I don’t. I can switch in and out of it within seconds, or I might stay in it for days without end. It was the acupuncturist who pointed out to me, that right while we were speaking I was switching in and out of it.
I probably go back and forth while writing in here. Oh, I know I do and you know it too. A milder form of it is called indecision, but this is not mild. I don’t even notice it, though. I can’t even get into how it feels. It doesn’t feel, really. I’m talking about how I think and process information. It’s not surprising to me and it’s not frustrating and it’s not confusing. I find it very, very funny. I spend a lot of time poking fun at myself, seeing myself from afar, and this is one way I survive, and one way that I communicate just how painful and sad it is to live with this disorder. I enjoy making you laugh at me and laugh with me, cuz this disorder is so damn illogical.
So you might as well laugh at me, sitting here with my tea just a bit ago, Googling this and that, trying to find what I can add to my multi-faceted repertoire of things I can do to lose weight. You can imagine the clicks, back and forth, brows furrowed, uh-huh, uh-huh, maybe I’ll give it a try…write this down…now Google this…damn these pop-up surveys!
Okay, so…a couple of memories popped into my head. (Change of verb tense.) 2005. Goddard College winter residency, Plainfield, Vermont. I had to drop semester #2 near the end cuz I ended up hospitalized. Unlike way back when, everyone was very, very cool about this and understanding. I had it rough my first two semesters. I had just been widowed in 2003, that is, my boyfriend died suddenly right after my graduation from Emerson College. I’d finished up, actually, after the graduation ceremony in May. I had maybe a course or two more to do. I think the last one was American Government. It was a great one to end up with. Our instructor was a lawyer and thank goodness he was an anti-Bush liberal. He was arrogant. He was anti-cop. I had loads of fun with him in class. We challenged each other. It was back and forth. Wicked obnoxious, I must say. I had to memorize a lot of laws and amendments and stuff. I wrote these on flash cards. Joe and I sat at Dunkin Donuts every day and he’d quiz me, sipping on a gigantic iced tea and smoking. Occasionally, he corrected me, but I had these laws down pretty well.
You know, I noticed something: Not long before he died, he began to make a point of always wearing a watch. He’d smoke a cigarette, then check his watch. Once, he wasn’t wearing it, and right after he finished his cigarette, he asked me what time it was. He asked me a couple more times. I noticed the pattern after a while. A half hour later, exactly a half hour, he lit up again. I noticed that he smoked fewer cigarettes each day, a lot fewer, than, say, two years ago, or even a few months ago.
Yes, he was making an effort. And there may have been a reason for this. You know something? In the seventeen years that I knew him, this was the only time that I knew of that he made an effort to cut back.
You know, it had only been months previously…I am not actually sure when this was…I stayed overnight at his place…at night, while he slept, not only did he cough…no, not cough exactly…he struggled to inhale and exhale, to breathe. He struggled noisily. He vocalized. This went on for a bit, then he returned to normal sleep. In the morning, I told him that this had happened. I told him that this happened all night long. Then I didn’t say anything more about it. Yeah, he heard me.
How he felt in those last months, whether he felt fine or yucky or had some anticipation or funny feeling…whether he recognized this feeling…if he had chest pains maybe he thought it was heartburn, cuz he used to have terrible heartburn…
Why on earth am I thinking about this and does it matter? He died in an instant and everyone told me that most likely he didn’t even know what hit him.
That was August 19, 2003. I spent the fall in a daze, then in January started grad school, still in a daze. Not only that, but on freaking Seroquel, my body out of control gaining weight gaining weight gaining weight. Like my fucking life. I’m widowed and ashamed of my body and can’t even hide it in a coat at this point. Every day drags and goes in Seroquel drugged slow-motion and I don’t even bother trying to be the overachiever I used to be. Just adequate. Barely adequate. Not only at school, but at life itself. Barely making it, barely hanging on. I guess that’s why I ended up hospitalized. And put on 900 mgs Seroquel a day, an unheard of dose.
2005 residency. I’m going to finish up fall semester, that is, second semester, in the first few months of 2005. I’m here at this January residency but am not officially doing the spring semester cuz I’m still doing fall. Got it? So I kind of feel like a failure and a tag-a-long to begin with and out of place and never mind a social misfit. I developed a bad, bad cold virus while I was there, and a cough that went on all night one night. Thankfully, I had a single at the dorm otherwise a roommate would have been kept up all night. (I know, switch of verb tense.)
So here I am, walking from the dorm, which I think is called Kilpatrick or something like that, to the dining hall and main building where a lot of stuff happens, including all the readings, and a student stops me (unfortunately, I remember her first name, and wish I didn’t) and says to me, “You gained some serious weight, girl.”
And yes, a few days later, she said the exact same thing to me. Again. This was a Goddard student. And this, people, crushed me. It still hurts to this day. I remember how it felt then and I remember how it felt a little while ago when the memory came back to me in the form of a very clear picture, while I sat here drinking my tea and browsing the web.
Yeah, I lost that serious weight. Being overweight, having a body that I was ashamed of, my anger over the Seroquel weight gain experience, and the way society and everyone treats people who are overweight, and that included me, was one of the things that drove me to diet myself down to this weight that I am at now.
To be honest, it was that exact remark, “You gained some serious weight, girl,” that was the one reason that I switched to the Port Townsend, Washington campus. Our director kindly allowed me to do this. I didn’t mention the weight remark. There were practical reasons why it made sense to switch. But the actual reason why I came to this decision? Yep. I admit it. (I was always happy at Port Townsend, and ended up loving it there, by the way. It was, in a way, a new life.)
Okay, another thing that happened January 2005 residency. I’m sitting at a table in the dining commons. Our residency, that is, the creative writing residency, happens at the same time as the health arts and sciences residency. Now, these people talk about nutrition all the time. Oh, great. Sometimes, they talk about how people are pigs and can’t control themselves and overeat. I am not, not, not kidding you. I ended up sitting with these people and had to listen to this crap. I felt like shit to begin with, now I feel doubly shit. These assholes don’t even know a damn thing about what they are talking about! Do they know anything at all about nutrition or eating disorders, or are they talking off the top of their heads? Do they write articles, like, say, those fad diets you see on the Internet? I listen to them rant on and on about bullshit nutrition, what you should and should not eat, and looking back, OH MY GOD I FEEL DAMN SORRY FOR THEIR KIDS WHO HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS BULLSHIT YEAR-ROUND…lecturing on and on, judgmental…I don’t mean to say bad stuff about my own school, but I sat with these people a lot, because I couldn’t find anyone in the writing program to sit with. I just didn’t know people. I was shy. So I ended up sitting with the diet fanatics.
So one day, I am sitting with them eating a sandwich. I don’t remember what kind of sandwich. I guess peanut butter. Yeah, let’s say peanut butter. This memory was buried deep, deep inside me and I didn’t remember until I was sitting here with my tea, which I finished quite a bit ago while I was writing to y9u. So I’m eating a sandwich, and one of the diet nuts blurts out, “You shouldn’t be eating that sandwich! You should never eat peanut butter and bread at the same time!”
She goes on and on. Don’t eat meat with this, don’t eat this with that, on and on. Lecturing me.
Listen, lady: Like I concluded when I was a patient at Alcott last month where I was being treated for anorexia nervosa after nearly starving myself to death, DO YOU HEAR ME?…You keep you eyes on your tray, and I’ll keep my eyes on my tray.
Just shut up.
So that was January 2005 residency. For me, it had very little to do with writing.
It’s a little late to go back to my web-browsing. But I was pretty much done with it, anyway. I’m pissed with myself for not being skinny enough and I feel like my face is too fat.
When I was a little kid, my mom shamed me because of my breast size. She shamed me as soon as I started “developing.” She shamed me because my hips were getting wider. Everything. When I was smaller, she made me ashamed of my body in other ways too complicated to get into. And she shamed me by force-feeding me and shaming me by commenting on my food habits and manipulating me into eating food that repulsed me.
All my life, I’ve been ashamed of my body.
When I went to the self-help group for people who suffered from compulsive overeating, I met people who were very, very overweight, and this was the first time that I had ever known anyone over 300 pounds that I knew of. I met people over 400 pounds. I met people who were diabetic. I learned that diabetes and overweight were often closely related. I learned that some people manipulated their insulin when they overate. This is difficult to explain. I think most people understand how diabetes works. Some people who are diabetic and suffer from severe overeating “compensate” with their insulin. It’s dangerous. Very. It’s playing with fire just like I play with fire when I starve. Not only that, people who are dangerously overweight have to live in large bodies and many health risks. They are stuck in these bodies and can’t get out of them, can’t peel off the costume when they get tired of it. They live with constant discrimination from society, wherever they go. Now, I’m not only talking about clothing stores. I’m not just talking about the gross insults that were spewed at me during the 2005 winter residency in Plainfield. It’s subtleties. The way everyday people use words and language. Strangers and friends and family alike. I know this because I lived in a large body in 2005. I know language and I heard how it was used toward me and about me. (Yes, by you, too, Dr. P, by the way, and a bunch of other mental health professionals.) I wasn’t 197 pounds for very long, but I got a hint of what being overweight and discriminated against was all about.
Just like the world treated me in 2005, I am sitting here, my teabag now drying out, and treating myself the very same way. Spewing horrible insults at myself. I mean worse than any human has ever said to me. I am the worst. I looked online and said, yep, shouldn’t eat that. This will give me BELLY FAT. I mean, have you ever heard anything more insane?
I think I really better get to church tomorrow. It’s late.
Also, I need to give this entry a title. Any ideas?
I have been posting on Facebook lately. Most of the people I know on Facebook are my Goddard friends. It is a good thing to know that they are there.
I would have made the following post “public,” but I was afraid then that all my posts would end up “public,” that plus I didn’t want just anyone seeing what my friends wrote.
Here is what I posted:
Okay, thinking: A lot of people care about me. Like you guys and the folks at church. I’m sick most of the time, can’t get out of bed, can’t go out, can’t be as good a Puzzle mama as I’d like or need to be. But more than this. It gets scary. It is scary and dangerous every single day. I mean my physical health. I don’t have the strength or any lasting motivation to better myself on my own and I would freely let others do it, those more capable and qualified. But I will not go to a nut ward. They can stick me with a zillion needles and take a trillion EKG’s, but being locked up, given psych meds, and having shoelaces taken away do not help someone who is starving. I am done with nut wards. Enough.
I am tired right now. I need a shower. I need to rest. I’d like a cup of coffee as well. Hmmmm…..priorities.
Because I am not the religious zealot type, I do not hold some claim to special knowledge of the nature of God or anything of spiritual nature. The only exception to this is that my late boyfriend, Joe, has appeared to me a few times in dreams telling me that Heaven is a rather decent place. He spoke of it enthusiastically, saying I had to see it for myself, and said the food was “terrific.” To see that boyish smile on his face I knew so well, and his voice as if he were describing the highest point of a baseball game, convinces me that every meal every meal is truly delicious, served on the best dishes. Is there an afterlife? I’m going to butt out of it and stick to things that are a bit more concerning to me, but I do know that Joe right now is really doing okay. Is this is a delusion my inner mind has created to comfort me? I don’t care. Delusions, after all, are correct in the heart. Boy, have I learned this over the past couple of weeks and months. Maybe I have always known it. Maybe I should also add that I do like to think that there is a Doggy Heaven in my tears.
But this is all. I grew up Jewish. We were told there was a God. Sometimes, yeah, God. Sometimes, the existence of a God made no logical sense to me. It didn’t add up scientifically. It never, never, never made any sense to me to assume that God was male. This was a resentment that began in me as a sudden jolt when I was booted out of my brother Ned’s bris simply because I was a girl and not a boy. It made no logical sense in my six-year-old mind that a bunch of old guys wearing scarves would sing Holy songs in a language I didn’t understand to an invisible Holy Male God in the sky, and these old guys in scarves were crowded around the crib of my baby brother, whom I owned and was given by my parents so that I could personally protect and care for, and these guys–these men–in scarves were going to seriously harm my brother. Yes, I was only six, but I knew from that very moment on that the world was male-dominated. Especially in my given religion. So, like I said, I have, at this point in my life, no real right to make any real claims about the existence or non-existence of God as any entity or being whatsoever, or to instruct you as to what you should think in such matters.
However, I do know what I truly believe in my heart right here right now.
Tonight, I do not know what time, I noticed that I was developing a fever. It began kind of in my jaw area, and then spread around to my eye sockets, and then to every single tooth, and my entire mouth. My head had that all-around ache you get when you have a fever. My body had that bone-ache, but not a lot, not to the point of discomfort. I decided to have a bit of water, not a lot, and then head off to bed. Who knows. I had a flu shot. The flu, though, you can get anyway. On the other hand, it could have been some result of malnutrition. I often feel kind of weirdly sick. It comes and goes. Sometimes, I feel this overall crappiness and want nothing but to stay in bed. I headed off to the sack as quickly as possible.
I lay in bed. I found that I wasn’t all that tired. This sometimes happens. I had a lot on my mind. I have mentioned someone I fancy, in my craziness, hanging out here in my apartment that I have named Michael the Man with Wings, to whom I carry on a one-sided conversation at times. Well, I began one such lively conversation while I lay in bed. It went on and on. I began to laugh. It was getting hilarious. I imagined developing Compulsive Square-dancing Disorder temporarily, burning shitloads of calories, going to bed, waking up, and then weighing myself only to discover I’d lost a whole bunch of weight. I began to completely crack up. Then I settled into a deep satisfaction and warmth of feeling, a natural curve of smile on my face.
Then it hit me. I had a fever. Laughter. True joy like a rare gift I had not felt in a long time. Even an effortless smile. So many people would give anything to die like this. Laughing and with a smile, just simple joy. It could happen. I felt thankful that this moment had now come to me, almost like a gift. It could be a few hours, and I was very aware of the possibility that I could be way, way off base. But I felt close to prayer. Fever. Hot waves rose from my forehead, almost like I could see them, though my eyes at this point were closed, a smile still on my face. And I knew now that if I uttered a prayer, whether silent or aloud, I would ask God to take my life from me.
I began to weep. Just a bit at first. Then, sobbing. How can I do this? There are people I would hurt. I want to be in church on Sunday. It’s only Thursday night. Only today, I reached out to my college friends on Facebook. They wrote back. What am I doing?
Then I thought of one specific person who had written: my final semester advisor, Darrah. Dang. I had worked just so hard that last semester. I remembered all the hours at the library, toiling over my thesis. I remembered the trek to the post office, wondering if all those thesis pages would fit into a flat rate envelope. Every packet I received back was like a birthday gift I opened with the suspense I felt as if I were a little kid untying magic ribbon. Then I remembered: Darrah always called me “Kiddo.” That made me feel so wanted. Darrah, of all people…How on earth could I do this to Darrah?
I cried for a long time. Fleeting thoughts and emotions mixed with my tears and wrapped around and around me. Mostly, I was sad. I asked myself if everyone who was dying, in their knowledge of their own impending death, was saddened by it.
I felt something, a change just then, an urge in me, to kick off my blanket. I was still weeping, crying aloud. I was lifted, or rather, was helped to lift myself, from the bed, and stood. The fever was gone.
A bunch of hours have passed since then. I didn’t know what I was going to do with what had happened. I didn’t know if I would tell anyone. I didn’t know if I was going to record what happened, but then I decided that it needed to be told. I am telling you now. Maybe it all sounds like it was written by a very deluded soul in a feverish, starved state. This is in fact true. But it is written.
I thought I hadn’t prayed at all. But you know, I think that in fact, at that moment, I did. When God is in my heart, God is in my heart, right there. I was answered. I was put where I needed to be. Maybe not for much longer. Maybe just for a few more hours. But I didn’t die in bed. I’m one step closer to tomorrow, one bit nearer to staying right alongside those that care that I stay right here with them.
You can’t predict when you’re going to die. Some die with a smile on their face but most probably don’t. After all, it’s not scientifically likely. You’re not born smiling, or so they say. As to whether I smile in Heaven, like I said, I don’t really believe in any afterlife, and it’s not what I’m worried about right now. I guess I am thinking that I want to write one word after the other, keep on writing, and not write too much about God. Rather, I’d like to keep God very quietly and passionately in my heart.