What’s abuse? It’s assertion of power. That’s what any kind of abuse is. Power.
Rape is power. Verbal assault is power. Dominance is power.
The tendency is for the more powerful people to abuse the weaker, smaller, more vulnerable ones. The sadists in our society are insidious. Actually, you can see this happen in miniature right in my memoir, This Hunger Is Secret. When I was in high school I was dominated over by another teen girl. She was known to be manipulative and bossy. Actually, her manipulation was so powerful and trust me, she was thorough. She made sure I could do nothing, that I was rendered powerless. She even took measures to see to it that I couldn’t speak out, by not allowing me to have other close friendships. If she found out I was close to another person, she’d find any way she could to stop this relationship. She did give me permission to have a boyfriend during that time, though, but this relationship had to meet her prior approval.
Anyway, I survived it all. Walked out. I HAD to. I had no other choice. What I did, to suddenly take off the way I did, I knew would baffle folks, but it was entirely necessary, and no one knew how bad it had gotten.
An abuser WILL see to it that you, the victim is squelched. Silenced. These abusers are scared if you are a squealer. They WILL retaliate if you speak up. This is seen often in our society. Victims so often get locked up and otherwise persecuted or pursued in some way.
If you were to apply this to my current situation, I guess it all explains why I am so paralyzed, that is, stuck in my situation. Why my medical care is nonexistent, that is, on paper only. Why I am squelched here in my community. People don’t like squealers.
Well, tough. I am a writer. I don’t intend to stop writing anytime soon. If you speak out about abuse, bravo! Just know that the perps are gonna give you a darned hard time about it. Abuse is power. Remember that.
To survive Alcott, I made a list of things I liked about myself. I thought I’d share it with you today, maybe it will help someone. The list is unfinished. Please read what I wrote afterward.
I wrote the following in July 2012:
I am actually the bravest person I know.
My body is more resilient and durable than the average human body. I have excellent physical endurance.
I am articulate.
I am well educated.
I am a skilled writer.
Some people think I’m wicked funny.
I’m wicked smart.
I can turn on the charm.
I can turn on the wit.
I can turn on the good manners.
I look cute in a tie.
I am an innovative knitter.
Puzzle is the best-dressed Schnoodle in New England, wearing her L.L. Greene sweaters designed and knitted by me.
I don’t put cute puppies and kittens up on Facebook, nor do I quote God.
I tell it like it is.
I say what I think and encourage others to do so as well.
I am good with money and write up a budget I can follow.
I don’t think I have bounced a check since the 1970’s.
I actually enjoy being poor and wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am wicked good with computers.
[skipping this next one, I have mixed feelings about it.]
I am car-free.
I am proud that I never got married.
I like my name.
I am proud of my past, my history and heritage.
I belong to an awesome church.
I am a squeaky wheel.
I overcame many bad habits that I picked up in the mental health system, including whining, rocking, and speaking like a child.
I quit smoking.
I had the same wonderful partner for 13 years and we were best buddies for four previous years.
I am a straight-A student.
I have written 5 books [now, 6].
I am a two-time [now, three] National Novel Writing Month winner.
I have written a lot of music.
I can type without looking at my hands.
I own over 700 books.
I give a damn good reading.
I am good at public speaking.
I am a member of the Gold Key Honor Society.
I ran a 5k at age 52.
I performed stand-up comedy in a bar.
I once hopped on my bike and rode 100 miles without a map and 45 cents in my pocket.
I hitch-hiked across the country with my dog when I was 21.
While undergoing brainwashing by a religious cult, I figured out what was going on, secretly tried to alert others, and got kicked out of the cult.
I make sarcasm fun.
I had sex in the McLean Hospital tunnels, made famous in Girl, Interrupted (not exactly the mile-high club).
I am a good storyteller.
I am published.
I was on the front page of the Watertown Tab once, above and below the fold.
I got a standing ovation at my grad school graduation.
I earned my undergrad degree summa cum laude.
I survived the death of my partner.
In 2005 I was brave enough to fly to the UK to meet a man I met online.
I am capable of falling in love with a person of any gender.
I am out of the closet.
It appears that I ended the list here, though I intended to continue. I had not run out of ideas but had run out of energy and time and perhaps had plenty else on my mind.
What would I add now? A lot. I have accomplished quite a bit since that time. I am in a much better space than I was then, too. I don’t need a list to remind me that I am a worthy person. In addition, I don’t need to prove to anyone else that I am a worthy person and deserve space on the planet. All humans are worthy of that. My paranoia may tell me that the planet is trying to kick me off, but the first Principle of UU tells me THERE ARE NO ASSHOLES HERE. I can look at Puzzle’s cute little face and that tells all.
…which I suppose is true.
Cuz look at it this way: I have always written a lot about shit. A nicer way to put it might be, say, doo-doo or poops. It’s part of life, folks. It stinks and when your dog drops some on the ground, you are the one stuck picking it up in a little plastic bag and putting that little bag of shit (or big bag, if you have a big dog) into some nice place where the world can’t get a whiff of it.
Cuz no one likes ugly. Hey, here are some nice ugly words…I’m going to say them because once I get into this unit, they will not allow you to say anything, anything ugly. Every word you say is censored.
food – any kind – especially specific types. Sushi, kale, mung bean sprouts. Oh, yes, we won’t be getting any of that where I’m going. Can’t talk about it, either.
Laxatives…can’t talk about diarrhea, guess it stinks too much.
Can’t talk about cancer, it’s too ugly.
And oh, death. We can’t talk about death. You know something, girlies? Death doesn’t even exist as far as they’re concerned. Like hell we don’t know you can die from an eating disorder.
Then again, many of the patients are not aware of just how many people do die of eating disorders. They don’t want us to talk about this.
Hey, do you remember Karen Carpenter? Most patients, and in fact most of the staff there probably never heard her music, cuz they were born after she died.
Yeah, I’ve had this freaking eating disorder longer than most of those people have been on the planet.
We are not supposed to discuss binge eating, or throwing up your food. I would very much like to know how to stop binge eating, but get this! They don’t want this topic discussed. It’s all about doing what you’re told and shutting up and shoving all their food into your mouth.
Weight…oh yes, this is the most important number to do with you. You are a weight and height and nothing more in their eyes. But we are never, ever allowed to mention any weight whatsoever.
Get this: Puzzle is 14-1/2 pounds and I am not allowed to say that. I am not kidding you.
You can’t talk about…well, practically everything. Only coping skills. Like how to properly deep breathe. I think I learned that quite some time ago and to tell you the truth, I don’t like sitting around deep breathing with a bunch of other people.
I learned a lot about breathing when I played the trumpet.
Sit up straight and proud. Or stand in all your glory, trumpeter.
Keep your instrument polished and shiny.
The guys used to say, “mit kech” which I think meant to play “with balls.”
Feel your whole body fill with air. Feel the air in your soul and play with all your might.
Don’t make mistakes. Just don’t. Don’t crack notes. Lies, inconsistency, and lack of confidence tend to be apparent to an audience.
Play assertively. Be clear. Be firm. Stand your ground.
You are mighty indeed.
While it is good to listen to other people’s suggestions on how to live, please remember that you are your best advisor. Follow your heart and go where it takes you.
So without a doubt, you don’t have to do any of the stuff that works for me, cuz it might not work for you. But you might want to try it on for size.
I plan to refute the notion that ALL people with eating disorders should throw away their scales and never know what they weigh, leaving it up to doctors to determine what’s best for them. Tossing out the scale works brilliantly for some people, but not everyone. Let’s just say that after 32 years’ experience with my eating disorder, and 54 and a half years’ experience living with my own body 24/7, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Since when does someone who sees me in a sterile office once in a blue moon know better about my own body than I do?
We need to redefine a lot of the vocabulary that has been put upon us by the medical and psychiatric professions. Take, for example,
What is it? My Webster’s Unabridged, to my surprise, listed the clinical definition first:
1. Psychiatry. a mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions and the projection of personal conflicts, which are ascribed to the supposed hostility of others, sometimes progressing to disturbances of consciousness and aggressive acts believed to be performed in self-defense or as a mission.
2. baseless or excessive suspicion of the motives of others.
What is a “mental disorder” but some label invented so that our doctors can charge our insurance companies to treat us? Or a label used to classify us so that we can be hospitalized, therapized, or medicated, or worse…locked up, tied up, shot up with chemicals or electric current…the list goes on. If you are given treatment for a mental disorder and word gets out, you’re going to have a hard time getting a job, keeping your friends, acquiring housing, and worst of all, it’s going to be tough to get others to treat you with respect and dignity. If you take a psychiatric medication, the side effects of the medication will be more visible to the general public than the illness the medication is supposed to be treating. So let’s toss out definition #1 for paranoia and focus on definition #2.
“baseless or excessive suspicion of the motives of others”
How do we get to the point of this baseless or excessive suspicion? Baseless means the suspicion is not based on fact, but based on a lie. Excessive means exaggerated and this exaggeration happens because we get scared. Take, for example, this non-fact:
All people with mental illnesses are violent.
And this non-fact:
People with mental illnesses have low intelligence.
People with mental illnesses don’t have real feelings. You can say anything you want to them or to their faces or in their presence and it won’t matter. Just pretend they’re not there.
People with dark skin are inferior.
People who cannot walk on two legs aren’t normal humans.
If you have less money, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough and have bad morals.
These are the lies upon which real paranoia is based. Most of this paranoia is not diagnosable mental illness. Most people have this paranoia called racism, and they have it real bad. Most people see someone with a physical handicap and assume this person does not have the same emotions and human needs as everyone else. And when they look upon someone who is mentally ill, the fear and ignorance rages.
Yes, even doctors have this paranoia. All their education does not make them immune to it. Many doctors think very little of their patients. If your doctor leaves your “chart” in the room alone with you, go take a peek:
“This slightly overweight, anxious-looking woman claims to have severe headaches….”
This was not a quote from anything in particular. I just made it up based on what others have told me of what they saw in their charts. Trust me, “slightly overweight” or perhaps “obese” will appear in your chart whether it is relevant or not. Many doctors won’t believe a word you say. Note the word, “claims.” If you have a mental illness they will go double-check everything you say because of course they can’t trust you at all.
Disclaimer: Not all doctors are like this but most are.
Next time some doctor tells you you are paranoid, look around you. Who is more paranoid, you, or the doctor?
Who is basing which assumptions on which lies? Who is more scared?
Last time you were turned down from a job, was this rejection based on your ability to perform that job? Or were you discriminated against based on your appearance, your weight, your age, your skin color, or your gender?
The real paranoid is most likely sitting on the other side of that desk.
It’s time to turn the desks upside-down, folks. This is what I plan to do. I want to break the chains and free everyone. Just keep a look out. I am coming.
It’s your body, not your doctor’s. Never let any medical standard or anyone else’s standard determine the course of your life. Your body does not belong to your husband, wife, or partner. It does not belong to your parents. It is yours. Consider it a gift that you will have for this short lifetime.
Your body is your vessel. You can’t trade it for another. Work with it and make it the best it can be.
If you think of your body as like a bicycle, by all means polish it up, keep the tires at the right pressure, and make sure it’s lubed up properly. It will serve you better if you keep it maintained. Use it regularly. Don’t let it collect dust. If you wish, add a bit of decoration, but make sure that this addition does not inhibit your bicycle’s ability to serve you.
Make your bike comfortable for yourself. If the seat is uncomfortable, perhaps a different style of seat will suit you better. Adjust the seat’s height and the height of the handlebars so that your bike fits you perfectly. Take control.
When you ride through life, take caution. Look both ways. Ride with the traffic. Know the road. Wear a helmet and proper attire. Use whatever maps are available to you. Obey the law, but remember to let the universality of common sense guide you.
Carve your own path. Undoubtedly, you will encounter uncharted territory. And when you go through these new places, enter with respect and awe. You may choose to keep records and photographs of your journey to share with others.
You are like no other in the universe. Your body is unique. Let no one tell you they know your body better than you do. As soon as you give up this control, you initiate a tragedy.
If your body is your bicycle, then learn as much bicycle maintenance as you can. Acquire the necessary tools to keep your bike in good shape. Consult manuals and repair guides. If what you are doing requires the use of more than your own hands and tools, seek the assistance of others. These people are there to assist you, not run your life. If you hire them, pay them for the job they do and parts they install.
There is nothing like a well-tuned body. A body that makes you proud. A body that serves you and takes you to wonderful places.
When it’s time to rest, put your bike in a safe place. Don’t let it get stolen. That way, it will be waiting for you tomorrow morning so you can ride again, and again.
Someday, it will be time to stop riding. You will leave your bike behind. Perhaps you will go off on foot. It’s going to feel a lot different with your feet on the ground. Take off your shoes, wiggle your toes in the mud, and tell yourself you’ve done a damn good job.
Writing as Catharsis, Publishing as Empowerment: my second full day in London, UK, with Chipmunkapublishing
I sitting in the lobby of the London hotel where I am staying, in the middle of madly reading Jason Pegler’s book,Mental Health Publishing and Empowerment. If I start to cry, I will not hold back my tears. If someone sees me sitting here all emotional and powered up, then let them go ahead and ask.
I have a story to tell.
I am beginning to write the story tonight. It must be so. I am telling the story about a woman past 50 years old, who, against all odds, hopped onto a plane for London knowing one thing: she wanted to change the world. She was not even well enough to travel. She had to jump through hoops of fire to get to this place, avoiding doctors who surely would have had her locked up and therefore making it impossible to make this trip.
You might often hear her recite her motto, “You do what you have to do to survive.” She had done just that. Sometimes, you have to lie, just like the Jews, those from whom she had descended, had covered up their Jewish identity to avoid the gas chambers.
Was the lie so wrong? Yes, there had been close calls. The threat of being forced into “treatment” was on her tail every step of the way. The authorities wanted her locked up in the name of keeping her alive. They would take away her freedom, her choice to live or die,and replace it with a life of slavery to the system she now rejected.
She walked onto the plane a free person, and the next morning, stepped onto a different continent where people did not know her, where her identity was secret…
Yes, This Hunger Is Secret. The title of her book. The key.
The thirty-two-year anniversary of her eating disorder had just passed and she was entering her thirty-third year of self-deprivation. She was the riches-to-rags girl who had hungered with a credit card in her pocket. She hungered to change the world. She hungered for God and for the pinnacle of the Universe. And now, it was on the verge of happening.
She was shown her room upon her arrival at the hotel. Yes, this is more than suitable. This is the place, she told herself.
With painstaking precision, she unpacked her things and put them into their places. It was Tuesday. Then, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday with her publisher, a man who himself had changed the world and was continuing to do so.
Learn. Observe. Listen. Be transformed. Either something would happen or it wouldn’t. Live or die. You can’t straddle both worlds for very long.
The Chipmunkapublishing offices are located in Canary Wharf, perhaps 45 minutes’ ride on the Tube from her hotel. Why, after two days, did it seem as though she’d been in this city for her entire life? The Summer 2012 Olympics will be held right here in this city. It was like a beehive, a swarm of what is to come.
Living with an eating disorder has been the only life she has known, especially for the past four years. Ignorance about eating disorders was so abundant that she had been branded a liar, an addict, a filthy abomination not fit for the common crowd. She tried on the role of bitch and wore that clothing for months.
They said she used her anorexia to manipulate others. Above all, they said, she was attention-seeking, flaunting her thinness, wearing her illness like a badge. It was a badge that made others uncomfortable because they saw a tiny bit of themselves in her. They could not tolerate that ache in their hearts that she represented. They despised that symbol, crushed it, rejected and denied it.
Hey, folks, I am coming back. If you choose to despise me, let my mere presence haunt you.
People say that in February 1983, Karen Carpenter’s death changed the world. What people forget is that she changed the world while she was alive, through her music, through her celebration and love. Anyone can do this and you don’t have to pass a BMI test to qualify.
I can and will change the world, and I don’t have to die to do it. I don’t have to be infamous and cause a stir and a huge nuisance to get noticed. Karen Carpenter did not die for anyone’s sins. She died because her body gave out. It is not the 20th Century anymore and I never was a famous singer and never got noticed.
But I am a writer. Most trained writers desire to be noticed. Writing is catharsis and publishing is empowerment. It is not the kind of power that means control over others but a feeling of self-worth and inner strength. Yes, we can.Attention-seeking is not the horrible sin folks think it is. It means making a statement and being heard. It is a myth that people with anorexia starve for attention. All we want is the same thing everyone else wants: to be loved and wanted and cared for. We do what we do because it is the only way we know. We do this to survive. To turn our backs on life so that we can live. Most of us gave up on having our voices heard long ago.
Sure, you hear me screaming here in my blog. You have sat and watched me for years. Maybe you have come here and read my rants and shaken your head and said, “She will never learn.” Or perhaps you have come here periodically to see if I was finally getting “help,” and then, seeing that I had taken the path toward death yet one more time, you had Xed out my blog, shut down your computer, and gone and watched the soaps and tried to forget about me. But maybe once or twice you freaked and got a little paranoid over my words. You called the cops on me. Hate to inform you, but the cops have a lot of respect for me now. They do not have the time for paranoid people who call them all upset over something they read on the Internet.
Like I said, I am coming back. It is my presence, not my absence, that will blow your mind.
Sometime late today at the seminar at Chipmunkapublishing I had the gem of the idea I needed. We had been discussing marketing all day. Not just marketing of our books, but spreading the word: freedom, justice, empowerment, love. I do seek attention. I have always loved reading aloud to others. I was always a ham. And this is not a bad thing. Being a ham is how you get the message across. Be daring. Take a risk. Cross the ocean. I am the bravest person I know.
I am here against all odds in every sense of the term. It is an amazing story that needs to be told. I vowed that I would begin to write that story tonight, and I am, right here, right now.
Excerpt from my writing today:
…I should try to think about how I can change the world with my writing. Right now, people don’t even know what eating disorders are. These illnesses are not caused by the fashion industry. It goes so much deeper than that. To explain why I strive to be ridiculously thin isn’t easy, because although many people want to lose weight, the way I see things, the difference between being a person on a diet and having an eating disorder that takes over your life….It has been so difficult. People want to shake me. They say, “Why do you do this to yourself, why do you want thinness more than you want to stay alive?” I want to tell them, “Yes! That desire, over life itself, is anorexia in a nutshell.”
When we use swear words in speech, there are certain do’s and don’t’s. These have somewhat changed over the years, but I notice that despite the loosening of taboo, most people are cautious when using these words, and would agree with the statement, “It depends on the situation.” I know a few people who choose not to use these words ever, and others who come out with the “F” word a number of times in each sentence they utter.
Toward the end of his life, Joe used the “F” word indiscriminately. It wasn’t that he was angry, but rather that he’d adopted it as an adjective to use in a way that I use the word “wicked” in a sentence. I believe he was hardly aware that he was doing it, and had no clue that someone might not like hearing the word. People around us realized this, and lovingly forgave him. They knew that when he came up with the “F” word, it was more often than not a sign that he was overwhelmed with positive emotion, or extremely impressed with something, such as, “That’s fucking amazing!” I forgave him as well, even though I was occasionally embarrassed at places like restaurants where there were families seated nearby who may not want their kids to hear.
Which brings me to my next point: these words are still considered “adult language.” So in many families, it is considered taboo to say these words in front of kids or to teach a child to use them. We are warned of songs and movies that contain “adult language.” In many situations, it’s the law that this disclaimer is stated in reviews, introductions, and previews. If “adult language” shows up in a movie, it may be given a rating that indicates it’s meant for older audiences. If a movie is rated G, rest assured that you won’t find a single swear word in it. But of course it’s rather naive to believe that a child won’t learn these words as his or her English vocabulary increases.
As a kid growing up in the sixties, I was a latecomer to this type of vocabulary. To shelter a kid from “adult language” was the norm in those days. Sure, my dad would come out with “damn” at times if he accidentally hit his finger while trying to hammer in a nail, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard the word. It is weird how a kid mind works. For whatever reason, if “shit” had ever been uttered in my presence, it didn’t register at all until I was taught the word by another kid, who told me it was a sin to say it and made me promise I wouldn’t taddle on her. Eventually, we decided that some swear words were “dirtier” than others, so we ranked them. “Damn” was barely a swear. “Shit” was fairly bad. “Fuck” was an absolute no-no. We didn’t even think about “ass.” Ass was a kind of farm work animal that was mentioned a zillion times in our very own Bible, which of course among us Jews meant what the Christians refer to as the Old Testament, or, more specifically, the more holy part of the Bible, the Torah, or Five Books of Moses. Yeah, there are asses all over the Torah. I don’t recall hearing the word “asshole” until well into college. These swear word compounds, such as “motherfucking” or “bullshit” weren’t used much back then, at least to my recollection, with the exception of “Goddammit.”
My dad said “damn” and “goddamn” quite a bit, but usually he’d mutter these under his breath and never used them in his “lectures” to us about poor grades or about the evils of faking an illness to stay home from school. He’d swear to himself while fixing things if the fixes weren’t working out. Occasionally, he’d get pissed and say, “Goddammit, Julie, can’t you see I’m busy?” or something like that. My mom generally didn’t swear.
When I was in second grade…let’s see, I must have been just turning seven in the middle of the school year, in January…we went skiing and I had a bit of a tumble. I had a minor ankle sprain. I think I spent only a day on crutches, maybe two or three. It didn’t hurt but it was a good way to get excused from stuff I didn’t really want to do, such as making my bed or cleaning my room. My mom, remembering the advice of an aunt, had enrolled me in a music class, but I used the sprained ankle as excuse not to go. (Actually, this kid Robbie Blake, who used to tease me horribly, attended this class and terrorized me with a clave drenched with his saliva. Claves are generally used in pairs. These are wood sticks you hit together that make a nice plunking sound upon impact. I haven’t a clue if he had the other clave in his possession, but my main worry was the germ warfare.) So I was delighted to use the sprain as the perfect excuse to get out of going to this music class. My excuse worked brilliantly. A few days without being tormented by Robbie was very nice.
It came time for Show and Tell. Do they still play this game in schools? I got up in front of Miss MacDonald’s class, my homeroom, and did my little song and dance about “damn music lessons.” I was clueless that this wasn’t said in class or anywhere at the school. Miss MacDonald took me aside and lectured me on my inappropriate language. I was so, so embarrassed and I rarely made any presentations for Show and Tell for quite some time.
I believe I was in junior high when my brothers made an amazing discovery: Philip Roth’sPortnoy’s Complaint. Yep, they had leafed through the pages and bookmarked (a real bookmark? Huh?) the pages where there were zillions of swears. We read this in secrecy, over and over to ourselves and each other, clueless as to what was going on in the book. Looking back, I am fairly certain that our absolute favorite passage was just someone’s rant. There was a big problem that my brothers and I ran into when this paperback book ended up with its spine creased right at that page. I think it was then that our parents found out. I was embarrassed. We weren’t punished, though. The book was right on the bookshelf and not hidden away somewhere. It wasn’t like we’d gone leafing through my mother’s underwear drawer.
The word “nigger” had long since change status, but was far from the swear word it is today. My mom explained that the proper word was “negro,” and that “nigger” was bad because it was slang. We weren’t allowed to use slang, believe it or not. The explanation as to what constituted slang was very confusing. Slang was for low-lifes, my mom explained. We are a proper Jewish family.
In our neighborhood, we kids joked that parents, upon hearing their kids swear, would put soap in the kids’ mouths. We kids debated at length whether this constituted morally appropriate punishment. I heard rumor that there were a handful of parents that did, in fact, do the soap thing. They were probably from the same families where having Dad take off his belt to dole out punishment was an everyday occurrence, but that’s pure speculation on my part.
I believe it was one of my brothers who sang the praises of the word “fuck.” He pointed out that it was perhaps the most versatile word he knew. What I know now is that when a word becomes that versatile and flexible in the way it is used, it automatically becomes meaningless. After all, if one were to say “fuck you” to someone, what is one saying specifically? Nothing harmful, really. It does not constitute any kind of threat in the legal sense of in any other way. It says nothing that is tangible, so how can it truly be an insult? Saying “fuck you” causes no bodily harm. Bad vibes, yes, if you see human relation in terms of vibes. One thing is clear, though, it is generally considered to be a rude thing to say. One has to be careful when saying it in friendly manner or in jest, because surely it can be taken in a way that is not intended.
The last time I said the words “fuck you” to anyone, if I recall correctly, was while I was a patient at Walden Behavioral Care. This was after I had gone to my room and burst into tears in utter frustration because once again, I’d tried to make a point while in a group and I’d been interrupted and told that what I was saying was “inappropriate.” The staff absolutely loved using the word “inappropriate,” a word that is often used while correcting a child’s behavior. Of course, I hadn’t even finished making my point. My point was quite appropriate. I was interrupted mid-sentence, in fact. As a writer, I abhor censorship. I was furious. This was the one meeting I literally walked out of.
When you’re locked up and completely under control of these staff people in an eating disorders unit, that is, all bodily functions controlled and monitored by staff, all conversations monitored and eavesdropped on for “appropriateness,” you feel so, so vulnerable. If you have never been to one of these places, you just don’t know. The idea is that we are to completely give up all control over ourselves and bow down to these staff and their so-called research-backed “treatment.” They make every attempt to brainwash us into thinking that we know nothing, we are totally wrong about the world, and they are always, always the right ones. For some unfortunates, this brainwashing lasts a lifetime, and this is precisely how people are turned into chronic mental patients. I’ve been there, trust me.
In my utter despair, I ran to my room, burst into tears, and let myself have a nice good cry. I sobbed aloud. A staff person came in after a while and, assuming wrongly I was approaching a state of mental instability instead of reaping the benefits of letting out my frustrations aloud, attempted to tactfully calm me, saying, “Julie, deep breaths….” I was so furious, only because of her attitude, that is, her desire to censor my nice good cry in the name of keeping this unruly patient “under control,” that is, control of staff, that I blurted out that lovely two-word phrase, “Fuck you.” The look of shock on her face was priceless. I knew all along that the three actions I’d taken, that is, walking out after being censored, sobbing loudly, and then making the statement, “Fuck you,” were symbolic acts done as a matter of principle.
So in comes the covering weekend doc to see patients. Let me tell you about weekend doctors: These are highly paid folks who see patients for about two minutes each, or not at all, and charge a zillion to their insurance. At Walden, specifically on the eating disorders side, our weekend docs varied in quality of advice and prescribed “treatment” doled out. Most were residents from nearby hospitals. It is the law that while inpatient you have to be seen by a doctor every day, or at least I think it is, so this was all done as token so the hospital could say it had been done. We were told by staff that the weekend docs really couldn’t do anything, anyway, except to prescribe something like an antacid or Tylenol, or, in rare cases, to respond to an emergency. The weekend docs varied, like I said. From my point of view, some were worthless, some were…shall I say, assholes?…and some were darned interesting to talk to. Once, one of them took the time, quite a bit of time, actually, to carefully read my chart, but this, trust me, was a glaring exception, and this didn’t take place at Walden, hardly. (Let me add that most doctors of every specialty in most hospitals do not read patient charts but lie and say they do.)
It was no surprise to me, after having made this “fuck you” statement, that I was assigned as first in line to see the weekend doc. The staff, or, rather, most of the staff, probably figured I needed to be heavily medicated, that is, chemically forced to shut up and obey. Meanwhile, I had done quite a bit of written analysis of the situation. I considered myself well-prepared to see this doc. And I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with one that fell into the “asshole” classification.
I walked in. The young doc I saw before me was a bearded guy, wearing, if I recall correctly, the classic hospital uniform often worn by nurses on medical floors. They no longer wear white, neither males nor females, except for their lab coats. This garb consists of loose button-down shirts or shirts that are snapped and have handy pockets, and drawstring or elastic waist pants that resemble the “johnny” pants often worn by patients. Women might wear flowery tops, and nurses in pediatric wards might wear teddy bear tops or tops that have candy canes, confetti, and ice cream cones printed on them, or perhaps cutesie cartoon kittens and puppies. You get the idea. The guy had a pen in his hand and my chart already out there before him.
He grinned at me. I grinned back. Our eyes met.
Anyone who sets pen to paper is a writer, but I was the only patient there, to my knowledge, with graduate training in writing. My training gave me incredible ability. I was only then beginning to realize this power, to seize it and put it to good use. So the fact that I had my notebook, with my writings inside, right in my hand while I sat there gave me all the confidence I needed.
The doc had already been primed by the staff, of course. I knew they’d told him I was “out of control.” I knew they’d hoped he would medicate me so I’d be less of a nuisance and less of a threat to them. I was a threat, actually, because I challenged the lies they used to keep control over the entire patient population.
The person he saw before him was hardly out of control. She was intelligent, well-educated, well-poised, witty, and articulate. In fact my skills in these areas were emerging rather suddenly and were a delight to me. With my written notes to back me, I told him in the most organized fashion I could, the story of what had happened. I ended with the statement I made a bit ago regarding the absolute harmlessness of the phrase “fuck you.” I pointed out that I had not hit anyone or caused bodily harm and I had not harmed myself. Then I said, “You know, doc, I could have said something far, far more hurtful, but I didn’t. I could have said, “You’re fat.”
Even before I said this, I had already won him over. We launched into a lively, intelligent, and enjoyable discussion. We laughed quite a bit. He seemed curious about my writing, so I shared a bit about my history, how I earned my degree…stuff like that. I asked him questions about his own life, how his studies were going, and I must say, of all the talks I had with doctors the entire time I’d been there, this was the most enjoyable and stimulating. I skipped out of there, precious notebook in hand, grinning at the nurses, whom I guessed would soon hear of the outcome: no meds, no chemical restraints for me. No sirree. Mostly because of my well-thought-out analysis of the words, “fuck you.”
Yes, writing is empowering. It’s the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. But powerful writing cannot be overdone or it loses its power. If you use too many exclamation points, they lose their power. If you use all CAPS, you risk discrediting yourself. And the same goes for overuse of swear words. Depending on your style, a swear word can be used to shock or amuse, or both. You might have one of your characters swear, and the meaning, intensity, and perhaps shock value of the swear will vary depending on the character. If the reader sees too much “fuck this” and “fuck that,” the word “fuck” fades into invisibility, losing all meaning and power.
I learned this the hard way while writing my chapter “Walking the Line” in my soon-to-be release-in-paperback memoir, This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness. The voice of my character, that is, my voice, is a bit different in this chapter from the voice I wrote in in other chapters. My awesome advisor at Goddard, Beatrix Gates, was quick to point out my overuse of swear words. She made many suggestions as to how I could trim them out of the text, showing me line-by-line examples of how I might do this. I immediately saw what she was saying and realized how my overuse of profanity weakened my writing. In fact, all at once it was quite glaring and obvious to me. So I began the enjoyable process of very careful editing. I paid attention to rhythm and timing, and kept in mind the subtle humor I meant to convey as well.
Unfortunately, I did a reading of this piece far too soon, before I had done adequate trimming. It was the only reading I did while at Goddard that I’d say completely flopped. Not only that, but the glaring faults in my writing came clear to me while I was actually standing there, reading aloud to the audience. I watched in dread, out of the corner of my eye, the faces in the audience fall, and fall, and fall, not just a couple of faces, but what seemed to me like every single face before me.
Oh shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I let my audience down. I disappointed them. I suck as a writer. I am an amateur, a coward. And so on.
Since then, I’ve been very careful when choosing what to read to an audience. Whether the work contained swear words or not didn’t matter so much as whether the work was adequately polished. I vowed that I would never, ever suck in front of an audience again. I decided that if I were to present an unpolished work, that is, a draft, it had to be presented in a certain way otherwise my presentation would flop miserably.
Yes, I have read unpolished works in front of audiences since then. But I learned my lesson. Remember the show “Candid Camera”? This was unpolished work at its finest. Before us, we didn’t see professional actors, but ordinary people with no training whatsoever who didn’t even know they were being filmed. And yet the show was hilarious. It was tastefully done, ironically, by lacking taste. The scenes were filmed as is, and then–hey, listen up, this is important–the film was clipped and edited and introduced with oh-just-so-perfect explanation, not too much and not too little, taking into account the concepts of suspense and anticipation. My guess that after all these decades, the show is still on air and still well-loved by young and old alike.
So I kept this in mind, quite a bit ago, when I read from my work, The It Notebook. This work is in fact what ended up being what I might call a “focused journal.” I’ve never altered any of it from its original, unpolished state. And yet I felt the work had enough merit and was timely enough that I wanted to present it to a live audience.
I picked out excerpts for their emotional intensity. I made sure that there was not only variety but stark contrast between the segments I chose. I kept my my entire reading relatively brief. I put all my heart, guts, and soul into my delivery. What I was presenting was a window, a rare glimpse into a very painful part of my life that had only recently ended, almost too recently. I stood there and wept while I read, not a lot, not in a way that interfered with my reading, not in a way that would make me appear helpless or out of control or someone to be pitied. My tears, which were of course involuntary, represented my candidness and honesty and depth of sharing. And you know something? It worked. It worked damn well.
This reading, done at the now-defunct Mouthful Reading Series, was in a way a closure for me on a chapter of my life, the chapter I think of as the time I spent with It. This time period seems like so, so long ago now, like history I guess. While I was going through it all, I had no clue if I would spend years with It, or if It would go away fairly quickly. In fact, the latter was the case. The act of writingThe It Notebook was what It was all about. The notebook had to be written because it was an intrinsic part of what I was going through. Never mind that while It was happening in my head, there was little else I could do but write.
I wrote. I empowered myself. It was all just so cool, now that I think of it. Looking back, I was beginning to find my Power long, long before it became clear to me that I was anything but powerless. This Power lay within the act of writing. It was always, always there, waiting me to grasp onto, and for the sake of survival, hold deeply within me, with full commitment, ever so close to my heart.
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.