Nature, nurture

I workshopped this blog entry immediately after writing it.  A few weeks later, I was hospitalized.  No, it wasn’t because of the workshop, though I’ve heard of students who felt suicidal after their pieces were workshopped.






One big debate we have at mental health websites, in particular my favorite site,, is whether our illnesses were a result of a defect in our genes or because of circumstances–“issues,” as some would say.  Freud told us our mothers were to blame; modern psychiatry puts the finger on brain chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in particular.  Medications are designed to target these chemicals and correct the imbalances; psychotherapy is for life’s “issues.”  If you are reading this, you probably already know what I’m talking about.  But did life circumstances cause the imbalances, or vice-versa?


One way I can attempt to answer this question is by looking at my own life, asking, as many do of their own lives, “What if I’d done things differently?” and writing down each scenario, each fall of the domino, as I imagine it.  What fascinates me most about this speculative exercise is when I concentrate on the period around the time I first got sick.  What if–I guarantee you just about everyone who experiences mental illness asks this–what if I’d sought treatment sooner?  Or, what if I’d undergone a different kind of treatment?  Specifically, I ask myself, What if I’d lived in a different place, went to a different school, studied something different, or had a different job?  What if I’d married so-and-so?


Ah yes, So-And-So.  Everyone has at least one that they marry or don’t marry, impregnate or use birth control, separate, divorce, widow, tear one’s hair out over, throw things at, curse for the rest of their lives–or at least for the next few days.  So-And-So was one of about 20 pen-pals I had in my late teens, my 20 pen-pals to whom I sent 20 hand-made Valentines one year, each with a different quote about love.  I had pen-pals in prison, some overseas, and some here in this country, various friends I’d met over the years (almost all of whom dumped me when I was hospitalized).  If my present self had been around to advise my 20-year-old self, the conversation would have gone something like this:


“Don’t send any of them!  ‘Love’?  They’ll think you want more, you fool.”


“But I love everyone.  I believe in peace and love.”  (It was 1978.)


“Stupid, stupid.  There are different kinds of love.”


“I love everyone.”


“But you don’t love them romantically.  You don’t want those guys getting into your pants, do you?”




“They’ll want to have their way with you.  Sex.  Get it?”


“Oh, I don’t do that these days.”  (I had made a commitment to celibacy.  Like hell I expected that to last….)  “I’ll just say ‘no.’  I promise.”


“Bullshit.  You are unable to refuse to do anything.  You haven’t yet attended that assertiveness training workshop.  You’ll learn, then, that you have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to say ‘no.’”


“Can I send the Valentines to just a few people?”


“Choose your few wisely, if you can.  This will save you about a thousand dollars in plane tickets, two weeks worth of time, and the annoyance of an unwanted marriage proposal.  And minor inconvenience and embarrassment.”


“I love everyone, and I don’t believe in marriage.”


“You’re fucked, girl.”


I went to a fortune-teller on a whim one day in San Francisco; on my 40-day-40-night hitchhiking trip (the timing wasn’t deliberate).  He said, “You will experience a major infirmity that will alter the course of your life.”  I was 21, and didn’t know what “infirmity” meant, but I knew it was bad.  I paid him and forgot about what he said until many years later.


So, I wrote, what if I’d married So-And-So, on another whim?  Would it have meant being trapped with a man I never was attracted to in the first place?  Traipsing all over Europe with him?  Probably not.  I would have left him after a month, come home with my tail tucked between my legs, whimpering, and had my nervous breakdown.


Writing more, I pleaded with myself:  If only–if only I’d stayed in school, graduated, and had that music teaching career I didn’t want…if only….But no, I would have fallen apart during student teaching, and had my nervous breakdown.  What if I’d switched to music composition, graduated, moved someplace exotic, someplace that winter never touched, if I went to graduate school, planning to get my PhD?  That exotic place would have become my Hell–I would have come home, weeping, and had my nervous breakdown.


Okay.  I dropped out of college, returned, transferred, took time off more times than I can count, and it’s probably best, I wrote, that I left when I did.  I still played in the local orchestra and had a temp position I could barely hold onto.  I drove like a maniac.  I rarely showered.  I ate nothing but Entenmann’s pastries, pepperoni, and pork rinds.  Once a week, I went to a therapist I couldn’t stand, and smoked with him in his office while he told me what he thought of me.


Here’s my favorite “What if”: What if, that crispy, crusty Vermont fall, I’d actually shown up to play in the orchestra concert?  (I did show up, but on the wrong day.)  What if –I love this one–in the middle of Charles Ives’ “Variations on America,” during, let’s say, the third variation, I’d stood up and walked out, in front of the 200 or so in the audience, the shocked orchestra gaping (brass and percussion in particular, for we sat in the back), the conductor–I can picture this–Lou Calabro, who was losing his hearing and conducted with a baton made of a wine cork, slamming his fist into his music stand, the music score pages flying into the lead cellist’s lap, and all of them watching me leave, cuss words spewing from Lou’s lips like he was the one that was out of his mind?  What if–this one’s even better–I’d stood up during that Beethoven concerto, during the pizzicato section, the oboe humming plaintively, an occasional tip-tap on the snare drum–what if I’d stood up and played the blues?  I’d have played with my gut grinding, my heart slamming in my chest, my blood like hot asphalt pouring on a rough road, waiting to be flattened, heaving, kicking, on fire.  I don’t stop there; I screech my trumpet angrily, hating the orchestra with its dusty violins and violas, hating Lou, the audience, myself especially, and then I scream with what voice I’ve got left: Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you….


There.  I’ve done it.  I’ve let it out.  I can picture Christine what’s-her-name, flautist, wearing a tight bra, heels, and mini-skirt, as she runs to the pay phone in the hall and calls 911…911…please pick up…yes, the trumpet player’s gone mad, come quick, come quick! and I’m still there screaming, the cops come and they drag me off on a stretcher, my arms and legs bound, the fat EMT’s pant and sweat, I scream and scream and have my nervous breakdown, and my parents are the ones weeping, “Where did we go wrong?  We gave her a good religious upbringing….”


I would have had that nervous breakdown no matter what I’d done to avoid it, even if my 48-year-old voice had come out of the heavens and warned that 22-year-old me, and I’d believed it.  No matter what changes I make in my imagination, no matter what changes I propose, I end up in the same circumstances, the same things happen, though maybe the location and people and particulars are different.  My fate was sealed very early on, maybe in the womb, maybe generations earlier, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done about it.


To what extent, then, do we have free will?  To what extent can we truly make major changes in our lives, even if we know ahead of time what we are in for?  We’d best at least believe we can change our fate, or people would become passive fools who watch the soaps all day and wait for life to happen–and it is this belief, though concocted on my part, that keeps me waking up in the morning, brushing my teeth, showering and throwing on clothes, putting one foot in front of the other, walking out the door–and facing the music.




One thought on “Nature, nurture”

  1. Julie, I’m in Weight Watchers On Line, and saw your thread on the Among Friends board. I couldn’t figure out the meaning of the abbreviation you used, and came to your blog to find out. I still don’t know, and now I’ve forgotten the initials. I think you write very well, and I like your honesty. Now I want to know more about the Thing leaving you when you were 40. I had a girlhood friend with whom I became reacquainted when we were in our 40s. She’d had a bad breakdown, but one day the illness left her spontaneously. She was a deeply Christian person (so am I), but she didn’t use the usual religious phrases. She knew she was healed, but she couldn’t account for the change beyond that. I’m so sorry about your boyfriend. Lorry

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