This is the library where I write most of my blog entries. Note that the old building (to the left) has been retained and the new building (to the right) is where I am now seated.
This is the library where I write most of my blog entries. Note that the old building (to the left) has been retained and the new building (to the right) is where I am now seated.
Every Thursday at 10:40am there are three of us in the waiting room: Joseph, Diane, and myself. Joseph is a tall, dark-skinned immigrant from I-don’t-remember-what island in the Caribbean; his accent is thick, and he always wears strong cologne, bright colored shirts, and a hat that I recently discovered serves to hide the beginnings of dreadlocks from his employer. Diane is a professor who teaches half the year in Vienna and half the year here in Boston. Her field: Archaeology of the Mind, some kind of juxtaposition between Freud and archaeology. She dresses smart and speaks like a scholar.
She must be crazy. We all are. We’re waiting to see our therapists. And because the three of us are together every week, we strike up conversations. Diane starts it. She doesn’t have the problem I have with Joseph’s accent; I can’t understand a word he says, except I can tell he’s gotten desperate over the years I’ve seen him in the waiting room. He’s a compulsive gambler who thinks nothing of winning and losing $10,000 in a month. To Joseph, money earned is meant to be spent, because life is lived only once, and then there is only one thing–death. And to Diane, this seems grim indeed.
I know a few things about compulsive gambling, not because of book learning but because I’ve known compulsive gamblers and I’ve seen them in action. First of all, they have the capacity for an emotional state the rest of us don’t have: “feeling lucky.” “Feeling lucky” is an emotion. I have no clue what it feels like but I can guess: restless, energized, enlightened, itchy. Secondly, a compulsive gambler gets a chemical high from gambling. You can see it when they play, the excitement in their faces, the electricity, the magic–it’s all chemical, and it’s as lethally addicting as cigarettes or heroin.
Joseph enjoys talking to Diane. They get a lively conversation going every Thursday at 11. I try to stay out of it because I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to let my problems show. Whenever the focus turns in my direction, I talk about my dog. Diane doesn’t want her problems to show, either, and she does this by focusing on Joseph’s problems and steering clear of her own. Maybe it isn’t true that she was teaching in Vienna for six months. Maybe she had a full-blown manic episode she’s trying to hide. Maybe she was dealing drugs in Vienna. Maybe she had a different appointment time for six months and is a compulsive liar.
I have known people who lied for the sake of lying and I’ve never understood it, mainly because I was taught that the truth was generally the best way to handle situations, should question arise as to how to present oneself. One lie must be covered up by a second, and then a third is necessary, and finally, lies are so tangled that it takes a genius mind to unscramble them or to be so consistent that every lie is perfectly in line with the other–the lying process is so exhausting that it can hardly be worth the effort. But like gambling, lying has addictive qualities, and that’s scary.
At around 11:03 our therapists come to get us. We all go to separate offices to talk about our mundane problems, usually mulling over the same issues repeatedly, sessions that we pay for. Diane, Joseph, and I don’t see each other for another week. I can’t help but wonder if someone, I don’t know who, in fact planned for the three of us to meet together every Thursday at 10:40 for our brief group session. Perhaps it is during this 23-minute segment that the real therapy takes place.
Very neatly done, eh?
Dr. Ryder is leaving around Thanksgiving time, and I will have to choose a new therapist. My friend Joshua suggested making a list of questions to ask each potential therapist. He had his own list of questions that he found at a website, and he used these in his search for a therapist–which, by the way, was successful.
I decided to do a similar web search. Here are some questions an experienced therapy-goer suggested:
What is your training?
What is your philosophy of therapy?
Do you work mostly with historical issues or current issues?
How long have you been practicing?
What do you consider your specialties?
Is there any particular population that you work with most?
What is your feeling about medication?
Do you work with a particular psychiatrist?
Fine. But would answers to these questions tell me anything? Probably not. Here’s how I plan to go about it:
There is some basic information I need before I can ask anything else. One therapist suggested that one should request this information over the phone, and if the therapist says I have to schedule an office visit to answer any questions, it’s time to cross that therapist off the list.
Do you take my insurance?
What is your cancellation policy?
Are you available in a crisis?
Once I’ve determined that the therapist is worthy of an office visit (having already determined that the office is accessible by public transportation by checking the office address using www.mbta.com) I will schedule a visit. Here is another point of note: if the therapist can’t “squeeze me in” for another month, I should probably look elsewhere.
The office: Is it REALLY accessible by public transportation, and if so, is the building wheelchair accessible, in case I injure myself again? If the office is cluttered with Ouija boards and crystal balls, and the therapist wears a snake around her neck, I think I’ll end the session early.
So here are some, or perhaps all of the questions I will ask the prospective therapist:
1) “What made you decide to become a therapist?”
2) “What do you like the least about being a therapist?”
3) “When you go home for the day, do you think about work, or do you set it aside and think about other things?”
4) “Looking back on your schooling, was there one teacher you’ll never forget? Describe the person.”
For the first question, I’m hoping for any response that isn’t sentimental. For the second, I am expecting most people to answer that they are most frustrated dealing with insurance companies, but this may in fact not be the case, so the answer will be an eye-opener for me. For the third question I am specifically looking for an answer that indicates that the therapist sets work aside and deals with real life when she leaves the office, because over-involvement in the affairs of patients is never a good thing.
The fourth question will tell me the most about the therapist, and she will not be able disguise herself in her reply. I will learn what qualities she admires in a person, what she aspires to, and how she feels about herself. I will learn something about her life.
By now, if I like the therapist, we will be engaged in dialogue. If the therapist is a good one, I will be eager to tell her things about myself, and will probably already have thrown in a humorous line or two (or attempt at humor) and told her all about QB.
And then, the work begins….
The other day I walked on some of the new concrete sidewalk tiles that were created over the past couple of weeks. Some kids–I assume they weren’t adults–carved their names in one tile before the concrete dried. I recall the name Angelina. There were other names as well. I promise a photo tomorrow.
If I were a child again, how would I feel about having my own name carved in concrete? Would I be proud to be memorialized in stone? Would having hundreds, thousands of passersby read my name make me feel any better about myself?
Or would I be embarrassed? Would having my name out there be a source of teasing from the other students? I imagine cringing every time I see my name, created by my own hand, read by others, a source of permanent scorn, of shame, of hatred.
Thinking of this, I rode the bus a short distance to the gym, then met with my personal trainer, Katrina, for a brief strength-training session. My goal was to learn as many new exercises as I could (and remember them afterward) to spice up my workouts. Katrina is as enthusiastic as a trainer can get, explaining deltoids and triceps the way I might talk about point of view and surrealism. We get along great.
It must have been when I was doing a biceps curl that I realized Katrina was in fact not looking at my arms. I honestly believe she hasn’t noticed. So often in the past people have stared at the self-inflicted carvings on my arms–and how have I felt? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Do I fear being teased? Does having made my pain visible, some 25 years ago, affect how I feel about myself now?
It is a question that daunts me, because sometimes I think I feel proud, proud that my pain has been memorialized on my flesh, proud of the fact that I endured–and survived.
I just finished writing this. It’s a rough draft of my essay for re-admission to Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. It’s been two years since I left, or, rather, it will be two years by the time I get back in.
It took a little while to write this, folks. That’s why you didn’t hear from me yesterday.
I’m still working on being able to write at home. So far, I can only get work done while I’m at the library.
Here it is:
In order to fully understand the circumstances under which I left Goddard in March, 2005, one would have to understand the circumstances under which I was accepted into the college and subsequently entered in January, 2004.
I imagine everyone who was accepted into Goddard’s MFA-CW program received a welcome call from Paul Selig. Mine was recorded by my answering machine; I was out at the time, spending time with the family of my beloved boyfriend, my dear Joe who had died suddenly of a heart attack only a few days before, on August 19, 2003. He and I had been together 13 years. Of course I was glad to be accepted to Goddard, but I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually unable to jump for joy.
Losing a loved one, especially so suddenly and unexpectedly, leaves one numb and passionless. I spent the fall in imaginary conversations with Joe, describing to him what I saw as I went about my day: the UMass/Boston campus, and my professor, whose hair and beard, Joe and I would have privately joked, were unkempt–ah, but Joe and I had our code words for such things; I would have described to Joe the student who talked too much, another whose poems were always about being frustrated in Boston traffic, and of course the Red Sox fan who couldn’t help but put baseball into her poems–nine stanzas, in some poems–and in my imagination I explained to Joe what a stanza was. I didn’t think he remembered.
In October I had to put my dog to sleep. Tiger and Joe were the two I loved more than anyone, and they had a special bond with each other as well. I told my brother that Tiger must have died of a broken heart. My brother said that Joe must have needed Tiger.
So I was coming to Goddard in January, 2004 with a load on my shoulders about which I told very few people. Yes, the campus was beautiful, the sky bright, the snow perfect, but I didn’t even feel the extreme cold that winter. I fell asleep during the first few readings I attended, and eventually gave up on going to readings altogether. I was able to absorb the material but did not feel passionate about what I was learning. I withdrew into myself and although I was surrounded by friendly people, I felt very, very alone.
And so my first semester went. I had made no friends at Goddard; in fact, I had no friends anyway except those I knew on the Internet. I was trying to raise a rambunctious new puppy all by myself and get my work done with no support from anyone.
What bothered me most, though, was the fact that I felt no enthusiasm whatsoever about what I was doing. Throughout my college life, I had been an overachiever in my studies, always doing more than what was required, learning for learning’s sake; I loved studying and thrived on it. Suddenly, all that was gone. My work was barely adequate according to my standards, according to anyone’s standards. I secretly hoped that my advisor, Kenny Fries, would fail me. I passed, but two days after I mailed in my final packet of the semester, I was hospitalized in a local psychiatric unit–enough was enough.
Given that I have a psychiatric disability, a hospitalization for me isn’t as shocking to those that know me as it would be if it were my first time admitted. But that doesn’t make it any less painful or scary for me. I returned to Goddard in July feeling fragile and depressed, still wishing Kenny would fail me, because that was what I deserved.
Whoever matches roommates for the residencies deserves a lot of credit. For my second residency, I roomed with Jennifer Rumford, who was and still is a godsend to me. We kept in touch over the course of my second, and her first, semester, encouraging each other and comparing notes. For a change, I had an ally, a friend, and she has helped me more than she knows.
But even with Jennifer on my side, I struggled. I was attempting to write a novel with a very close psychic distance point-of-view character based on my mother. My sister-in-law was quite excited about the project, thinking that as a writer, I’d have plenty of fun “playing” with this fictional “Mom.” But just as my real-life relationship with my mother is shaky, so was my relationship with my character. I began to hate Irma. I wanted to play with her like a doll, put her clothes on backwards, pour bleach onto her hair, and then twist her limbs into impossible positions.
I was hospitalized before the end of the semester but finished in March, then was hospitalized four more times over a period of a year. By that time, I had no hope left of ever returning to Goddard, or even taking an adult education course. I only wanted Joe back. The hospital social worker wanted me to attend a mental health day program, and when I refused, she told me there was nothing more she could do for me.
Time after time, it has been my writing that has saved me. Writing kept me sane during my insane stay at a state hospital (a prison, really) in 1986. My journal saw me through high school, helped me while I considered whether to run away from home. My writing has kept records of people and events I would otherwise have forgotten. And so, having started an informal blog in 2005, I continued it more seriously in 2006, writing in it nearly every day, little essays and words of wisdom, or sometimes simply a notation of events to inform my readers that I’m still here. I began going to the library daily to write, and found the process addicting. My blog readership has expanded to about 20 regular readers along with those who pop in out of cyberspace. And thus I rediscovered myself as a writer, no longer writing fiction, but creative nonfiction, and I take my writing very seriously.
I feel ready to return to Goddard, especially after having found the right combination of medications to keep myself healthy. One medication in particular seems like a miracle pill. It wasn’t until I started taking Topamax (jokingly called “Dopamax” by insiders) that I realized I was in fact again capable of graduate study.
Of course, given that a blog is not yet an acceptable form of publishable work, my creative thesis would consist of stand-alone personal essays about mental health. I am particularly excited to begin work on an essay on “shock treatments,” which would include reflections on my conversations with a “shock doc” and patients (whoever will agree to talk to me), plus my own experiences.
August 19, 2006. Three years had passed since Joe’s death. For the first time, on this anniversary, I was able to grieve, because now I could think clearly. Through writing, I had worked through my loss and gotten rid of the clutter in my head that was keeping me from feeling the sadness I desperately needed to embrace.
My dog had a veterinary appointment that day with his behavior specialist. My dog was particularly naughty. I was too heavy-hearted that day to feel embarrassed; the embarrassment only came a couple of days later, when I sat down at the library to report the incidents to my blog readers, to write yet one more time.
Yesterday I stepped off the #71 bus convinced that I was about to go on an eating binge. Wasn’t that what the Beings wanted all along? I haven’t binged at all since mid-July, but lately my eating has been somewhat haphazard. Considering that my thinking has been disorganized due to my medication situation, I’ve done amazingly well with food; however, I knew I was about to lose it. The CVS drugstore was right there. I figured I could buy junk food, take it home, and eat it in private. I would be so full I could burst.
The automatic doors opened for me as I tiptoed inside the store, then they swished shut. I made a quick one-eighty and marched back out onto the sidewalk. Binge? Why should I do that? I don’t do that anymore.
I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. Evil, be gone. I stopped at a store near my home WHERE I USED TO BUY BINGE FOOD (I had to get that out there) and bought a pack of cigarettes. Menthol. Smoking would get rid of the Evil Beings. It always worked.
I’m one of those people who can pick up a pack of cigarettes, smoke a bunch, then put them down again for another six months or a year when I need them again. Research shows that nicotine actually helps some symptoms of mental illness. I wouldn’t recommend smoking to anyone, though. It kills.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m getting better with the food. Hear me? Why should I binge? I don’t do that anymore.
It is clear to me now that QB’s behavior is a direct reflection of my psychiatric condition. This is not a hoax. This is not psychosomatic. I am not making this up. If dogs can predict seizures and sniff out cancer, surely they can be psychiatric barometers as well.
The incident with Carol M’s handbag that I described in my previous entry occurred on Saturday; in brief, QB tore into a neighbor’s handbag because he knew it contained treats for him, and although nothing was damaged, we were all rather shook up. This extreme gesture had me worried that something was drastically wrong with me, given QB’s psychobarometric tendencies (I knew spell-check would love that one).
The following evening I was mildly depressed and decided, in the absence of my psychiatrist (who doesn’t want to communicate between sessions) to increase my Risperdal to 6 mgs a day.
But I didn’t increase soon enough. Monday noon, the Beings decided to pay a visit. Not nice. I was terrified. This is the first time the Beings have harassed me since March. I can’t go into detail because all this is so fresh in my mind that I’m afraid, if I bring up the memories, the Beings will come back.
Fast forward to this morning. QB waiting patiently for his walk. Oh, I do love my dear little dog. Tell him to sit. Snap on the leash, and off we go. And you know something? He behaved. He was a good boy for the entire walk.
And that’s when I knew I was okay, that my little psychobarometer was back in the black, that the Beings were gone and I could again breathe easy and enjoy life. And so I am.
Does this make QB a service animal? Probably not. No one would believe that little rascal, who jumps, barks, and carries on could possibly take on the role of psychobarometricist. Let’s just say he’s incognito.
QB has the uncanny ability to reflect my mental condition well before I am aware of the changes that occur in me. For instance, I have mentioned before the drastic changes that occurred in me when I started taking Topamax. QB, I found out, noticed the changes as well, perhaps even before I did, because it was at that point that he began sleeping when he was supposed to, instead of keeping me up night after night. The change in him was dramatic, but not apparent to me until I checked my records only a few days ago.
So every time QB does something unusual or naughty, I ask myself, “What is going on with me that I need to pay attention to? Have I changed my medications recently? Am I having unusual symptoms?”
A couple of days ago, we were working on obedience exercises in the lobby, Carol M approached us, wanting to give QB treats. QB was overjoyed, as usual, and bounded up to her, jumping and scampering around. I kept him from jumping on her and encouraged him to sit for his treats. Carol uses a wheelchair and keeps treats for the dogs in a handbag hanging on one of the wheelchair’s handles. She asked me to help her get the treats out of the bag. Immediately, QB tore at the bag, snarling, attempting to get at the treats himself. He growled at me when I tried to control him, but finally I got him away from the bag and away from the scene while another neighbor put everything back in its place. Nothing was damaged, thankfully, but we were all quite shaken, I most of all.
I have come to realize that the improvements I’ve seen in QB’s behavior over the past couple of months were not true progress, that the improvements were in my own ability to handle QB. I have been increasingly worried that QB will harm someone. He has already bitten people–in play, yes, but I fear his behavior will escalate into something more serious, possibly soon, and I don’t know what to do.