The writing’s on the wall

9/5/2006


 


GRAFFITI


 


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.


 

You all are the first to see this

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.

Topamax, week 8

8/30/2006


 


I DON’T DO THAT ANYMORE


 


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.


 


 


 


 

The Psychobarometricist revealed

8/30/2006


 


QB AS PSYCHIATRIC BAROMETER



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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, Again

8/28/2006


 


QB, AGAIN



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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.

After all that work, this better not get lost in cyberspace….

Dear Admissions,

I hope that I am writing to the correct e-mail address.  My name is Julie Greene.  I am a student who completed two semesters of study at Goddard beginning January, 2004 in the MFA-CW program.  During my second semester I was hospitalized due to my psychiatric disability, but managed to complete the semester on extension the following March, 2005.  At that point, though, I was unable to continue.

Thankfully, I’m now well enough to return for the spring semester, 2007.  Just as there have been drastic changes in my life over the past two years, my writing has changed as have my study goals.  I ceased work on my creative thesis, realizing that I hated my main character (who was modeled after my mother), and began work on a blog, a series of informal essays and chats about mental health and related topics.  Through the blog, which now has about 20 regular readers (and a few that pop in out of cyberspace) I’ve come to realize that creative nonfiction is my true calling.  Many of the blog essays are stand-alone pieces.  I envision my creative thesis as a series of personal essays that center on the topic of mental health and branch out to issues such as “shock treatments,” homelessness, and the media.

I would like to come to the Port Townsend residency.  Because I am very shy and don’t make friends easily, I thought a smaller group of people would be more comfortable for me.

I have spoken on the telephone with Paul Selig and he sees no problem with my plan so far.  I understand that extra semesters will be required; that is not a problem for me, because it means more learning.

Thanks,

Julie Greene

www.breakdownlanetraveled.com

Psychosis

8/21/2006


 


MORE THAN A MISHAP


 


I’m not going to bore you with the details of my medication regimen and the changes that have been made recently, except to say that I didn’t react well to the reduction in my dose of Risperdal, an “atypical” antipsychotic medication, and–well, became psychotic on Saturday.  It wasn’t pleasant.


 


“Became psychotic.”  That could mean anything.  I will attempt to describe it, but given that not only are words to describe psychosis are difficult to come by, but also that it is painful to wring out of myself words for such a terrifying experience, my efforts may fall short of what you, readers, may be anticipating.


 


The first thing I noticed was extreme anxiety beginning a week ago, that I felt continuously throughout the week up through the present time.  My hands tremble and my insides jostle as if I were ill.  Though I’m aware of the nervousness I can’t seem to rid myself of it.  It seems constant and isn’t dependent on outside events.  I can function with it perfectly well, though.  It’s an awful nuisance but it doesn’t stop me from doing the things I want to do, and it seems to abate while I am exercising, which explains why I’ve been feeling like running triathlons lately.


 


This particular Saturday was the anniversary of Joe’s death, the 19th of August.  Three years is a short time and I miss him as if he had died yesterday.  This anniversary has been particularly difficult this year because on the Topamax I can truly feel emotions as they are to be felt, without inner turmoil mucking up my feelings and twisting them into mayhem.  I can truly feel sadness without the interference of Evil Beings or depression or eating binges.  I can feel sad and nothing else, feel the sadness in my whole body, or just in my heart or my head or my fingertips.


 


Such was the case until I became psychotic.  I noticed an increase in my anxiety level.  Breathing became difficult.  I assumed I was about to have a panic attack–should I lie down, perhaps?  I surveyed the room, feeling sick.  The radio volume increased without my touching the dials.  I sat, to keep myself from falling.  The music–boom, boom!–smacked my back.  Electricity ran through my limbs.  Something cracked.  I held my hands before me–my hand!  My right hand was gone–melted, amputated–gone; several ants scurried over the stump.  A bright light came in the window, brighter than the sun.  I held my left hand around my right wrist, and around the stump–yes, the skin was gooey, the hand had melted off–and tried to block out the Evil light.  Boom, boom!  A thousand silver fingers began speaking to me.  And that was the worst of it–the fish-like fingers speaking to me.  And here I must stop.  I cannot go on.


 


I do not recall how I managed, with all that happening to me, to realize I needed a Thorazine–fast–and to grab the bottle from the box where I keep all of the bottles (safe from the dog), and take one.  I don’t actually remember taking the pill, but it worked.


 


I phoned my therapist and my psychiatrist a while later.  My psychiatrist, Dr. P, clearly didn’t want to be disturbed (so why was she on call?).  She blasted me for bothering her.  I was left on my own to decide whether to rely on Thorazine to get me through the next few days and the coming week, or to raise the Risperdal.  I’ve done both.


 


Keep your fingers crossed for me, and so will I.

And you thought you needed tech support….

8/18/2006


 


Right here in this library, my firewall developed a sudden and severe case of paranoia.  Sygate Personal Firewall (why do they call firewalls “personal”?)–let’s call him Sy–announced that Yahoo and MusicMatch had been illegally communicating with each other and that they had to be blocked (application hijacking!).  One by one, he blocked every program I wanted to open.  First, he closed down Yahoo Instant Messenger, which I wasn’t using to begin with, then I couldn’t open my e-mail.  Word took damn long to open and finally I couldn’t get Explorer to connect even to Google.  Sy had battened down the hatches and he wasn’t letting anyone in.  And you can bet he was standing right behind the door with a loaded gun in his hands.


 


I had no choice.  I’ve tried altering Sy with no luck.  It was time, I decided, to uninstall him.  Let him have a little time for himself, in cyberspace somewhere away from my computer, where he can get his rest, nutrition, and of course meds.


 


Sad, isn’t it?

QB, again

8/17/2006


 


QB-RELATED STRESS


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Stress isn’t the problem; it’s how one handles that stress that matters more.


 


1


An incident that may seem minor to others has caused me nightmares.  When I picked QB up at doggie day care www.thepoochpalace.com the person who got him for me, a new employee, obviously didn’t know how to properly place a choke collar on a dog, because when he brought QB out, the collar was put on in such a manner that it would have slipped right off him had I not seen the employee’s mistake and corrected it before leaving the building.  Had QB gotten loose, he would have been hit by a car within minutes. 


 


That night, and every night following, I have dreamt horrible scenes that I needn’t recount here.  I even have these nightmares during the day when I take naps.


 


2


I was awakened from my nightmare last night by my building’s fire alarm.  Loud and annoying, it was doubly annoying because QB fears it almost as much as he fears vacuum cleaners.  The alarm rang for about ten minutes and QB carried on with his barking for another ten minutes or so after the alarm had ceased to sound.  I tried to calm him.


 


3


While QB and I were out Tuesday evening, we saw some kids I wish now I had completely avoided.  I knew, as soon as I saw them, that there would be trouble.  Several of them piled into a fenced in yard while two remained on bikes outside the fence.  I proceeded ahead, cautiously.


 


“Lassie, Lassie!” the kids screamed, riding close to QB, then pulling away, teasing him.  More kids ran into the street.  “Lassie, Lassie!”


 


“Lassie, the barn’s on fire!”  The kids jumped and whistled in front of QB, who at that point was barking and jumping out of control.  “Lassie!”


 


I realized that in addition to trying to get a rise out of QB, the kids were trying to get a reaction from me.  They didn’t get one, but on the inside, I felt like crying.  I know I acted like a brat when I was a kid, but that doesn’t excuse their bad behavior.


 


4


This morning, maybe around 5am.  I was hungry, and still frazzled from last night’s fire alarm annoyance.  My hands were shaky when I took my medication organizer out of the drawer.  I dropped it on the floor.  Pills bounced out everywhere.


 


Panic.  The dog.  I was in panic mode.  I put my guitar in front of the entrance to the kitchen, to “suggest” to QB that perhaps it wouldn’t be the best idea to come in, then I grabbed some Iams Puppy Biscuits (his favorite) and tossed them toward the front door.  While he was eating the biscuits, I picked up as many pills as I could quickly find.  Here, I draw a blank entirely; I have no memory of putting QB in his crate, but somehow I got him in there and swept the floor.  One pill was missing!  Did QB eat it?  Did he?  Another look at my pill organizer indicated that there were no missing pills, that we were in the clear, so I let QB out of his crate, and I could breathe again.  The scare was over.


 


Stress isn’t the problem; it’s how one handles that stress that matters more.  I’m still shaking, I’m still exhausted, I’ve still got pictures in my mind of QB eating pills and getting teased and hit by cars and trapped in barn fires, but I’m not falling apart.  I’m sitting here in the library writing, making something of these stories instead of keeping them inside and letting them stew.  I’m making constructive something that could have destroyed me.  I’m twisting these stories and shaping them in such a way that they make sense and relate to each other in a way they never did before, except that they are all about my beloved dog.


 


When I was in Metropolitan State Hospital, now closed down, my life had more to do with survival than recovery.  The threat of being beaten or otherwise harmed, by staff or other patient, was just as real as the threat of self-harm.  One of the workers was a prisoner on work release, who told me in confidence that Met State (or “The Met,” as we called it) was as restrictive and as cruel as any prison he’d been to, that it didn’t make sense that we should be punished for being sick.


 


As you can imagine, my stress level was very high.  It was not an atmosphere conducive to recovery.  Any outburst on my part, even tears, would delay my discharge from the “hospital.”  I had to stay in control even though my insides felt like something that just came out of a blender.


 


It’s how one handles stress that matters.  I had some paper and pens with me, and I began to write.  Staff and patients alike looked over my shoulder to see what I was writing, but that did not stop me; I kept writing.  I wrote about everything I saw and heard and felt and experienced.  I wrote about the fight that had broken out that morning just outside my room, and the worker who had made a pass at me.  I wrote every detail, from the lace on a patient’s blouse to the sound of a worker’s nails clicking against her clipboard.  Everything.


 


Writing was what kept me together in that cruel world of The Met.  I was released, and as soon as I had the opportunity, I wrote a long piece, about 65 pages, about my three-day stay there.  The piece wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t even passable.  But it got me writing.  It got me to realize that writing could save me, and indeed it has, many times.


 


But dear little QB, could you please, pretty please stay out of trouble for a while?


 

It’s up to you, dear readers!

8/15/2006


 


WHERE AM I GOING?


 


The first “sign” of it occurred when my late neighbor, Lee, commented on my hair.  “You should have it washed, cut, and set, once a week,” she told me, “and once a month, get a rinse.”


 


By “rinse,” she meant a coloring, such as the navy blue hairdo she had.  I have heard that something in the eyesight of older folks causes them to see their blue hair as gray, and they actually ask for those hideous shades.  As for getting one’s hair washed once a week, I think not.


 


The next “sign” I took note of happened about ten years later.  I overheard a neighbor say of me, “She always leaves on her bicycle at the exact same time every day.”


 


Wait, wait, a pattern is emerging.  You’ll see.


 


Fast forward to last spring, 2005.  My knee injury–remember that?  I used a walker sometimes.  My neighbor (yes, this piece is about them) said to me, “Why don’t you get a fancy walker, one with wheels, from Springwell (the senior agency)?”  See the pattern?  They want my infirmity to be permanent, like theirs.


 


In case you don’t already know this, I live in senior housing, that is, I am 48 years old and I live in housing for the elderly and disabled.  Over 90% of the people in the building are seniors.  The rest of us keep to ourselves.


 


Remember when I used a cane?  Several neighbors suggested a cane with those little feet on it.


 


I hurt my back, just a little muscle strain, recently, and my neighbors suggested I use a cane.  What the fuck do I need a cane for?  So I can be just like them.


 


Here’s an interesting twist: Every time I go out, my neighbors say to each other, “She’s going for a walk again.”  They refuse to believe I’m going anywhere.  Why?


 


My elderly neighbors have very small lives.  Their physical space usually doesn’t extend beyond the hallway, the mailboxes, and once a week to the grocery store.  Their social space doesn’t go much outside the building and once a week their kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids.


 


They can’t conceive that anyone else in the building has a life beyond what they have.  They don’t realize that I go places–to the gym, to the library, to therapy, with QB to doggie day care, into Boston.  They can only believe that I go for a walk. 


 


And so, dear readers, next time one of them says to me, “Going for a walk again?” what shall I say?