A school paper

Here is the paper I wrote tonight.  I thought it would be of interest.  Because I have to copy and paste onto Notepad, and then copy and paste onto here, the italics don’t come through.  Pretend the titles of books are in italics.  I knew you’d forgive me.

Anne Sexton was born in 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts.  She married at the age of 19, worked as a model, then started a family.  She suffered postpartum breakdowns, attempted suicide, and was diagnosed bipolar after the births of her children and deaths of her parents.  She began writing poetry as therapy in the late 1950’s and was met with immediate acclaim.  She is known as a “confessional” poet who writes autobiographically.  She committed suicide in 1974. To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) is her first published collection of poetry.

 Robert Lowell was one of the first “confessional poets” when he came out with his collection, Life Studies.  To Bedlam and Partway Back, Anne Sexton’s first collection of poetry, follows in Lowell’s footsteps because it is “confessional”–that is, highly derived from personal experience; furthermore, both collections deal with the authors’ experiences in mental institutions.  The two collections are surprisingly alike.  They were published only a year apart.  Lowell was the more experienced poet, eleven years older than Sexton, but they were both well practiced as the “gracefully insane,” as Sexton put it, in mental hospitals for the wealthy of that time period.  According to information available to me, they both had bipolar disorder.

“Confessional” may be defined as the tendency of a poet to insert personal experiences into his or her poetry, in particular intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about him or herself such as contemplation of sexuality, illness or despondence. This movement arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in addition to Lowell and Sexton, these also included W.D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg.

I would define myself as a “confessional writer.”  It is a given that almost all creative nonfiction writers are “confessional writers,” especially those of us who write about ourselves as mental patients.

As a “confessional writer” writing about my experiences as mental patient, I face the dilemma that Lowell, and especially Sexton, faced when writing their “mental hospital” (nuthouse) poetry: How much does the poet/writer assume his or her readers already know about mental illness and mental hospitals?  The reason that this becomes a dilemma, the precise reason, especially in the case where patients were hospitalized for long periods (up until HMO’s became the relatively dominant health insurance providers; say, in the late 1980’s) is that patients are so immersed in their own care that we tend to forget that we once were outsiders and knew nothing of mental hospitals, mental illness, therapists, medication, and the like.  We are so isolated in the hospital, talking only to other patients and the people that work there; if it weren’t for the ward television and occasional visitor, outside life could disappear completely and it would not be missed.  In this way, perspective is lost, and continues to be lost long after we leave the hospital.  So when I have been faced with writing about my treatment experiences, I sometimes leave out key facts not only about the programs and treatments I’m describing, but also about myself and my own illness and where it all fits into my life.

Keeping this in mind, let’s look at Sexton’s poem, “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn.”  One of the first things we notice is that a prayer is inserted into the poem in italics.  Here it is, extracted: though I walk through the valley of the shadow/I will fear no evil, fear no evil/in the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies  This is David’s psalm, the scary lines isolated and repeated for emphasis.  This narrator must be very frightened indeed.  The tree is “suspicious” and “looks around for me.”  The grass “reach(es) my way.”  The sky “breathes upon my face.”  “The world is full of enemies.  There is no safe place.”

Note that the narrator sees herself as the center of the scary scene.  Everything–the tree, the grass, the sky–is against her, everyone is an enemy, and no place is safe.  Welcome to paranoia.  No wonder the patient is praying.  But for someone who has never experienced paranoia, the poem couldn’t possibly be as powerful, at least not in the same way; to the inexperienced, it would be more didactic or eye-opening.

There is other “insider” knowledge that supplements this poem.  When a person has been locked up indoors for a long time, and then suddenly allowed outdoors, everything seems very, very bright, and the brightness stings the eyes, even if the sky is cloudy.  Wind seems ten times windier.  Grass and leaves seem too green.  Also, the smell of grass, especially if it is freshly cut, is very strong.  The world outdoors is much, much wider.  Sexton is telling us exactly this, but if the reader doesn’t know this is actually being experienced for real, he or she may dismiss Sexton’s descriptions as “all in her head” instead of being part of an almost physical sensation shared by many patients.

We could spend pages examining the many poems in this collection that refer, in whole or in part, to the asylum or to madness, but I do want to look briefly at the title of the collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back.  

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary V. 3.0 defines “bedlam” as follows:
bed·lam  (bedÆlÃm), n.
1. a scene or state of wild uproar and confusion.
2. Archaic. an insane asylum or madhouse.
[a popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, which served as a lunatic asylum from ca. 1400; cf. ME Bedleem, Bethleem, OE Betleem BETHLEHEM]
—Syn.1. disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium.

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Bedlam” was an inside joke among patients while Sexton was hospitalized.  It is common for patients in any hospital to have inside jokes; this is a natural response to the oppression they experience, in the name of “safety,” on the ward. 
Why does Sexton only come partway back and not return fully?  This is another aspect of the collection that can be supplemented by experience with mental illness: it is rare that someone comes back all the way following a lengthy stay in a mental institution.  Earlier this semester I read Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness.  Slater was hospitalized for lengthy periods in her adolescence and young adulthood.  Although Slater makes a full recovery, she is deeply haunted by the past throughout the book; she is terrified that someone will discover her can of worms.  In this manner, though she has impressively regained full poise, she only came partway back.
Why Part Way and not Partway?  This is no accident.  It can be read as partway back or part (way back).  The term “way back” could mean a back ward (backward); it could also mean one’s head is way back, that one is insane.
In my own writing, I must learn exactly how much to “tell” the reader and how much I want the reader to infer.  Telling too much has its natural pitfalls in any prose writing.  Not telling enough will frustrate the reader.  Ideally, I should give enough clues that the reader has to work a little, and see the fruit of their work as the writing unfolds.  For the reader who is a mental patient, this may mean more fruit, not a bad thing; they say it keeps psychiatrists away.

Day Treatment

“You have to understand.  Some of the people here are very ill.  They have just come out of, er, the state hospital,” and here the therapist, Diana, lowered her voice. “Urban State Hospital, you see.”  She was seated next to a large, unused desk, with her arm leaning against it, and was dressed in a matching tweed skirt and blazer, and I, in attempt to look presentable for my first day at Crossroads Day Treatment, wore a plaid shirt, convincingly worn jeans, and a denim vest I’d bought at a thrift shop that I was convinced made me look thinner.  Outside the office door, footsteps rumbled down the stairs.  The window, to my right, was cracked open and a rusty October breeze slipped through, playfully sweeping the simple, white curtain to and fro.  I felt pressured to say something in response to Diana’s comment, but I shrugged my shoulders, and, feeling stupid, said nothing.  “So you will be with all sorts of people, you know, during lunch and on Wednesdays when we have our outings–we, er, go in vans, all together, as a group….”  Diana cleared her throat.  I tried to look at her but found my eyes resting instead on a green ceramic frog on the desk.  She handed me a schedule of groups.  “Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays we have regular groups, with a two-hour lunch break.  Group Therapy meets on Mondays and Fridays, with Rick and me.  Don’t miss Group Therapy.”

The door opened.  I jumped.  A large man wearing a t-shirt and tie loomed in the doorway.

“Kevin, I am in a meeting with Julie now.”

“A new client?”  Kevin’s voice was a deep, friendly basso.  “That’s a pretty name, Julie.”

“Kevin, you can meet her later.”

“No, I want to meet her now.  She’s a pretty girl.  When do I get my meds?”

“You can ask Emily.  She’s the nurse.  See you later, Kevin.”  Diana resumed her explanations, running her fingers along the pleat in her skirt.  “Wednesday the doctor comes.  If you are going to be taking medication, you’ll meet with him then.”

Medication?  At the time, it was beyond my perception that there were medications that might help me.  My knowledge of psychotropic medication consisted of the sedative (“sedagive”) given to the Frankenstein monster in the movie Young Frankenstein.  I had never heard of antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers.  If I had known that there were medications that could have helped, even then, I certainly would have asked if I could give them a try.

“We have Family Issues group twice a week and Art Therapy in the building next door on Fridays.  In the beginning of each day we all meet together for Community Meeting, and at the end of the day for Wrap-Up. Each therapist meets with her–or his–own clients for Administrative Group in the morning as well.  I’ll be meeting with my clients here in the Blue Room.”  Rooms in the building were named after the subway lines in Boston, the Blue, Red, Green, and Orange Rooms.  Group Therapy always took place in the Green Room. 

And then, quite suddenly, Diana set me loose at Crossroads Day Treatment, to acclimate and acquaint myself with the other clients before my first “group.”  Already, ten or twelve clients had arrived, and several were strutting nervously in the kitchen.  The building had originally been a church rectory; it was lacking the institutional feel I’d expected of a psychiatric institution.  The kitchen was equipped with the usual appliances; coffee was brewing; for 50 cents one could enjoy a cup with Cremora or sugar or Sweet ’n Low.  A sign above the kitchen doorway clearly indicated that the dining room was the only room where smoking was allowed.  It appeared that the dining room was also the main social room, with its pine wood tables and chairs, ashtrays strategically placed at each table, and a large wastebasket near the door.  Two older women sat quietly drinking coffee in the corner of the room; I later would see them in Group Therapy.  The living room was up front; although smoking wasn’t allowed there, smoke from the dining room made visible beams of light streaming in through the front curtains; Kevin lay fast asleep on the couch, his shirt slid up exposing his fat, bare belly, his tie under his armpit.  He snored loudly.  I tiptoed back to the dining room, where much of the activity had started up.  A woman who appeared to have Down’s Syndrome repeated, “Tim, Tim, Tim!”
The client who I later learned was named Tim turned to her and said, “Tina, shut up.  You’re embarrassing me in front of the ladies here.”  He was a large man; looking around, I noticed that everyone seemed overweight.  I took note of this; I was later to learn that almost all psychotropic medications cause weight gain.  Tim was sweating profusely; he wore a filthy sweatshirt jacket but I sensed that his sweating came more from nervousness than from hyperthermia.  His leg bounced up and down while he sat, fidgety, in his chair.  “And this one is Julie.  She’s new.  You look too pretty and too smart to be here, Julie.  You’re smart, right?  You look plenty smart.  You don’t smoke?  You Jewish?  I can tell.  Shawlom.   I know a chosen one when I see one.  In the end, all the Jews will convert and Christ will lead them–it says in the Bible–right guys?  You don’t smoke?  Why don’t you have one of these doughnuts?  You’re too smart to be at Crossroads.  You should get out while you can–right, guys?  It says in the Bible–”

“I–I–I j-j-just wish he’d stop t-t-talking about the B-b-bible,” a young man’s voice said from the kitchen.  I leaned over and saw a very tall bearded man shaking his arm in front of him while he spoke.  “W-w-where’s Emily?”

“It depends on what you mean by television,” said Richie S.  “Have a cigarette.”  But he didn’t offer me one, and I didn’t want one.  I hadn’t yet entered the dining room, and he in fact was not looking at me, but staring at nothing, or perhaps at a piece of dust in front of his face.  Richie’s facial expression never changed; he was always profoundly troubled.

Tim D continued, “Betcha don’t smoke.  You’re too smart to smoke.”

“No, I don’t,” I admitted.  I would learn that besides myself and the five other members of Group Therapy, Tim was one of only a handful that could sustain a conversation.

“Everyone here smokes.  Want one, Richie?  Take one.  Here.”  He handed Richie a Parliament, then lit one for himself.  “Nicky doesn’t.  He shakes too much.  Emily, she’s the nurse, she told him he better give it up or else he might set the place on fire.  Blow the place up.”

Richie began to laugh, smoke emitting from his wide-open mouth.  “Blow the place up, that’s very funny, blow the place up, ho ho, ho ho….”  He coughed, then gathered up spittle, and spat into an ashtray.

I closed my eyes for a moment.

Tim continued, “What hospital you come out of?  Waltham?  St. E’s?” 


“Where were you locked up?”
 People who had just arrived in the kitchen were laughing–at what, I wondered.
“Um, I wasn’t.  I just come to this program now.”
“Uh, yeah.”

 “Sucks, huh?  A nice, smart girl like you, in a place like this.”
I was still standing in the doorway of the dining room, afraid to enter.  One by one, several clients turned toward me, looked me over, then sat at tables, removed cigarettes from pockets and pocketbooks, and lit up.  I would learn very quickly that cigarett
e smoking was, at the time, at the social core among mental patients.  Where there was smoke, there was conversation.  More “group therapy” happened in smoking rooms than ever happened in official Group Therapy run by staff; more friendships were started, more conflicts resolved, more communication, more love, if you could call it that, happened within the confines of those places where smoking was allowed.  Now, of course, smoking is no longer permitted in hospitals and most places where mental patients gather; the magic and mystique of the smoking room is lost forever.
I had learned about the program from a family acquaintance who had had good results here; she was about my age.  We’d chatted on the phone at length and she’d explained, “There are a lot of people there who come from the state hospital.  They talk to themselves.  You just have to tolerate it.  After a while, it’s like they’re not even there.” 
I backed away from the dining room doorway.  The smoke was getting to me.  A woman around my age, a pretty woman wearing jeans and a sweater who I would later learn was named Irene, invited me to sit with her.  “In a while,” I responded.  “Thanks.”
“You shy?” she asked.  “C’mon, let’s talk.”
“Yeah.  Sorry.”  I was in fact very nervous.  It wasn’t so much the strangeness and newness of the place and the people but the mere number of people around me; by now about 20 clients had arrived and were milling around the place; the dining room had filled with smokers and people enjoying coffee and doughnuts.  But no, in fact it wasn’t the sheer number of people at all, nor was it the fact that some of the people I was meeting were very different from me; it was the people like Irene I feared the most.  She appeared too friendly.  Don’t trust.  Don’t tell her anything.  Don’t eat lunch with her; don’t sit with her; don’t talk to her.  Stay away.  Making friends with anyone, ill or well, was one of the most frightening things I could possibly imagine, and here, at Crossroads, I was to face that possibility, and it scared me hundreds of times more than being in groups with Richie or Tim D or Kevin, or even becoming a lot like them.

“Does anyone have any community issues?”  Community meeting had begun, and Diana had introduced me, telling the “community,” some 35 clients and therapists, that I would be in her “administrative group,” in other words, that she would be my therapist while I was in the program, which at the time I thought would be a few weeks.  I spent nine months there.

“No community issues?”  Rick asked.  Rick was the therapist who ran Group Therapy, and he was running this group as well.  I immediately liked him.  He had more than a twinkle in his eye; his whole face twinkled.
We were seated, all of us, in a large circle.  The church had rented their basement to the program to use for larger groups and groups that required lots of space.  Cabinets on the far wall contained art supplies, I assumed.  After I’d stared at it for a time, I noticed the basketball net up in the front of the room was twitching in the barely perceptible breeze. 

“Yes, I have one,” said an older, hoarse-voiced woman.  Her deformed hands were gripped around her belly.   “No one throws away their coffee cups.  I have to pick up after everyone.  The kitchen is a mess.  The dining room is a mess.  Why do I always have to be the one–”

“Shaddup, Leslie,” said Tim D.  “Every morning, the same thing, every morning.”

There was general hubbub in the room.  Someone began to whistle.  Rick held up his hands to form the letter “T.”  Time out.

Rick said very quietly.  “You both have a point.”

Leslie said, “He interrupted me.  He interrupted me!”  She flailed her arms in the air and shouted, “You!  You!  You!”

“Hear me out,” said Rick.  “The coffee cups need to be thrown out.”

“Here here!”

“But Leslie, you don’t have to take on the responsibility of cleaning up after everyone.”

“Here here!”

“Tim, you need to be polite and tolerant.  If there is anything further to discuss about this, we will bring it up in Administrative Group.  And Group Therapy.”

Administrative Group was like a repeat of Community Meeting, only in miniature.  Diana asked each of us, her specific clients, how things were going for us in general, whether we’d showered, if we were having symptoms–I’d showered, but I didn’t know what “symptoms” were, really, because I wasn’t aware that I had any sort of illness; I had problems; that was all that I knew, or would admit at the time.  A young man named Kevin–a different Kevin–reported that he’d been hearing voices.  “All the time, I hear them, Diana,” he said.  He had deep, sad eyes circled with dark fleshy patches.  I felt sorry for him.  

 “Kevin, we’ve tried every medication,” Diana replied.
“I still hear them,” said Kevin.  “Even when I sleep, I hear them.”

 “Maybe, then, the voices are only your imagination.”

After art group, lunch.  I stole away to my car, avoiding Irene and Tim D; each had separately asked me to lunch.  I didn’t want to eat lunch with anyone and I didn’t want to eat lunch.  I was fasting that day.
I had two hours to fill.  I didn’t want to drive back home, if I could call my parents’ home “home,” for it truly wasn’t.  I was homesick for college, for music, for the love of learning.  I wanted to banish the thought.  But it was strange that I had hardly thought about school after I dropped out.  I hadn’t composed a note of music or practiced trumpet once.  I was deep, deep into something horrible, a stench, an enveloping goo, a dark, air-stripped tunnel of hate so intense that music, no matter how beloved, could not penetrate it.  But now I had an idea.  And I didn’t want it on my parents’ telephone bill.
I gathered together some change.  Not enough.  So I stopped at a nearby convenience store, bought a Fresca, secured some quarters, and located a reliable pay phone that afforded reasonable privacy.
I knew my advisor’s number by heart.  I hadn’t dialed it many times, but the number was an easy one to remember.  I didn’t know if I was shaking from hunger or from nerves.  “Yes, Jeff?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s, it’s–Julie.”
“It’s who?”
“Julie.  Julie Greene.”
“What do you want?”
“I just thought I’d say ‘Hello.’  To let you know, to let you know I’ll come back to school, I promise, after I work a few things out.  Just a few problems, that’s all.  Like I explained when I left.”

 Jeff Levine, as my advisor and instructor at Bennington College, could be intimidating at times; at other times he was kind; at all times he was an impeccable teacher and ally.  But when I told him, back in July, that I was leaving school because of “psychological” problems, his demeanor changed.  It was as if his attitude toward me had undergone an eclipse.  His whole face sunk in.  “You’re my top student,” he had said.  “You’re doing so well.”

 “I’m not, actually,” I had replied.  “There are things–things you don’t know, nobody knows.  I can’t tell you.  I need to see a doctor.  Soon.  I need to move in with my parents.  I can’t be alone anymore.  I can’t bear this.  Just believe me.”
“If you leave now, Julie, with only one semester left to go until graduation, don’t you think–”
“I must.”
Jeff shook his head.  “Okay.”  He sighed, looking out over the fields.  “But there’s one thing, Julie.  If you leave now, you’ll get involved in something.  You’ll get distracted.  I don’t think you’ll ever come back.”
 The phone line crackled.  “Jeff?”
“What do you want from me?”
“I just need to know that you still believe in me, that’s all.”
“Julie, I don’t have all day to talk to you.”
“Is there anything else?”
“I go to a program now.”  No response.  “A special program.  I just started.  It’s supposed to help me.  Um, Jeff?”  I breathed.  “A lot of the people smoke there.  Cigarettes, I mean.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“I guess I’d better go.”  I hung up.

 Contemporary Issues group consisted of watching a videotaped portion of the Phil Donahue Show.  Donahue and his guests were discussing the blame and shame society placed upon people who received Welfare benefits.  Most of the guests were Welfare recipients; one was a social worker.  At the end of the segment, Rick, who was running the group, switched off the TV, and said to the seven of us who were in the group, “So, what does everyone think?”
“I think it sucks!” said Tim D from the corner of the room.  He began to laugh loudly.
“Shut up, Tim,” said Irene.
There was silence in the room.  Then a shy-looking young woman raised her hand.  “I’m ashamed that I’m on welfare.  Embarrassed.”
“If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em,” someone said.

 “Strike three, group’s over!”

 “Shut up!”
“Yeah, shut up!”
“Jenny, can you say that again?  About being embarrassed?  Can you say more?”

 Jenny, the shy girl, shook her head.  Her eyes were full of tears.

 “How many people here are on Welfare?”  Hands went up slowly.  Someone burped.  More hands went up, except mine.  
“It’s a sin,” said a young man sitting up front.

 “It’s no sin,” said Tim.  “It says in the Bible that God forgives us for–”
“For what, Tim, for being a leach off of other people?  Come off it!  ‘Bout time you quit that Bible stuff,” said Leslie.
“I want a cigarette.”
“Here, have a fucking cigarette.  It’s menthol.”

 “I don’t want your fucking cigarette.”

 Rick said, “What do you think, Irene?”

 “I wish I was working.”
“I’m ashamed I’m not working.  My kids are ashamed of me.”
Blood rushes to my face.  I can feel it.  They know.  They know I’m embarrassed.  They’re going to catch me in a lie no matter what I say.  I want so much to belong here.  I want–yes, I want to be like them.
“I had government assistance to pay for college,” I said.  “I guess I was embarrassed.”  A lie you stupid fool.
“You’re very lucky,” said Leslie, “to go to college.  I would have liked to go to college, if I’d had the chance.”
“Me too.”
Okay what I really mean oh god is that I’m fucking embarrassed I had it so easy, then, so easy, and didn’t have the strength to fucking struggle with real life the way you did, don’t have the calluses on my hands to prove it, I’m embarrassed that I’m different, I am ashamed of my fucking bank account.
“What are you doing here, then,” asked Leslie, “if you’re so smart?  What’s your problem?  Where were you at lunch?  Why won’t you talk?”
I looked at Rick, who said, “Julie doesn’t have to tell us anything on her first day.  She’ll have plenty of opportunity, though, in the next group, Group Therapy.”

Only certain “high functioning” clients were picked for Group Therapy, and I was one of them.  “High functioning” and “low functioning” were dirty words I’d come across many times during my stay at Crossroads, which meant essentially that if you could carry on a reasonable conversation and relate to other people in a reasonable manner, you were high functioning.  If you couldn’t, you were “low functioning.”  It went deeper than that, but on the surface that was how it seemed.  The six members of Group Therapy, besides myself, were Irene, June, Leslie, Jackson, and Roy; I knew their names already, so the silly introductions were superfluous.  
Jackson appeared very nervous.
Leslie was applying hand lotion.
Irene said, “I don’t think it’s right that Leslie puts on hand lotion during group.  It’s distracting and she’s not really participating, she’s putting on lotion and that’s not right.  It means she’s not really paying attention.”
June whispered something about a tissue and started fishing for one in her purse.
“Jackson has an issue,” said Irene, “and nobody’s paying attention.”
“I’m listening,” said Roy.

“I know Jackson has an issue,” said Leslie.  “He told me so at lunch.”
“Oh Jackson,” said Irene.  “Look at Jackson.  He’s shaking.  He’s got so much anxiety in him.  He needs meds real bad.  Jackson, take an Ativan, for Gods sakes.  Look at you.”
“Oh, Jackson,” murmured June.  “Here’s a tissue.   There.  Let it out.  Is it your mother again?”  She turned to Leslie.  “His mother, you know.”
“Yes, it’s his mother.”
Roy stretched.  He was wearing a heavy cable-knit sweater and jeans.  “Jackson, you’ve got to tell her to stop arranging dates for you.”
“Is that what she’s doing, Jackson?”
“Did Jackson tell you that?”
“Oh, Jackson.  Let it out.”
Irene said, “She’s not your fucking matchmaker–”
Jackson wailed, “Don’t say fucking about my m-m-m-mother….”
June said, “Jackson, can you refuse to go on those dates, just cancel?”
“Tell your mother you won’t.  Tell her.”
“Yeah, tell her.”
“Oh, Christ.”
“Take an Ativan.”
“I c-c-can’t tell her.  She’s my mother!”
“Tell her.”
“Blow your nose.  Here.  Blow.”
“Tell her.”
tell her tell her tell her tell her why don’t they–
“Jackson, sober up.”
 “Ask Julie what she thinks.  She hasn’t talked.”
“Not a word.”
My eyes were little slits.  Paisley patterns thumped behind my eyelids, pissing fuzz in my pupils, tingles in my fingertips, rattles in my toes.  The floor rose and fell; the earth itself rose and fell beneath me, and all went gray.  I gripped the chair.  Martians.  I had to get out of there.
“Not a word, Julie.”
“She’ll talk.”
“Say something.”
“Let her talk.  Don’t interrupt.”
“Julie’s going to say something.”
Roy cleared his throat.
I said, “It’s very nice meeting all of you.”
Irene said, “She talked.”  Her long, expressive fingernails were painted purple.
Jackson said, “I need another tissue.”
June said, “I only have a napkin from Dunkin Donuts.”
“Yeah, gimme that.”

 And so, I settled into the routine at Crossroads.  After a few months I had taken up smoking and had put on ten pounds, though I wasn’t taking medication of any sort.  My hair became knotted from neglect, and I made a habit of wearing a hat to cover it.  I dressed unbecomingly, choosing soiled clothing over cleaner clothes when I dressed each morning, my tattered old jacket over the newer down jacket my mother had given me, “With an adjustable waistband,” my mother had explained when I opened the package on my birthday.  The next semester came without a thought; I was still at Crossroads, and, despite all the warnings I’d given myself, Irene was my best friend.
The subject was finally brought up, in Group Therapy, that I had not once discussed my problems, that I’d kept the focus on everyone else’s problems.  I was supportive, the group said, but very secretive.  “You’re either angry or scared,” said Irene, boldly.  “Today is your day to talk.  Do it today.  Today is your day.”
 The group murmured in assent.
“I fear,” I began, “I fear that I would end up screaming.”
Irene said, “That’s okay.  That’s allowed, right, guys?”
Roy said, “There are other groups in the building.”
“Screw the other groups,” said Irene.  “Let her scream if that’s what she’s going to do.  The walls are pretty soundproof, anyway, don’t you think, Roy?”
Roy had been an architect once.  “Not really, but–”
“Well, then, scream.”
Jackson began to laugh nervously.  “You’ll get me going, Julie.  I could use a good hullabaloo myself.”
“There’s such thing as scream therapy, you know.”
They said afterward that the floors heaved and spat up something like lava, shook the foundations of the building and tossed chairs and people helter-skelter, that pipes broke, toilets overflowed with a metallic, steamy liquid, the coffeepot imploded, Jenny broke her arm and Tina’s rubber boot went missing, right off her foot.  I don’t know if that was exactly the case.  People have a way of turning stories around.  But after that, everything was different at Crossroads.  I was one of them.  There was no question now; I belonged.


Unfinished document


Only recently have I come to realize that I am so familiar with the feeling of hunger, emptiness, deficiency, and inadequacy that I have come to accept this state as normal; during those rare moments when I am relieved of these burdens, I am so overwhelmed that I cannot help but weep at the brilliancy of color that comes when my hunger is satisfied, the simultaneous joy and terror that flushes through me like a splash of vermilion on wet, white paper.  It is not my intention to place blame on my parents for this.  I hungered in a family that had plenty; my hunger was secret; my hunger was special.  I kept it hidden and told no one; it grew and grew until it became more than I could bear; even after I left home the hunger followed me, grew in me; what was a pressure or hiss became a grotesque and horrifying roar.

I would hear it at night.  There was a maple tree just outside my bedroom window that had overgrown and was poking against the side of the house.  I had plans to escape via that tree, on the big day when I was to run away from home for good.  The branch was within feet of my window, and some of its leaves pressed against the screens, appearing as though they were painted on canvas.  When the wind blew, and especially during storms, the leaves battered my windows angrily, over and over; they sounded like snare drums.  And it was then that I heard the roar, a distant rumble of a semi truck on the Interstate, headed west, too far away to be heard by my human ears, yet I heard it calling me, over and over.

I was the oldest of three.  I adored my two brothers and did my best to protect them from all the Evil of the World as I saw it.  Evil was everywhere, and I knew this because I’d experienced it–at school, at home, in the world.  I was the first to test the waters.  It was my job to keep my brothers from falling into the traps I’d encountered, to shelter them from harm, to maintain purity in their day-to-day dealings, to make sure on all costs that my brothers were free from pain.  If one was stung by a bee it was my fault, if one was teased at school I was surely to blame.  I considered myself responsible for their lessons to an extent, and if one did poorly I chastised myself.  I remember teaching my brother Ned, who was called Neddy, to read, the summer before he was to enter first grade, using large flash cards.  We–my parents, brothers, and myself, were traveling across the country to see the world.  While the cornfields flew by, Neddy read, “hare,” “dare,” “stare,” “care…” while Philip counted telephone poles, my father drove, and my mother dozed off.

We had plenty of food.  My mother made a point of always having meals ready and the refrigerator was stocked–Kosher bologna, milk, fruit, ice cream, and cookies in the yellow plastic cookie box my mother kept on the counter.  We had plenty to do; besides school there were lessons and activities of all sorts that kept us busy.  We played musical instruments.  Spiritually, our lives were plentiful: we attended synagogue and Hebrew school regularly and observed holidays filled with activities that were fun for children.  We kept physically fit; we climbed mountains in summer and skied in winter.   We had a beloved dog, Joffa, who dug holes under the fence several times a week, holes that had to be filled with rocks so she couldn’t dig there again.  We talked, played, experimented, created.  And yet I felt empty. 

I craved, but my cravings became twisted and deformed.  I am reminded of one of the clay pieces I attempted in art therapy groups years later.  Like my mental state, the pot became dry and cracked over time.  I tried to fill the cracks with slip, but that didn’t help.  I remember my hands became as dry and cracked as the clay, and after a while, the pot didn’t fit together right anymore.

Imagine: you are building the Tower of Babel.  The tower is progressing well until God scrambles your languages.  Not just externally, but internally.  Now, you need gloves for those cracked, bleeding hands, but when you try to ask someone to find them for you, you end up asking for a hot, heavy brick.  But language, remember, is skewed.  Brick means something else in another’s language, so you get handed a screwdriver.  You ask for a drink of water, but what you really mean to say is that a whole wall of the tower going to collapse.  You get a pat on the back.  You excuse yourself, appearing to tie your shoe, and next thing you know the cops come to take you away to the nearest nuthouse. 

My cravings worked that way.  You see a lot of kids who crave approval from their parents, and they don’t get approval.  Maybe the parents are looking the other way, or are overly critical, or even jealous of their kids’ accomplishments.  Whatever the reason, the kids go elsewhere for approval, generally to their friends, which may influence how they dress and what music they listen to, but it can also influence which drugs they take and which dangerous activities they attempt.  Popular books on weight management tell overweight people that when they overeat, they may in fact not be hungry at all.  They may, for instance, be angry or lonely.  Twisted cravings can go further than that.  When my dog QB died recently, I was left with an unfathomable emptiness and loneliness that I could not handle.  I tried to fill the loneliness with material possessions.  I spent money, lots of money I didn’t have, on this and that (a radio I didn’t need, a useless pair of audio speakers, an expensive hat, computer mice), some of it was useful; all the stuff was excessive considering my budget. 

It is fair to say that I craved love in a family where there was none.  I didn’t find love in the refrigerator, or the television–not even Perry Mason satisfied me–or at the dinner table, where my parents read the paper during mealtimes over pot roast and watery gravy; I certainly didn’t find love at Hebrew school, or on the top of a mountain, no matter how beautiful the view, no matter which of my father’s arbitrary 4,000-footer classified Appalachian White Mountains of New Hampshire it was (they all looked alike to me).  To make things worse, I did experience little teases of love, enough to show me what love was; I am thinking of a time I rode the chairlift with my father and he shared a Chunky bar with me, one that my mother didn’t know he had–he was allergic to chocolate but ate it anyway–while the snow whirled around us and the wind rattled our ski poles. 

What I craved was not simply the provision of material goods, assistance, and fulfillment of needs.  What I craved was love. 

It is also fair to say that it took me 50 years to figure this out.  I spent the first 40 years of my life searching for someone I couldn’t put a face to, something I couldn’t name, a magic word never uttered, a God.  My search for love was the undercurrent of my life.  I engaged in risky behavior, joined a religious cult, slept around, tried drugs, experimented with relationships, faked a hell of a lot of orgasms–these when I was quite young, and I did these things because I thought, quite unconsciously, that in doing so, I would become closer to the love I craved.  It didn’t work.  When I was older, I engaged in risky behavior around food and starvation, altering my appearance and body size because I believed that my fat was to blame for the rift between love and myself.   I took risks cutting up my arms to purify the road with my own blood, the road that led to love.  I even made my cuts in the shapes of arrows.  The hospital wasn’t the answer; love wasn’t there.  Medication wasn’t the answer.  I even took up smoking.  It didn’t work, and the Miracle Doctor was always a quack laced with a hefty fee.  None of these quick fixes worked.  A near-death experience brought me no closer to the love I desperately craved; it only earned embarrassment and more desperation.

Around the time I turned 32, I found my way into a stable relationship.  We were rocky people who found solid ground and a place to take root together, and over the years, we grew.  We went to concerts, had coffee (I put up with Dunkin Donuts), went to movies; mostly we hung out.  I remember the rocky, unpaved parking lot where were caught in his reliable Buick, like a couple of high school kids; by the time we saw the police lights flashing we had very little time to dress.  “To be honest with you, officer, we were “parking,” he said.  What I had found was love, but the Evil undercurrent was still there.  I tried to beat it down, to smash it with two-by-fours, with sledgehammers, finally by throwing my whole body down upon the undercurrent, but it would not quit.  In my late 30’s, I became quite ill.  I became psychotic.

A reader might assume that I am less ill now that much time has passed.  A reader may also assume that because I have such grand perspective on my quest, I must have moved somehow away from all this trouble, and this is true.  I am no longer the desperate seeker of love that I once was.  The process of stoppage began when I turned 40, and has been one of continual diminishing over the years.  At this point I can say that the desperation is near eradicated.  I no longer seek love from my parents; my father has passed away, and my mother has never had the will or the ability to quench the thirst I felt, the thirst that, due to my own mental defect, had seeped into my adult life.  The hole has since been plugged, not due to any action of myself, or any action of any doctor, medication, or therapy.  It was a matter of chance.  I am not the great achiever who overcame adversity.  I didn’t achieve anything–I just got lucky.  The long, wild search for love got called off, the dogs put in their kennels, the headlamps switched off; the roaring ended and only a sweet darkness remained.  I have learned to accept the silence.  Compared to the maniacal pursuit I had endured, it is a peaceful, lonely, and more temperate way of life.

I believe most people are on similar quests, searching for something; most have no clue not only what it is they need, but they are unaware that they need anything.  It is like watching a blindfolded man sort through the shelf of bestsellers at a bookstore.  He doesn’t know one book from the other, and madly fingers the covers, searching for clues, but it is near impossible to figure out authors and titles.  Once the blindfold is removed, however, he may decide that the book he wants to read isn’t on that particular shelf, or that he doesn’t want to read at all, and walk across the street to a coffee shop where he can enjoy a cup or two, or simply go home, and read another day. 

After all, what blindfolded man can make use of a book?  As a child, I had no picture in my head of what it meant to be close to another person, because closeness in my family was nonexistent.  I didn’t think closeness among humans was possible or appropriate.  Parents existed for the purpose of teaching and providing.  All of the children outside the family teased me; that was the status quo.  My brothers were busy being baby brothers.  My role in all this was survival; closeness with another would be a luxury I figured I’d never attain and didn’t deserve to have; most likely it wasn’t even in existence between people.  Why did I even think of it?  How did it come into my head?  Why did I long for it so?

Perhaps it was the occasional glimpse of my mother’s long brown hair as she brushed it in front of her full-length mirror in the bedroom, before putting it all on top of her head in a bun.  Perhaps it was the occasional glimpse of her breast as my brother suckled.  Or the casual pat on the shoulder my father gave to her while she consulted The Joy of Cooking, or a secret Kosher recipe passed down through the generations.  Perhaps I tasted closeness when I read prayers from the Haggadah, not in Hebrew school, but when I’d taken one of our own Haggadoth when the meal was finished and we had all retired, and brought it upstairs to my room to secretly read and study, carefully holding the yellow cover and worn pages, and wished I was a boy.  

Let us not forget Camp Kiwanee!  When Mary, age 18, plucked me out of a group of giggly girl campers one summer, and took me by the hand and walked with me, I felt for the first time in my life that I was special.  Certainly, my grandmother had forced a feeling of distinction and particularity upon me, at least that I was special to her, but I dismissed these remarks as the ravings of a fussy, overprotective old woman who truly didn’t think much of me.  But Mary, flowers in her hair, dandelion chain around her neck, not only said I was special and meant it, but accompanying her affirmations I felt elevated in spirit for the first time ever, and I felt my heart join with hers. 

To Mary, and only to Mary, I was able to admit fear, vulnerability, uncertainty.  I was 12 years old and had never felt closeness to another person, and I was afraid.  Mary calmed the crunching in my head, saying, “Julie, you’re growing up, you’re growing up, I know it’s scary.”  I knew she connected with my fear somehow, could hush that fear, and I could let her touch something inside me that no one had reached before. 

It was not parental love, nor erotic love, nor friendship exactly; it was the love of a slightly older person who guided me through my adolescence during the month of August 1971 and beyond.  My parents came to pick me up at camp at the end of the summer, bringing with them a friend of mine named Robin.  Robin had learned to play tennis over the summer, with an opponent and a net, and had been tutored at the art museum in Boston, on the urging of her parents.  I questioned her, when we had the opportunity, “Who is the person you’re closest to?”  Robin replied that she was closest to her father.  I was shocked that someone could be close to a parent; I didn’t think that was what parents were for–especially Robin’s father, who was rather opinionated.  I remembered that when he got angry, Robin’s father’s bald forehead became shiny with sweat.  When I told Robin I was closest to “Miss Mary,” Robin gave me a look of perplexity; she didn’t think camp counselors were worthy of top rank closeness.   At least “Miss Mary,” I responded, was against the Viet Nam war and had hair on her head.

She knew all the words to songs I wanted to learn, like “Suzanne,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “She’s Come Undone” by The Guess Who.  She could play guitar a little but wasn’t a good singer; I didn’t mind.  I loved her voice; it was the summer of crickets and guitars and sunsets by the lake, and endless singing.  It was the summer of gimp lanyards and suede moccasins and archery, and tetherball tournaments and rumors of younger girls crossing their eyes too much and getting them stuck that way, and getting bubblegum–contraband–in the mail, and when the bubblegum ran out, eating toothpaste, for in those days it was not known to be poisonous, so indeed, it wasn’t poisonous at all.  And in the midst of all this, I was beginning to grow.  I was beginning to appreciate what it meant to be profoundly and lovingly enfolded by the guidance of another human being, guidance that her mere presence spontaneously instilled within me; I didn’t want that summer to ever, ever end.  But it did.  And nothing was the same after that.

An Interlude

I went through a horrendous depression for a couple of days.  I think it started Wednesday.  I “felt fat,” always a danger signal.  On Thursday I was tired and agitated, very annoyed with my therapist, I recall.  Friday I was supposed to show up at my mother’s for Seder, and I didn’t go!  I had totally forgotten, and had arranged for www.peapod.com to deliver groceries that night, and couldn’t cancel without a fee.  That plus I was so constipated that I knew I’d snap at my mother if she said anything that annoyed me in the least bit.

Saturday I took several naps during the day.  Red flag!  I never nap.

Sunday I slept all day.  I was very hungry.  It was Easter.  I called Dr. P.  I also called Goldie.

Monday I slept all day.  I was unable to attend puppy class.  I could barely stand up and walk.  I don’t think I showered Sunday or Monday.

Yesterday (Tuesday) I completely forgot that I was in graduate school.  Really.  I had no recollection.  My aim was survival and sleep.  I managed to get Puzzle to her appointment at Pooch Palace (www.thepoochpalace.com)  but when I came home I was not even able to make coffee.  I collapsed on the bed and slept.

Then I woke up.  I ate a slice of canteloupe.  I remembered that I needed to do laundry, threw a load into the washer downstairs, picked up my book (Montaigne’s Essays) and began to read.   The transition from “depressed” to “normal” happened within a second.

My stomach bothered me a little, but I’m totally back to normal, very excited about a chapter I’m going to begin writing tonight.

The chapter I spent three weeks on a few weeks ago wouldn’t copy and paste onto this blog.  I kept getting error messages.  I’m going to have to re-type the portions I wanted to share with you directly onto the blog interface.  Not a problem.  Just gimme a bit and I’ll do it. 

Have an exciting evening.  I will!!!!


Here are the latest photos!
note the shaved left leg.  It’s from the IV she had, back when the “raisin hell” incident occurred.

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Have a nice evening!