When I was in high school, I felt inferior to the other girls, who seemed to have everything going for them. They could afford a leather jacket and a cloth one. They were invited to all the right parties. At the time, these things mattered to me. In our senior year, when those charmed girls sent out college applications to Harvard, Yale and other Ivy Leagues, I submitted only one: to the College of Staten Island, a City University of New York (CUNY) school.
It was the local public university. I could drive my Mustang there and back. In retrospect, I know that if I went away to school, it would’ve been a lot worse. I might not have returned from the illness. In the summer of 1986, a year before my Grandpa slipped into the coma, I started to stay up late and couldn’t fall asleep. I remember exactly the moment the downward spiral began.
It was a soft June night, and I had gone with my supermarket co-workers to Wolfe’s Pond Park, where we warmed ourselves over a garbage can bonfire and drank beers. I remember, as clearly as if it happened yesterday, that I didn’t want that to be the rest of my life: rubbing my hands above a burning garbage can and drinking beers. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t that.
The fear began the summer I turned 21, on that night in the park. The paranoia started like the slow drip of a kitchen faucet. It was subtle and insidious. All the next fall, I couldn’t sleep. I walked up to the counseling center in town to inquire about therapy sessions, remembering I had gone there when I was 14. The receptionist told me it was only for teens, and I had two options: the office of student life at my university, where I could check in with someone whenever I felt the need, or the mental health center where I could see a therapist weekly. I chose the first because it was less intimidating. I had memories of when I was 12 and my mother dragged me to a psychiatrist because I was wearing the same hole-y jeans every day and not taking showers. It was the year the neighborhood girls were cruel to me.
She took me there in the winter. I remember I was wearing the orange coat with the fake fur collar. I had bought it because my best friend had one. That year she stopped being my friend and hung out on the street corner with the other girls. I fled to my room, writing poetry and reading the dictionary, memorizing the definitions of two words each day, which I wrote down in a spiral notebook.
The woman I checked in with at the office of student life had sloppy bangs that hovered over her colorless face. Her beige pantsuit blended in with the walls. I talked with her just four times, and never went back. I couldn’t understand why I thought something wasn’t quite right, and she wasn’t able to illuminate anything.
A month before I graduated CSI in June 1987, I did indeed go to the student mental health center. The therapist there did nothing to help me. He looked like Jesus, yet was in no way qualified to judge me, which he did instead of trying to understand where I was coming from. I saw him just five months before I got sick. In retrospect I know it was a cry for help. I was going to graduate, and I was thoroughly unprepared for the real world. I thought maybe I should've got a business degree, something practical, not an English degree.
I didn’t want to teach, but I didn’t know what else I could do. My life goal was to be a writer. I talked to the therapist nonstop, garrulous, and he could barely get a word in edgewise. When I finally ended my 50-minute stream, the Jesus look-a-like said, “Don’t you think it’s a little late to be thinking about all this? You graduate in June. I can see you one more time, but after that, you’re on your own.”
That’s all he said. I made an appointment for a second meeting, and never went back. I wanted help, and I knew he couldn’t help me, so why bother?
To this day, I don’t know why I sought help. Did I know, subconsciously, that something wasn’t right? The counselor probably thought I was just another student with ordinary woes. Couldn’t he have been trained to examine what was going on under the surface? I was talking ten miles a minute and wouldn’t stop. Why didn’t he probe, or at least refer me to someone I could see on the outside, after I graduated?
This is all too painful for me as I write this. I knew something was wrong, okay? I can’t re-write history, but perhaps I can re-write the emotional content of how I feel about that time. On September 26, 1987, just five months after I graduated college, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Here I am, today. I seek to transform my pain into a thing of beauty for other people. I tell my story because I must. In the coming blog entries, I’ll mix coping techniques and memoir excerpts with memories of the pivotal times in my recovery. I seek to be a scout, if you will, someone who has learned things along the road and brings back the information to share with others.
Most of all, I tell my story because it’s the only story I have. It’s mine alone. And in the telling, perhaps I’ll inspire you to have the courage to do so, too.
Published On: May 31, 2007