Wednesday, November 15, 2006

States of Mind

This is the first of two such notebooks containing the diary I kept through high school in the early 1970s. I'd kept diaries prior to this one (my first-ever diary is shown here), but "Believer's Log" broke the record for longevity at that time. I carried it with me everywhere. The title is written on medical adhesive tape.

I have Isabelle Gorayeb to thank. I took her Creative Writing class as a John Dewey High School freshman. She told all of us to keep a journal -- a tradition that I now continue with my own students.

This entry is in response to Colleen's comment, "I'd love to hear more about your therapy sometime," accompanying my entry A Bit of Time Travel....

It was 1974. I was a shade under 16. Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency and our involvement in the Vietnam War was on its last legs. We were in the midst of an energy crisis and various forms of domestic unrest.

My emotions were all over the map, from both external and internal causes. I was studious and precocious, would enter college while still 16. In the summer of '74 I was attending summer school, which allowed me to graduate early, plus it got me out of a house that was chaotic at best. I was under pressure to do well on college entrance exams. I was drafting my first novel, in which I had congratulated myself for writing an "intellectual rape scene."

Sex terrified me. It was not unusual for me to see men masturbating openly on the New York City subway back then, and one drug-addled man had come up once and rubbed his penis on the back of my jeans. When that happened I ran like hell, held myself together through the school day, then fell apart when I got home. My mother told me I was overreacting.

I was in a spiritual crisis, about to dump a belief system that had me "communicating with the future" in far-off galaxies. My internal guides -- which I believed at the time to be external and autonomous, "real" -- had been my support group. Those guides had told me on many occasions not to kill myself, and they'd been key to my survival. When I dropped my faith in them I entered into a cycle of anorexia and bulimia that lasted into my mid-20s.

When I was 15 I begged to go into therapy because I felt suicidal, and remained in therapy for about 2-1/2 years.

Back in April 2006 I posted this entry in a semi-private blog I keep on Open Diary, prompted by and responding to the online writings of a teenage girl whose difficulties reminded me of my own when I was her age. I responded specifically to issues concerning the relevance of therapy and drugs when applied to teenage and/or young adult brain chemistry.

Or, put another way: how much had they influenced my own healing?

Looking back, I can partially answer that question. The most important component was that for all its flaws -- and it did have flaws that I recognized at the time -- therapy gave me tools that I could then apply outside that scope.

And those survival tools, in my opinion, are the bottom line. Because survival is the bottom line. For a long time I didn't expect to live past my 20s, and I didn't start developing a strong will to live until I was 17, after I was on the verge of doing away with myself.

But they can be double-edged swords, particularly the drugs, and especially because researchers have only recently discovered that brain chemistry changes as one develops. Prozac might help an adult deal with the world, yet it can be a causative factor in a teenage suicide. My friend Helen, who was bipolar for decades, had struggled with her medications. She went off them when she felt they impaired her ability to work, and she landed in locked wards from the fullblown manic episodes that resulted. She faced other problems when her accumulated doses reached levels of toxicity in her body. I'd met her when she was in her 30s. She died at age 50, from the double-whammy of bipolar disorder and colon cancer.

There are no easy answers.

When I was 15, the intake psychiatrist I had seen put me on Thorazine and told me it was a "tranquilizer" instead of the antipsychotic drug it really was. It helped relax me, but after a few months I felt it was doing me more harm than good. By that time I was seeing my "long-term" psychiatrist, and to his credit he agreed with me and discontinued the prescription. I was, in that respect, very lucky. Someone listened to me and respected my opinion despite the fact that I was "only" 16 at the time -- still a minor, still under parental control, basically untested out in the world.

Most important, I had no legal standing. Things could have been much worse.

Would things have been different had I not been given the drug? I don't know. Possibly, by relaxing me, it made me receptive to messages and states of being that helped my healing process along, but would a non-chemical intervention have done the job? I have no way to tell.

"Your health care is only as good as your doctor." A former coworker once told me that, not in a psychiatric context but in the context of the dysmenorrhea that once debilitated me, including when I was a teenager. That had been another source of stress for me: redoubling my efforts to make up for all those times I was physically out of commission. (I describe that ordeal in my entry The Pot of Painlessness at the End of the Rainbow.)

Part of me thinks there is far too much emphasis today given to diagnoses, especially of people whose brains are still developing and whose brain chemistries are understood even less than that of adults. On the other hand I can understand the Need To Know, to at least be in the ballpark, to have some cognitive grasp of what's going on. There is a certain terror in not knowing. When I was 15 I wanted desperately for someone to understand me, and to understand myself.

My diary entries from then didn't follow dates, but were "Bands" and "Entries". There are some hints as to dates, like Nixon's resignation on August 8, 1974. The entries here begin in July of that year.


Band 12, Entry 2 (B12E2)
It was so beautiful this morning! Clear skies, a cool, dry, brisk air, Luna silhouetted against the moving train. I felt a strange tingle, a weird elation. I'm getting an intense fear of trains, tho. Every day, I hold my pen, the point bared, holding it like a knife or an ice pick for self defense. And then a day in a crowded room, inside. Give me the sky, so that I may be free, today. An eternal traveler.

After class I got into a really interesting discussion with this girl R and her friend K.
R: "You mean you've never made out with a boy?"
Me: "No."
R: "Why?"
Me: "A physical relationship alone isn't my idea of a relationship."
R: "But it feels good. That's all. If I want to f--- I'll f--- because it feels good. Did you ever go on a date?"
Me: "Yes -- a group date."
R: "And you didn't make out after it?"
Me: "No."

She was flabberghasted. I thought it was funny!

Had another talk with R. A really good talk.

R: "Don't you want to get married?
Me: "No."
R: "Why not?"
Me: "I don't want to take the time away from myself. I could not live with another person."
R: "You don't mind if I say this, do you?"
Me: "Not at all. You can tell me anything -- I encourage you to be honest."
R: "Well, I think that's conceited."
Me (smiling): "Maybe you're right."
R: "You wouldn't want to have children?"
Me: "No -- I have so many other things I'd rather enjoy."
R: "But you were put on this earth to marry and have children! That's why you're a woman!"
Me: "I'm a person. I'd side with People Power before Women's Lib." Etc.

Sure, I like my womanhood, but not motherhood!


The pressure to have sex, to make out, was enormous. We were all a bunch of tangled hormones, and society's emphasis on sex didn't help matters. My friends were going boy-crazy at the time, and I felt abandoned because I was not going that route and at the same time I no longer had the emotional support from them on which I'd come to rely.

The next day I pasted into my diary an article in the New York Daily News, entitled, "TV Newsgirl Shoots Self on Camera, Dies."


B12E7 (quoting from article)
Sarasota, Fla. July 15 (combined dispatches) -- "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first -- attempted suicide."

With that announcement, television newswoman Christine Chubbuck put a gun to her head and fatally wounded herself as her half-hour morning show was being broadcast live by WXLT-TV.

Miss Chubbuck, 29, died tonight in Sarasota Memorial Hospital, nearly 14 hours after she pulled the trigger. She had suffered a .38 caliber bullet wound in the head.

Horrified viewers who were watching the morning program, broadcast to a three-county area, flooded police with telephone calls. One asked if it was a joke.

The TV screen immediately went black and, within minutes, the station resumed telecasting with an old movie.

Local viewers said that the TV station, an affiliate of ABC, did not have a "blood and guts" reputation.

News director Mike Simmons said, "It took less than a second to get the gun to her head and pull the trigger."

He said that Miss Chubbuck joked a week ago about buying a gun and that she had told a co-worker: "Wouldn't it be neat if I were to take the gun, pull it out on the air, live and in living color, and blow myself away."

A sheriff's captain, Ellis Dunham, said Miss Chubbuck's family had told the police over the weekend, she talked of suicide.

Miss Chubbuck's news script was scribbled on a note pad found on her desk. Parts of the script were obliterated by bloodstains.

"They'll take me to the hospital now," the news script said.


I had written in my diary, "It just got to me, and in a way, I admire her for the method she used."

What I had admired was her anger. She did not go quietly. I felt she was reacting against much of the same things I was reacting against, not the least of which were all the images flooding the media. Her pain had seemed to mirror my own, and her release seemed a kind of vindication. But the truth of the matter is, she did not survive. If she did, I wonder what might have become of her -- whether she could have found and used new strengths.


Went to [Dr. G, my regular doctor] to get a referral to a psychologist (who won't be treating people till Sept.) and because of my fatigue -- yep, you guessed it -- another blood test.


Looking back, I was studying like crazy, I was up late writing, and every time I had a period I was wrung out like a sponge. And I was still growing into what would eventually be an adult body. Given all that, I'd say my fatigue was completely natural, though no one -- not me, not my parents, not my doctor -- seemed to realize it at the time.


I feel a strange sensation, today -- a feeling of freedom and power. It could end in depression later on, of course....When I'm really angry, I suppress much of what I write here. Probably next year, I'll find a pattern of lines written in a passion here. I wish I could start psychoanalysis now -- September, I just feel sometimes, may be too late. But I wouldn't need psychoanalysis if I had someone to talk to, someone other than family, who can take an objective view of the situation. Suddenly, I feel very nervous -- can I adapt? Can I adapt and still keep my values?


It was me against society. A society that wanted me to have a boyfriend, to get married, to have kids. A society that didn't want me to be so smart or so imaginative. One that wanted me to be completely superficial. Having my own internal guides was another point of contention, because that made more than a few people around me really call me crazy. I felt as though I were trapped between a rock and a hard place, with no way out. Completely alone.


I'm extremely depressed right now. The line isn't too emotional, but in a recent burst of poetry I can express my thoughts. -- I gave at the office/Let me be. Don't crowd me now./You're hurting me./You are taking the air from my lungs./I am different from you. I can give no more./Leave me -- I must escape/Escape. From the people/And Mom's Apple Pie/I cannot adapt to this world/You haven't the power to help me./I am different. I walk alone./Don't ask me for words/Or for my witty phrases/Or my intelligent essays/Or my strong and delicate emotions/I gave at the office.


Mood swings from hormones are bad enough. They're natural, which doesn't make them any easier, but sometimes simply understanding that helps. At 15 I was also facing a world that wanted to change the person I was -- and, in essence, still am. Except for a few short lapses I stuck to my guns. During those lapses, when I tried to "fit in," I was even more miserable.

Time and experience are key, here, which means holding on and hanging on. Living builds confidence. The trouble is that it takes so long (still, that's better than the alternative). But then it gets to be a "transfer of training" situation. It's like learning new software because you know older software. Being perimenopausal these days, I've got times when there are little elves in my head shoveling tears out of my eyes -- and it's not depression but Hormones Gone Cuckoo, triggered at the least provocation. I'm like a baby who's bawling one minute and cooing the next, and sometimes I feel like I'm possessed. I'm learning not to be embarrassed about it, and I have an advantage of living in a community filled with retirees who have been there/done that or witnessed it, so no big deal.

In a way it's like being a teenager all over again, but in many ways it's not, with life experience making the difference. Because even though I'm experiencing "new" things, on another level I know what's going on.


I dreamt that Mom had bought me albums of depressing music when I got home (to bring me out of my depression). I was playing Carly Simon's "Haven't Got Time for the Pain." I tried to figure out the last chords (which I love) on a violin. I can interpret that dream perfectly. When I'm depressed, I put on depressing music to keep me that way. Mom always said a chirpy, "Snap out of it!" This was wish fulfillment. I always felt a sense of power listening to the song mentioned, and whenever I like violins it's always when they play depressing music.


At the time my mother had dispensed that utterly worthless advice, she herself was in the throes of perimenopause and going through her own mood swings. Plus she was teaching in an inner-city high school, living with diabetes and heart disease (and taking a slew of medications with different side effects), and living with a husband and daughter whose emotions were also chaotic. It was too much for her to handle, and more times than not she had shut down emotionally or flown off the handle entirely. (Picture a woman running around the house, screaming, "I'm not supposed to get aggravated!!!")

She got some release by crying while we watched Marx Brothers movies on TV -- during those scenes when the lovers were going to be parted or the theater was going to be closed down. She'd be wiping her eyes with a Kleenex while my father and I laughed hysterically at all the hijinks. Nowadays I'm in good health (knock on wood), I take no medications, and my stress level has plummeted since moving here, but I can understand this part of her better now from a perimenopausal point of view.


B13E11 (August 8, 1974, the day of Nixon's resignation)
R didn't read the story for today and I never help people like that. Mr. M, for once in his life, was asking questions, so R asked me, "Quick! What happened?" "I'm not going to tell you." Well, R and her friends cursed me out, right then and there, saying after expletive deleteds, "You're so miserable! You're worthless! I don't know why you were put on this earth!" Well, I felt super! "Everyone's entitled to an opinion," I said. Then they sneered, in childish tones -- just what I wanted! After all those years when I'd been tortured and that taunting had hurt me. I'd always wanted to be calm and collected when confronted with that, and let the other one learn how worthless she is! Well, those girls' reactions were perfect! I wrote on the blackboard in social studies, "The world is what you make it. If you get no satisfaction out of what you are yourself, then you deserve to die."


Their cursing me out had still hurt, but I was learning to fight back. Unfortunately, that also brought with it a lot of battle fatigue -- which deepened my depression.


B14E18 (first session with intake psychiatrist)
I had a 45 min. cry in which I did all the talking (& the crying) and Dr. C asked about 4 questions -- 2 of them I found good. The first was, "If you pride yourself on such a good memory, why can't you remember (such & such a detail)?" That was probably to deflate my pride, so I think he got some kind of impression, tho I don't like it. The 2nd question was on my self-consciousness; if someone took a crack, the type my mother makes, seriously, C asked, "And what if they did? What is it to you?" That question I liked, but he's supposed to help me get over that!


Right there, that's one of the tools: not caring so much what other people think. That stuff took me years to learn, and it was like the layers of an onion, always with a new and harder application. And one can still be hurt but then get past it. Some months ago I watched an A&E Biography program on Jodie Foster, who with all her successes and experience spoke of how hurt she was when people had accused her of making "Nell" to give herself an Oscar vehicle. It was a labor of love for her; she's allowed to feel hurt. Hurt still happens, but it's how one handles it while following one's convictions.


There was a senior orientation today, and with PSAT, SAT, Regents Scholarship Exam and Achievement Tests taking up the span of 2 months, I'm terrified. I feel very closed in about it.


Academic pressure sucks big time, and I think it's worse now than it was then. I remember my father yelling at me on the morning of one of those exams because I wasn't still studying. Instead I was staring out the front porch window because our neighbor across the street was being taken to the hospital to die. In four months cancer had reduced her from a robust middle-aged woman to a skeleton, and I had been in a state of shock.


Saw Dr. C today. He seemed much more human than last time; he spoke more, seemed more concerned. We spoke mostly of my relationship to boys, but first we went over my analytical feelings and self. He asked an excellent question: "You seem to be talking about something else, but could you also be referring to wondering what I'm writing down?" That had me thinking for a while. "I trust you, because of the insight you have into the human mind, which is your profession," I answered. I feel much better, it seems. He's one person to whom I can empty out my mind without fear of being corrupted and exploited.


There's that Need To Know. I wanted to learn what was going on in my head. Given my internal guides, I was most interested in multiple personality disorder, especially since Sibyl was in the popular culture at the time. "Empty out" notwithstanding, I never brought them up in therapy, fearful that then I'd really be locked away. (After I left my marriage and started living on my own -- and dealing with a slew of flashbacks -- I saw a counselor, short-term, and told her about the inner guides. She applauded them as a good coping mechanism.)

Not long after this entry I overheard Dr. C. in the hallway of the clinic, muttering angrily, "Magicians -- that's all we are." His own insecurity. The vagaries of the human brain. It was an eye-opener for me.


Went to Dr. C today. We talked about my anxiety on trains, and just plain anxiety. He gave me a prescription for Thorazine -- a tranquilizer. I'll be getting it tomorrow.


These are the same trains where I'd seen men masturbating, and where I held my pen in my fist, on the lookout for anyone who would come near me. This was also after I'd been assaulted. I was anxious for good, empirical reasons.

My mother, bless her lonely self, was no big help here. She was literally overjoyed -- told me at bedtime, "We can have a pill party!" Finally there was something she and her daughter could do together.


Went to J and M's wedding. I liked the ceremony -- the rabbi made an interesting speech -- stimulating. A woman was hysterical, crying, "My baby's getting married!" and she was only the maid! I danced, but with Dad, but at least I danced. At the dinner table I spoke with B, who goes to Queens College, about the sunset, schools, etc. His sister was immature -- every other word she said was, "falooza!" I felt crowded, headachey, and really needed that tranquilizer!


Dancing was supposed to be a sign that I was getting "normal". Except for the rabbi, it all seemed very superficial, but the pills helped me to better put up with that superficiality. As an adult I still attended events like that, but I'd either go find stimulating conversation or treat it all as a kind of anthropological experience. As for dancing, I eventually found my own style, overcoming a lot of physical nervousness. What I do now bears no relation whatsoever to the waltzes I was expected to do back then. (And, worse yet, I wasn't allowed to lead!)


B18E6 (case study evaluation)
I sat in a small room (smaller than I thought and the back wasn't a straight wall -- I think it was a dark green or blue) -- I spoke with the head psych -- cried a bit, too. I'll probably have to transfer psychiatrists -- I'll miss C. He became a friend. Anyway, a few minutes after I left the room, a guy carrying about 5 copies of the News came by and gave me a copy. After he turned out of the hall, I looked in that direction. He peeked out by the wall and smiled. And I'm reading Chekhov's "Ward 6"!

Dad had me outraged and upset -- I overheard his views. He thought (hoped) treatment would end (I've been recommended for long-term therapy), he says he never went to a psychiatrist (you can see it, too!!!) and he doesn't believe one ounce in the system. He says it's all in my mind, and the mind can't be changed unless I change it. (That's actually the way it is -- there is knowing, and there is knowing, to put it briefly!) Whenever I told him I was afraid of him, he always said, "I don't care." Well, I don't care!


That version of my diary ended soon thereafter. For one thing, my internal guides were fading from me. Most of my entries had been records of those visions.

For another thing, the Thorazine was numbing me out. In the last few days of my entries my handwriting had changed from cramped and neat to sprawling across the page. I wrote no diary entries through my anorexia as I finished high school, my bulimia as I started college, or my near-brush with suicide in January of '76. I started a journal again in January of '77, around the time 22-year-old comedian Freddie Prinze had blown his brains out. He was dead. I was alive, and fighting to stay that way.

And my internal guides were back. I was very frightened when they returned; they were from my "crazy years." But I needed them. This time I called them "personas" and used them consciously as healing tools.


Blogger Brenda Clews said...

What torment we come through! And as a mother I can also say that just because we worked through a lot of stuff it doesn't 'save' our children from travelling their own tormented paths. It seems that we each have to struggle with our own Zeitgeists, questions concerning suicide something each of us has to face. But, Elissa, out of the maelstrom the writer that you are was born!

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this glimpse into your struggle. In 1969 I suffered a major clinical depression, which I hid from everyone. I so wanted help...therapy...drugs...someone to talk to, but I saw no way to create that. I think the depression was non-situational, but some sort of chemical imbalance. And there were no good drug treament options then. I once tried thorazine when a friend was taking it, just to see what it was like. Awful!! In the work I've done with adults with mental disablities we consider it to be a med for physical restraint.

These days in therapy I'm beginning to crack the nut open regarding what I did to cope with early childhood issues. It's a long time coming.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Monica said...

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