Slinky Dresses

The start of the return of the hell. It’s not worth the risk in my estimation. A person might try one drug holiday yet if it fails it’s not advisable to go on another.

Elyn Saks went on at least 3 drug holidays and got sicker and sicker after each relapse. Her book description on Amazon states she still has major ongoing episodes. Is that any way to live your life if you can avoid this scenario by staying faithful to your daily meds?

Here’s the scene in my memoir that sets it all up. It’s most likely going to be the last memoir excerpt I post here for now. I will return with details about Left of the Dial: the premise that is the root of this lifestyle and the power that each of us has to take back our lives after illness strikes.

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On a Friday night, seated in the buckled chair across from Dr. Santiago, I felt spangled with hope because I did some research and found out that there was a 2 mg. Stelazine tablet. I could take this, lowering the dose, and eventually come off the meds completely.

He asked me the usual questions: How’s your sleep? Are you eating okay? What about your thoughts? “I mostly sleep six or seven hours. I make mac and cheese with broccoli or hot dogs or pasta. I’m on an even keel.”

“Good.” He lit up a cigarette. “What are your goals?”

“Oh, I’d like to lower my dose to two milligrams and then try a drug holiday.” I had come straight from the city in a wool skirt and eggplant jacket, working the persona of a successful woman down to my black briefcase and matching pumps.

“Okay, I’ll write out a new prescription and monitor you until the end of the year. If you’re stable on the lower dose, I’ll consider stopping the meds.” All he could see was a different me, polished and poised, and so that was what he had to go on in the fifteen-minute session—only this: a pretty face.

The closet door of my mind was shut. He couldn’t know what was hanging out in there because I failed to enlighten him. The thoughts were like slinky dresses, easy to slip into, and I had no idea the cocktail party I’d been invited to was a setup. So what could I reveal? Nothing seemed unusual.

“Thank you.” The glittery feeling subsided, and I felt calmer.

One of his miracle patients, I wanted to write about what happened to me to inspire other people. No one should have to live on the margins. A better life is possible. I’ve seen this with my own eyes: first Margot recovered and then me.

“Do you have any plans for fun things, social outings?” Dr. Santiago asked.

“I want to travel to London or maybe Italy.” I didn’t know why; I had decided I wanted to see the world. “Maybe I can save up some money each month and go in the fall.”

“You should go.” He ground out his cigarette in the cloisonné ashtray on his desk. “Whatever you used to do before you got sick, if you’re capable of it, you should do now.”

This heartened me. Work was the daily grind, and it was time to live a little. Maybe Margot or Zoe could travel with me. We’d take London by storm, riding the underground. Or we’d explore Rome, drinking a morning cappuccino.

“I’m pleased that things are working out. Here’s your prescription, and I’ll see you in three months.”

“Thank you.” I rose. He opened the door for me.

A segue to true freedom, this minor victory deserved a celebration. I walked to Joe & Pat’s for the shrimp parmigiana.

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Moving Out

I spent 29 months in a residential housing system from 1988 to February 1991. I recommend this option only as a last resort. I favor getting a job that enables a person to rent or own a free-market apartment outside of “the system.”

The memoir excerpts will continue here through mid-December. It’s my goal to have Left of the Dial go on sale in early January 2015.

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On a cold winter day, I drove around the island looking at apartments. A woman showed me a dark and dirty place in Westerleigh. A garden apartment in Dongan Hills was too far from the train. A basement room in Arrochar was the size of my childhood closet.

The last studio I saw was near the amusement park on Sand Lane. This apartment rocked. Light flooded the room from two big windows. A sink, stove, refrigerator, and cabinets lined one wall, which extended farther than the main area to create a dining nook. I took in the good-sized closet and the utility closet that I could have my father attach a rod to so I could hang more clothes. The bathroom was spotless. Mostly, the sunlight coming through clinched the deal.

“I’d like it,” I said, not aware that maybe the landlord had to decide if he wanted me as a tenant. “Great. It’s four hundred per month like I told you on the phone. I prefer to be paid in cash.”

“Could I come next Saturday with the deposit?”

“Sure. The lease will start February first, and the rent is due on the first of the month.”

“Great. I’ll be by in the morning.”

“See you then.” He closed the door.

When I returned to Holland Avenue, I raced into the office to see Viola. She had been waiting all day. “I can tell you found something. You have a glow.”

“Oh, it’s wonderful. The light streams through the windows. It has two big closets.”

“You deserve this success. You took what you were given and wouldn’t let it defeat you. I can only imagine that you’ll use that determination in whatever comes your way in the future.”

“Oh, I’m so excited; I can’t wait.”

“I’m confident that you have what it takes to fly solo.” Viola looked at her watch. “I’ll let you go now. I have to write up your discharge papers.”

When I got back to the residence, I sat at the dining table and wrote down a list of everything I’d need to do, buy, and secure: Change my address at work and at the post office. Get a sofa bed, dresser, and kitchen table. Hook up the utilities.

Wow, I’ve finally done this: I’ve recovered. It took just over three years, and I have found my way back.

 

Left of the Dial Amazon Page

Christma Eve Blues

I lived in a street-drug-infested apartment complex when I was in my early twenties. I vowed to get out and stay out. My time in the community mental health system was the worst time of my life. This is why I recommend you research your treatment options with great care.

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The holidays were here again, and Christmas Eve we celebrated at Aunt Liz’s this time around, again with lobster, shrimp, mussels and seafood salad, and angel hair pasta. The antipast’: caponata, artichokes, roasted peppers, provolone and mozzarella, olives, and baked clams. In our family there was the perpetual jockeying for the clams and the protest of who took the most clams—also the sneaky depositing of the empty shells in another person’s plate so it didn’t look like you went over the limit.

I was a woman, so I stood in the kitchen while my mother and my aunts cooked, even though I wasn’t cooking. The cousins and my father watched whatever show was on TV. Aunt Millie was banished to the couch because no one expected her to help out. My grandmother wandered into the living room too.

My cousin Fulvia recounted a Christmas Eve long ago when she was a child at our grandmother’s house. “The lobster was running after me,” she told us at every holiday. My grandmother used to clunk the lobsters herself at the time, and one of them escaped and was moving toward Fulvia. “I was only seven. The lobster was running after me.” She kept going on and on.

But we didn’t clunk the lobsters anymore; now my aunts went to Jordan’s Lobster Dock in Sheepshead Bay and had one of the employees there do the deed.

I loved lobster and was grateful we could afford this tradition. I always opted for a tail. My aunts had whole lobsters, the works, and used nutcrackers to crack the claws open. Marc got a tail too.

At dinner, we talked about Fulvia’s engagement to an outsider: he wasn’t Italian, he was French, and no one said anything about this because we had met him at my aunt’s birthday party, and he was a great guy. My grandmother loved him because she thought he was Sicilian. “Sici, Sici” she joked in a lucid moment.

I didn’t want the night to end because then I’d have to return to the low-rent apartment where there was no heat, and the cockroaches crawled in the dresser drawers. A mouse lived under the sink in the kitchen. You knew when he was feeling adventurous because you would see a dark shadow moving down the hall toward the bathroom.

At nine o’clock, my father drove me home. I quickly entered the lobby of the building, checked that the drug dealer wasn’t nearby conducting business, and got in the elevator. As I opened the door to my apartment, I heard a guy shouting “Give me the money!” in the apartment next to ours.

This is only temporary, I reminded myself. Suzy was in the living room smoking and watching TV. I made a beeline for my room and went straight to sleep.

 

Left of the Dial Amazon Page

Harbor House

The start of the long and winding road. In retrospect, as the memoir nears coming out, I’ve thought about this hard and long and wouldn’t recommend this road to any young person who had so much life in him or her to live. Residential. Housing. At its finest. Or not.

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One fall day as warm as mulled apple cider, I moved to Apt. 2L at Arlington Terrace. Suzy was to be my roommate. She wore leopard pants and a pink fluffy sweater. Her hair was in curlers like a science experiment. Suzy sat on the couch and chain-smoked, watching Columbo on the TV, which was turned up loud.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I followed in my car as Brett drove my stuff over in the Lake House van. My new counselor, Viola, met us outside the lobby with the keys.

As I waited for the elevator, I saw a beefy guy palm a bag of crack to a stringy-haired woman.

I unpacked my sole suitcase, which was crammed with everything I owned in this new life. Brett installed my stereo in the living room. My bedroom had a walk-in closet, and as I inspected it, my new counselor nearly killed my joy.

“You’re to keep your meds in the tin box in the dresser,” Viola told me. Always rules. Always restrictions. I dumped my supply in the box. I wanted to live life on my own terms.

Brett left shortly after to go back to Lake House. I was glad he let me stop off at the Key Food so I could get something for dinner. I made macaroni and cheese with broccoli because it was easy, and I had no energy to cook.

Viola chatted with me at the dining table for a while. I took in her doe eyes that seemed interested in me and her perfectly coiffed bob. I wondered what she heard about me through the staff grapevine. I did my best to impress her, though I worried she wasn’t impressed. I wore boyfriend jeans and a rough sweater and sport shoes—my casual classics now. The new clothes were kind of a uniform that I hoped protected me from her scrutiny.

“I hear you were a disc jockey.” She smiled. “What kind of music did you play?”

My reputation was an open book. I wondered what else she knew about me. “Oh, modern rock,” I deferred.

“Wynton Marsalis is more my speed,” she confessed.

I realized I couldn’t go wrong as long as I kept things innocuous and spoke in a pleasant voice. She seemed satisfied after twenty minutes and left.

The living room was a cloud of smoke, so I stayed in my bedroom after I was done eating and straightened up. I stored my sweaters in the dresser. I arranged my clothes in the closet by color, type, and season. By ten o’clock, I was exhausted, so I peeled off my jeans and sweatshirt and sunk into bed.

 

Left of the Dial Amazon Page

A Butterfly In The City

Tumbling down the hole. Not realizing I would be set up for the perfect detour years later.

An excerpt from Left of the Dial.
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As I neared my twenty-fourth birthday, I wanted to book out of the day program fast, so I was willing to change my tune if it meant that Abby would refer me to OVR—the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. This New York State agency trained people with disabilities for jobs or sent them to school. If I could learn word processing, I’d get a job in publishing.

Browsing magazines, I saw that all editors had a look: barely any makeup except foundation, a dark slash of eyeliner only on the top lash line, and brownish pink or pinkish brown lips. I wanted that look, and I knew I had to get it.

“Kiddo, come on, I want to treat you for your birthday,” Zoe suggested. Her gift was a makeup session at the Prescriptives counter. She had gotten a job as a music therapist at a day program in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and had the money to burn.

“Okay,” I couldn’t resist, and so I drove us in my Mustang to Macy’s.

The woman in her black smock “color printed” my cheek to determine the exact shade of foundation, like my skin’s signature. “Fresh Peach” she pronounced, and she placed the round glass bottle aside. I was an “R/O,” so she found the perfect lipstick: Fado for work. She swiped Pompeii blush—a deep apricot—on my cheeks and finished off with Espresso eyeliner. A dramatic quad of eye shadow completed the look with four colors, all variations of brown.

The transformation was subtle, as if I was sun-kissed, and I looked healthy, not like the undead with my black hair and pale skin. “Time for an Italian lover.” Zoe laughed. “I could imagine you in a villa in Tuscany.”

“Oh, please,” I shrugged her off, though it felt good.

“You look mahvelous, dahling,” the counter woman sang and handed me the green tote bag with my goodies. My gift-with-purchase was a sample of Calyx perfume.

“Let’s go shop,” Zoe said, and so we walked out into the mall.

I wanted to get a pair of pants and a shirt for when I had the appointment with the OVR counselor, who, if I was lucky, would send me for testing, and I’d come back approved. You had to be screened for a training program, and I wanted to give myself every advantage.

I found the black slacks and white button-down shirt in Paul Harris, where they had petite clothes, yet I’d still have to hem the sleeves and pant (I’m that short). For five weeks I’d saved ten dollars a week, so I had enough money for the items.

Zoe looked at the outfit when I came out of the dressing room. “You are so going to be an editor, baby. I can see you in a little convertible zipping down the road.”

Oh, I lived for that dream. It propelled me. I would do whatever it took to make that happen. I changed back into my regular clothes and took the new items to the register.

Next we went to the food court to get lunch. We ordered salads at the vendor where you could get a fresh salad tossed on the spot. I always bought the spinach with bacon and egg.

We gossiped about famous people who were supposed to have bipolar.

“Tracey Ullman and Carrie Fisher,” she outed the comedian and actress.

“Sure, it’s cool to be hypomanic,” I suggested. “You buy twenty pairs of Manolos, and everyone thinks you’re the life of the party.”

“Hey,” she cut into me. “It’s not hip to be bipolar. Can you imagine the effort it would take to coordinate all those shoes in your closet?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Some of us are mostly depressed. I tried once. It almost happened.”

“All I’m saying is that if you’re Tracey Ullman, you can brag. I don’t see any celebrities with schizophrenia touting the benefits of being cracked up,” I insisted.

“You got me,” she said.

“So, do your coworkers know?”

“No way,” she told me. “I don’t have twenty pairs of the right kind of shoes.”

“Sylvia Plath was rumored to have bipolar.”

“That proves my point,” she argued. “I read all her poetry books when I was in college.”

This surprised me.

“Well, she’s a poet and a well-regarded one. The only people you hear about on the six o’clock news with schizophrenia are killers on the loose,” I told her.

“Be careful. Promise me you won’t tell anyone. I would hate to see your chances at getting a job go up in smoke.”

I said I understood that I would have to live in hiding. She said it was like we lived in the world and outside of it at the same time. When I was younger, I felt like an outsider looking in at the other teen girls’ charmed lives, and this feeling was only intensified now.

We finished eating our salads.

“Let’s shop some more.” Zoe got up with her tray to dispose of it, and I followed with my tray. “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.”

We went to Parade of Shoes and looked around. I told her that we’d have to cut it short because I had to go back to the house and cook dinner.

 

Left of the Dial Amazon Page

Bingo

Surreal. The detour taken.

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Weekends were a drag unless Margot and I carted ourselves to the city to watch a movie or browse a street fair. You scored points for walking the line, so we often wound up at Lake House acting like we belonged.

Bingo was popular on Sunday afternoons. Amy Lou, a counselor, would bring out the game and a kettle of Charles potato chips. Margot wore a sign on her head that said badass and lived up to that designation. The shout out of “O69” found her heckling: “Toothpaste, mouthwash.”

Amy Lou wasn’t an idealist. She couldn’t conceive of any of us ever acting normal, so she protested Margot’s innuendo, and that fueled my new friend even more. “I wish I were stoned,” she belted out.

That bait was fishing’s best lure, and Amy Lou took it even though she should know better. “Do you want me to write you up?”

“Be my guest.” Margot lifted her palms outward.

I knew she didn’t want to get stoned. Her secret fantasy was to lie on a beach in Hawaii sipping a tropical drink. One night Margot pointedly told me she didn’t do drugs. We had been in the basement lounge listening to drop-dead segues on WFMU from the ancient radio.

We spent Saturday nights down in the basement where no one else went because you couldn’t smoke down there. We sat on the frightful baroque sofa complete with plastic cover. We made a vow to get the hell out and stay out.

Bingo lasted for about an hour.

“Scope, Altoids,” Margot shot back one last time.

“You’ve lost your privileges,” Amy Lou referred to some mythical privileges that in reality we didn’t have.

Our weekday curfew was ten o’clock, and our weekend curfew was midnight. A real stoner guy came in at 3:00 a.m. all the time, and no one did anything about it. Ironically, he was the first resident to move up to the next level of independent supported housing.

You were yoked to the staff, and any extended absence sent alarm bells ringing in their heads. You had to clear with them every outside event away from Lake House. I was glad I had traveled to San Francisco before I arrived here. Pretending to be somewhere you weren’t was the norm. They wouldn’t check up on you if you were back in time.

The counselors got us tickets for concerts at BAM in Brooklyn or the 92nd Street Y, and they herded us into the van clearly marked Lake House to the world. Only, I welcomed these excursions because it was a chance to bumble about the city. I got excited riding there in the early evening as the lights lit up the Manhattan skyline.

One woman who volunteered at the BAM ticket booth was tall and wore a chartreuse cardigan that I coveted. I fell in love with the life I imagined she led.

I came home from these trips deflated like a punctured tire. I wanted to drive the highway of life. Instead, I had to settle for bingo and chips.

Everyone got up to leave the dining table, and Margot cocked her head: “Basement?”

“Of course.” I followed her downstairs.

“That was fun,” she said. And turned the stereo up loud.

The Cat Mold

The calendar moved on, and I wasn’t. This is a reference to the first “day program” I attended.

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All that winter I cried myself to sleep every night. I drove to Rise in the cold dark of the morning and returned home in the gray sunlight of a nowhere afternoon. I sat across from Flora in tears during our sessions. The jewelry workshop ended and with it my connection to the outside world.

A guy from Rise had a father who owned an Italian restaurant, and he invited us to dinner there. It was all I could do to get dressed in some kind of decent outfit and drive across the island for the meal. What I wore: some kind of turquoise-and-black long-sleeve tie-dye shirt and leggings and the necklace of connected circles that was my favorite. Mario was a happy-go-lucky guy whose demeanor masked his depression. Every day he got up and went to Rise and had something positive to say to everyone else. I was sealed inside my agony like I was entombed.

What could I do? I was so exhausted from the Stelazine that I sometimes fell asleep in the community meeting. I once had a cold and took a Benadryl and dropped off stoned asleep for the rest of the day.

I got very good at making ceramics: a blue copycat Ming vase, a doll that beat a drum with the word love on it that I painted yellow and green and purple, and of course, the cat mold. By the time spring arrived, I had made three: an Egyptian cat with green eyes, a white one that I glued blue rhinestones to for eyes, and a sandy cat.

The cat mold was popular at the day program.

This was the kind of thing that constituted victory.