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.

 

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Common Sense

I will going forward post memoir excerpts on Thursdays and commentary on Tuesdays.

As a mental health activist, I realize that I have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Nothing would change in society if I caved in and didn’t publish my memoir.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, told the world he’s gay a couple weeks ago. To be a leader, you have to accept that people are looking to you to be an authentic person, not a person who tells their followers to “do as I say, not as I do.”

It’s a civil rights issue for individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses. We’re not objects to be trapped in a metal box. We’re not second class citizens; nor do we deserve to be treated as “less than zero.”

By the way, Marc Jacobs, the famous fashion designer, is gay too. In the same way a person’s disclosure about their sexual preferences is coming out publicly in a time of advancement for LGBT individuals, we need leaders to come forward who are diagnosed with mental illnesses.

I no longer doubt the need to publish a memoir about how I got the right treatment right away and as a result I’ve been in remission from schizophrenia for over 22 years.

There is still a great risk in America to “come out,” because of court rulings given against same sex marriage. LGBT individuals and those of us with mental illnesses face common struggles to be accepted, understood and given the rights so freely accorded “normal” or “heterosexual” individuals.

I want to be a role model for mental health like Temple Grandin is for autism. I want that individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar and other mental illnesses can be leaders, like Tim Cook or Marc Jacobs, who are not afraid to be honest.

Marc Jacobs also had a publicly-acknowledged street drug addiction. So did Mark Wahlberg, the esteemed actor who won a Golden Globe. He was addicted to cocaine by the time he was 13, yet he turned his life around.

Normal? Forget it. There is no normal. Everyone’s just a human being living their life, doing the best they can with what they were given.

I didn’t chose to have schizophrenia. Tim Cook and Marc Jacobs didn’t choose to defy societal norms. A friend of mind had a decal on his wall that proclaimed: God Made Me Gay. God certainly did give each of us a a life. God gave us gifts. We were made in God’s image, remember?

Why. Are people in American society. Against same-sex marriage. Against giving equal opportunities to anyone who has been disenfranchised, like those of us with mental illnesses?

You have to question this prevailing narrow-mindedness. You have to question the hate in the world. It’s not stigma; it’s discrimination. The correct term is discrimination.

God made each and every one of us who we are. We have nothing to be ashamed about.

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.

 

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Using Music To Power Through

I used to be a disc jockey on the FM radio in the 1980s.

This first career was a labor of love–I wasn’t paid to do it–yet it set in motion the events of my life in the future. I recommend all young people try to do something positive like this. It will power a person through to the rest of his or her life. It can be a kind of therapy when you’re faced with oncoming symptoms.

Even now, I recommend doing things that give you positive reinforcement. One guy watches sports games. Years later, I listen to music on the radio and iTunes. I recommend installing iTunes on a computer so you can listen to [mostly free] radio stations. Zeilsteen in the alternative genre is good.

In a flash one day it hit me to install Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” At first, I accidentally installed the Sex Pistols version of “My Way” and then I found out they re-created it with new lyrics that butcher the song’s intent.

The original version of “My Way” is the perfect antidote to stigma in my estimation. Listening to it can help us soldier on; to remember we’re beholden to no one else in society to prove our worth to; that we need not seek other people’s approval.

I recommend that you do things YOUR way–in your version of the “My Way” that Frank Sinatra sings about.

Old Blue Eyes was right on the money. Here’s to you, Frankie.

I’ll end here that about five years ago a New York Times article reported on the high number of “Sinatra-cides” that happened in the Phillipines when “My Way” was belted out during Karaoke. People singing this song were actually killed. Numerous clubs banned the use of “My Way” as a result.

Google the lyrics to this song if you don’t want to buy it. I find this song to be truly uplifting.

Music can be one of the joys of life. It can give a person positive reinforcement.

Take that, stigma.

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.

 

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OxyMoron? Or Stupidity In Action?

Think about this:

There are no female suicide bombers, are there?

And African women weren’t the architects of the Rwanda genocide, were they now?

As 2012 was supposed to be the start of the female-centered changes not the end of the world, it mystifies me about the ongoing violence and hate.

Republicans and others are criticizing Obama for not sending ground troops to Syria.

How long does America have to keep fighting endless wars that strip our soldier citizens of their mental health and actual life and limb?

An “eye for an eye” is not the solution to hate and violence and killing.

I’m not disenchanted with President Obama and what he’s done as our leader. I was glad for the healthcare reform even though it had loopholes. What I don’t like is that Obama professes to be Christian and he’s continuing in the vein the Presidents Bush started of creating bloodshed through unnecessary wars.

Leon Panetta has been critical of Obama’s “30-year wars.” Who started these wars that Obama had to take over? The Presidents Bush. So to be critical of Obama is to be misguided. The war on terror won’t be only a “30-year war” Mr. Panetta: it will be a forever war because it can’t be won.

How long? How long must we wait until the world changes its tune? How long must we wait until human beings stop their violence and hate?

You stigmatize me and others because we have no-fault brain disorders: think again. We’re not half as crazy as the architects of genocide and the in-the-name-of-Allah terrorists.

“God made me do it” is not a legal defense for this craziness.

With all due respect, stigma is a crock of bull. Stigma is irrational, illogical; and I pity the fool who stigmatizes people with mental illnesses and thinks he’s actually intelligent.

Stigma. Ha. By all means stigmatize us. I’ll have the last laugh at your joke.

Do you have a better solution to the violence and hate? Do you have the solution to our soldiers coming come beaten and broken, if they are able to come home?

I have schizophrenia, and I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t committed an act of violence.

I’m a model citizen. Which is more than I can say for the war-mongers.