Going Bold – Part Two

Being our authentic selves gives us power: the power to enter into relationships based on love and respect, the power to achieve great things, and the power to accept ourselves.

Being who we are is a way of accepting ourselves and daring to show our true selves to the world.

Too often, outsiders–and possibly we did too, early on–equate symptoms with personality traits.

“Am I crazy? I don’t want to be crazy,” we tell ourselves.

You get over the diagnosis by taking action to celebrate and be proud of who you are, apart from the illness. You engage in goal-seeking behavior. You defy others to stigmatize you–and you go on your merry way by doing the things that give you joy and satisfaction.

You stomp on the stigma by creating a “full and robust” life for yourself.

That’s all there is to it: you dare to boldly be who are you in a world of fake people who covet normalcy and seek to hide their flaws and quirks at all costs.

I’m a big fan of Brene Brown and her research on vulnerability. Read her book The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s only 126 pages and it’s well worth the read.

You’ll understand why the act of revealing our imperfections, of celebrating the quirks that make each of us who are, is a great way to go bold and not be embarrassed or ashamed that we have an illness.

Go ahead, dare: shine a light on your beauty instead hating yourself for having a diagnosis.

It is the imperfect that makes a person beautiful: a beauty mark, a scar, a big nose.

Celebrate your and others’ individuality instead of seeking to repress it.

Go bold. You don’t have to take a backseat after you get a diagnosis.

In fact, what the world needs is your brilliance. The world needs all of our imperfections.

Go ahead. Shine.

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Going Bold – Part One

I recommend that a person “goes bold” after getting a diagnosis.

I’m on the cusp of 50 and I remember how I used to wear garish theater makeup and weird clothes in my twenties. It was one of the few outlets I had to express myself living in an outer borough of New York City that was like the suburbs.

Yes–I always wanted to live an artist’s life in the city. As I near 50, I understand that at this age it’s high time and high tide for the ultimate self-acceptance. Regret serves no purpose. Looking at ourselves and our lives microscopically, taking a critical lens to our flaws, is an unproductive use of time.

It’s time at this time in our lives to go by the serenity prayer: to change the things we can, to accept the things we can’t change, and to have the wisdom to know the difference.

The difference is–if a woman turns 50 and she still don’t like herself that’s not a good sign when she’ll likely have 20 more years here, living inside her body.

Thus I recommend a person “goes bold” and does the thing she thinks she cannot do. I recommend not taking a backseat to others in society. I recommend reaching for the stars in what you think is possible for you to achieve.

More than this, I recommend “going bold” as soon as you’re diagnosed and not waiting until you’re 50.

A famous quote is this: Only by going too far can a person know how far he can go.

You won’t know what you’re capable of unless you try. And the sooner you try to create a better life for yourself the better. Your parents won’t be here forever. You’ll have to take care of yourself at some point.

It’s better to entertain “going bold” in how you live your life because it’s the best way to kick the stigma to the curb.

I’ll return with a look at how this is directly linked to getting a diagnosis.

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.

An Alternative Writing Life

I was 22; I had graduated college with a BA in English in June 1987. I had no idea what I wanted to do, I only knew what I didn’t want: to have an ordinary life as a suburban breeder who stayed home with the kids while her husband worked on Wall Street.

You could say there was something left of the dial about this tendency even then.

The knee-jerk reaction was to think I could be an editorial assistant at a magazine or publishing house.

Fate decided for me: I had a break, and was shunted into a community mental health system for close to four years: the worst time of my life, ever, even accounting for high school.

I knew since I was seven years old that I wanted to be a writer. How does a kid so young already know something like that? I did; was it an intuition?

As a young person, I didn’t want to birth babies; yet I didn’t want to be poor, so I deluded myself into thinking I could become a corporate superstar. I bombed out of that gray flannel first career with smashing success.

It wasn’t until 2004 that I began writing professionally. Seventeen years later. I started writing my memoir circa 2000, and joined my first writing workshop then. About five or six of us met every week to critique our work. It was free advice, read my lips: free. Out of all of us, I got a literary agent who obtained a book deal for Left of the Dial.

The book impressed the editor yet the deal didn’t go through. I wouldn’t quit, so chose to self-publish because I believed in my story. Self-publishing can lead to a book deal with a house down the road.

The wind-up:

Be brave. If you want to write more than anything, Just Do It like Nike proclaims.

Write because you are a writer, with no regard to whether you get mainstream accolades. Write because to not write would drive you mad. Write because you must.

Keep your eyes open to opportunities: submit your work, and submit it again.

Yet remember this: you are a writer because that’s who you are, not because so-called arbiters in society confer that title on you.

You’re right to write. Just Do It.

I will talk in the future about other writing life topics. Stay tuned.

MFA: Boon Or Boondoggle?

From time to time I will talk about the writing life in a category of blog entries under the title the writing life.

It might interest readers who have the urge to tell their story or write a book.

I recently read in the book Happiness, a collection of essays taken from the critical literary journal n+1, a chapter by Keith Gessen, a guy who was a penniless writer forced to teach fiction at a college. He does have an MFA, and sold a book for a six-figure advance (advances are always against future royalties.) Yet for most of his writerly life, he existed on $15K to $20K in yearly income.

This will be the first writing myth I bust: that a traditional avenue for a writing career is the only one a would-be writer should aspire to.

First: I’m not a fan of most MFA fiction (or fiction for that matter), so I’m biased against having a job in an “ivory tower” academic institution where you teach writing to students. I read a fine column in Poets & Writers about how real-life experience is vital to have as a writer, instead of going the paper-mill route.

I make an exception: certain MFA writers are good–like Danzy Senna. And it’s a matter of preference, because Heidi Julavits is a famous MFA-writer, and I found nothing spectacular about her first book, The Mineral Palace. (I read it when it first came out.)

She was on a panel discussion I attended titled: “MFA: Boon or Boondoggle” easily over 10 years ago.

The myth of having to write full-time, the myth of most writers being able to earn a livable income solely from writing, is just that: a myth.

The wind-up:

To get an MFA, you have to think of your R.O.I., or return on investment: if you’ll recoup the expensive tuition by getting a book deal with a decent advance.

I will return on Thursday with a more hopeful scenario to combat this common dilemma.

Personality Crisis

This comes from the first chapter that recreates the days following when I moved into the halfway house. I don’t recommend anyone do what I did. Instead, research your options and be not afraid to do something different. I don’t think any young person should be shunted into a traditional day program. I’ve formed this stance in retrospect because of my time spent writing the memoir. I do not offer this advice flippantly. Nor do I recommend ditching a treatment plan that could actually work. My contention is that you have to do your research and choose wisely what you do after you’re first diagnosed when you’re young.

The title of the blog entry is a reference to the song title of a song one of the characters was singing on the first day I moved into the halfway house. She and I got out of the system. So few of the others did. It’s all too easy to get led down the wrong path. And true a better option might not exist where you live. It seemed like I had no other options circa the fall 1987.

___________________________________________________

Waking up come Monday morning I heard the Sugarcubes on loud from in that room. This could get very interesting—first punk rock and now Icelandic pop.

I washed my face in the sink, barely removing my eye makeup so I didn’t have to apply it again. It saved time. Today I didn’t want to be late again for the new day program. Ellen sent me to Meadow because she didn’t think I was ready for a part-time job, not even volunteer work, and Rise was meant to be short-term.

Soon I met the woman who liked rock-n-roll. In the kitchen, she made herself coffee, and I poured myself a bowl of Cheerios. Her corkscrew hair snaked out around her face.

“I’m Margot,” she introduced herself, bringing her mug to the table where I sat.

“Chris.” I looked anywhere but at her face.

“I’ll walk with you to Meadow,” she said. It was the second day program I attended.

“Thank you.” I soaked up her kindness.

She wore a red leather MC and motorcycle boots. I coveted her style.

“You live in the room with the music.”

“Yes. I’ve heard your punk. I like it. The woman next to me listens to Slim Whitman.” She rolled her eyes.

I laughed. “I love your leather jacket.”

“It’s an ex-boyfriend’s. I broke up with him and never gave it back.” That was so cool. I knew I’d like knowing her. I hoped this would turn into a friendship. It would satisfy Brett. I’d have an ally in this strange world.

“Let’s go. It’s late.” We placed our cups and bowls in the dishwasher and left.

We walked in silence the five blocks to the building. On arriving, she told me she’s in Level One, the highest rung on the ladder of groups, and walked down the hall. My counselor, Abby, placed me in Level Five, at the bottom. Today I was going to make the case that she elevate me at least to Level Two. I turned the corner and entered the morning group therapy.

Sylvia, a woman with punched-out eyes, applied her face: turquoise eye shadow and fuchsia lipstick. Abigail strummed worry beads and prayed under her breath. My anger was red as a drumbeat. I railed against being in this group because what passed for therapy was usually talk about the weather, and even so, I thought it rude to use the meeting as a beauty parlor.

The therapist, Andre, asked first off if anyone had an issue he or she wanted to discuss, and a guy asked, “Does anybody know why the train was late?”

After we’d gone around about this, a woman with a haunted face wanted to know why it was so cold. “Is there a wind chill factor?” I could see her blue veins through her thin arms.

Burl, a man with lagoon eyes and wild grass hair, stared at me the whole time. I slogged through this session until it was time to meet my counselor for the progress report. Abby ushered me into her office at eleven-thirty, and I took a seat in front of her desk. She was a lavender kind of woman, and I hated pastels.

Here I was at another day program, and I wanted to move faster.

“Why?” I asked automatically. “Why did you put me at the bottom? I’d like to be in one of Margot’s groups. Why can’t I have a goals group and a work-search group?” It was called Life Management, and it was available for those at the highest level, where you could work on planning for the future and what you would do when you graduated the program. As far as I could tell, everyone at the bottom had been here three, four, five years, or more. Though I’d only been here two months, I was itching to get out.

Abby said, “I placed you there because when you first came here, you barely talked and were extremely quiet.”

“How am I supposed to get support if people just talk about why the train was late or how the weather is outside?” I challenged her, and she winced. “Is that what group therapy is supposed to be about?”

Abby caressed the round glass paperweight on her desk. Before she could respond, I continued, “This place is a playpen. It’s a holding pen for people who can’t function on the outside. How is Meadow going to help me? I want out.” I feared the longer I stayed here, I would give up on myself, just like the others had.

“I tell you what. I’ll talk with the other staff, and in three weeks, if we’ve noticed an improvement, I’ll consider moving you up.”

Yes, it was going to happen. I was going to make it happen.

Abby said, “Nice haircut. Keep it up.”

I’d gotten a new style: longer in front, framing my face; shorter in back, with bangs spiked up. I liked it; I did. Kind of a modern bob. It made me look young, even though I didn’t need to look any younger.

She told me, “Next up I want you to work on your makeup and clothes.”

“Fair enough,” I said, though I wasn’t quite ready to take the leap.

“Okay, you can go to lunch,” Abby dismissed me.

Greeting Card Message

I will try to return to publishing a blog entry here on Saturdays.

I wanted to talk about a greeting card I received for my birthday years ago from a beloved friend.

The front of the card proclaims in red letters:

“Everyone Just Pretend To Be Normal”

-Little Miss Sunshine

Inside the card states:

Yeah sure like that’ll happen.

Happy Birthday

I do not have the guts to hang it up on the wall of my desk at work.

I would like to though because it’s a zinger.

How about we drop the act? How about so-called normal people stop making excuses for each other’s lack of ethics or integrity?

I resent having to accommodate the flaws and quirks of of so-called normal people who won’t accommodate the flaws and quirks of people diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Our illnesses aren’t our identity, yet often other people define us by our symptoms, as if the symptoms are personality traits.

I’m willing to take a stand against the mediocrity that exists in society. I’m willing to take a stand against glorifying and praising so-called normal people who are a few bricks shy of a house in how they treat others and how they act towards others.

Most of all, I’m willing to take a stand against the pervasive judging of people with mental illnesses.

We need to take back our power to be heard, to be respected, to be accorded dignity as we go about living our lives.

I like the greeting card message because it’s a boldfaced admission that no one’s normal.

How could I not keep the card all this time?

I might just place it on the wall after all.