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

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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.

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.

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.