A Roomful of Teddy Bears: An Intimate Inquiry into a Fragmented Psyche After 40 years of secrecy, one woman reveals her multiple personalities and risks losing a lifelong friend. But how can her friend be lost… when she may not actually exist?
By John Scott Holman
“I is another.” – Arthur Rimbaud
Francine Paula Upjohn did not immediately catch my attention when she was admitted to the Crisis Stabilization Unit, one of a number of units which made up the massive state psychiatric hospital in Osawatomie Kansas, to which I had been involuntarily committed following a suicide attempt. It was several days before I spoke with her; she was quiet, shy, and her expression seemed pained. I had only been admitted several days before her and was slow to socialize myself. I paid little attention to the other patients in those first few days. I did, however, notice that Francine looked remarkably like the famous autistic Temple Grandin. A dark brown, corkscrew hairdo
climbed high above her head, falling here and there where the curls were heaviest. She wore rugged black Wranglers, a black vest and flannel shirt, bolo tie, and charcoal cowboy boots. Despite this outfit, which might have been pilfered from the wardrobe of a rodeo performer, she insisted that she did not enjoy Country and Western Music. This was our first discussion, prompted by a simple question, “So I take it you’re a country music fan, right?” “No,” she replied. Silence followed. She wiggled her nose slightly in consternation. “Well, what kind of music do you like?” Instead, of sharing her favorite songs, bands and artists, she focused on the particular genres which she would NOT listen to, namely Country and Rap. “I guess some of the older Western tunes were alright. There was a time when country music told meaningful stories. They were songs about the human way.” This was the closest thing to a casual conversation Francine and I would have. Perhaps due to our shared sexual orientation we became friends and confidantes overnight. We managed to endure the constant chaos of the hospital by taking refuge in our increasingly meaningful friendship. Lasting friendships are rarely formed in the ever shifting world of a government funded loony bin. Admissions and discharges were
daily events. The hospital was like a carefully engineered machine designed for tidying up unkempt minds and repairing genuinely broken ones; patients entered in a daze, experienced dramatic, chemically induced mental alterations, attended a few classes, and were sent packing, shiny and new, as soon as possible. Understanding this, Francine and I wasted little time on small talk. We quickly came to rely on the comfort and serenity each provided the other. Soon our conversations became deeper, more personal, and I was astonished to find myself wading through the murky consciousness of an utterly unique human being. Francine shared the poignant and devastating details of her life with me. She dug up long buried memories, dark and troubling secrets, abruptly and with no noticeable hesitation. People often feel comfortable confiding in me. Perhaps I’m just a laid back, highly tolerant individual. I do my best to listen and console but my mind wanders more often than not and I often change the subject to something I find interesting. This is especially awkward when I realize the person before me was discussing a death in the family, upcoming major surgery, etc… I can be a bit socially awkward, though I’m not the slightest bit shy. I tend to behave as if I have a six pack of Budweiser in my bloodstream at all times. Yes, I enjoy the company of others… but most of my friends continually beg me to undo the chains binding them to the walls of my walk-in closet. Oh, for readers of a highly literal mindset, please know that I am only joking… mostly. I really do have a problem keeping friends though… and, apparently, I also have
a problem keeping this narrative focused. Where was I? Ah… Francine was never without Lulu, the eight year-old girl who had been her dearest friend for decades… and could be seen and heard only by Francine herself. Lulu and Francine appeared exactly when I needed them most. My depression and anxiety had improved slightly but I still struggled with occasional moments of crippling fear. One evening it seemed a panic attack was imminent. My heart rate skyrocketed, cold beads of sweat appeared suddenly on my forehead, and I found it hard to breathe. Then abruptly, and through no conscious effort, my negative thoughts, previously cycling about in my head like bicycle wheels at the Tour de France, came to an abrupt and definitive halt. I glanced down and noticed that Francine had taken firm hold of my hand. Suddenly I felt safe. I knew Francine struggled with her own anxiety and depression but she did not truly reveal the depths of emotional pain and psychological disruption she suffered for several days. While neurodiversity is likely as essential to evolution as biodiversity, there are undeniably tragic byproducts of nature’s expansive imagination. Some suffer more than I will ever comprehend. Others have more manageable conditions and symptoms. Then again, as the Cheshire cat said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Were every detail of the average, middle-class, law-abiding, diagnosis-free individual’s life fully and completely exposed, they
would likely seem far less average than anticipated. “Normal” may be my least favorite word and a virtually meaningless one to boot. Of course, I’ve been consistently out of step for 26 years. If there is a God, I am either one of His most masterful creations… or a really hastily manufactured mess He finished before rushing off to His lunch break. Was Francine “normal?” I couldn’t help but feel that the support and advice I offered her may have been naïve and silly. Yet, even if it was… I have no regrets. I face severe difficulties in accurately processing and retaining messages transmitted non-verbally (i.e. through body language) but I’m quite certain that Francine was always at ease when we were together. How liberating it was for a pair of oddballs, socially ostracized, deviant, derelict, and defiant to join together and declare our fundamental human worth to one another, truly hearing and believing for the first time. For many years Francine had only Lulu to provide her with the emotional validation necessary to make her feel human. All traces of her dignity and self-worth had been smudged out, like chalk beneath the sweep of an eraser, leaving only a faint, incomprehensible cloud of white dust on the blackboard, a useless indication of what once was. “Lulu won’t come to the hospitals,” Francine said without the slightest inflection, as if merely commenting on the weather. “She knows they want to take her away from me. I miss her and feel so alone.” Francine and I were sitting a few feet from the medication window, both weary from the day’s usual drama; the same patients becoming hysterical and violent before the nurses arrived to stick
them in the ass with two ice-pick sized needles. A swift push against the plungers sent a knock-out cocktail of Thorazine, Ativan and Benadryl through the needles and into the spongy muscle tissue. Within ten minutes the troublesome patient would be rendered physically and mentally immobile, unable to count to ten or even remember their date of birth. “Where did you and Lulu meet?” I asked, leaning forward a bit too quickly. The sudden intensity of my excitement startled me. I felt as if I’d accidentally rested my hand on a hot stove. Yet I wanted to know more… much more. I was fascinated. “When did she come to you? Are you able to remember?” “Of course, y’know, it isn’t like I’d forget somethin’ as important as that. I dunno where I’d be without that little gal. I’m just an old bull-dyke gettin’ funny in the head. I’m crackin’ up.” I laughed loudly. Then I thought perhaps it was inappropriate to laugh. Does etiquette require one to laugh at another’s self-deprecating humor - as one would politely applaud the cast of a play even if the acting was lousy - or is it preferable to reassure the person that they are mistaken and should not say such things about themselves? I couldn’t decide and couldn’t swallow my laughter so I covered my mouth to muffle what had now become a shrill giggle, gained control of myself, took my hand away and smiled awkwardly. Francine and I were among roughly twenty other patients lined up like cattle ready to feed; our meal, however, was a morning cocktail of powerful psychotropic drugs. “Just a sec, beautiful,” I said, smiling
with my eyes in Francine’s direction, “It’s my turn for morning dope.” I approached the window to the nurse’s station where a droopy faced, blank eyed nurse stared coldly at me, her mouth fixed in a permanent frown, her scrubs dotted with bright yellow smiley faces. She was standing alongside a waist high cart lined with drawers, each drawer full of pills. She fished a key from her pocket to unlock the drawer for Schedule II drugs – the most tightly controlled of legal substances – and removed my amphetamines. Then she went rummaging through the rest of the cart collecting pills. One by one, she placed them before me along with a dainty little Dixie cup full of water. I stared down at the four pills that made up my morning regimen; 20mg of Prozac; two 15mg Dexedrine Spansules; and 1mg of Klonopin. At noon I would take yet another Dexedrine Spansule and my second dose of Klonopin. In the evening’s I was administered my final dose of Klonpin as well as 200mg of Seroquel. “Christ in a pair of Nike Jordans!” I exclaimed, “I wake up with a psychotropic speedball, maintain my daily sanity with more pills, and enter a small coma every evening after taking my Seroquel. I’m worse than friggin’ Elvis Presley! Why don’t you just start giving me a nice pre-operative anesthetic at night – it worked wonders for Michael Jackson!” “If you are unsatisfied with your meds you can put in a request to see the doctor,” the nurse replied, gathering all her strength to remain calm and collected. Patients at psychiatric facilities can often be… well, bat-shit-
crazy, violent, hysterical, hygienically challenged, and cannibalistic. Ok, the cannibalism part may be a bit exaggerated but the rest is all true. Budget cuts have left state hospitals dangerously understaffed, and all the extra effort expected of the existing employees has a tendency to make them a wee bit grouchy. “But seriously, eight pills a day?! I’m gonna turn into a pill!” “Once again,” the nurse said more firmly, “I can do nothing about this. You need to speak with the doctor.” “Well… I’m not sure if I want to,” I said, my head cocked and eyes squinted together to suggest concentration. Truthfully, I couldn’t even concentrate on concentrating for more than a few minutes as my stimulant wouldn’t take effect for another hour at least. “Don’t tell the doctor I told you so… but I think I’m doing far better after the adjustments and additions he made.” “Very good,” she sniffed, disinterestedly. “Now if you would please step aside I have other patients needing meds.” “Ok,” I said. “Oh, and remember - don’t tell the doctor he was right.” I smiled a wide, toothpaste-ad-smile in defiance of the nurses frozen grimace, and strolled back towards Francine with a cocky bounce in my step. “It is almost time for group,” she said. She was smiling more now. Her teeth were large and crooked but her smile made me feel warm and comfortable.
“Let me go grab my schedule,” I said. I crossed the day room to the men’s hall, opened the first door on my right, entered my room and crossed to the dresser where I found my schedule. I had nearly suffocated in a fit of laughter after reading the wildly inappropriate treatment goals listed along the right half of that day’s schedule. The first goal read, “John will develop three strategies to avoid amphetamines, alcohol and marijuana.” Aside from the fact that I tested clean at the emergency room, the real kicker was that the hospital was administering three capsules of dextroamphetamine to me on a daily basis. I made a mental note to inform my treatment team that the first of my three avoidance strategies would involve an escape from the hospital. Goal number two was equally absurd; “John will report a pain level of three or below when treated for pain.” I had neither experienced nor complained of any pain during my stay and certainly wasn’t being treated for it. Mental note number two: find a hammer, break my hand, demand Percocet and report a pain level of two. My favorite treatment goal of all, the one that initiated hysterical laughter, literally stated, “John will report that he is not considering suicide as much.” As much?! I was convinced one of the fun, young staff members had put together some elaborate practical joke, but sadly the only joke was my treatment team. I wasn’t going to sweat it. I would take my time and do whatever necessary to develop coping skills to handle my anxiety attacks and meltdowns. I didn’t pay much attention to my doctor. He was a bit
irritating and either refused to listen or couldn’t understand a word I was saying. He was, however, prescribing what appeared to be a promising medication regimen and didn’t yank me off the drugs I had previously been taking. I once voluntarily committed myself to a psychiatric unit that discontinued all three of the medications I was currently taking and sent me home with two prescriptions for entirely different and utterly useless drugs. I met Francine in the hall and we made our way to art therapy where I drew a colorful, cubist portrait of a rather desperate looking transgendered individual. A bearded old man sitting beside me asked, “What in all creation is that?” “Why can’t you see? It’s a sunset…” I said, dryly. “I kinda like it,” he continued. “The colors all look like they should clash but somehow they don’t.” “…they should clash but somehow they don’t,” I repeated slowly. “You sir have just summarized the theme of this drawing. Mighty observant of you!” I grinned. Francine smiled a magnificent, wide, crooked-toothed smile when she heard that one. She was likely the only one in the room who understood a fraction of what I had just said. Only two days earlier I was one of three gay men on the unit. I became close with one of them in particular, a man named Taylor who had been admitted for sleep deprivation psychosis induced by chronic,
intravenous methamphetamine use. A certain subculture within the gay community has a ferocious taste for crystal meth, which they colloquially refer to as “Tina.” I didn’t need to speak one word to Taylor to figure him right out. “P and P?” I asked, nudging him playfully with my elbow. “Oh my God, how did you know?! Do I look that bad?!” he practically shrieked. “People who inject street speed can’t afford to be vain,” I said, smiling wide without knowing why. “P and P” is an abbreviation for “Party and Play,” a term used in Gay culture which basically means two or more gay men get together to consume large quantities of methamphetamine and engage in endless, primal, dope fueled sexual escapades. The drug and the sex soon become synonymous within the mind of the user, creating a highly dangerous dual addiction. Taylor was sweet and shy, a former sixth grade teacher, and I couldn’t quite imagine him probing for a vein, searching for that deep red that darts upward and sways in dropper’s neck, like a beckoning finger, inviting you to push the dope on in and defy gravity for awhile. There’s no more beautiful sight on earth to a seasoned needle freak. I was very blunt with Taylor when we discussed his addiction. “If you head on home after a few days in here you’ll have that needle in your arm within 24 hours.” He didn’t go home.
His father dropped a hundred grand on a six month rehabilitation center in Texas. I was thrilled and relieved when he told me. I was also proud of him. Now he would actually have a chance. Few people come back from six years of IV meth use. I kissed him on the cheek and told him he’d be one of the courageous few who overcome the devastating illness of crystal meth addiction. I felt melancholy the rest of the day following Taylor’s discharge. Both of my gay friends had left that day and I suddenly found myself the only fabulous member of my psych unit. Sadness… Luckily, Francine came along and relieved me of the burden of being the single resident homosexual. That was certainly a relief, but the excitement of learning first hand how her beautiful, terrifying and fragmented mind worked lit up my own brain like Times Square at Christmas. After lunch Francine and I retired to our usual corner. “I have to tell you something else about Lulu,” she said solemnly. “She’s my best friend in the world but… but… sometimes she tries to get me to do bad things. That’s when she becomes the different Lulu. She said taking all those pills was the best thing for me. She said she’d be waiting for me on the other side. She said nobody would ever be able to separate us again. I trust her. We love each other. We’re all we’ve got…” choked sobbing interrupted Francine’s disturbing disclosure. I didn’t know what to say. I’m not especially good at comforting people in even the most ordinary of distressing situations. A phantom eight year-old with the power to convince a 50 year-old woman to
attempt suicide? I was way out of my element. I sat silently, my hand flapping slightly at my side. “I’m… sorry?” I managed to mutter. “Don’t be sorry,” she said, her voice breaking audibly through a thick layer of phlegm in her throat. “You don’t know how much you’ve helped me! I’ve never told anyone about Lulu… never before you. She’s always threatened to leave me if I tell. But I just had to tell someone! I had to!” For some reason I was very flattered by her decision to share her secret with me. This seemed like a monumentally inappropriate emotional reaction considering the circumstances. The warmth of flattery was replaced by the red cheeked heat of shame. “Will she leave you now?” I asked. I didn’t understand how to engage in such an utterly illogical conversation. Francine lived within her own private and remarkably fragile world. The rules of interaction were more intricate than I could have imagined. I felt as if I had stepped through the looking glass into a wonderland populated by creatures intent on confounding me at every turn. Francine was silent for several moments, contemplating my question. “Lulu doesn’t come to the hospital,” she sighed finally. “She doesn’t know. She can’t find out. How would I get along without her?” “I don’t quite understand,” I said. “Why do you need her?”
Francine’s face glistened with tears and a thick, translucent droplet of snot hung from her left nostril, ready to fall at any moment. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Lulu was the only one there through the bad times, the dark times that I forget when I’m lucky. But I always remember again. The rashes on my face from his whiskers. The taste of whiskey and cigarettes on his tongue and how white that tongue was – my father’s tongue white with halitosis!” I felt my stomach roll over and rapidly grow acidic. I was nervous but I was having trouble identifying my feelings. In that moment, two radically different realities overlapped and I felt suddenly unsure of everything I had once believed. Was Francine insane? Was I? Were we merely characters in the complex, hallucinatory world of a patient in another hospital somewhere far away? “I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “First it was my father. Then I started developing and he lost interest… but my uncle had started in by then. There was one year they shared me. After one or the other raped me Lulu would come to me and hold me as I cried myself to sleep. Lulu said they could never defile my spirit but maybe she was just saying that to be nice.” “I don’t know what to say,” I stammered. “I don’t know what a spirit is. If you have one I certainly hope it wasn’t defiled.”
“Thanks…” she said, in a deflated tone that seemed to indicate that I had said the wrong thing. We were quiet then, sitting side by side, looking forward at nothing at all. I don’t know how much time passed. I don’t remember thinking of anything in particular. Inexplicably enough, a Def Leppard song had somehow found its way into my head and was good and stuck, repeating over and over again, an outrageously unsuitable soundtrack to the scene at hand. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I also didn’t. Daddy was in charge. Every time he took me he would buy me a teddy bear. I fucking HATE teddy bears,” she hissed through gritted teeth.
That night I dreamed of a large cavernous room in which my every footfall echoed off the walls and ceiling. The room was empty save for a large pile of teddy bears stacked haphazardly in the far right corner. Every single teddy bear had a band-aid between its legs. I awoke in a cold sweat, choking on a scream that caught in my throat.
The dream lingered disquietingly in the back of mind as I ate breakfast. I was having trouble getting my spoonful of cereal into my mouth and milk and soggy Rice Krispies had drizzled onto the collar of my shirt. I entered the hospital taking 50mg of Seroquel per evening as a sleep aid. The tablets I was accustomed to were no larger than M&Ms. When I received my first round of evening medication I instantly recognized the Klonopin, but was perplexed to find a white pill as big around as a quarter sitting next to it. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “What is what?” “That giant white horse tranquilizer right there.” “That’s your Seroquel.” “Um… that isn’t MY Seroquel. That Seroquel could beat the shit out of MY Seroquel. I take a petite lil guy.” “The doctor ordered you 200mg of Seroquel in the evenings.” “Uh oh… Here we go…” I hesitantly swallowed the pills. An hour later I could easily have been mistaken for dead. I didn’t wake up until noon the next day. After a few days I was able to rise for breakfast but was a stumbling, barely coherent mess until I was given my Dexedrine Spansules shortly after returning from the cafeteria. Even then, it seemed they took an eternity to take effect, slowly beginning to turn
the wheels within my brain, making thoughts and feeling, the basic characteristics which the Seroquel removed, causing the zombie-like behavior. If I paid close attention, I would notice the first wave of Dexedrine and its influence on my brain. It begins with a peculiar feeling which I refer to as “my spidey sense tingling.” A subtle, electric, wave creeps over my shoulders and down my back, as if I were walking alone down a dark and possibly dangerous alley. This is caused by burst releases of norepinephrine, the chemical behind the “fight or flight” response. You become alert, aware, observant… Unfortunately, the Seroquel completely overpowered the Dexedrine and I often fell right on back to sleep after crawling to the medication window and swallowing my Dexys along with the rest of my cocktail. The nurse told me I would soon become tolerant to Seroquel’s overwhelmingly sedating effects. “I hope so,” I muttered. “I’m pretty sure this stuff could lay out King Kong.” The second night of my stay I had taken my dose of Seroquel and was rapidly approaching a state of incoherent sedation. I needed to get quickly to bed but was struggling with a challenging knot in my boots. I couldn't very well climb into bed in leather boots, so I plopped pathetically into a corner and began looking frantically about the room. Nearly everyone was entering the droopy eyed zombie state regularly induced by evening medications. "Will someone who is not on drugs please HELP me?!" I implored.
Sometimes we have to surrender control and admit that we simply cannot help ourselves. When life becomes a knot too tricky to untangle on our own we can either proudly struggle on, our futile efforts only further frustrating us... or we can swallow our pride and reach out to others for assistance. It took 15 doped up patients to finally separate me from my boots, BUT separate they did! Surrendering control can be the greatest obstacle one faces while attempting to heal - it is also the most vital. Gradually the Seroquel hangovers disappeared and I began waking without discomfort at 7:30 each morning. Also, I started to notice a significant reduction in my anxiety and stabilization of my mood. I guess the doctor was right after all. I haven’t always had the best of luck with psychiatrists and years of misdiagnosis and inappropriate medicinal treatment, complete with a crippling collection of side-effects, had caused me to become very suspicious of the entire psychiatric industry. This time around, surrendering control was surprisingly beneficial, but, as I mentioned to the nurse, I wasn’t quite ready to swallow my pride and give my doctor the satisfaction of being right. I did not see Francine at lunch or at dinner. She hadn’t once entered the day room either. I was becoming nervous. She had told me that she would be meeting with her therapist early in the morning. I hoped she had not received bad news. Later that evening we had group Karaoke in the TV room. After months of severe depression, walking about like a ghost… no, the
ghost of a ghost, I found myself laughing, dancing, singing… having fun! I felt that electric thrill of optimism, energy and joie de vivre that had always been such an integral part of my personality. Little by little, I was coming back. The first number was performed by a severely schizophrenic woman who spoke only in tangled, absurd sentences, yet somehow knew every lyric to her chosen song; “The Monster Mash.” She didn’t seem to understand the concept of singing, however. She spoke the lyrics in a whiney, Thorazine slur while swaying her hips back and forth, her drooping, unsecured breasts knocking together like a pair of tube socks filled with pudding. Her enormous smile displayed teeth thick with nearly a full centimeter of collected plaque. Next up, a fierce little spitfire named Vicki joined me in a duet. She stood about four foot nothing but was so wildly manic that her personality alone filled up every room she entered. We sang “Summer Lovin’” from “Grease.” I led off as John Travolta to her Olivia Newton John. It just so happened we had both memorized the bits of dancing scattered throughout that song’s particular scene and together we put on quite a show. The audience applauded like mad (pun very much intended, corny or not). A fight erupted suddenly while a greasy gentleman named Sigmund Stoner (I kid you not, dear reader, that was his real name!) was pouring his heart and soul into a Roy Orbison tune. Luckily, it was broken up quickly enough and the celebratory spirit remained untainted.
When I wasnâ€™t singing I was dancing joyfully, shaking my hips, dipping, skipping, and swinging about the room. It was almost better than being out at my favorite gay club. Sometimes the most enjoyable moments in life are found in the unlikeliest of places. Nut house Karaoke had me so wound up it took nearly two hours for my Seroquel to take effect. When I finally settled into bed I was troubled by the uneasy feeling that I had forgotten something. My day was missing an important ingredient. What was it? I was asleep before I could answer my own question.
*** looking frantically about the room. Nearly everyone was entering the droopy eyed zombie state regularly induced by evening medications. "Will someone who is not on drugs please HELP me?!" I implored. Sometimes we have to surrender control and admit that we simply cannot help ourselves. When life becomes a knot too tricky to untangle on our own we can either proudly struggle on, our futile efforts only further frustrating us... or we can swallow our pride and reach out to others for assistance. It took 15 doped up patients to finally seperate me from my boots, BUT seperate they did! Surrendering control can be the greatest obstacle one faces while attempting to heal - it is also the most vital! Against all probability, I found I was truly enjoying my time in the hospital. The structure and routine was comforting. The
endlessly bizarre antics of the patients was a constant source of entertainment. It was as if I had found the perfect balance of chaos and stability; a wacky yin-yang of government funded brain scrubbing… though judging by the state of the patients, the government needed to either scrub harder of increase funding. NO ONE seemed to be improving. Most patients left far more mentally unbalanced than when they had entered. Insanity seemed to be a contagious and progressive illness. That’s when I thought of Francine and how long it had been since I had seen her. Being gay, overconfident and rebellious, I sauntered on down the women’s hall, off limits to all male patients, located Francine’s room and rapped quietly on the door. I waited an ADHD minute (approximately 15 seconds of standard time) before knocking again. I heard a cough then the rustle of a blanket. “Who… who is it?” Francine asked. Her voice sounded small, raspy and muffled, as if it was coming from within a sealed box crammed full of newspaper. “Francine? It’s me. It’s Scotty.” “Oh…” she said, then I could hear blowing her nose. A moment later she invited me in. The dark pink pillow markings on her face indicated that she had been asleep. Her eyes were puffy, the white inflamed to the shade of Nestlé’s Strawberry Quick; she had been crying not long ago. “Why are you hiding in here? I asked, trying to keep my voice
upbeat. “We’ve been having fun. Is there something wrong?” “Oh, everything is fine. Really…” she said, unconvincingly. “C’mon, you know you can tell me,” I prompted. “My family has given up on me.” “Yeah, I know the feeling,” I said. “I have no family now. I didn’t belong with them. I was never quite the son they wanted.” “Oh, my family is supportive,” she said, wiping tears and snot from her face with the back of her hand. “It’s just that… they… they want to put me in a group home. A group home; like some retard!” I didn’t bother telling her that I was facing the same situation. I knew what was disturbing her the most – Lulu may not willing to go along to a group home. No, the groups home wasn’t exactly like the hospital, but I was certain Lulu would not approve. It suddenly struck me that was psychoanalyzing a figment of a sick woman’s delusions, attempting to predict Lulu’s future behavior. This is my life! I thought. Ordinary people do not experience personal interactions within the confines of this secured network of buildings; quarantine for all the square pegs society couldn’t fit within those round holes, no matter how much force was applied. I had tried counting my psychiatric hospitalizations but there were too many to recall accurately. At sixteen I was not just a confused, horny, and excitable kid. I was a young adult with
characteristics typical of an English professor four decades my senior, absurdly coupled with the naivety, vulnerability, social immaturity, and lack of basic life skills more common to eight year-old children. I had a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and conduct issues at school were regularly reported. I also began smoking marijuana, a forbidden fruit with tremendous novelty appeal. The novelty, however, had a brief shelf-life. Cannabis quickly became dull and depressing; I often felt I was experiencing a watered down version of life, a life where every moment might as well have been lived by someone else. So why did I continue to smoke, like a cheating husband who grows bored with his mistress but continues seeing her? Because it masked the symptoms of my dominant condition, the diagnosis of which gave a shocking explanation for the first 25 years of my bewildering life. Weed also allowed me do something I had never dreamed possible; ascend to the peak of the social hierarchy. If my behavior was unusual or inappropriate, I had no reason to worry that I had upset someone or behaved like a freak. My sporadic autistic behavior was easily dismissed with a comment about “the school’s biggest pothead.” My parents, however, had many suspicions, all of which were absurdly off-base. Like many parents, they worried I was getting high on some deadly chemical mythologized on shows like “Cops.” Their suspicions, however, were only aroused when I was sober. A quick bowl around the back of the house would have me behaving ordinary enough to calm them down. Though my development was radically
nonlinear, I could pass for normal – so long as I indulged ceaselessly in the use of an illegal substance. Nancy Regan may have encouraged a generation to “just say no,” but every person in my life was unknowingly yet ever so compellingly screaming, “Just say YES!” “I didn’t mean to say retard,” Francine said, her eyes downcast. She had been silent for so long my thoughts had wandered and I very nearly forgot she was sitting across from me. “I hope I didn’t offend you.” “Wait… You know I’m not retarded, right? I’m autistic. I have Asperger Syndrome. Well, now they just say Autism Spectrum Disorder.” “Oh…” she said, her voice exposing her lack of understanding. I had only been diagnosed a year prior to my admission to the state hospital. Initially, I embraced autism as a label that, through explanation, offered liberation. Gradually, however, I've come to realize that I had always been aware of my unusual gifts and exceptionality, and spent many years patiently waiting to grow out of my deficits. I watched everyone I knew transitioning into adulthood with relative ease while I puttered about in a perpetual state of emotional and developmental adolescence. Now I must face a difficult reality; while I will always have an extraordinary mind, many of my more average but deeply important and fundamentally human ambitions may never be fully realized. I will always have to fight
harder, fall farther, and struggle to pick myself back up in ways many will never quite understand. So I battle, now more than ever, to accept myself as I am, taking the good with the bad, enhancing and utilizing my gifts and working to overcome my limitations. There may be limitations which I will never be capable of overcoming. I shudder to think what those may be. I suppose I will discover what deficits, if any, are truly insurmountable as I continue along my journey. There's not much use in attempting to determine the shape of things to come. Instead, I will stubbornly assume that I am capable of all things and fight to the death to transform those assumptions into realities. Anyway, I was discussing the troubled Francine before momentarily ducking down an alternate avenue of contemplation. This is referred to as “tangential” thinking and is symptomatic of high functioning autism. I could write words that falsely represent my thoughts and feelings, but I would be deeply ashamed. I would rather withhold a great work, than release one unnecessary creation into our cluttered world. There’s enough noise out there. I strive to be heard over the static. Sometimes I wonder if my words are distinguishable, or just more noise. Damn it all! I keep forgetting that this story is not about me. This story belongs to Francine. I apologize and will attempt to stay more focused, beginning when you read a certain word which your eye is now approaching, a word which rhymes with “heyday…” Word: Mayday.
So… Francine. I was trying to find words of comfort to offer her. I was at a loss, so I offered to talk to the nurse about ordering Francine a PRN tranquilizer. She refused. I often offer tranquilizers when someone is upset. I may not quite understand emotions, but my extensive knowledge of neurochemistry helps me to understand a person’s internal state. I don’t follow their abstract chain of emotions, responding accordingly, as most others are able to do without the slightest conscious effort. Instead, I analyze their behavior, and determine the state of their “building blocks.” Building blocks include Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, blah, blah, neurotransmitters, double blah… The way these blocks are assembled determines a persons mood, behavior, etc… Anyway, I’ll resist the urge to get too technical. A hug may be a nice gesture, but I don’t understand how it fixes much of anything. Besides, Valium has a much longer half-life. I have unusual ways of expressing affection. That doesn’t mean I am unaffectionate. I wear my heart on my sleeve, a habit as dangerous as wearing a Rolex while taking a stroll through the streets of Compton. Unlike me, Francine avoided meds as often as possible, frequently hiding herself as far from the medication window as possible. I’m obsessed with psychopharmacology and believe “better living through chemistry” is both reasonable and attainable. However, the consumer of these chemicals must thoroughly educate themselves. I was strapped into a pharmaceutical rollercoaster ride at a young age, following the directions of my many psychiatrists without question. Now I frequently find myself wishing I had never set foot in
a shrink’s office. Dexedrine has been a chemical gift from God… however, the 28 other powerful psychotropic drugs I’ve been prescribed throughout my life, the first of which I began taking shortly before my fourteenth birthday, nearly cost me my sanity. “Well, should I hug you now?” I asked Francine, my face scrunched up stupidly. “That’s alright,” she said. “You wanna talk about it?” “Nah, I’ll just start crying.” “I don’t care.” “I do. I don’t like to cry in front of people. I wasn’t raised to show weakness. Not ever!” “And you’re sure you don’t want some Ativan?” “I don’t even know what that is,” she sighed. “It is a benzodiazepine. Benzos are simply minor tranquilizers. The benzodiazepine family is extraordinarily large and contains such medications as Xanax, Valium, Librium, Restoril…” I suddenly realized I was beginning to monologue (autistics have a tendency to speak endlessly about their special interests). A 30 minute lecture on tranquilizers was unlikely to calm Francine, and would induce in me a
state of hyper excitability which could only make things worse. Yes, talking about tranquilizers may get me so wound up that I will need a tranquilizer! “Well, can you get me a bottle of each?” she asked, then laughed without really laughing at all. “I’ll swallow every one of them right now. Bring benzo… uh… Valium… anterpeens.” “The word is benzodiazepines,” I corrected her. “And unfortunately they are virtually useless for suicide. You can munch up as many as you please, and while you may forget most of the coming week, you won’t be dead. Of course, the risk of death increases substantially when other downers are combined with…” shit, I was doing it again! Mononologues never fail to bore and confuse their audience, who often feel trapped, yet smile and nod as they desperately search their minds for a polite means of escape. I’m fairly good at catching them early, though occasionally they are unavoidable. I usually don’t notice that I’ve gone off on one for several moments. Also, I’m always searching for opportunities to reference my special interests; in conversation, daily activities; even the piece of writing you are currently reading. I furrowed my eyebrows, as my mind struggled to form the right words for Francine. Then my eyebrows were lifted slightly by a semi-promising spark of inspiration. “You miss Lulu, don’t you?” I asked. “I do,” she sighed. “I can’t live without her… but I guess I can’t
live with her. A bottle of Benadryl won’t kill you either, by the way… just for future reference.” “Benadryl is a deliriant in high doses,” I stated flatly. “It causes a severe state of dissociation, along with hallucinations and a collection of extremely uncomfortable side-effects including akathesia.” “Uh… yeah, I felt pretty shitty… They gave me a shot. Something that made my legs stop kicking and eventually put me to sleep. I was angry and violent when I woke up in the hospital bed. I was out of my mind.” “They probably gave you IV lorazepam. That’s Ativan, the PRN I suggested. They give me IV Ativan when I have to go to the emergency room for really bad meltdowns.” “Meltdowns?” “Yeah, that’s when my brain gets overloaded and I flip out. I scream, beat my face with my fists, flap my hands, bash my head into the wall…” “I would never have imagined that you had those kinds of issues. I mean, I can’t tell you’re autistic,” she said. People always say this, believing it to be a compliment. In reality it merely reflects their lack of understanding, and in turn, the general ignorance of society as a whole. I can’t complain, however;
before my diagnosis I was under the impression that autism, mental retardation and Down’s Syndrome were diagnostic siblings. Learning that I was – that I had always been - autistic was shocking. My diagnosis caused a kind of identity crisis. I had frequent spells of dissociation, feeling as if my entire sense of self was dissolving. These episodes came in fits and spurts, and often resulted in unusually severe meltdowns. Visits to the ER became practically routine. I once required nine 2mg injections of Ativan before I became calm enough to speak coherently and control my self-injurious impulses. Knocking out an elephant would have been simple in comparison. “In a place like this I just seem a bit gifted and plenty eccentric,” I said. “But here everything is taken care of for me. All my needs are met. On the outside it is different. I’m expected to be able to fend for myself. That’s what adults do, right? But I just can’t. In some ways my mind is so advanced, in others it is extremely delayed.” “Isn’t everybody like that?” Francine asked. “I mean, we’re all good at certain things and not so good at others.” “I guess so… My good and bad parts are just a bit exaggerated that’s all. I’m really good at the things I’m good at and awful at most everything else.” “I think it is better to be a genius at one thing than to be mediocre at hundreds of things, don’t you?” Francine’s question needed no answer. I knew what she was getting at and she was right. I often claimed to be proud of my differences. To an extent, I was, but I was also tired of waiting to grow up. Lulu had been eight years-old for
decades. How old was I… really? “I know,” I agreed, though my confidence was clearly lacking. Could Francine tell? “Y’know, if God could make mistakes, well, then he wouldn’t be God would he?” Francine asked her second rhetorical question in a row. “I don’t believe in God,” I said coldly. “That’s not true. I’m a pantheist, so I sort of believe in God. It’s complicated. Einstein was a pantheist. It is also widely believed that he was on the autism spectrum.” “So autistic people are all really smart?” “Not all of them. We’re all individuals… that’s all.” “Some of us are a more than one individual,” she said, forcing herself to laugh. “After telling you about Lulu I got up the courage to tell the doctor. In thirty years of practice he has only encountered one other patient with my diagnosis. I guess it is a really, really rare one. I have Multiple Personality Disorder. Anyway, that is what the doc says. Only they don’t call it that anymore. They call it something else…” “Dissociative Identity Disorder?” “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it. Wow…. I guess I’m really crazy.”
“Well, you’re in good company,” I said with an encouraging smirk. Actually, I was quite astonished. I never would have suspected Lulu to be a manifestation of this rare disorder. Lulu was Francine’s friend, not another personality within her, a second identity that might occasionally replace the woman I had come to know and care for. Perhaps I was taking the label too literally; either way I found it off-putting. Suddenly something mysterious, almost supernatural, had become merely clinical. Or had it? Just because there’s a name for something doesn’t mean its all figured out, or even truly understood at all. Now I was more determined than ever to explore my new friend’s remarkably rare psychological state, fragmented, traumatized yet also oddly whimsical. Year after year of devastating abuse produced a post traumatic fairy tale which managed to be both a source of comfort and escape, yet came with a price; the powerful and dangerous influences of an eight year-old enfant terrible. I would estimate that 70% of my fellow inpatients carried a diagnosis of Bipolar I or Bipolar II. How many of them were genuinely manic depressives? I would swear on Bob Dylan (the holiest figure who readily comes to mind) that substantially less than half of those with a Bipolar diagnosis genuinely met the criteria. Bipolar Disorder happens to be highly en vogue among the professionals who make up the current psychiatric industry at large. Additionally, the majority of Bipolar patients I spoke with were also chronic stimulant abusers. One elderly black gentleman who played dominoes endlessly, day after day, explained to me that he has “…Bipolar
Disorder. When I smoke crack I get manic. When I come down I get depressed. So… yeah, I’m Bipolar.” I struggled formulate an appropriate response to this absurd statement. Finally I decided on a direct approach. “Um… I really don’t think you’re talking about Bipolar Disorder. I’m pretty sure they just call that crack cocaine addiction.” “Oh, yeah, I’ve got that one too,” he said in a lukewarm tone before returning his attention to the dominoes laid out before him. Chronic abuse of amphetamine, methamphetamine and cocaine create a perfect model psychosis resulting from excessive levels of dopamine, sleep deprivation, and a variety of other factors. Some people seem to lose their way in the depths of their recreationally induced insanity… and never find their way back. These cases of self-induced and seemingly permanent psychosis are often the most violent, temperamental and high-maintenance patients. Very few of the patients on my unit did not have a history of drug abuse. This creates a rather challenging diagnostic dilemma. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did drug abuse induce mental illness, or were the drugs abused in an effort to self-medicate a genetic, unavoidable mental disorder? Francine, had never abused drugs, rarely drank, but did smoke cigarettes. The origins of her diagnosis were easily identified. The relentless sexual abuse that came to define her childhood naturally impacted her long term emotional and psychological development.
“Francine,” I said, “I want to know more about you. I want to know ALL about you. I feel that your story deserves to be told and I’m the one to tell it.” “Really?!” Francine seemed shocked that anyone would be interested in the bizarre details of her radically unusual life. Yes, indeed,” I said. “Can we meet before evening meds?” “Sure,” she said, still flustered by the nature of my request. “Good… it’s just a pity Lulu can’t come.”
The following day’s interview required minimal effort on my part. Francine was sitting very straight, with her hands folded in her lap, doubtlessly in some charming effort to appear formal. “Hey there, beautiful,” I greeted her. OK, so Francine was far from aesthetically pleasing, but she was beautiful to me. “All ready,” she declared. I climbed childishly into the torn leather seat adjoining her. I really had not planned any questions. I wanted her to feel at ease, casual… We’d just see how things flowed.
“So tell me about your earliest memories; what was you childhood like?” That was the one and only question I needed to ask. Though her face scrunched together in a silent moment of concentration, she soon began to speak… and did not stop for half an hour. I never got the opportunity to prompt her with further questions. She’d been rehearsing this for years, running over every detail, perfecting her precise and quasi-theatrical storytelling; all for a listener she had never truly expected to come along. Now I was that listener; exclusive audience to a startling and all too true confession of a life trampled upon, an identity shattered, an innocence sucked dry by the moist, fat lips of human parasites. All true fairy tales have elements of horror. The Brothers Grimm knew this all too well. Francine’s fairy tale had all the whimsy and endless horror, every essential element save one; a happy ending. Even the most disturbing of fairy tales must end happily, or it isn’t a story at all… is it? Judging by her current residence, I assumed Francine had yet to find her happy ending. She began speaking very slowly, choosing each word as if it was her first chocolate in a fresh box. “The abuse… The abuse started early in life – at the age of five? Early anyway you take a look at it. It went right on happenin’ well into her teens. It was shameful and confusing, but it was my life. I had no idea what other little girls did or did not experience in the privacy of their own homes. I hadn’t got any
real friends. Well, I hadn’t got any friends until Lulu. Lulu first appeared the night she resisted her father for the first time.” I noticed, with great interest, that Francine had switched, at least once, from first to third-person without batting an eyelash. “Anyway, she broke free and scampered ‘tween her father’s legs and ran like the dickens all through the dark house. Boy, you never saw such as dark house as my daddy’s place on a winter night. So I run on until I come upon the shed, my nose stinging, the tip colder than a glass bottle of cola straight from the fridge, my flannel nightgown torn… I forced open the latched, tin door, slipped inside, and climbed way up into the rafters. I guess she was safe then. Daddy was too drunk to come looking for me way out amongst the rafters in the shed. That’s when Lulu came. She just sorta stepped out of a ray of winter moonlight falling through the spaces in the wooden ceiling… first she wasn’t and then she was! I wasn’t scared or surprised – I’d sorta always been expecting her. She held me, wiped my tears, showed me how to wish upon a loose eyelash, and then stayed with me through the night and a good spell into the next day. Her friend Lulu told her – told me – that she would always be there so long as I never told a single soul about her. That was fine by me. I didn’t want to share her with nobody and I knew Daddy would not have been too pleased were there suddenly another mouth to feed
and him not knowing where it came from. So Francine… I mean… So I kept my word and kept the secret and kept my friend. She never did leave. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to be my friend. I was ugly; I looked, dressed and acted like a boy… an ugly boy. Lulu was so elegant, so feminine, so dainty… The last time her uncle had sex with her, he hurt the girl real bad. I was scared and hurting. Lulu and I held hands tightly, curled up under a hedge-apple tree, and Lulu whispered good sounding words that had sleepiness all up inside of ‘em. Soon Francine was just laying there snorin’ away under the gnarled, downward reaching limbs of the tree. She had good dreams. Lulu was in her dreams and there was cotton candy. But the best part of her dream was the broken Ferris wheel that went round and round, never stopping, never compelling us from our seats to be replaced by the next line of folks ready for a turn… As I grew up and became a woman her father and uncle let her be… but Lulu never left. She was there when I married my son’s father. That was a mistake – he beat me and raped me… just like all the rest. Lulu helped her escape. She divorced the man and fell in love for the first time with a red-headed woman named Darlene. Darlene helped her to raise her son. She was a good lover and a good mother but I never did tell her about Lulu. Eventually, Darlene left to become a preacher. My daddy was a preacher. Darlene and my daddy were about as similar as, well, as a dyke and a drunken, bigoted Baptist with a whiskey-whirlwind of a
temper. I don’t know how the Bible can turn people’s heads in such different directions. Which one had the calling, Darlene or daddy? I sure hope it was Darlene. That was the best part of my life but it wasn’t without the dark periods. My nerves would get so frazzled. Once Darlene found me hiding in the pantry with a butcher knife. I was falling apart. So then the doctors came, one after the other. The doctors brought the drugs. There were pills for my nerves – Nembutals they were… figured you’d want to know – and ones that made me sleep and twitch all day. They took away the Nembutals and gave me some other drugs; more nerve pills that didn’t work like the others; pills I couldn’t eat certain cheese while taking. Then the years went on bringing Paxil. Let’s see, I remember the Xanax. Then there was Seroquel… Ambien… They even tried Lithium. But they weren’t treating anything! Only I truly understood my personal brand of madness. So all the doctors, pills, all the money… it was all used to erase me. Yet all the while I knew the truth and I knew that my silence prevented me from getting the help I needed. Lulu visited no matter what medication I took. Actually, the only times she never visits – aside from when I’m in the hospital of course – is when I’m smoking a cigarette. Maybe Lulu don’t like smoke, or maybe tobacco is a better drug than all those fancy pills that left me in semi-conscious haze. I know that’s why Darlene left. The doctors said I needed the medicine but it changed me. I wasn’t the same as before. I was gone. Just a body all empty of spirit and personality. I slept constantly. All
the time my son was growing up. I can’t remember most of those years. I wasn’t there to see my son become a man. The drugs took me away and left a silent shell, trapped inside her own brain, just taking up space on the couch and watching Wheel of Fortune. When Francine was alone again, alone aside from my dearest Lulu, everything got kind of urgent feeling and I felt I couldn’t trust no one. I had – how do you say it? – the cold turkey? Anyway, I just up and completely quit all the meds one day and didn’t leave my house for two months. That’s when Lulu changed. She started telling me to hurt myself. She said I had to leave my body behind, that it wasn’t any good any more. She said I would have another, better body, when I joined her in that other place. The suicide attempts started there. They became more and more frequent. I began cycling in and out of mental hospitals. Lulu would wait for me outside but absolutely never entered a single hospital. This last time… what I did that wound me up in here, see, is that Lulu wanted me to take two bottles of Benedryl. I only took one. She was angry. I was sure I was going to die and if I had taken more I probably would have. I haven’t heard from Lulu since I woke up in the emergency room. I don’t even feel like she is close by. She’s probably given up on me. I can’t even manage to kill myself.” Francine’s shoulders fell hunched and all the air seemed to go out of her.
Where are you Lulu? I thought. Even though I understood it to be absurd, I too had begun to think of Lulu as a real person, as freely and often as Francine spoke of her. Had I come to the hospital only to lose my own mind?
I was hunkered over my meal tray, picking at what appeared to be turkey, or some clever imitation. The food wasn’t that bad most days, though the plastic silverware was hard to work with. Anyway, it didn’t cut turkey, um, stuff very well. One of the older patients, fiercely wrinkled, with a brittle beard as white as brand new shoelaces, cleared his throat slowly and forcefully, a bit of mucous discharging from his left nostril as he did so. Every last inch of his arms were covered by the bleeding colors of decades old tattoos. Unsatisfied by the slight decline in volume following his non-verbal command for silence, he pounded his fist against the table until everyone became quiet. “You know where we are don’t you?” he asked, to no one in particular. “No idea,” I responded dismissively. “We’re in the Hotel California man!” he said, quivering like a southern preacher at the height of religious frenzy. “It’s one big trip!” Several patients around the table chuckled. I was still
grudgingly attacking my undisturbed piece of rock-hard turkey or turkey related substance. “They stab it with their plastic forks,” I sang quietly, “but they just can’t kill the beast.” I hadn’t expected anyone to hear me, let alone comprehend my bizarre sense of humor, but the whole table erupted in fits of laughter. I made some people laugh. Good for me. I was laughing too. Whenever I laughed, however, I felt strangely guilty. I couldn’t ever seem to laugh on the outside. Why was I having so much fun? Had I become institutionalized? “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…” ***
“So you never told me exactly why you’re in here,” Francine said. Apparently this was intended to be a question but I interpreted it as a statement. Conversation can be difficult for me as I often fail to notice subtle social cues. When I listen to someone speaking to me, it is almost as if I’m reading a text message. Many average people misunderstand the meaning of a text because the message lacks the vocal rhythms, enunciation, and body language that create a distinct context. In my world, this context is always lacking to one degree or another. Speech and text are equally ambiguous. “Why did they commit you?” Francine must have noticed my blank stare and realized I wasn’t picking up what she was putting
down, so to speak. She posed the question more directly and I instantly understood her. “Oh, you know, I just needed a vacation,” I said flatly. I didn’t really feel like discussing the tidal wave of traumatic events that had swept over me and left me feeling hopeless, empty and suicidal. A memory of my sister, who died before my eyes at ten-years old, had been troubling me all day. I cried when I thought of it. It was one of those long days in the hospital and Kassidy was constipated. She had been for a week. Her belly swelled and her pain increased and my family’s tension and exhaustion increased with it. “Please God, let her go a little,” I mouthed as I pushed open the bathroom door. Like an idiot I forgot to shield her eyes from the mirror. When last she had seen herself her hair was long and her face slender. When she caught sight of herself just then her head was completely hairless. It dipped low on the right side where a port had been surgically inserted into her brain. This freakish indentation was crusty with blood and pus. Her face was swollen and lumpy from the prednisone. She trembled for a moment, trying to be brave, then buried her head in my shoulder and sobbed long and low. I was 15. I’ve spent years running from memories like this one. I’m emotionally constipated. I have to let go of all that… and if I catch sight of my reflection on the way, I have a feeling I won’t like what I see. And I’ll cry. You bet I’ll cry. Kassidy could have been spared her reflection but it’s time I took a hard look at mine.
After I cry I’ll laugh again. That’s just how it goes. And it’s good and healthy too. I know that now. I wish I would have known it then. My sister’s death was one traumatic event among a dark train of tragedies that had followed me throughout my life. Precipitating my suicide attempt I had lost my family and been expelled from my home after coming out of the closet, received news that my best friend had died of alcoholism at 27 years-old, watched the first love of my life slip away from me… Was I using Francine to avoid my own issues? Is this her story, or is it, in fact, my story afterall? Shortly after my diagnosis I made a commitment to fulfill my dream of becoming a published writer. With a little help from amphetamines, I managed to produce 40 separate pieces published in magazines as prestigious as Forbes, and a large variety of autism related websites and publications. It was all too much. It was all too fast. I began receiving countless letters from parents of autistic children expressing their gratitude and hope that their son or daughter would grow up to be like me. This made me extremely uncomfortable; I wasn’t a role model, I was a mess! Merely a few months after being formally diagnosed, I had somehow became a poster child for high functioning autism. My lifelong dream was achieved at a nightmarish price. I was losing touch with reality. I preached a message of neurodiversity and autistic self-advocasy, yet my personal life was in shambles and I still lacked the basic life skills necessary for survival.
I was drowning in a sea of public accolades and endless private criticism. I had a book contract – a book which would feature an introduction by a New York Times Bestselling author- and a large and loyal fanbase online, yet I was essentially homeless, finding shelter beneath the roofs of friends and acquaintances, never knowing for certain where I would lay my head each night. I did not know how to reconcile these two utterly contradictory realities. I felt as if I had been struck by a bolt of lightning which split my identity into two incompatiable pieces; the public “role model” and the private basketcase. Perhaps I had more reason to identify with Francine than I had initially reckoned. “So you don’t want to talk about it?” Francine asked. Socially clueless as I am, I still managed to detect the feeling of rejection heavy in her voice. She had, afterall, shared so much with me. “No,” I said… and that was all. “Maybe I could help…” Her voice perked up a bit. “No. You can’t help. No one can.” “And that’s why you tried to do it? That’s why you tried to kill your self?” I paused and thought for a moment that passed as slowly as refridgerated mollases through the bottle. “A scorpion,” I said hesitantly, “when surrounded by a ring of fire will sting itself to death.” “And you’re a scorpion surrounded by fire?”
Suddenly I laughed. “No, I said, “I’m just a person like anybody else. I have my strenghths and my weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is self-pity. Scorpions don’t have the mental capacity to pity themselves. I’m stronger than I know. I will survive.” “No,” Francine said,” you will not only survive… you will thrive.” Francine’s words made be smile while simulataneously filling me with dread. Was I capable of thriving? So many expected me to be, but I was unsure. I wanted to let all those poor mothers know that I was only giving them false hope. But was I? In spite of enormous disadvantages and a life riddled with maddening, heartbreaking tragedy, I was still alive and kicking. Maybe my survival was enough; my modest literary success was just the icing on the cake.
*** More memories of my sister passed like barbed wire through my brain during “Managing Your Moods,” the third class of the day. I kept thinking of the afternoon she died. The doctors had me on Lithium at the time, along with an atypical antipsychotic named Geodon that had agonizing side-effects, the worst of which was akathesia. An urgent restlessness, literally painful in its intensity, crawled through my limbs like a swarm of fire ants. I couldn’t sit still, but walking around was so exhausting I would inevitably collapse, only to be forced back up again to pace frantically. I did not sleep for six straight days. For this side-effect, my shrink prescribed Ativan, the first of an A-Z list of benzodiazepines, drugs that I would be dependent on for the next eight years. We received word that my sister would not make it through the day. My family was sitting around her bedside. She was on a heavy morphine drip, with hourly injections of Versed. The doctors said they were making her as comfortable as possible; it was all they could do.
Suddenly I realized I had forgotten to take my Ativan. Worse yet, I had left it at home. Within 20 minutes the akathesia was starting in. 40 minutes later I was sobbing and rubbing my legs, trying to hide my discomfort. My efforts didn’t fool anyone. My grandmother asked me if I would like my grandfather to take me home for the medicine. What was I to do? Sit there in agony or potentially miss the death of my sister? I asked my grandfather to take home. I was overwhelmed with guilt. On the drive back to the hospital my stomach was acidic and all twisted up with horror and self-loathing. I thought I would vomit each time we stopped before a red light. I made it to the hospital just in time. My family held hands over my sister, enclosing her tiny hand within all of ours. We sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace” while a rumbling, gaseous sound, known as “the death rattle,” began to escape from Kassidy’s chest. The sound returned every few minutes for another hour. A full hour… Nothing special happened when she took her last breath. I did not feel her spirit leaving her body. There was nothing vaguely supernatural about the experience; she was breathing and then she wasn’t. Ten minutes of silence past before choked sobs escaped my own throat, finally breaking the silence as snot ran freely from my nostrils. I had certainly not expected to be the first to cry. “Please…,” I moaned, “no one else leave me…” My mother rolled her eyes. If I had a tail it would have been thrust squarely between my legs. I burned with shame. I knew my mother’s behavior was often ethically questionable, but having gone home for the medicine, I was convinced that her disgusted appraisal of me was correct. If I ever see another capsule of Geodon I will likely have a severe meltdown – 10mg on the IV Ativan scale, possibly even a couple of Haldol. I nearly missed my sister’s death. Even more shamefully, I came to wish that I had missed it after all.