Death by Dinner Party


It all started with the rain—

–When we had planned to party on the lawn. 

My partner Sara had been planting and pruning, purposefully piddling in the garden for months.  I had joined in on weekends away from blogging, before participating in full-time party prep last Thursday.

I had cleaned our huge home from almost-top to almost-bottom, omitting only attic and basement from my frenzied scrubbing.

Sara had been reading recipes and planning menus, everything from growing herbs to grocery shopping.

We were exhausted but nearly ready, when we woke up Sunday morning to rain—lots of rain—rivers of rain.  We prepared to launch the ark but decided we’d be better off praying for it to stop and proactively setting up inside instead.  (I exaggerate here only a little.)

Sara continued to cook, while I went into frantic but festive over-drive—rearranging and setting up the indoor option—keeping the outdoor one in place, just in case God decided a ceasefire was in order and our pummeling from heaven should come to a quick and less-wet, happy ending.

Once I’d gotten the inside done, the heavens parted, the rain stopped, and we were whiplashed into outdoor mode once more.

To make a long story more mercifully short, the party proved amazing; the blog has been ignored—our outside party on the lawn a huge success.

But I woke up this morning post-less and sick as my Maltese when Mommy’s gone.  (And I don’t even drink.)

So the blog and all my blogging buddies have been sacrificed to party success and ensuing partied-sickness.

But I promise to get back on track tomorrow—a real mental illness post in my bloodied blogger’s fist or housing piece complete and ready for prime time.

In the meantime—please forgive my break from blogging.

Death by dinner party is more than it’s cracked up to be, and I don’t even have the pictures to prove it.

See you in a less-partied, more stomach-settled day or so . . .

 

The Monkey Dance Summer


Voices tormented me the summer of 2001.  They were unrelenting, a cacophonous echo inside my skull,  like primates mimicking, mocking, making me desperate for relief.

On top of trying  to silence the monkey mayhem–I felt utterly and completely alone, suspected no one could help me—that there was no way out, no way my mood would ever even out—no way to ever grab hold of reality, something concrete and tangible—nothing to anchor me in the here and now, the then and there.

I decided I needed treatment the community mental health system could not provide.  My therapist there was pathetically inept.  Though I was sure of very little, of this I was absolutely certain.

However, I knew I could not afford the Medicare co-pay to see someone in private practice as long as I had to pay the open-market cost of rent, what I’d been doing since moving home to Kentucky from Texas in 1999.  It was in this context that I decided to return to government housing, hoping a rent based on my income would afford me the funds to pay a therapist.

I plan to do an additional post about this return to public housing, one that happened just days before 9/11.  Today, however, I would like to share my effort, on August 22, 2001, to transcribe the voices I was hearing, as I was packing and preparing for that move.

One voice, in particular, said this:

We want to know if you can hear the music.  You don’t know the way of the spheres.  You listen and listen and hear only chaos, when we are in fact making harmony.

We do not think the way you think.  We do not feel as you feel.  The way to us is not straight—neither is it winding.  The way to us is the “un” way—the way to us is beside the dark river, near the weeping willow.

You do not hear us—you do not listen.

The way is dark.  The way is light.  The way is not the way.

You must turn your mind inside out and do the monkey dance.

Please tell me what you would think, what you would do, were you to hear something like this.  What would you make of this Zen-like exhortation?  Would you consider it the voice of God, the voice of primate madness?

Can you imagine why I might have been confused and floundering?

And consider the context—my apartment piled high with boxes as I attempted to pack—planned to move in less than a week, hoping a new apartment would afford me the funds to get the help I needed, if only I could navigate the craziness enough to make the move itself!

Do the monkey dance, indeed!

Linoleum Floors are More Than They’re Cracked up to Be


I heard someone say the other day that home is where your story begins.  It’s where we’re rooted, what grounds us in the present and gives us a history to remember.

I’ve been fascinated for years by the notion of place and the impact it has on who we become.  I’ve even oriented my composition classes around questions of space and place, exploring how who we are is so often affected by where we come from.

So it seems unsurprising then that I might orient my memoir about recovering from mental illness around similar concepts.  I’ve posted pieces about fearing homelessness, about my inability to afford housing in any remotely comfortable way, about wanting the hospital to be my home.  I even took this one step further yesterday when I mentioned now owning a home.             

However, an important part of this progression toward home ownership involved twice living in government housing—not a lovely place by any means—but not the housing horror folks often expect.

In June of 1998, I moved into Lakeland Manor—a government-subsidized, semi-high-rise for the elderly and disabled in Dallas, Texas.  I decided this move made sense when it became more and more difficult to afford the small, one bedroom apartment I leased on Northwest Highway.  I scraped and scavenged each month to pay the rent, making myself abide by outrageously restricted spending limits that may have reinforced patterns of neglect and denial I carried over from childhood.  The apartment at Lakeland Manor saved me more than $200 a month—what to me amounted to a small fortunate at the time.  The year before, I had told my therapist that if I could only make $100 more a month, I would feel rich.

I’d gotten to know a woman who owned a home in a neighborhood near the complex, and visiting her home, I’d noticed the place was not-so-bad.  In fact, my friendship with Jeanette impacted my decision to move, as I began to recognize the impact proximity might have on my recovery.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is not a small place.  My apartment was far from my therapist’s office in Plano—an expensive place to live, and I knew how not having a car kept me isolated, if I didn’t have friends nearby.  I had been fortunate to have my friend Ellen living in the complex on Northwest Highway.

I frankly adored Ellen.  She was my friend from Tulsa, my first openly lesbian friend, one who had also moved to Dallas for treatment purposes.  Ellen was witty, brilliant, creative—great fun to be around when she was sober or not psychotic.  Unfortunately Ellen’s efforts toward sobriety left her more psychotic, more often, and in some ways less available.

My move from Northwest Highway to Lakeland Manor had no conscious connection to Ellen’s decline, but tragically Ellen died suddenly shortly after my move, having visited my new apartment on only one occasion.  Ellen’s death devastated me.  There seemed no clear medical explanation for her dropping dead one afternoon in the parking lot of the apartment complex where we had lived.  But once Ellen was gone, I was relieved to have already moved.  I don’t imagine I could have tolerated living there with her gone.

This issue of proximity made one friend I met at Lakeland Manor enormously important, as I finally had a friend who was bright and creative living in the same building.  Elaine was a classical musician who played the French horn—an SMU grad who loved to laugh as much as I did.  Elaine had had a stroke a number of years back, as well as a kidney transplant, so her physical disability qualified her to live in the building.

Elaine was a friend in every sense of the word.  She was my age, came from a similar educational background, and was finally someone with whom I could socialize, without either transportation or finances being issues.

Except for Ellen, when I lived on Northwest Highway, none of my friends lived nearby.  Without transportation in a city like Dallas—especially when you don’t live in a particularly safe part of town—it’s logistically difficult to go out with friends after dark.  And given all the other battles I was fighting at the time, dealing with getting home after dark was more than I could manage—so mostly I stayed home.

However, I couldn’t afford to socialize either.  I couldn’t afford movies or going out to eat or shopping—activities most folks not fighting poverty enjoy.  This created a financial incongruity in almost every relationship—leaving me feeling isolated and alone. 

With Elaine, all of this changed.  Neither of us had any money—neither of us could afford to go out—but there were countless evenings when Elaine would come down to my apartment or I would go up to hers, so we could cook dinner together and watch T.V.  The meals were simple.  We ate lots of pasta. 

dinner with Elaine at my apartment, February 1999

I remember we spent Christmas of 1998 together.  It was icy outside.  We couldn’t go anywhere, but that didn’t matter.  We were friends, and we were together.  Ironically, I owed this friendship and the joy it provided to the fine folks at the Dallas Housing Authority.

So Lakeland Manor, government housing or not, was in many ways a relief to me, my apartment a retreat—a place I could finally comfortably afford.  Plus, since the rent was based on income, I never really needed to fear homelessness again. 

Home is where ones story begins, and the home I made at Lakeland Manor is one that ultimately allowed my recovery to take hold—grow roots—be strengthened.  I gained confidence while living there.  I felt good about myself and proud.

Yes, my apartment had roaches.  It has linoleum tile on the floor.  It was ugly. 

less-than-lovely linoleum floor

But I worked hard to make it feel like home, and quite honestly I loved it, linoleum and all.

So, home is where one’s story begins, humble as that home may be.

When One Boomer’s Madness Morphs into Dream-Come-True


In 2011, it’s hard to know which is weirder—watching myself on videotape narrating my psychiatric struggle in 1997 or knowing now how inherently different my life is 14 years later.

Though ’97 was difficult, I generally had to fight hard for more than 10 years following my diagnosis with bipolar disorder in 1990, a decade of pain and endurance, as I struggled with every ounce of energy available, battled a diagnosis that doomed me to countless psychiatric hospitalizations and chronic poverty.  I lived without a car and in 1997 on $736 a month.

Things were particularly bleak during the winter and spring of 1997, when I was hospitalized twice and struggled to complete even the most basic tasks of daily living—getting myself to and from treatment, feeding myself regular meals, taking medications as prescribed.  I spent 5 hours a day on Dallas city buses, struggled to purchase groceries on $30 a week, and suffered so with memory loss, I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d taken the Zyprexa (an anti-psychotic drug) that dulled my thinking and left me listless, not to mention sleepy and ravenously hungry.

But yesterday, in the context of a memoir-writing project, I watched video-taped therapy sessions from 1997, a number of them, at least 6 hours worth.

I noted especially that on March 6, 1997, wearing red sweat pants and my hair in a loose bun, I congratulated my therapist on the occasion of her 49th birthday.  I was 35 years old but looked at least 10 years younger than that—thin and toned as I pretzeled myself into a corner of black leather sofa.

what I looked like in 1997

But what I remember about that time, recall without having to watch a video, is the belief that my therapist was rather old—unimaginably older that I could ever imagine myself becoming.

Yet now, in 2011, I am myself 49.  I am the “old” I couldn’t imagine myself becoming.  And this is a hugely strange experience— sitting in a home I own, with my graying hair and gained weight—watching a much younger version of myself, wishing a woman I so respected happy birthday, knowing I was thinking, “Gosh, she’s almost 50.  I can’t imagine being that old.”

watching videos of myself 14 years later

Not only am I watching myself 14 years ago—seemingly endless hours of myself frozen in time—but also I’m thinking about who I am myself now at this ripe old age—how different I look—how inherently reversed my circumstances are—how much better, richer, fuller my life is—how my experience is now what I only hoped it could be then, what I only dreamed it could be, but never expected it could become.

Clichéd as it sounds—I am now literally living a dream come true—a dream I articulated to my therapist in 1997—a dream about teaching at a university again, a dream about writing—a dream about succeeding—a dream about love.

I don’t know how it happened.  I don’t know how or why I became ill, why my mind deteriorated to the point it could no longer be trusted, how it is that now I am well—at least in relative terms—my symptoms well-managed. 

In 1997 Bill Clinton was just beginning his second term as president; scientists were cloning Dolly the sheep; and in the US we would soon have a balanced budget.  Though Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died, it was a time of hope—a time of new beginnings and relative prosperity.

However, my memory at the time was so poor, my connection to the larger world so tenuous, I recall little of this.  I know most of this from my more recent efforts to go back and fill in the blankness my brain experienced as real life.

Now, as I watch these videos, as I reflect on how I felt 14 years ago, on how it feels now to not remember, I’m amazed that I have come this far.  That I no longer fear homelessness, that I no longer live in government housing, that I now own a home, function well, love an amazingly accomplished woman who loves me even more. 

How did I survive more than a decade of seeming defeat?  How is it that I’ve recovered to this degree?  How did this come to be, this tale of endurance, my narrative of hope?  How is it that this stunning grace has happened?

I hope my memoir can help me share this amazing magic—let others know that what sometimes seems an illusion of recovery can indeed become a solid and shared reality—a Boomer’s madness morphed into dream-come-true.

The Wacky Winter of ’97


I was hospitalized in the winter of 1997.  And from what I can tell about that
time—reading journals, watching video-taped therapy sessions, looking at art—I was unequivocally crazy, insane in every conceivable sense of the word.  Not that I wasn’t exactly that during other hospital stays.  However, during February and March of ’97, my insanity was off the charts.

I’m still trying to understand what happened—still trying to assemble some sense of where I went wrong, what set me off.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I understand any more now than I did before.  I was so insane, none of what I wrote helps me recreate what happened.

I do, however, notice at least two themes I’ve alluded to before—namely my fear of homelessness and my sense that the hospital was home.

I guess this takes me back to the mental health housing series I began a month or so ago but never finished.  The first post in that sequence explores my belief that the hospital was where I belonged, where I felt safe, especially during an inpatient stay during the spring of 1990.  However, that feeling returned during the times I’ve been most ill in subsequent years, as well.  And the winter of 1997 was no exception.

For example, at 8:30 pm on February 2, 1997, three days after being admitted, I wrote:

I want to stay in the hospital for a very long time.  I want this to be my
home . . . .  I’d just prefer to stay here.

I went on to explain that I knew this desire was crazy in and of itself—that it was not normal, nowhere near normal, to want to be locked up in a psychiatric facility.

However, this refrain repeats itself often during the course of my illness—regularly and without fail.  I remember thinking this from time to time, but I hadn’t realized how often I expressed that desire overtly  in the journals I kept.

It’s clear the illness terrified me.  I knew I was sick.  I desperately wanted help and apparently knew on some level that the hospital could keep me safe—not so much from suicide (as I was not often actively suicidal at that time) but from a profound inability to function and  take care of myself.

I’m not sure what precipitated this collapse, though just before this admission, I was obsessed with a fear of homelessness again—seemingly because my social security disability benefits were being reviewed, I feared losing them, and knew I was not able to function well enough to work.  It’s hard to imagine how that fear impacted me, whether that’s what triggered this dizzying psychosis.

However, just two weeks before being admitted and around the time I began to unravel, I made this list—a seeming attempt to survive should I lose my little apartment in east Dallas:

As I review the video-taped therapy sessions, I realize that my therapist repeatedly encouraged me to share my financial struggle with my family—something I refused to do, insisting that the very real possibility that my only remaining parent would respond with indifference to my dilemma, was too
terrifying a risk to take—that my psyche would not be able to tolerate that
degree of rejection, especially since, when I one time needed help purchasing
medication, I had, in fact, met with unwillingness.

So, I don’t know now if that was an accurate perception on my part.  I’d like to think I was wrong.

However, during this same hospitalization I also did a decent amount of what I think is called mirror writing–writing words backwards and forming letters in reverse.

In one instance, I was cognizant enough to make a list of things to tell my friend Georgia–to create a list of items I wanted her to bring me, but crazy enough to compose the whole thing in reversed writing:

In other instances I would begin sentences in the bottom, right-hand corner of the page–writing from right to left, bottom to top, as I did in the ramble about “woods” and “wolves” below:

The three lines at the bottom read:

I will tell that lady the story of my life in the big woods and under the trees where the magic flows.

I truly have no idea why I suddenly began writing in reverse, if perhaps it was paranoia that motivated me–fear that someone might read what I wrote.  I’m baffled by this and have not found any explanations in the literature as to why I might have suddenly done this.  I do know that Leonardo da Vinci wrote all of his personal journals in reverse and that left-handed people are more able to do this than are the right-handed.  I don’t understand brain chemistry well enough to offer a reasonable explanation, and don’t know if something neurological might have been happening.  However, the most obvious explanation remains paranoia, I assume.

I might also surmise that there was something about this particular psychosis that made me obsess about mirrors and write in reverse as part of that obsession, for some of the mirror writing I did was in fact about mirrors–quoting the line from Snow White, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all:”

I clearly lack the clinical expertise to explain any of this, though it seems my thinking had the bizarre features associated with a fairly severe psychosis.

The fact remains—I lost my mind.  I lost it in a big way

I expect more evidence of this will follow in subsequent posts, as I think I got worse that winter before I got better—so stay tuned for more detailed descriptions of Kathy’s wacky ways in the winter of ’97— ways weirder than this semi-sane version of me might like to admit.