Web Exclusives: More
June 6, 2001:
Read My Mind
By B. Ilene Adler '76
the October 22, 1997 PAW, Barbara Ilene Adler '76 wrote an essay
about her experience with mental illness. Now, three years later,
a follow-up piece appears below. The first part of the essay repeats
some of the 1997 piece, but about halfway through, Adler picks up
where she left off.
Mental illness has become my longtime companion.
It claimed me in the fall of 1978 when I lay broken on the ground
beneath an open window. Two years later in a psychiatrist's office,
my name became "manic depression." I was talked about
in whispers. Sometimes, I still am.
I could not manage my pain. In anguish, I learned
I could dismantle a safety razor and trace the veins on my wrists.
I burned clothing and photographs and left a circle of ash on my
apartment's hardwood floors. My isolation was total. I was convinced
that my life was a rehearsal for some future incarceration where
I would be called on to do hard time. I was always in bed, facing
the wall. I went to sleep in daylight.
I was on a perpetual job hunt. I learned to fabricate
a resume that would gain me acceptance to the simplest kind of job.
I sold movie tickets. I sold shoes. I had done graduate work in
the economic development of less-developed countries. As the years
went by, the gulf between my old life and my current situation grew.
Over time I gave away all my books on economics and West Africa.
I lived in a time warp.
In 1988 1 shaved my head. Seeking an expression
of my inner pain, I chose the look of Auschwitz. I worked for a
few months this way. Then I was asked to go out on disability. At
this point, I began seeing a new, female psychiatrist. For reasons
of her own, she took me off all medication on my first visit. Within
three months I was psychotic. I packed a bag, withdrew all my money
from my bank account and fled to Fire Island.
I shed my bikini and roamed naked on a public beach.
I photographed my food - bit into a nectarine and poof! I had a
still life with the artist's mouth imprinted on the fruit. Prayer
rugs lined the entryway to my cottage. I touched my forehead to
the floor on entering. I licked the floor.
Aliens invaded Ocean Beach. There were symbols
all around me that had to be interpreted. The sailboats on an island
poster all seemed to be scurrying away from the shore. I took my
cue from that and was on the next ferry to the mainland. I ran toward
the railroad tracks, dropping my suitcase. Then I cut back to a
small park. Lying on my back with all the forces of evil arrayed
against me, I wet my pants.
At the psychiatric hospital, I tried to walk out
the door. A policeman pounced on me, twisting one arm hard behind
my back. He tore my sweater. They held me down and injected me with
Thorazine. Later that week, I was thrown against a wall by an attendant.
While I was on a suicide watch, a second attendant touched my breasts.
I had no idea that either of them was doing anything wrong.
Back on the same medication I had taken for 10
years, I was transferred to Roosevelt St. Luke's in New York City.
Once there, I had a moment of revelation; a moment of peace. My
hands stopped tapping out an insane Morse code and I was calm. The
drugs that had not worked to stabilize me initially were now in
perfect concert. I went back to my old psychiatrist. I was stable
for the first time in a decade. He asked me what was different.
I didn't know. But a bad fuse had burned itself out. The world had
shifted into focus.
I wrote a letter to the Ethics Committee of the
American Psychiatric Association about the woman who had taken me
off drugs. She had not observed me clinically or run any blood tests.
She had not contacted the psychiatrist who had treated me for eight
years. She was not moved by my shaved head or the loss of a job
that I had held for over two years. The Committee took almost a
year to respond. They were not persuaded that anything out of the
ordinary had occurred. She was not censured.
I touch wood a lot these days. I avoid stepping
on cracks in the sidewalk. I never fly, never vacation, never take
the subway at night. I want to avoid attracting the attention of
the gods. But they've gone off to pick their teeth and ruin someone
For six years, I thought I was in the eye of the
storm. Everything in me was still. I grew exhausted waiting for
the next tsunami to break over me. Then I was fired from a receptionist
job at a local furniture store. The possibility of staying unemployed
for any length of time made me shudder. I thought I would get a
little training and learn to do something with confidence.
Late one night, I sat down with the phone book
and opened it to "Schools." It seemed I could become a
locksmith, a bartender, or an English as a Second Language instructor.
I have no manual dexterity and I'm a morning person. Only the last
option seemed feasible. It involved getting a master's degree. I
hadn't finished a book in more than 15 years.
I slipped my application to Hunter College's graduate
program under a locked door on the last afternoon of the final day
to file. In an interview earlier that week, I had been referred
to a community college about a possible part-time job. The school
required extensive documentation which made me nervous - bachelor's
degree, social security card, fingerprints. Though I sometimes felt
like a criminal, it seems I didn't have a record, yet. In short
order I found myself facing a room full of immigrants from as many
as a dozen different countries.
I'd like to say it was love at first sight, but
we had an extended courtship. I invited several students to wait
in the hall if they didn't feel like listening to my lesson. But
when I started reading their compositions, I recognized something.
On foreign soil, with a strange language in their mouths, they were
in the process of re-inventing themselves. Just like I was. Seeing
myself in them and caring about them allowed me to begin to care
about myself. It was a miracle!
I found a new therapist. I delight in telling people
that he's 6'3", black, and shaves his head. Who else would
I choose to take my side? He has told me that when he works with
terminally ill clients, he actually spikes a fever from time to
time. I was very angry when I first came to him. Did he pace barefoot
in the night? Forget to eat? Crave lithium? Now, we bet gold coins
on my grade point average. We sit on the floor. We laugh. He teaches
me by metaphor. I hold his stories in my hands. Each week I carry
away a piece of him, knowing it was meant for me. There is no sign
or symbol for what I've endured. I can't pierce my nose or get a
yin yang tattoo and be done with it. The world is divided into people
like me who have secrets. And those who don't even suspect. Is this
what it's like to be of mixed ancestry; to owe allegiance to two
opposing groups? I am one of you and you, too, may survive. I am
one of you and now, you finally know.
B. Ilene Adler can be reached at email@example.com