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In her words

June 6, 2001:
Read My Mind

By B. Ilene Adler '76

In 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 else's life.

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 iadlera2@yahoo.com