Category Archives: mental illness

The Share

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In my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male sober living program, one of the first things I do when I sit down with a new resident on my caseload is ask for their “story.”    On a slow afternoon I have the opportunity to ask the guys who aren’t on my caseload, the same thing.  They never hesitate to launch right in:

“Well, my father beat the shit out of me from the age of 7 and I started using pills at 10 to numb the pain.”

“Well, when I found my mother murdered….”

“Up until last year I was living under a bridge…”

“My wife overdosed and died while I was sleeping next to her.”

This is their narrative, one they’ve undoubtedly told many times, in AA and NA meetings, intakes at every detox they’ve been to and every time they’ve gone to a new therapist.  The telling is an integral part of their healing, their recovery.

Last week it occurred to me that it didn’t seem fair that they didn’t know MY story.  Many professionals might be outraged by the boundaries this seemingly crosses.  When I worked with inmates I understood why I told very little about myself.  Most therapists would say that if a client asks a question like “Where do you live?” you should deflect it by saying something like, “What would it mean to you if you knew that?” or “We’re here to focus on you not me.”

At another job it was mandatory that we shared our stories through a collage and narrative with the participants of the program.  Yes, we didn’t have to tell EVERYTHING, but to me, and I feel very strongly about this, when you are working so closely with people who lay themselves bare to you, it’s only fair that the playing field is leveled.

I asked permission from my manager first.  He has been in recovery for 15 years and is one of the most dynamic men I have ever met.  When his son was murdered just three years ago, he managed not to relapse, but you can see the pain in his eyes.  The men here, some as young as 24, listen to him with rapt attention when he tells his story.  They’ve heard him share at meetings in the community.  His story is not one to keep inside.

In front of the group of 30 guys, I set the tone of what I wanted to say by letting them know that despite the fact that I am not a recovering addict, that I have experienced pain of my own.  Some in recovery firmly believe that unless you are in recovery you don’t have the tools or experience to be a substance abuse counselor.  I wanted to try to soften that opinion.

I began with, “On New Year’s Eve, 1985, my mother and a man she was involved with committed suicide and were found dead in her bedroom.”

Nothing silences a group of restless men than an opening sentence like that.  I told my “story” for about 25 minutes while the guys just watched me and listened with compassionate writ large on their faces.  Many of them came up to me after and hugged me, others shook my hand and thanked me.  The one who I have had the most prickly relationship with, came into my office and confessed that he was one of those people who thought that unless you were in recovery you shouldn’t be counselor.

When I finished sharing my coworker reiterated his true belief that all of us, despite being addicts or not, have pain that stays with us. As he so simply stated, “You never know where help is going to come from.”

P.S.  I wish I could put my hair in a bun like the woman in the illustration.

 

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The Crumble of My Life

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The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

The Bucket List

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This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title I would normally stay away from, thinking it was faith-based or so overly cheerful that I would be unable to relate to its content and tone.  I was surprised to find that among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there are some gems.  I would end each group by having each young man read 5 of their choosing in front of the other residents.   On the day the program closed due to lack of funding for youth programs, I gave them each a copy with a personal note jotted on the inside cover.

Among the snippets of wisdom, listed somewhere near “Plant a tree the day your child is born,” and “Have friends who own a truck,” this one struck an immediate chord with me:  “Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big.  I use my two most extreme as examples, the first being “Eat a giant turkey leg,” (I always clarify by referring to those huge drumsticks you can get at county fairs and say that I want to walk around eating it like everyone else and not just bring it home and eat it at my dining room table) and the more far-fetched, “Own an apartment in NYC and a house in England.”  I give them about 7 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them (It’s become a bit weakened and faded by the constant folding and refolding.) I tell them that I keep it with me, as suggested by the way the advice from the book is written, so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it in the exact order as it appears above and until about three months ago, when a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, my list ended at “House in England.”  Interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on the hesitancy in my promise to do so.   So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  The first thing I noticed was a weird little sketch under her name (again, I think it’s Jewish tradition to just have the last name on the headstone and the full name on the footstone in front) which looked like an abstract cup of coffee with steam coming off of it.  I actually laughed a little because besides in the morning, my mother had a cup of coffee every day at 3:00.  I’m sure whoever chose this design didn’t pick up on this.

Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.

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Is Intellect A Safety Net?

This past weekend I was part of a 2-day training on how to speak publicly about suicide. I was in a room with six people, two other trainees and three facilitators, two of whom were also part of the unique group of “suicide survivors.”  All five of us have very different stories to tell, different relationships to the people we have lost but the circumstances of why we were in that room together is what we have in common.  It instantly created an intimate bond that is hard to explain.

I have written and spoken ad nauseam about my mother’s suicide including several previous posts in this blog.  I’ve got it down to a science.  As I’ve said before, my mother’s life has become a series of ten or so bullet points about her trajectory in my retelling.  The more I have been forced and encouraged to delve a little deeper, the more I’ve realized that I’m doing her a terrible disservice.

After the first day in which we shared and cried a bit for each other, we were tasked with writing a 15-minute presentation that we would share with the group the following day, for feedback and constructive criticism.  We were given 6 guidelines and told to limit what our point was, based on the audience we thought would best suit us, to about 2 or 3 main themes.  The facilitators who I had interviewed with prior knew that my story was very complex and touched on topics including Holocaust survival, double-suicides, painful dreams, mental illness throughout the generations, the differences in how siblings grieve and so on.  As the day progressed I focused on some common themes and went with those.  Later that night when I finished writing,  I read it to my husband who said it was perfect and that my thoughts hung together in a way that made sense.

The next day, we plunged right in with our presentations.  The first was given by a woman, a statuesque and stylish 50-ish year old mother who lost one of her sons.  I had already spent the first day crying over her utterly devastating loss, but hearing it all in the context of a 15-minute synopsis was almost too much to bear.  She powered through and when she was finished, we gave her, and her son, the silence they deserved.

I volunteered to go next.  I had my words typed out in a 14-pt font but tried to avoid reading them verbatim.  I covered the basic themes and focused on disclosure, secrets, and knowing too much about this very complicated situation that has now pervaded 4 generations.  There were a couple of times when people jotted something down which I would learn in the critique.  No one was sobbing and I was surprised that I hadn’t struggled with certain pieces of my story.  Not until I pulled out the below picture did I get a visible reaction from my small audience:

Obviously the person in the middle is me.  I am flanked by my stunning mother around the time she came to the United States and my daughter, whose eyes are the blue of my mothers.  That’s an old picture of my daughter but we are all there, in each other, 3 generations of mothers and daughters.

The first thing people did was compliment my writing.

“I feel like I was just in a bookstore hearing you read from your memoir.”  For me, it doesn’t get any better than that, but, I sensed that for the two lead facilitators, both FANTASTIC and experienced women in the field, I had missed the mark.

They wanted to know where was the feeling, the “me” in the story?  And then, the mother who had lost her son, completely without judgement, said this:

“I think you use your intellect as a safety net.”

Whoa.  Wow.  Holy shit.

I am under NO illusion that I’m any sort of “intellect.”  Yes, I have a fairly decent vocabulary and I’m a pretty good wordsmith, but intellect?  I tend to forget the content of every book and every New Yorker article I’ve ever read.  I get the facts wrong in the re-telling.  Am I a deep thinker, searching for the meaning of life?  Do I sit in a wood paneled library, smoking a pipe, digging deeply into the language of Socrates or Stephen Hawking?  Hell no.

When I got home, I looked up the definition of intellect.  Here’s the first in the list:

The power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands, as distinguished from that by which one feels and that by which one wills.

I feel deeply about almost everything in my life.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, am demonstrative with almost everyone I know, I cry at every perceived confrontation, and live my life with great passion.  For this one subject however, probably the defining topic of my life, I feel it in my head and not in my heart.  There are pieces of it that happen in my dreams that are devastating and I find that those are the toughest to write about and share, but other than that, it’s the outline, the Cliff’s Notes version of my mother’s life that I can recite on demand.

There is absolutely no right or wrong in how we grieve.  I envy those who can feel the impact immediately and those who see signs that their loved ones are always present.  Perhaps one of the most important things I learned (and there were MANY) is that we need to honor the LIVES of the people we have lost, and not just focus on the nature of their deaths.  The one man in the group who I found to be extraordinarily soothing and, due to his own personal loss, is now a bereavement specialist, assures me that I’m not somehow broken, that I will get to the core of this eventually, in my own time.

Skirting the Holocaust

I follow a brilliant blog written by a man named Robert Bruce who is reading (shockingly quickly, I might add) what Time magazine chose as the top 100 English-Speaking Novels Since 1923 (The blog can be found at 101books.net) There was a rather heated discussion about Lolita and its subject matter and he asked his readers where they draw the line in what they will read. Do we as readers have limits? Was it okay for people to like a book about a pedophile despite how brilliant the writing is? (Lolita happens to be one of my favorite books for the brilliant writing and the sinister voice of Humbert Humbert. Hearing Jeremy Irons read it on an audio book clinched it for me.)

For me my answer was immediate. When I was in high school and college I chose to read and see anything having to do with the Holocaust. Being the daughter of a survivor it seemed the logical thing to do. I took a Holocaust course in college and adored my professor who really was moved by my direct connection to it. I can’t even write about the things I see and hear in my head about the truly unspeakable things that happened to children. It’s too much to bear, even more so since I’ve had a child.

The very last book I picked-up on the subject was at least ten years ago, The Painted Bird by the late Jerzy Kosinski. It wasn’t even a Holocaust passage that made me have to stop, but I slammed the book shut and that was that. Like my mother, also a Holocaust survivor, he went on to commit suicide by suffocating himself by putting a plastic bag over his head. My mother died differently, but they clearly were scarred so deeply that that was the only end that made sense.

Yesterday my 10 ½year old daughter came across a book that my friend had given me, a book full of photographs and excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary. I’m still not sure how much sinks in when I try to explain what happened to the smiling Anne and her family. She wanted to read the book together and look at the pictures that were like any other family photos—happy times in lovely places, all smiles and occasional goofiness. I managed to get through about six pages before I turned away not wanting her to see the tears that were about to make their way out of my eyes. You see, I have this thing about people not being aware, as the reader is, that they are going to die a horrible death.I just couldn’t do it.

I reminded her that my mother was also what is called “a hidden child.” She got a bit confused and thought that my mother was hidden with Anne Frank. I said that no, they were in different countries and that my mother was hidden in a basement, Anne Frank in an attic (not that it made any difference). I didn’t tell her about the random raids the Nazis would make and how every time there was a scare my grandmother, mother and uncle would have to pile on top of each other in a narrow false front. My uncle told me many years ago that he still has nightmares about the fleur-de-lis pattern of the rug that he was forced to stare at, on his stomach with my mother and grandmother laying on top of him.

Whenever my daughter and I look at old pictures and we find one of my mother (of which there are many) she’ll kiss me and say “I’m sorry.” To this day she still hasn’t asked me how my mother died and I am dreading that conversation, that explanation that will inevitably make her even more anxious than she tends to be already. At her age I knew about my mother’s brothers and sisters being taken away to the camps, never to be seen again. I knew that that was the root cause of my mother’s intense depression and the one suicide attempt I had already lived through.

I want my daughter to know her history and I don’t want to just throw a book at her on the subject without any context. Right now it’s easy to say that Hitler was a bad man and that he made his followers believe that the Jews didn’t deserve the things that everyone else did, like slaves and then later, black people in the South. Places like the Holocaust Museum would crystallize things for her but I don’t know if I have what it takes to ever go back there. She’ll eventually read books like the brilliant Night by Elie Wiesel and certainly will read The Diary of Anne Frank as part of standard school reading lists and I want to be there for her to discuss them as needed. I know I will have to steel myself but I’m sure that there will be things that she too will have trouble processing, the sheer cruelty of a group of people who killed off 6 million individuals who should have gone on to have many years of smiling and goofy photographs.

How It Feels to Die

I was utterly convinced that I had a brain tumor. There was no way that you could have convinced me otherwise. I was around 23 and I happened to have a couple of really minor dizzy spells. In my mind, dizzy = brain, brain=tumor. There was no other possible explanation.

I had a serious boyfriend at the time (serious enough that we later got engaged) and he watched me devolve into a huddled mass that lived under the blankets in my bed. I lay there in fear of my impending death. I have a disturbing journal entry from that time that reflects my utter certainty that I had a limited time to live. My boyfriend called a good friend of mine and had her come over to check on me. I remember her sitting on my bed, stroking my hair, trying to reassure me that it was nothing. In my mind, she was coming to say goodbye.

I had made an appointment with my doctor who, not finding anything wrong with me, referred me to a neurologist. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but…” In my mind, that referral was the indicator of doom. Clearly, my doctor thought that a neurologist WOULD find something and she could pass off being the bearer of the inevitable bad news.

A few nights before the appointment my boyfriend insisted we go to the movies to take my (dizzy) mind off of things. Whatever it was we went to see completely eludes me. What I remember is sitting there in fear, not observing or hearing a thing, my dizzy spills getting worse. For some reason, I went into the lobby to call my father from a payphone. I was experiencing a full-on nervous breakdown, an antiquated term, but one I heard many times in regards to my mother. I was having a nervous breakdown, on a payphone in a move theater lobby, while my father listened. I was 23.

My father lives in California so the time difference was advantageous to him scrambling to call some of his contacts on the East Coast to get me in to see someone as quickly as possible. He called me back on the payphone with the number of a psychiatrist who his friend described as a “pussycat.” He had a Jewish last name.

I was able to get an appointment with him the next day. He was an older man, probably in his late 60s early 70s with a very calm demeanor. I had been in therapy on and off since I was 16 so I knew how it worked. I ran through my bullet points like I had hundreds of times and he listened and nodded in the way that therapists do.

A lot of people don’t realize that hypochondria to this degree is a symptom of depression. The dread, the fear, the self-sabotage and all that comes from the twirling spiral downward. I left his office with a prescription for Prozac when it was the newly lauded drug of the century.

Within the same week, I went to the neurologist for a brain scan. I held my breath as he came into the room after reading the results. “You’re fine,” he said smiling. Instantly my dizzy spells turned into little invisible vapors that swirled out the top of my head. Bye bye brain tumor.

Some time after that I thought I had ovarian cancer. It wasn’t nearly as extreme an experience but until I went to the doctor I was convinced that there was something the size of a grapefruit growing inside of me. My meds were “tweaked” and all was well. Until about two weeks ago.

For some reason my ability to breathe smoothly got all fucked up. I felt like there was a catch somewhere between my clavicle and my throat. No wheezing, no blood being coughed up in gobs, just…different. I began to incessantly google “symptoms of lung cancer.” Every day. Lung cancer and mold allergies. I tried to imagine which drag of a cigarette I had taken before I finally quit had run amok. One thing that really scared me is that apparently arm and shoulder pain is a sign of metastisized lung cancer and I’ve had pain in my arm for months. I can easily recreate the pain, clearly muscular, and in fact, I even chose to get a cortisone shot for it about six months ago. But, this didn’t matter. In my mind, the orthopedist wasn’t equipped to see a spot on my shoulder with simple x-rays and it’s been growing at a rapid pace ever since.

I questioned everyone. Are you having trouble breathing? Is it a dry feeling? Does it feel like this? Everyone had coughing and chills and fever. They wheezed and coughed up gunk. Clearly, I was the only one with lung cancer. I thought of what it would be like to have to tell my extremely sensitive daughter. I thought about my husband who I had just found the perfect love with. I thought about how the word would get out. Would I write a post on facebook? Would I be one of those people who smiled through it all and never told anyone until all my hair fell out?

Chances are pretty good that I DON’T have lung cancer. I’ve felt a bit more normal the past few days. I don’t know why I bring this on myself. Why, when I am at my happiest am I expecting it all to end? Why do I choose to sabotage my bliss? I don’t have answers for this, but perhaps, after 20 or so years, it’s time for another meds tweak.

I Love You Claudine: Part I

It’s second semester senior year and I’m sitting, along with 20 or so other students, in an autobiography writing class. We had progressed through St. Augustine’s Confessions to, well, I don’t remember what else.

The professor says, “I’d like to read one of your classmates pieces to all of you.” She starts to read, and the first sentence is “Your mother is dead.” It’s mine. I give an uncomfortable smile which probably gives me away, and put my head down to listen to the rest. I’ve written this less than 4 months after my mother committed suicide on New Year’s eve, 1985.

As I’m leaving the class, my professor pulls me aside and suggests that I try to get the piece published in a magazine. I am flattered and stunned beyond belief.

Basic backstory on my mother:

Holocaust survivor, hidden in a private home in Belgium with her mother and younger brother. Later transferred to a convent because she had started to sneak out of the house causing great potential danger to the host family and my grandmother and uncle. 4 older siblings killed in concentration camps, father shot by the Jewish Underground.

Marries a GI to get herself to the states. Ends up in Philly, gets divorced, gives birth to my oldest brother, gets to NYC, dates some high-powered men. She is a stunning woman.

Goes to work as a receptionist at a resort in the Catskills. Meets my father who is the hired nightclub singer. They get married and move to Whitestone. Pretty quickly have my second brother and 16 months later, my sister.

They all move to Searingtown, Long Island where I am born, eight years after my sister, at a hospital flanked by a Bloomingdale’s and an A&S. My mother had pretty much fallen into upper-middle class Jewish Long Island and she seemingly fit right in. She played canasta and mahjong and tennis at our club almost daily.

That’s her nutshell, just for context.

Beginning when I was nine, my daughter’s age now, my mother had a never ending series of “nervous breakdowns.” She’d be hospitalized for about a week each time. This was explained to me with great honesty and I understood as best as I could. The only time she left me a note she tried to explain that she wanted to be with her brothers and sisters. Somehow, it made sense.

Anyway, my life went on like this. My mother would refuse to take her meds (things like lithium) because she complained of the side effects. This of course just exacerbated the cycle. Now knowing what bipolar episodes are, her life was a series of extreme highs and extreme lows. At thirteen, my parents got divorced, my father moved 3,000 miles away to California, and I was left alone with my bipolar mother. The only saving grace was that my brother lived close enough to be there when things became unbearable. He was, and in so many ways still is, my savior.

Just imagine all of this going on until at 16 she booted me out to LA to my father’s, which in some ways, was a worse environment than being with her. A therapist of mine had the brilliant idea for me to look into boarding schools to rescue me from these two hopeless scenarios and off I went for junior and senior year. College followed (I flew, with a trunk, on a People’s Express flight for $19.) My mother never set foot on either campus.

By my senior year, my mother’s bipolar disorder started to slip into borderline schizophrenia. She would call me to try to convince me that her best friend had turned her family over to the Nazis. She scribbled incoherent notes on the backs of the canvases of her crudely amateurish paintings. I know there was a series of audio cassette rants that my oldest brother swears he has somewhere. At one point she made a breezily delivered passing reference to a suicide pact she had made with a man she was dating.

During the very last phone conversation I had with my mother, she expressed how excited she was that I was coming home for winter break. I told her my plans and when I would be there. I got a ride home from the father of a guy I had a crush on, and I spent the 6-hour trip trying to ascertain whether or not this crush liked me back. They dropped my off at the luxury high-rise I lived in with my mother, and drove away.

I took the elevator up to our apartment and was surprised to find that the door was chained from the inside. I rang the bell over and over and over and got no response. I instantly knew what was behind that door, but I just assumed that my mother would be alone, dead, not at peace, but a tortured soul to the end.

I went to see if her car was in the garage. It was in it’s assigned spot, a Nissan Pulsar, the doors unlocked. Propped up on the stickshift, there was a review from what is now New York magazine (formerly, Cue)of the play ‘Night Mother. The roles are reversed but here is the premise, lifted from the Wikipedia description:

The play opens with Jessie calmly telling Mama that by morning she’ll be dead, as she plans to commit suicide that very evening (she makes this revelation all while nonchalantly organizing household items and preparing to do her mother’s nails). The subsequent dialogue between Jessie and Mama slowly reveals her reasons for her decision, her life with Mama, and how thoroughly she has planned her own death, culminating in a disturbing – yet unavoidable – climax.

There is NO way my mother would have planted a clue like that. I had no doubt in my mind. It wasn’t her style, and quite frankly, she wasn’t all that interested in reviews of the arts and wouldn’t have come across this. So, at that point, I knew she wasn’t alone.

A long series of events ensued, including my frantically trying to get in touch with any family member who would listen to me and guide me in what to do. I ended up at a friend’s about 40 minutes away, making phone calls, trying to track down my siblings who were all on vacation. Somehow, my uncle was contacted, he went over with the police, they broke down the door, and indeed, my mother was dead, lying next to a man, also dead, she barely knew.

By the time I went in the next day, the bodies were gone. The smell was unbearable. There were empty soda bottles everywhere. For some reason there was a man’s belt on the floor. On the mirror, written in lipstick, were the words “I love you Claudine.”

 

More Fun with Claudine

When my mother came to America from Belgium, her name was Fadga, pronounced “Fella” (yeah, and her mother’s name was “Bella.”) Anyone could understand that the first thing she might do would be to change her name to something more…pretty. She chose “Claudine”, which she pronounced, with her lovely and strong accent, CLOWdine (like GLOW). Sort of softer, but close to that.

She couldn’t pronounce her “ths” so “tooth” would come out like “toot.” She considered anything North of the Throg’s Neck Bridge “New Hampshire.” When she got full in a restaurant she would unhook her bra and pull it out through her sleeve and stick it in her pocketbook. She took about 6 sets, one at a time, of little salt and pepper shakers from The Jolly Fisherman where I had my first Shirley Temple and duck la orange. They appeared during Passover and Thanksgiving, my mother’s little “winks” plunked down along sections of the dining room table.

So, for those of you unaware of what happens in manic depression, now called “bipolar disorder,” there are EXTREME ups and EXTREME downs. When you live with someone who lives on these opposite poles, and rarely in the middle, you learn to anticipate these very dramatic shifts. The ups were MUCH more amusing than the downs, both very disconcerting in their own right, but, they brought her happiness, however fleeting.

My mother would either be in bed for days at a time with the shades drawn, or up, painting pretty terrible paintings, going on shopping binges or dreaming up senseless business ideas that never went anywhere. She’d come home from these shopping jaunts with five of the same shirt in different colors, boxes of shoes, and one time, a life-sized stuffed clown for me. I was 16, and everyone hates a clown.

My mother, who was absolutely stunning, became more “adorable” as she got older. She had a cute little 5’5 body and wore mostly velour sweatsuits or tennis dresses. She never went out without lipstick. She didn’t cook much so when it was just the two of us after my parents got divorced we would go to this place that had her favorite dessert–a snowball–chocolate ice cream bathed in chocolate sauce and rolled in coconut. She would start out spooning rather demurely and then duel with my spoon over the last drop. She was incredibly generous with me, never really said no to anything I asked for.

Like her, I love my restaurant time with my daughter even if it is just an excuse not to have to think of something to cook. Oh, and I just “borrowed” two of what my daughter calls “dipper spoons” from a Chinese chain’s wonton soup. 4 more to go for a set.

Asylum Ave


a·sy·lum   /əˈsaɪləm/ –noun
1.(esp. formerly) an institution for the maintenance and care of the mentally ill, orphans, or other persons requiring specialized assistance.

I recently drove through Hartford where I’m always sort of jarred by the exit for Asylum Ave. 28 years ago I took that exit to visit my mother at the “Betty Ford Clinic” of mental institutions–The Institute of Living.

Once called The Connecticut Retreat for the Insane, The Institute was for mostly wealthy “insane” people, many a movie star having gone through it’s doors (I can’t remember if Elizabeth Taylor was there when my mother was or I’m confused because my mother looked so much like her.)

Surrounded by a brick wall and with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, it’s a hell of a lot nicer than Bellevue, another place she was admitted during a rather acute manic episode. It was 1982 and I was in boarding school about 40 minutes away. Somehow it was my uncle’s turn to do the admitting, my brothers’ quota having been met. I’m not sure how long she was actually there, records are destroyed after 10 years, but maybe 2 weeks at the most.

When I went to visit her one weekend, she was all cute and giggly, talking about her very handsome, younger tennis partner. Mom loved tennis. It was one of the only things that kept her out of her busy head, and she was rather good at it, her cute little body in flippy tennis dresses darting about the court. Playing tennis while involuntarily at a mental institution seemed kind of fun and the food was good, just like our tennis club on Long Island! She must have felt right at home.

A few days after my visit, she called me at school, and with great glee told that she had gone “AWOL” from the Institute. I pictured her getting a boost over the brick wall by the handsome tennis player and her scampering to hitch a ride. Actually, I have no idea how she did it, or what repercussions there may have been, but she was pretty damn proud of herself (incidentally, after I posted this yesterday, by brother told me that on the NIGHT he proposed to his wife, he got a call from the hospital telling him that they didn’t know where my mother was. He then said to his now-wife, “Oh, let me tell you about my mother.” You CAN’T make this stuff up!)

I don’t remember how many more hospitalizations there were between 1982 and 1986 when she finally lost steam, but I’m sure Asylum Ave was like winning the lottery of “loony bins-” another term used in turn-of-the-century papers. (There is a wonderful book from last year called “Voluntary Madness” by a journalist with her own mental illness who checks herself into three different institutions and it’s fascinating.)

Anyway, this was a tiny piece of life with mom. No reason to feel sorry for me. Again, it’s looking back on it from this 45-yr-old perspective that allows me to see humor in such absurdity, plus it makes for great material. Thanks for that, Mom!