FROM UP TO DOWN
"You don't seem that high anymore." Jess delivered that observation as I handed her a glass of wine and we retreated to our usual positions in my living room.
As I sank into the green velvet sofa, tucking my legs beneath me, I said, “I do believe you’re right. I don’t seem to be speeding all the time anymore. Actually, now that you mention it, I feel really solid. Hey!” I stretched out my hands toward her and fanned my fingers. “Look! They barely shake.”
“See what I mean?”
“But Jess, why wasn’t I telling you this news?"
"You’re in the middle of it, Obletzkrieg, and I don't see you every day. You've definitely slowed down. You sound like the old you again, too."
"No more nonstop singsong, as Michael once put it. Which, upon reflection, could account for the Baroque rhythm of my writing in those days. I guess I should be grateful that I didn’t end up on corners preaching to the pedestrians.”
Jessie’s blue eyes glinted; she looked away and tossed her head, her curls swinging forward, concealing her intention. Her curls swept back into place when she looked up at me and said, "Ahhh, but you did initiate conversations with strangers. Which really worried me — your subject was always love." Her eyes were laughing when she said that.
"I concede. And alas, my dear friend, I also confess that, like you, I have come to fear solitude. It’s an open invitation to panic — What’s your score these days for panic attacks?”
“Actually, none, not for almost three months. A record.”
“One you attribute to Stan?” It was fun teasing her about her gradual fall into love, love, love.
“Sure, yes, and to you, The Group, and wine, and song — the singing I do on Sundays is at the typewriter, of course.” She grinned and mimicked Groucho Marx, her cigarette a puny stand-in for his cigar stub.
“I haven’t ‘sung’ in a few months. I’m going to find those stacks of paper and see what’s there.” The idea excited my curiosity.
“Listen, ‘Palomine-o,’ the way you racked up those reams, it’ll take you a while to get through them. But once you do, I’d like to take a look, too.”
“Jess! Didn’t you get enough of it the first time around?”
“I never read what you wrote when you were in Florida.”
“If I find any pearls, I’ll hand them over, gladly. They could be hilarious. But let’s toast to being panic free for a few months, may it always keep its distance.”
She raised her glass of wine as if to salute that idea, took a sip and set down the goblet again, returning her eyes to mine.
“Jessie, sometimes I start shaking and have to fight for air whenever I remember what I just got out of.”
“Ah, but as you just said, you are out of it. You are mastering it, buddy, you’re working, you’re back in action.” Her cheeks looked as though she was facing the sun setting in the Caribbean.
“I sure do appreciate these pep talks of yours, Ma’am.“
"You're not the first — "
"To live on tobacco and aqua?"
"Some dined at the Last Supper," Jess said softly, so softly, I almost didn’t hear her.
"Given my recent experience, one could say I've had a religious education after all, however unconventional."
"Unconventional is your middle name, Obletzkrieg."
"Right. Also, I must remind us that I finished my steeplechase painting during my first night home alone in more than three months. My spirit again lives on canvas!”
“We’re lucky we can channel our demons through art,” Jess said. “But, to change the subject, have you lost weight? You also look a little pale.”
Surprised by her unexpected question, I said, “I don’t know about weight, but I imagine my morning’s toilette has faded like the day. I also have a hard time forgetting that the bomb's in place. It could detonate any minute. And then again I’d be slaving for some figment, sacrificing sleep and food in the name of love."
"Obletzkrieg, your bomb's been defused. Thorazine and lithium nuked it. Now try relaxing, exercising, getting fresh air. And as one who’s known you before, during, and to date, I'd say you’re leveling, wouldn't you?"
"Why Jessie, it's so nice of you to think that I could have an opinion." Instant laughter overcame us.
In the lull of our silence, Jess sipped wine then said: “You've come through fire. You’re bound to run into the occasional hot spot. You're the bravest person I know. Think about that every time one of those hot spots burns you."
"There's nothing brave about me," I moaned, or whined.
"You're back at life-as-usual." Jess looked like she was about to wag her finger at me.
"My life will never be usual again, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about that."
"You haven’t given up."
"You always say, ‘And this too shall end.’"
* * *
I informed family and friends that I'd be me again soon, because of course I wasn’t going into a depression: not everyone did, both doctors had said so.
Thorazine and lithium may have returned me to sanity, but only Valium seemed to suppress the hot fear and horror that now threatened to boil over every night between lights out and sleep. Instead of the occasional ten milligram Valium, I took it nightly.
Now I needed double, sometimes triple that dose.
Red alert was rough. If I were a dog, my hackles would be raised permanently.
On the other hand, I liked having my muscles tight and tuned, as if I worked out daily. It was doubtful that I’d make much money selling fear as the greatest exercise ever. And madness actually did have its plus sides, such as falling in love with words, self-discovery, glazing my bedroom walls in one afternoon. And going further into love than I ever dared or cared to go again.
This fact manacled me to fear whenever I couldn’t contain it, distract it, ignore it.
Lucky thing it was, meeting Jess back in 1976. We reduced fear for each other. And she was right. My old self was visible again. I was back to my usual weight. I also slept seven or eight hours on week nights, twelve on weekends, and recently, fourteen, fifteen — making up for lost sleep at last.
Lithium still made me hear swarming mosquitoes; it still made my hands shake; it made thirst a paramount need — gum became as important as nicotine.
Lithium also limited me to two drinks a day, which saved me from the hell of blackouts, waking up with bruised and cut legs, and torn and bloodied hose. It was a hollow, awful feeling knowing that, no matter how much I dredged my memory, or how many details my companions supplied, their tales hadn’t been the least bit familiar to me. That zone of twilight mirrored my new reality, which wouldn’t switch off without at least one blue ten mg. Valium.
Until I needed lithium, I never paid attention to how many times wine filled my glass. At home alone, after a Cabernet with dinner, I drank diet cola by the liters, my thirst never quenched for long. Obviously, I wasn’t an alcoholic. But those blackouts — but they were history.
My conflict with lithium amused me, sometimes, when I considered printing reminders to hang in the kitchen and bathroom: LITHIUM ISN’T FOREVER.
Anxiety still ran me when I ran out of distractions, but I hadn’t had a panic attack since last fall when I’d confronted the “real” reality about the state of my mind. It never had occurred to me that I’d been in any danger. That’s what scared me the most.
But I was home, and I was safe from depression — both psychiatrists had said so.
* * *
Perhaps the first fall of snow coincided with a debilitating drain on my energy.
A stream of sadness opened and deepened, subterranean sorrow in the belly of my soul. Yet I was lucky. Every time panic stirred, Jess, Susan or Michael had answered my call and wouldn't let me get off the phone until their view changed mine.
Jess was the only one who also knew the need to die, and the paralyzing horror of panic, the fatigue of incessant anxiety. Every time I pictured her in a freak accident, I couldn't breathe.
Jess was too fast, too alert to die by car, or bus, or truck.
Cancer threatened my parents.
They were in remission.
Fear of myself buried those fears, and when I was even luckier, I could glue myself to comrades, work, prime time TV soaps and mystery novels. Sleep.
Fear of losing my anchors surfaced with increasing frequency whenever I was alone, each time more difficult to divert than the last, raising the intensity of my anxiety, a war I now fought daily, like Jess. She was the General — I had yet to get out of boot camp.
My workload wasn't greater than before (I checked it against last year's schedule), but it took more out of me. By evening I was too tired to meet anyone anywhere but in my own living room. And soon, only in my bedroom where pillows could prop me up on my bed while friends sat in the white cushioned armchair in the corner between my dresser and the western wall. A couple of days a week, Jess stopped by after work for at least one wine, sometimes we’d order a pizza, too. Jake brought dinner over once or twice a week. Most work days, Susan drove us to restaurants, getting away from our usual lunch table of colleagues in the company cafeteria, who knew nothing about my change of mind.
I didn't feel sick. Just tired.
"Anything would pale compared to mania," Jess said. "Don't push. You’re on your way out of this."
"It must be the flu."
"After all this time?"
Fatigue weighted me; nothing interested me, people annoyed me.
Yet there was no slack in the surge of my passion for Jake.
Jake went to Florida for ten days over Thanksgiving.
Negative thoughts purchased greater segments of time, crowding me when alone, distracting me when I was with others. Tonight I took my temperature. How could it be normal?
I took my temperature the next day, and then every day after work. I seemed to have every unpleasant symptom of fevers, everything but nothing above ninety-eight point six.
My father's morning ritual had included a thermometer. Standing in his bathroom, his undershirt tucked into his trousers held in place by suspenders, he’d eye himself in the mirror, the thermometer jutting out of his mouth like one of his pipes or cigars. When we kids glimpsed this practice, we’d run off to the card room and play with the word hypochondriac, the fun of enunciating this overheard, indecipherable term delighting us again and again.
Every day when I got home after work, I popped in the thermometer, turned on the electric blanket, undressed, and slipped into a hot foamy bath. No temperature tonight, either. I wished I had a good high fever.
One day I stopped at the Fudge Pot a few doors down the block from the lot where I parked my car. I indulged in this luxury again a few days later, adopting the practice once or twice a week, then three and more times. I bought a pound of milk chocolate fudge on Fridays so I wouldn’t have to leave home over the weekend. Switch to popcorn, Jess always said, but I craved sugar, not salt.
An image of my brain oozed into my consciousness, overwhelming me with its invasive power, its shape alien, ropy and round in sick-gray. My enemy crouched right behind my eyes.
After Jake returned, I rarely had the heart to see him, or whatever it was I needed that would make me want him again, have the energy again to want much of anything, other than sleep.
I bought extended wear contact lenses. Life was easier without waking to myopic distortions that mirrored internal matters, which aroused anxiety the minute I opened my eyes.
The downside of twenty-four hour twenty-twenty vision was hurting every time I unexpectedly saw myself in a mirror. How could I still look like me?
At the end of January, Watcher, the puppy my sister Maggie had found for me, would be old enough to leave his mother.
I'd be thirty-nine in January.
Forty was next. Forty. The decade of establishment. Well. I certainly had established myself as a mad spinster, neither label one I ever had expected to wear. When I mentioned this thought to Jess, she said it was time to expect the unexpected.
Forty was too young to start the rest of life in mania or depression, lugging around a body that moved like sludge.
I needed Watcher now.
January 7, 1982
SUGAR. NO, SALT.
Jess phoned one evening heading into Christmas week. "What are you up to?"
"Hunting skulls and crossbones under the sink."
"Why?" she snapped.
"You're not contemplating ingesting any of them, are you? Because if you are, remember: you canNOT kill your parents' child."
"Jess — I need to know there's a way out of this . . . "
"You'll get out! It'll take time, though. You've a chemical imbalance that chemistry needs time to treat. Sit tight."
"Easy for you to say."
"I've been in the shoes you've been wearing lately, and you are in a vicious cycle right now. But: This too, my dear, shall end. Have you imbibed your day's quota?"
"No . . . "
"Then take two wines and call me in the morning. And call if you want to talk later."
Jess never let me forget for long that the worst was over, and that I was in good company: Churchill, van Gogh, Hemingway.
Near the end of February, before she could get to Hemingway again, I realized that I hadn’t written in my journal about my unexpected stay in Florida, not to mention its cause. There was no mention of my unexpected employer I had thought I was working for, a character I had shelved with Robin Hood, Peter Pan and Santa Claus. I’d been devoted to avoiding that memory. Maybe it was time to face it.
I, with my private school educations and life in big cities, had gotten into awful trouble. There had to be other people as ignorant as I was — they could profit from my mistakes.
Losing your mind wasn’t even to be wished upon enemies. If I wrote a book about my experiences with mania and depression, others might get help before madness could take over and launch them into unwitting self-destruction.
If, after reading my book, even one person got treatment before falling out of reality, my ignorance would be worth it. Excitement buoyed me for the first time in, I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d felt like this.
When I called Jess to tell her about my new brainchild, she said my story was “important” and that it needed to be told. She offered to edit it, knowing of course that the only grammar I ever learned came from my two years of Latin. And in our copywriting profession, one rarely completed sentences.
Writing was Jessie’s art, short stories that were evocative portraits of interesting people. I could hope to be half as good a prose writer as she was. However, I doubted I’d ever be able to eat Brussels sprouts or exercise regularly, as she also did.
The next day, I left work at five and was home in thirty minutes. I set up the typewriter at the dining room table and sat in the chair in front of it. I couldn't think of a way to start so I described the day. My sentences charted the same lifeless line my paintings had taken in 1978, the year I also gave up eligible men. A few hours later, I tried again. Nothing came out from within. I didn't have the heart to try again.
Writing could carry me away again. I returned the typewriter to the closet, disappointed but not devastated. Maybe I would try again.
I stayed at work until Don left at six, seven, unwilling to face myself any sooner than necessary. It was astonishing to realize I’d become grateful for the predictability of my work, the very reason I’d been itching to find something else last year, just before I went around the bend the wrong way.
Jess urged me to join a group of people who had manic-depression. They met Tuesday evenings in an Evanston coffee shop at least thirty minutes away. I had as much in common with them as I had with Churchill, van Gogh and Hemingway. No. I was better off at home, guarding my mind in private in the only place I could completely relax.
Dynasty, Perry Mason and movies absorbed me. Jess wouldn’t let a TV in her house. But she met friends every night for drinks and dinner. I needed time to myself a few days a week — more so when I could paint, never every night. By four in the afternoon, I couldn’t wait to get into bed and turn on TV, preferring my fiction in “living color” as opposed to the black-and-white printed page, or the alcoholic embellishments that some of the people I knew insisted on making, which became more and more tedious as evenings stretched long into nights and bar tabs kept escalating.
TV stories provided “real” reasons for fear and tears. I played solitaire during commercials, or read my latest paperback mystery, the medley of these occupations walling off my recent history, my latest crisis, the most terrifying crisis in my existence.
How could I ever again trust that part of me that once berthed my heart and soul, the spirit of my creativity? The essence of what once was me?
* * *
I tried to write again. Words refused to march.
Jess said I couldn't kill my parents' child. A part of me wanted Jess to move in with me, but then I’d have to give up Jake.
I left home only for work, after which I stopped for groceries as infrequently as possible. Strangers crowded, jostled; rolling carts menaced from every direction; stacked-shelves seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. Only at home could I relax, and then only once in bed with music, fiction and Valium. Sleep at last.
Watcher was more trap than blessing. And he wouldn't know normal from abnormal.
I was relieved when Maggie said I was right not to take the puppy, that dogs shouldn't live with anyone who didn’t have the energy to properly care for them.
* * *
For something to say that he might relate to, I told Geltzer I wasn’t getting a dog because I wanted a live-in lover.
"That's no problem," he replied, his pleasure pompous. "See me once a week and you'll have your wish by spring."
"You keep a supply of possibilities in the closet?"
He drew toward him his appointment book and leafed through it, slowly scanning each page.
"If you're looking for a weekly slot for me, forget it. I need a lover now, not — “
"I have an opening — "
"Forget it." I swallowed unkind epithets. "And rather than fantasize, shouldn't we be talking about the real reason I'm here? Medication, doctor, remember? And just how is the lithium doing?"
"Fine," he answered crisply.
"And the Thorazine?"
"You're still on that? You can stop it now."
How dare he in his pasty pomposity not know that I was still on Thorazine! I was livid. "And you're absolutely positive you don't want me to drop lithium?"
"You'll never go off that," he answered, nodding his head with satisfaction.
"The objective of lithium is to prevent another psychotic episode."
"Then how will I know when the disorder ends and I begin?"
"But . . . " I looked at his impassive face and suppressed the urge to punch him, to kick him hard enough to recreate the level of hurting now living in me. "I will never be psychotic again — with or without lithium. I must get off it."
"Come once a week," he intoned.
I left while he was still looking at his watch. What an unmitigated ass. As long as brain chemicals tipped my balance, there was no way I could live with anyone. Why didn't he say that? No. Geltzer wasn't the answer. Neither was a roommate.
That night, failure mired me in hopelessness, until I realized that my desire for Watcher had initiated a relationship with Maggie. We’d begun taking turns phoning each other weekly, which, happily, pleased our parents. Crediting full-blown mania for mending that fence made me feel better.
“You’ll never get off lithium.” Hurry, Valium, get me out of here.
* * *
Winter's hand was grim, its days like dusk. The light was always dim however bright the lamp, shadows like ugly stains wherever I looked.
Grime everywhere. Garbage reeking and infested.
I'm too tired, I'd say to invitations from friends; just tired, I'd tell those who questioned my health. Fatigue was dazing. But it still lifted when I was with Jake.
Jake, work, Jess, Susan and Don created the only reality I could face in concentrated doses.
At some point I stopped fighting for creative license. Rewrites were a challenge I could conquer. But every project triggered self-doubt. "I can’t trust what I write anymore," I told Susan.
She said, “Give it to me before you give it to Don.”
“As if you don’t have enough to do already.”
Susan was more nourishing than my daily grilled Swiss cheese and bacon sandwich. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the stomach for burgers and salads.
One noon Susan said, "My colleagues are talking about how quiet you are these days." The green of her eyes gleamed with fun when she added, "Phil asked if you were looking for another job."
Jess still came over after work several times a week, whether or not she was invited. She knew well that madding crowds of fear needed sanctuary. She knew mental treason; she knew its horror. Jess helped me face my aberration, a necessity for maintenance no less important than sharing the awful truth about terror and confusion.
And still I dreaded her arrival one bitter evening, wanting to doze in the electric heat of my blanket. I let her in, gave her a glass of wine and went back to bed. As soon as she settled into the white chair across the room, I began to fear her departure.
"Have you thought about the fact we're closer now?" she asked.
I pulled the blankets to my chin and said, "No, but we phone each other several times a day now. You never used to drop in on me, either."
"That's how we're closer, but not why," she responded quietly from the gloom in her corner.
I sat up and shuffled a deck of cards, the slapping burr the only sound in the room; I laid out seven on my comforter before speaking. "Contact has had a new calling since my brain switched my thinking took a one-eighty degree turn."
Her laughter wasn’t free and lilting, nor was it contagious, as it usually was.
I whispered, "There isn't a piece of me that isn't quicksand. Knowing this infects me with fear."
"Don't think about it then." Her voice compelled me to meet her eyes. "The worst was psychosis, and you've conquered that. And it may not feel like it, but you're healing, you're going through the cycles . . . And that's normal! Understand?" Those blue crystal eyes of hers compelled me to accept her view.
"Normal if you have a case of manic-depression, you mean." A grin curved my lips and then I felt it inside me, tunneling for laughter.
"Unfortunately for you, it looks like it's all downhill for a while. You've entered depression, I'd say.” Jess paused a moment before turning her eyes back to mine, then said, “What does Geltzer say?"
"Do you really think that's it? If I were supposed to feel like this, I'd feel better about it."
She smiled but quickly repeated, "What does Geltzer say?"
"I was in better shape the last time I saw him."
"Listen, Obletzkrieg, why not see him more frequently while you change gears?"
"Depression's a logical explanation for the way you're feeling, and you're exhibiting some of the symptoms--"
"How shrinkish of you." I appraised the intensity of her blue gaze. And then I was crying, my sobs silencing her, my tears collecting on the cards. "I cry for no reason," I whispered, unable to meet her eyes. "I cry at work and hide in the bathroom; I cry in the car coming home; I cry when I get here."
"Another classic sign! Call Geltzer. Don't wait for the next session. Call him. He'll know what to do," she said urgently.
"Oh, Jessie." Tears tracked my helplessness.
"Geltzer'll treat the depression. Call him. There are drugs you can take."
“I'm okay with you, and Susan, and Jake, not that great with family."
"To quote “Breaking Through to Happiness,” a discourse from a sublime state of mind I might add, friends are your family, 'related by blood and not.'" The wit's gleam in her eyes reminded me of my father.
I grinned back and said, "True . . . true. But with the meter running, there's no time for negatives that my long distance family cannot do anything about, nor hear without additional stress. Besides which, only you understand that my fears are rational — " I laughed when I realized what I’d said, enjoying the spirit of understanding. My voice lightened when I added, "Sleeping's best, no dreams, no recall. And therefore, Professor, no rub."
"There is merit in your worship of oblivion — but only to a point, my friend. You have to stay awake for the positives in life." Her tone matched mine, but her eyes and cheeks darkened.
"What positives? I can't trust my mind, let alone control it."
"It's an elite club. Very few members. Rather a rough initiation, though. And I must say, yours was particularly harsh."
More tissues dripped with my tears. "I don’t think I can live like this much longer."
"But you are living with it. And you're working. You're brave — I know how impossible it can be to be alone."
I'd known that about Jess, and been appalled by it. That fact now was a rock to hang on to in the avalanche of my thoughts, relieving the strain of solitary confinement.
"But you," she said, riveting my attention on her. She paused, leaned forward, lit a cigarette and pointed it at me like an accusation, or a teacher underlining a fact, and said, "You must get out and do things. You have to be with people. The Group gathers this Friday at La Bastille. You're coming."
"Sitting at a table, not to mention joining repartee, is beyond me, Jess. I need my bed, the comfort of my home — I have to be as comfortable as I can be to, to . . . "
"You need to engage different and more positive associations. Come with us and get away from yourself for a while. I'll be here at six, be ready."
"Maybe. I'm just so tired . . . "
"Hiding does nothing for depression," she said firmly.
"Does it ever get easier?" I turned up a card.
"It becomes familiar, and you know what that breeds."
"Give me contempt over fear any day." My attempted humor was a miserable failure, braking my laughter after its first forced note. “Anything’s better than fear.”
She looked at me intently, drew on her cigarette, averted her gaze, exhaled. "I don't know if it's possible to get used to it, but you will learn to live with it."
"Will that take much longer?" I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear her answer.
"Depends. It hasn't been that long since your return to reality. And that's the fact to hang on to, Patricia." She lifted a cigarette to her lips and lit it from the one she’d been smoking. "Maybe your tears are inspired by grief, not disorder." She shook her head then grinned at me. "But you've come a long way — be proud of your progress!"
"There's no glory in pride. Nor contempt. No glory at all. On the other hand, hell hath no greater glory than a full-blown manic episode!" My escaping laughter was spontaneous, a state of being I thought I’d lost. But I felt like me when with my loves, their interactions providing me with cells of positive energy, people who reminded me of who I was once and would be again.
"Okay, Shakespeare, so what are you doing for act two? Never mind, don't answer that, but promise you'll call Geltzer."
"Jess, why didn't I think of him!"
"Doesn't say much for him," came her dry reply.
The next morning, I called him. He upped the lithium from five pills a day to six. My tears stopped within the week.
“YOU’LL NEVER GET OFF LITHIUM.”
Jess insisted that I was no longer vulnerable to madness, that I was surrounded by people who loved me, that I was under the care of a top specialist who Stan had recommended. She'd follow these blessings with the fact I was lucky to have parental love, not to mention a lover I could trust. In closing, she'd say I was financially secure, frosting the cake of my security in her estimation. None of these blessings stayed long in my mind; none of them registered in my heart.
Jess stopped pressing me to meet The Group, and the manic-depressive group, though she still dropped by several nights a week. On Saturdays, we met at Nookies for brunch before braving Treasure Island for groceries, a chore I no longer could manage alone, the store too crowded, too loud, too confusing.
Depression took me deeper. That had to be the cause of the weight I now carted, invisible, unweighable, footsteps dragging, head bowed, shoulders listing forward and down — I'd seen myself in too many store windows.
I no longer cared what I looked like. I cared too much. I couldn't confront my reflection, me, but not me.
Only at work or with Jess, Susan and Jake could my cold narrow shaft open and warm, reminding me of life past and to come.
When people called during prime time TV, they recruited reality, which I told them, after which I said that I'd be unavailable between seven and ten, for the duration.
Need for sugar seemed to increase in direct line with my decreasing interest in life. Fiction, pizza, red wine and fudge, finishing with slice-and-bake chocolate chip cookies, a stuporous sating.
The horror of mental masturbation by a hand other than my own was rape. Jess said there was no easy recovery from rape, and that lithium was like mace.
I was cold all the time, even in sweaters under the heat of my electric blanket.
I slept more, rarely dressing on weekends. I ordered pizza; Sandburg Market delivered wine, cigarettes, eggs and bread.
The only kind of writing I could manage was copy to sell beauty products. Perhaps I didn't want to see the inside of my mind.
Sometimes Jake warmed my desolation, discarding it with his transitory insistent presence. Last night he groaned about my room crammed with playing cards, books, hastily shed clothes, and my latest bible, the TV Guide.
"How do you find anything in this mess?" he cried one night, astonishment widening his eyes. He bent to pick up a dress, shove a hanger in it, stuff it in the closet.
I threw a sweater at him, laughing as I let go and collapsed on the bed. I felt light and free, high on the spur of passion.
He ducked the sweater and came into my arms and we tussled like kids. And then our play was carnal and our clothes joined others on the floor.
Every hold on my feelings released, pleasure ruling again, giving life to my body and soul, giving me glory.
He cried out; he slumped over me slowly, covering me with his length. He held me. With Jake I was alive, the me I was before my brain chemicals lost their balance. "I'm not like this when I'm not with you," I murmured.
"I should hope not!" He moved us on our sides and enveloped me in his arms. "What we give each other can't be duplicated. You know that," he said, pulling back to look into my eyes, certifying his claim with a kiss.
It felt so good to seem sane, I didn’t try to explain that he gave me energy and pleasure, two commodities no longer available to me without him.
When he left, sleep took me, soundless and still, until the alarm went off. I forced myself out of bed. Out of the bathroom and In the closet, I groped for something to wear. Something black or brown or gray. Soothing, not shrill, like colors.
Five days a week for three years, I'd driven west on North Avenue, never noticing pedestrians. Until this morning. My heart twisted at the sight of a hatted bag lady swaddled in layers of rags lurching down the sidewalk. She was bent over torn worn-thin shopping bags gripped in raw red hands, her foot wavering until her next thrust forward. A gnarled man clothed in washed-lost colors mended with staggered bright stitches shuffled along with a step-on-a-crack-break-your-mother's-back fixity.
The news raged with threatening realities, the Cold War of nations flaunting opposing beliefs no less alarming than those within me. I shut out the external world. I dared not venture into internal points of view without Jess in the flesh sharing the corridor.
I was trapped inside depression. There was no way out. No way out.
I could not let myself think about it.
I took the car into fourth gear in a rush to pass the cars ahead, calculating distances with utter concentration.
I already was crashing in an accident of nature.
* * *
"You're going out tonight," Jess announced in a surprise attack on my home after work.
“No. I can't. I'm too tired, my hair's filthy — I — "
"Come on, once more before the road — I leave for Mexico the end of next week."
"I'm a mess."
"Make-up, a hair brush, a bright something from the closet and, voila!" She pushed me toward the bathroom before I could object, hovering over me, directing applications of eyeliner and blush.
You're getting rich on good deeds, I silently accused her, hating her for dragging me out, for going off to Mexico, for denying me the strength of her sanity, the wizardry of her wit. How would I get through three months without her . . . I brushed my teeth, tormented my hair. She handed me a vermillion dress. Vermillion, shade of fresh blood, like the kind that launched the hysterectomy followed by peritonitis — followed by the messiah of my psychotic break. Chills crawled across my body, fear worming its way through me. My cheeks grew hot, not as bright as the dress, but brighter than the tint of my blush.
I exchanged the offending garment for a brown turtleneck sweater-dress. Madness was nothing like I'd assumed it would be; nor was it now a subject for humor, or for a source of labels to hang on friends.
The border of sanity I faced had become invisible. Jess knew it; she crossed the line every time she lost her mind to panic.
"Ready? The Pump Room awaits us," she declared when I emerged from my room.
I buried my lips under color and followed her.
She was breathing proof that panic could be conquered if not cured, though our hope for that event was devout. Yet in our war against anxiety, Jess seemed more threatened by psychiatry than panic. I was afraid that her mastery of “neurotic hysteria” lay in medical hands. Down deep, beneath the memory of the shrink who had attempted to seduce her, I thought she knew it too. I told her often that she was lucky Stan was a psychiatrist, that the bed was better than no couch at all. Worry about her occupied much of my time. Her panic attacks had lessened once Stan entered her life, but when they hit her now, they seemed more and more vicious.
Stan was now part of her problem. Not long ago, he'd informed her that marriage was impossible. She wasn't the right religion. My heart curled away from the scars of my heartbreak when she'd confided his rejection.
We wondered if Stan would change his mind after being without her for three months.
How could she leave now?
She had to go, for her soul, for her heart.
Unlike Jess, I didn't dare to be on foreign ground alone.
We walked to the corner. "There's one," I cried, stepping from the curb, hailing a taxi.
Jess was more open to certain aspects of life than I was, like traveling alone, like rarely offending people with her offenses. When she did, and if she cared, she'd easily woo them back into her court. How dare she leave for Mexico next week. She knew what it was like not to own her own mind.
"You'll probably cycle out of this phase before I get home," she said.
"You really believe that?"
“You could — your mania took about three months, give or take."
Love came into me, softening, soothing, securing. Saddening. "Oh Jessie, I don't know how you do it, but I feel so much better . . . I . . . "
"I'm going to miss you, too, Pal-o-mine-o, but we'll write, letters are better than phones, and I'll send you my number, you can call anytime." She drew in breath and her words slowed, and became emphatic and intense: "Obletzkrieg, the best is yet to come, you're doing fine, you're having a nasty trip, but you're getting closer to home every day. Understand?" She gripped my shoulder until I nodded.
As the cab slowed for a red light a block from the Pump Room, I grabbed her hand. "I’m so sorry I haven't been much of a friend — we rarely talk about your conflicts. I haven't even asked for the latest on Stan."
"Brain chemical imbalance has a way of consuming attention," she said lightly.
"Consuming, devouring, destroying — mind-numbing — "
"Indeed it is, but we're about to see some sights, meet some people, have a little fun — "
"Amnesia right now would be perfect."
She gently socked my arm; the taxi pulled up to the Ambassador East Hotel.
We circled the bar thronged three deep; the third tour nabbed a table under autographed celebrity photos in nearly touching black frames; to the right and down two steps was the dining room, a white linen contrast to the polished ebony bar and tables.
The round black table reflected a cut-glass ashtray and a small brass candlestick lamp, a picture to paint someday, some way.
"Hors d'oeuvres," Jess declared, standing, leaving no room for argument.
I trailed her through the chatting, laughing, mingling crowd, cursing her every step on the way to the alcove off the bar. I took two squares of pizza, a sizeable stash of cheese, a modicum of vegetables and dip.
As I turned to return to the table, a russet-haired male with two flashing diamond rings and multiple gold chains around his neck and wrists fingered his walrus mustache and said, "What do you do?" He also had a gold-toothed grin.
"I'm writing the bible that will save the world," I answered, projecting humble sincerity.
I repeated myself.
"Isn't that a bit presumptuous?" His raised eyebrow may have meant to ridicule, but it made him looked ridiculous.
"Not at all." I widened my eyes, aiming for innocence. "The messiah is dictating it to me."
"The . . . Messiah?" He seemed torn between the desire to laugh and a need to flee.
"Haven't you heard of him?" I bit into a celery stalk.
"You're putting me on — either that, or you're some kind of nut."
"I don't want to know." He spun away from me.
Behind me came a burst of laughter. Still laughing, Jessie said, "He'll be talking about you for days!"
When we settled back at the table, she wet her lips and grinned. "You shucked him with a masterpiece maneuver."
I was suddenly pleased with myself, all of a sudden feeling cocky. "I'm polling the masses for receptivity to madness. He wasn't receptive, was he?"
"For the most part," she began in her lecturing voice, "the masses aren't ready for madness. Most people can't cope with it."
"Talking about it helps me cope," I said, scorched by the anger suddenly raging through me, fingernails gouging my palms. "And I'd rather know at the outset if madness is acceptable . . . I also enjoyed that exchange."
"Let strangers get to know you before springing your messiah on them. It'll cut losses, not that the mustache was a keeper."
"You mean I could lose Mr. Right — "
"Stitches in time."
"Okay, okay, I've learned my lesson — I won't introduce my messiah to appealing men."
"Madness is a minority problem best dealt with by the minority," she insisted, disapproval softening in her following question: "Do you see what I mean?"
"My messiah was right. People need to be judged on their talents and spirit — not on parentage, privilege, race, religion, or any stereotype as defined by tunnel vision of one sort or another — "
"People fear what they’ve been programmed to think."
"Ignorance is a dirty diaper. Madness gave me that insight, too. Unfortunately, it's obvious that humane thinking isn't universally instinctive — Oh, Jess, I miss that charmed circle I lived in with my messiah, but I, I can't bear not knowing what's next."
"You're seeing a specialist in manic-depression, so you're medically covered, and you've got people who love you on call — "
"You're a few blocks away — "
"You don't really need me — you are on the way out. You are almost home. The worst is over. You just need to wait it out. You're okay — "
"How can mental illness be condemned any more than cancer or black hair?"
"I quite agree, but life doesn't operate that way, the mustache being a perfect example — "
"Not, unfortunately, a member of a vanishing breed, though worthy of a worst-case study. At least I had some fun digging a little humor out of his horror."
When she said my name, her tone was a warning, and a run into laughter.
Journal Entry After the Fall ‘82
NO PIECE OF MIND BRINGS PEACE TO ME
I DROWN FROM UP
NO SWITCH TO SWITCH ON, SWITCH OFF.
D'Angelo's private room was crowded with well-wishers at Jessie's bon voyage party. I felt conspicuous in my lack of gaiety, nursing a white wine over ice, and a growing sense of isolation. An occasional tear blurred my vision again and again.
Jess joined me and slung an arm around my shoulders. "Cheers! It's not every day I leave for Mexico to write for three months."
I forced a smile, raised my glass. "To a great trip," I said, fighting for control. Three months without her loomed in the darkness ahead.
Sunk in feelings of abandonment, I left her and wandered from dining room to bar and back in an aimless search for relief.
I had nothing to say, nothing to offer. And no one approached me. No one. I'd met nearly everyone there over the last few years, yet none even said hello. But then, my eyes were glued to the floor and I couldn't tell who was who by their shoes.
I found an oxblood leather wingchair in a corner of the lounge and collapsed into it, balancing my drink on its carved wooden armrest, a retreat worth gratitude.
I opened my eyes, looked up. Stan Goodman peered at me kindly. "Hi." Relief softened my tone. Other than Jess, he was the only person at the party I could feel comfortable with. "Did I ever thank you for telling Jessie I was nuts?"
"A slightly more critical case of craziness than the rest of us experience," he suggested, his grin lighting the sweetness in his eyes, pulling a smile from me. "I'm sorry you've swung in the opposite direction. Rough territory." He shook his head, his eyes reflecting sympathy behind tortoiseshell glasses.
"'The mountain's higghhh, but the valley's so loowww,'" I sang softly, feeling better when the smile returned to his face. "It's rough out there period. And what's one more disorder? I could get away with murder now!"
"You'd be put away for that!"
"Ah yes, but love's my mode, not hate, a different kind of killer for me."
"Not just you, kid." He pouched his lips, the protruding lower one pushing the upper toward his nose, a wry commentary that reminded me of the way my father would mobilize such a statement of fact.
"I'm lucky lithium works for me . . . " But I couldn't stop my hands from shaking. I couldn't silence the static that lithium raised in my ears. I couldn't rise above despair. I couldn’t stop fear without pills.
"Patricia . . . "
I couldn't shake the alarm that had snared my mood. I looked up at him, then away and sipped my wine.
"How are you really doing?"
His care drove tears back into my eyes. "Don't let me spoil Jessie's party."
"You're not in a bed of roses, but you're thriving like a hot house flower . . . Professionally speaking, you're doing a terrific job of handling a rotten deal." He was emphatic.
My spine stiffened; my tears stopped. "That means a lot coming from you. I better repair to the ladies room, and repair." I stood and kissed his cheek before seeking solitude.
Returning to the party, I was shocked by the raucous sound of intoxication that struck me as I entered the bar. I longed for my bed and finally found Jess in the middle of a group, laughing and gesturing, eyes bright, cheeks flushed.
"I've come to say good-bye," I whispered in her ear.
"It's not even eight o'clock! Get another drink and come talk to Stan." She pushed me toward the bar.
"We talked. Jessie, I've got to go home, I'm exhausted. I can't think straight anymore. Figuratively as well as literally. Have a ball tonight, a good flight tomorrow, and may the muse be with you day and night." I hugged her, wetting her hair in another spate of tears. "I love you, buddy. Write right, and write!"
* * *
I dreaded Tuesday's session with Geltzer and dragged myself to his office ten minutes late.
"Sorry," I said and dropped into the chair furthest from his desk.
"It's your time," he answered in that infuriating monotone. "How have you been?" He reached for a glass snail paperweight and cupped his hand over it.
"The same," I answered in a tone influenced by his.
He unveiled the snail and leaned forward, took a pen from a cup and raised it to the line cut between his mouth and nose, eyeing me with cold scrutiny.
I met his gaze and said, "Heinrich Heine knew: 'The worst poison: to despair of one's own power.'" I so rarely had a chance to quote one of Jessie's favorites, that pleasure filled me for a moment before fleeing.
"So, you're familiar with Heine," he responded, his voice animated at last. He steepled his fingers and drew them to his forehead before saying, "Have you forgotten that your brain is still struggling for balance?"
"I live with it," I snapped. I swallowed. "Jess left. For three months."
"And that upsets you?"
"She's planned this trip for years . . . " I gripped the arms of the chair, resisting the urge to flee. "I'm so alone without her," I whimpered, hating my display of weakness.
"And she is your only friend?" His chair creaked when he leaned back. He wafted the pen like a conductor's wand.
"She's the only one who understands how I feel . . . "
"So. You'll sit home for the next three months and feel sorry for yourself?"
"Work takes all the energy I have and I, I can't be sure what I'll do or say when I'm with others . . . I'm not afraid of myself when I'm with Jess. She's the only one who knows what it's like, don't you understand that?" I was suddenly furious and it felt good: I understood the emotion and its source.
"I've studied and worked with manic-depression for years. Talk to me while your friend is away. Come once a week."
Nausea huddled me over my stomach. "I don't need psychotherapy, just drug monitoring."
"You overestimate yourself." He was a cold fish, a medical examiner without heart, without soul. There was nothing caring in his manner, no warmth. I was a disorder to him, a nonentity, a monthly check.
He placed a box of tissues at the front of his desk. As I used my hands to wipe away my tears, a feeling of calm returned; I inhaled and exhaled slowly, deliberately.
"If you were to see me once — "
"Why?" I blazed. "So you can sit there and dictate the feelings I'm supposed to have? So you can install a lover in my home?"
"You need me," he said, peering over his glasses, dipping his head to do so. Two plump rolls of flesh appeared to embrace his chin.
If he'd shown one iota of compassion . . . "I'll stick to once a month."
His palm swallowed the glass snail paperweight. He cleared his throat as if to sharpen a point. "Fifty minutes a month can't help you." He hefted the snail in his palm as if to weigh his last statement.
"Fifty minutes a week would dig me into a deeper level of this hell." I glared at his meticulous person and restrained my desire to smash his snail.
His hand stopped toying with the paperweight. He returned my gaze, his eyes cold behind his glasses. "You can't know that until you try it. So. When will you start coming weekly?"
"As soon as I get off lithium."
* * *
The lights went out late Sunday afternoon. Nothing electric worked. I grabbed a flashlight and as I started for the basement, the phone rang. Power failure, my downstairs neighbor said. Blackout as far as he could see. He brought a bottle of wine upstairs and we built a bright hot fire. He left around seven.
I remained huddled before dwindling flames in the ever-growing colder living room. Finally I went to bed, unable to read my watch in the pitch of darkness. I had to get up and hunt down every blanket in the house, adding my fur coat to the pile, donning my parka. I crawled back in and shivered beneath them, hugging my knees for warmth.
An urban failure as complete as my own.
Lucky Jess to miss this ice spitting night without heat, without light.
I drowsed, perhaps I slept.
A vicious clamp of nausea aroused me. I was disoriented in the dense blackness of this night without power. I struggled to untangle my limbs from the layers that covered me, staring into shapeless darkness, pricks of colored lights bouncing in front of my eyes. It's so cold, I cried aloud, stumbling, hands outstretched, searching for the bathroom door, the toilet. My hand touched the sink and before I could secure a position, my stomach heaved. Again. Again. And again.
I was on my knees, clutching icy porcelain, freezing and impossibly wretched. I couldn’t believe my stomach still had stuff to lose.
The night would never end. I’d be frozen, still gripping the bowl, curled around its stone-cold base.
Lights blared, the furnace fan kicked in. I could see my watch: it was seven-twenty.
It was over.
Later I learned it had been the coldest night in the history of Chicago.
Eighty below zero wind-chill, a power failure, the stomach flu — one hell of a trinity, I wrote Jess. And I said I knew it was always darkest before it turned to black, but that black had so many shades, and that they kept getting deeper and deeper.
* * *
The void was all surrounding now. Nothing could fill it. I hated being awake –- oblivion was salvation.
I still dreaded that time between lights out and sleep, my heavied limbs sinking in the giving of my mattress, thoughts coming out of the dark, abortions without anesthetic.
There was no place in my mind for comfort, no place for peace. Sometimes turning up the volume of classical music opened a path to unconsciousness, if the composer were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn. Anxiety ceased in the strains of those heart and soul masters conducted by Valium, and of course, lithium.
Valium saved me from sleepless nights, which increased my lack of control, the most awful of all the anxieties that plagued me. Nothing was secure, not even work.
The new copywriter wanted my job. She wrote memos to Don, citing me for imagined wrongs. The intensity of her anger disturbed me. I could feel myself being sucked in, blood twisting through tensing sinews, hot fists gripping my mind. I was the boss, I had to keep control, but in her arrangement I felt helpless. Holding the edge of my desk, I asked her to leave and come back later. That enraged her further, attracting Don's attention. The three of us met in his office now, that worry no longer front line. But I never knew when she would blow, nor was she ever clear on the details of what might set her off. I was not only on guard against myself, I was now on guard at work, the one place in which I'd believed I was safe.
I hated having to keep a "blue book" on her for ninety days, building a case for dismissal to present to Personnel. Luckily, she didn't respond to warnings –- she'd always be a knife at my back.
Her termination took place in Don's office with the head of Personnel, Don and me. It was a shocking severance. I couldn't believe the violence that shook her voice, vicious words at a decibel rarely heard indoors, certainly not at corporate headquarters.
There was freedom at work again, there was security. I'd waged war and won.
I wrote Jess a thousand letters detailing the anxiety I felt over being under fire, and in the writing, I found relief, enabling me to win. Jess was an enabler of the most positive kind, even in absence. When I wrote her, I almost could hear her responses, finding humor, sharing horror, encouraging and supportive. I sent few of the letters I wrote her; her replies of course came way after the facts. It was the act of writing her that helped me, releasing information to a comrade at arms now beyond arm’s length.
I wrote to Jess instead of in my journal, my subjects dominated by the lives of my parents; some paragraphs reached her. Cancer didn't show up in their last CAT scans.
With my luck, I'd live to a hundred. I didn't share that idea even with Jess.
* * *
February was pushing its limits. Below zero temperatures were expected to continue. Frozen air seared lungs; it frosted glasses and windshields. Car locks froze and fingers numbed trying to defrost them.
Every time the battery rolled over and ignition caught, choked, steadied, relief uncoiled my muscles. I wouldn't be alone that day.
About a mile from shore, past the Crib, and as far out as the eye could see, Lake Michigan wore a rough coat of ice that peaked toward the beach as if half-formed waves, frozen solid, waited for spring to finish their roll.
March was a distant mirage. Jess would never return. I missed her more than I'd believed possible.
Death drew me closer. I stared into its face with longing. Pills were the best way out. I called my internist, but he wouldn't prescribe anything stronger than Valium. I didn't really plan to die — I couldn't kill my parents' child, as Jess so often reminded me, her words a revolving order in memory. But a cache of sleeping pills would give me a semblance of control over life.
Jessie's spirit penetrated my cell with postcards, momentary pardons. But without her presence to weigh imbalance, I teetered in the shallows of superficialities, clinging to prime time TV, Jake, and Susan at work.
My parents continued to call three times a week or more, a support system devised by disorder.
Conversations with Michael and Cindy also had increased. And the weekly contact with Maggie added another thread of sustainment.
It was easier to project a happier existence under the protection of long distance. And the interaction helped, it made me feel less cut off from life outside my mind.
For the first time in my life, I felt more secure in the surrounds of my profession than within the walls of my persona.
I was grateful that my boss Don was a man of compassion who also had a terrific sense of humor. I sorely had missed his humor last fall during my first two weeks on the job after my stay in Florida. He’d been cool, aloof, and distanced by more than his desk when he'd called me into his office my first day back at work. He’d closed the door behind me and said he'd had to “go to bat” for me to put me on disability insurance, that management had been skeptical because I'd gone to Florida.
After thanking him, I said, "What a shame they think I should have spent the worst time in my life in a hospital, as if my parents and the psychiatrist have no credibility." I tried not to let him see how upset I was and, as I lit a cigarette, he said he hoped I was fine now. I assured him I was, and we tackled business matters, his manner impersonal, and unfriendly, I thought.
I was grateful when his manner warmed fourteen days later. My work must have reassured him that, no matter what had been wrong, I was still reliable, my work still acceptable. When he started teasing me in his old familiar, comfortable way again, another bolt slipped home in the construction of my stability.
However, even now I still handed my copy to Susan before giving it to Don. I had to make sure that my mental condition hadn't flawed my professional skills. Meeting Susan had been another lucky break.
Luck. Maybe the good luck still outweighed the bad.
I thought often about Anne Frank. How could I even think I was having a hard time? But she'd had hope of escape, hadn't she? Hadn't she?
Journal Too Late
No way out. No way out.
I cannot kill my parents' child.
No way out.
No way out.
Roiling black thunderheads and slashing rain rode the late-March night that Jess came home. On the way to the airport, my hands clenched the steering wheel white-knuckled and cold, contrast to the hot racing beat of my heart. Tail lights hovered ahead, twin red blurs, distance flattened by the downpour. High winds drove the car into wrong lanes — I couldn't even control my car.
Thick blurred ropes of water piled on the windshield, merely thinned by the swipe of wipers. I was drowning in a black hole not of my mind's making.
But Jess would be at its end.
One breath; two, then three, each deeper than the last. As air entered my lungs, filling their inward sucking collapse, ending suffocation, the core of me stopped reeling.
The rain was blinding. The wind-socked car lurched over the line, Ohmygod, thank heavens, no oncoming car. That call was too close, it was one of the worst roller coasters I ever had to ride, but one of the shortest. The winds were terrifying.
My mind flashed on an image of Jessie's plane rubbing the runway, being thrown back into the air, a skyrider never to grip tarmac, my car then lifted by the blow, rising to meet the plane.
My lungs felt like leaden weights were closing them down, snuffing air.
The sign to O'Hare wavered under water.
At last I parked, shaking, mouth dry. I locked the car before battling the weather to cross the bus lane and reach the baggage area. Storm-battered sensations ceased in the too-bright shelter. Fragmented dialogue filled my ears, bodies circling, pressing, reminding me of my mission.
Jessie's flight would land in ten minutes, I read on the board. I found the ladies room, and composure.
Suddenly she appeared in the crowd riding the down escalator, satchel in hand, carry-on slung over a shoulder. She waved excitedly, a smile shining her sun-stroked face.
Confusion massed amid directionless people in search of family, friends, luggage, making me dizzy. I bent over and faced my knees until I felt solid again.
Jess and I merged paths, hugged and chorused "hello"; conversation was impossible. On the way to the car, I looked her over, thrilled by the sight of her at my side. Two plus inches of unpermed hair swept into a curling bun at the top of her head; she reminded me again of the Ivory Soap baby. She looked wonderful. She was home.
I felt better than I had since she left three months ago. Three months. "Jessie, are you glad you were there that long? Were you really comfortable down there? Did you fall in love? Your communiques told me nothing!"
"I'd've spent all my time writing you . . . I loved it, and I love the fact I'm home — it's so good to see you!"
She got her luggage and as we headed into the storm to get the car I said, "You've no idea how much I've missed you. But I want details, Jess, details of the highlights at least, as soon as we’re on the road!"
Back on the expressway the tires swooshed, hydroplaning the rain-streaming road, but I was no longer on the verge of the panic that had made the ride to O’Hare so awful.
Jess said, "I walked early in the morning and late in the afternoon, in between which I wrote, then swam, then wrote again like a maniac! And I ate! Seven extra pounds worth!"
"You'll take 'em off. You look wonderful. What about romance?"
"One man. He was some sort of mercenary from what I could gather — he skated on his charm, sensuality and rapier wit, talking about everything but his mission." Her sigh sounded satiated. “I never wanted to bring him home, but there is something to that claim about romance and foreign lands." She sighed again and clicked open her purse, withdrew cigarettes, shook one out and said, "I was comfortable down there; language wasn't a barrier, and my room was wonderful, as were the sights, the sounds, the people." She punctuated her intensity with the flick of her lighter and flamed the end of her cigarette, releasing more words in a puff of smoke: "The poverty is grotesque. I was wealthy by comparison; there is no middle class. And the Americans there may have left home, but they never left the decade of their departure. Hair styles, clothes and clichés from the fifties, sixties and seventies prevailed." She crushed the cigarette in the ashtray and turned to me. "It's great to be back, buddy! How have you been? How's Geltzer been treating you? And Jake?"
"You do the talking, I'm negotiating with the rain god to let us get home in one piece!"
She laughed and I laughed with her, absorbed by her energy and untold adventures.
"I've finished a short story," she said as we neared her street. "I might send it to the New Yorker. And I've begun a play! It's plotted, the characters are defined. I've roughed out the first act and a half. I like the medium — the mechanics intrigue me."
"What's it about?"
"Revolution, poverty, betrayal."
“No romance or comedy in those subjects” burst out of my mouth before I could stop it. I parked, we grabbed luggage and entered her Old Town coach house. "But powerful," I said, dispelling the unease, dispelling the chilled bumps on my arms.
"It's what’s there and I can't seem to write about anything else. I have to write it; I may be able to live with it then."
"Yes. Turn it into art, which we free spirits do." My spirit wasn’t free. Nor was my heart. These were facts that needed to change.
"It's so good to see you," Jess said warmly.
I thought about a fireside chat at my home.
"How about pizza by your fire tonight?"
"Why Jessie! You've added mind reading to your credits!"
We left our dripping coats to dry on the landing outside my door. The logs flaming, the pizza ordered, we relaxed in the living room over wine.
"Your turn," she said, grinning. "Start with Geltzer."
"I'll be living with a lover before summer."
"He's still digging that old ditch?" she cried, her disbelief derisive.
"He’s such a good shrink that he doesn't even understand that a lover hasn't been a goal since before you left — "
“You're feeling better!"
"Even I can't stand me."
"You're worth standing. You'll be out of this soon. How's Jake?"
"When I'm with him, I'm high and happy on passion, nature's antidepressant."
"What about you and lithium?"
"I'm taking it. But if I ever climb out of this, I'm going off it. Don't get excited. I won't stop it without medical supervision — I can't, just can't, lose my mind again." I shivered. "But I have to get off lithium. I have to know if I can function without it . . . before, or if ever, I can trust myself again. Lithium's a life sentence, so Beige-on-Beige has decreed," I announced, gulping my wine. "He offers no hope that I can ever go off it . . . No hope whatsoever." My voice shook almost as much as my hand when I set down my glass of wine. I brushed back my hair before I looked at her, awaiting her response.
“Don’t worry about that. There are ways around him.”
“Thank you for opening the door to that trap. And now that my life is textbook, let’s hear from you.”
“Obletzkrieg, I expected you to be in a lot worse shape, but you look good, your sense of humor's intact — "
"Artifice and you bring out the best in me. But neither gets me out of prison. Are you sure I won’t need lithium the rest of my life?"
"As I said, that isn’t an absolute. Besides, you're on thyroid medication for life."
"Apples and pineapples," I snapped. "I've no more emotional investment in my body than I do in my car — unless of course we're talking peritonitis versus bent fender. My mind always saved me from pain — I’ve got nothing without my own mind."
"You'll get it back. It's almost yours again now."
"It'll never be mine as long as it needs pills to function."
She lit another cigarette. "Stan will give us the name of a doctor who agrees with us."
Journal Spring 1982
THE HOLE OF NOTHING GROWS.
I DON'T SLIDE, IT ABSORBS.
DEATH CRIES: COME.
NOTHING IS EVERYTHING.
Dr. Marvin Simon towered above me when we met. Rimless glasses, whitening hair and a squared goatee that almost touched his portly torso added to his embodiment of the classic portrait of a psychiatrist. His voice was warm, his manner friendly. His intense blue eyes stared into mine.
"You look scared," he said gently.
His consolation sent tears to my eyes.
"Why don't we sit down and talk about it."
I took the chair beside his desk, gripping my purse on my lap. I waited, not daring to think, pushing hope aside.
"Let's review the past before we tackle the present, okay?" His smile parted his mustache and goatee.
I finished reciting my recent past and felt amazingly comforted. Unlike lithium jockey Geltzer, this doctor’s intent listening, and his gentle murmurings of wordless encouragement when I faltered made it easy to continue.
"You have had a time of it." This response released more tears; I took the proffered tissue and he said, "I'm sure you have questions. Ask away." He lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair, his gaze earnest through his glasses.
"Will you take me off lithium?" I held my breath.
"When you're stabilized, yes. Absolutely. We can't determine the extent of psychic damage unless you do go off the lithium."
"Thank you! I cannot tell you how relieved I am to hear that." My purse fell to the floor. I leaned over to retrieve it before meeting his eyes again. "How long does stabilization take?"
"About a year — let's see," he checked his notes then looked at me. "By August or September, give or take a few weeks, we can start withdrawing you from lithium."
His smile was reassuring. "It takes that long for the brain to recover from severely imbalanced chemicals. And I’m sorry, but there isn't anything I know of that can speed the process.” When he saw my reaction to that statement, he said, “August isn't that far away."
"Yes. It is."
"Your brain needs time to heal — you wouldn't expect a broken bone to mend right away."
"How old are you?" I blushed.
"Thirty-six — this fools them every time," he said, pointing to his hair. "I learned about lithium in school, if that's what you're getting at."
"Yes, well, Dr. Richard warned me that doctors over the age of forty missed the course. And in August or September, give or take, you'll take me off?"
"Definitely. We have to find out if your brain can work without it."
I looked at him and smiled. "You're my doc, then. You will take me on?" I loved his use of the word “we.” Unlike the editorial we or the we nurses use, he made me feel like a partner in action to combat mania and depression.
He continued to look at me intently for another moment, then said, "Only on one condition." My breath caught on jagged fear. "I treat patients only on a once-a-week basis."
"I wish I could see you daily," I declared fervently.
Our next session was less formal. We moved out of the office area to a couch separated from a pair of Eames chairs by a coffee table. I chose the couch, he pulled a chair close. There was peace in the room, a strong, easy quiet.
"Why don't you call me Marv," he said warmly. When I nodded, he smiled. "How much do you know about manic-depression?"
His low-key tone and caring interest made me feel safe. "Everything and nothing. I've listened to two psychiatrists expound on it, I've read Merck's version, and I do have some first-hand experience with the phenomenon — But Marv . . ." The use of his first name stopped me, but just as I realized that I liked it, I was sucked into despair. It seemed forever before the rest of my thought arrived: "I snap at people who don't deserve it — I feel anger and fear all the time. I'm divided against myself. This isn’t me." I hid more tears behind a bunch of tissues.
"The rule of thumb with this kind of disorder is that there are no rules. Try not to let the moods throw you. Accept that this state of mind is temporary." He put his elbows on his knees and hid his beard in his hands. "Believe me, it won't last forever. It's a process, like any other. The more stabilized your brain chemicals, the better you'll feel."
"What do I do in the meantime? Stand on my head?" My eyes found his.
"Try not to be so frightened," he urged in a gentling tone. "If you can accept the fear as temporary, life won't be so tough on you. And Patricia?" His smile was encouraging. "The shifts in your mood are a physical function of disorder, not symptoms of madness."
"Are you sure?" Self-doubt dominated my confidence in him.
"Do you think I don't know my field?" His teasing was kind.
"I didn't mean . . . " I grabbed another handful of tissues and mopped my eyes. My father always tells me not to take him so literally — how many boxes of this stuff do you go through a week?" I tried to smile.
"In a good week, three to five." He closed his hands over his paunch and slouched in the chair. "Feel better now?"
"I think so."
"Give it time. We've only just begun." His hands dropped to his knees. "Can you describe the fear?"
I didn't know where to begin, how to begin. I twisted my bracelet around and around. "There's no end to one wave before another begins. It’s physical. Everything inside me hurts and weighs a ton." I studied his face for a signal, any sign.
What I witnessed was interest. "I'm afraid that the ‘messiah’ will come back; I'm afraid of my mind — I don't trust my thoughts, my actions, or my interactions at work or with neighbors. I can't. And I’m afraid of lithium."
"That's a pretty big burden you're carrying." His sympathy shed more of my tears. "What do you fear about it?"
"It makes my hands shake, it makes my ears buzz with the sound of mosquitoes. In the summer, I can't tell the biters from the buzzers — I spend half the night swatting air." I swallowed. "It didn't prevent depression." Futility weakened my tone.
"It may not be perfect, but let's take a look at what lithium has done for you," he said. "It brought you back from psychosis, and it will prevent another episode. Try to remember that you’re safe from psychosis as long as you take the medication. And, although it’s difficult for you to judge at this juncture, lithium does lessen the impact of mood swings." He paused and pulled his goatee, stroking it before continuing. "Time, talk and lithium are the key regulators for a trauma such as you've suffered, Patricia. And I'm afraid there are no short cuts, no overnight remedies yet available. But if you can accept this, then you'll be well on your way to recovery."
"Guess there's nothing for it but to get the gun."
"A rather dramatic and final solution," he commented wryly. "Have you been flirting with suicide?"
"Sometimes it's the carrot that keeps me going — but I won't do it. Really! I couldn't. I couldn't hurt my parents that way. They nursed me through psychosis, not to mention childhood and adolescence. I love my parents too much."
"Love keeps you alive. A noble notion." He rested his arm on his leg and opened his hand as if to take mine.
“Death threatens my father and my mother through cancer.”
“I am very sorry to hear that. How are they now?”
“My father’s lymphoma remains in remission. My mother’s still not up to speed since her congestive heart failure due to the chemotherapy after her mastectomy.”
"So both of your parents are out of danger now,” he said. When I nodded, he said, “Love was your motivating force through psychosis, wasn't it?"
“Yes, but I can't feel love anymore. I can barely remember what it's like. Sometimes I'm so numbed by hopelessness that I could kill for sleeping pills."
"Under the circumstances, your feelings are perfectly normal."
My bitter laugh rapped the silence between us. "Jess says that."
"Speaking of Jess," Dr. Simon said, "why did she make your appointment instead of you?"
"Why not? It was her friend who recommended you."
"But it should have been your call, not hers, no matter who had my number."
"I'm here. Besides, what's so important about who makes the call?"
"It's important that the person who needs therapy make the call. It shows recognition of the need for help, and the desire to get it. Is Jess in the habit of making decisions for you?"
"Do you see her here?" I sniped, suddenly unsure of him.
"The fact she called is highly unusual. Does she make decisions for you?"
"No! Yes . . . Sometimes she does, ever since — switching doctors was her idea. She's a better stabilizer than any drug I've known since this whole thing started. And she understands me better than I do."
"Don't misinterpret me, Patricia," he said hastily, holding up his hand. "I'm not knocking your relationship with Jess, I'm trying to understand it. You two seem bonded more closely than most. I'm glad she's there for you, okay?"
"Okay. How will talking to you help me?"
"By discussing your fears and your mood shifts, we can examine them from a clinical point of view, which will help you gain perspective and insight, equipping you to deal with them better," he explained with care.
"Talking about them with Jess does help."
"Yes, I'm sure it does. Keep talking to her. And talk to me . . . Can you accept your fears?"
"What's to accept? I'm scared out of my mind and not by choice." I laughed and the sound was brittle. "I've been out of my mind so long, maybe I'm afraid to get back in it."
"Now we're getting somewhere," he exclaimed and smiled. "And, oh no. Time's up. We'll start at this point next time. Have a good week."
Outside, I raised my face to the sun. It felt good. I left my coat unbuttoned and the winds slipped inside and chilled me. I reclaimed my car and headed for work, resting more easily in my mind, taking pleasure from the lake-fronted urban present.
Journal February 18, 1982
This hell distanced by medication may in fact actually might really end. I will get off lithium and find out who I am, what I have become.
Will fear of relapse still ride me? I cannot endure another crash back into reality. “That is the question. That is the rub.”
I wasn't free, but I was better.
Bright colors and attractive people ranged into my view. Laughter came more easily to me. Some days the sight of leafing branches against May-blue sky made me ache with virgin passion, a sweet feathering surge of creative need.
Oil paint colors streamed through my mind.
Desire to let loose on canvas grew.
I left work at five today and hurried home to the steeplechase painting I finished my first night home alone after three months in Florida with my parents.
For the first time since the onset of winter and my fall into depression, I opened my forest-green living room curtains. The light hurt eyes accustomed to shadows.
I stood in front of the fireplace. The more I looked at the horses flying across a steeplechase track, the more uneasy I became. And chilled.
Despite the power of the brilliant white horse catching up to the leader, despite the strong rich color, something vital was wrong.
Fear mushroomed and blinded me.
I choked on a pocket of air.
I went to the kitchen and poured a glass of wine, lingering to open the back door. A robin flew a twig to its nest.
In the dining room. I went to my purse on the table, took a cigarette, lit it. I exhaled until the smoke thinned and then disappeared before I opened the mail. Nothing required immediate response. I took my glass of wine to the living room and sat in the channel-back chair opposite the hearth. And I allowed myself to examine the painting that had taken three Memorial Day Weekends and one manic night to finish.
Its energy appeased my anxiety.
I stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray.
The jockey aboard the white horse. He was slumping over the neck of his mount.
His face was the mask of death.
That jockey was me.
My eyes burned.
Awareness that the room was in twilight seeped into my mind.
I went to bed.
* * *
"I don't want to get together tonight, Jake. Believe me." I wanted to crawl into bed, but not with him.
"I leave for Eagle River the day after tomorrow," he said. "You'll miss me more if you say no to tonight."
"I'm having a rotten day and tomorrow doesn't look any better. I'll see you when you come back. Have fun."
He didn't argue and we said goodbye. It was only one o’clock. The day would never end.
I managed angry fear by sticking to the typewriter at work, by drowning in TV at night.
After sessions with Dr. Simon, I'd turn on myself for letting fear dictate. But the jockey was an intolerable sore that probing flayed.
One morning I snapped at a comment Marv made about the sudden cold spell.
"What's going on, Patricia? The temper is unlike you."
"What do you know? You see only the me I show you."
"Do you want to fight, or work on what's bothering you?" He lit a cigarette and slung his arms over the back of the chair, uncrossing his legs.
I took my purse from the cushion beside me, ready to stand. Something in his eyes stayed me. From the edge of the cushion, I heard myself tell him about the jockey.
Marv bent toward me and the leaning ash on his cigarette fell into the ashtray on the coffee table. "You can fix that jockey, Patricia."
"I actually thought something good had come from mania — will I never learn that nothing will ever be good again?" My words carried the sting of failure.
"It sounds like you already believe that." He put the cigarette out and eyed me. "What do you think?"
"Falling back on the classic question, Marv?"
"Is that how you wish to answer it?"
I burst into tears.
"It's okay to cry, Patricia." The calm warmth of his voice made me sob harder. Gradually pain lessened and my tears subsided. "Thank you." I manufactured a grin.
"You've let the swing into depression throw you. Feel good about yourself for completing the painting. You gave it three 'normal' years and failed. The fact the jockey isn't right is a minor setback, not reason to give up hope."
"I can't forgive myself for thinking the painting was good."
"You can't forgive an error in judgment under the influence of brain chemical imbalance? Come on now, Patricia. Be fair. I think you'd allow anyone else that right, wouldn't you?"
"I didn't see it that way."
"Of course not. You're in the quicksand of mental trauma where no other point of view exists. That's where I come in — how do you feel right now?"
"Better. But not good. Not like I did before I looked at that painting."
"You're forgetting to give the mood-shift time. Remember: time, talk and lithium. You'll start to swing up soon. And no, I can't say when!"
"I'm going to fix that jockey."
* * *
Memorial Day Weekend arrived. I set out for Milwaukee in my car around eleven-thirty in the morning.
Coming into the great curve passing the amusement park, the trees fell away.
The road fell away.
Suddenly I was free-floating in the sky, rising, rising, towed ever upward by an unseen force leading into blind terror, going higher, higher, without wings, the fallback greater, greater.
Panic seized thought within the hollow blue sky's engulfment.
I could do nothing to stop this rise into reaches beyond my control.
I fought for air. I tried to stop the whirling, sickening rush into uncharted regions — seconds, minutes, I couldn't tell.
Realization I was driving the car crystallized fear, it triggered sharp alarm.
Thunder roared in my ears. Every time the fact I was driving at sixty miles an hour flashed into my mind I’d flinch, thoughts of an oncoming crash spinning me in and out of the abyss.
A humming sounded, growing louder, louder.
It was the sound of radials on the road.
I wept in relief at the sight of endless green fields meeting sun-bright sky, the black snout of my car forging ahead on the expressway, responding to my command.
I pulled onto the edge of the road and collapsed over the steering wheel.
I could have crashed.
Nothing like that had ever happened before. And it had happened without warning. I lit a cigarette, got out of the car, leaned on its door; as I breathed in the country air, I was glad to be alive.
I took air in deeply, letting it out slowly. In. Out. In.
The whoosh of cars passing felt threatening. I felt too exposed. Filled by frightening visions, I got back in the car and headed to Milwaukee, barely going thirty-five, ready to swing off the road at the first sign of panic. I was still shaking upon reaching my brother's home.
After the flurry of greetings, Cindy pulled me aside and whispered, "What’s wrong?"
I told her. She handed me a banana. "Sugar imbalance can cause that."
Michael, Cindy, Jacob and Eta, pillars of love propping me up. Peace came with them.
Three days later I headed home. I stopped for gas I didn't need.
The expressway waited two blocks down the street. The day was overcast, damp and chilling. Apprehension ran through me. The drive up had been crippling.
But the sun wasn't shining, and the varicolored clouds banking in waves above the horizon filled the unbroken endless sky-space that had sucked my attention and so terrified me on the drive up. Conditions for a good trip were favorable.
I paid for the gas and started the engine. In less than two hours, I'd be home.
The expressway was jammed. I felt protected in the close moving, slow-moving herd in the right lane.
Nearing the halfway point, apprehension lessened. Cigarette lit, I turned up the radio and loosened my hold on the steering wheel.
Colors slashed across the windshield space-movie-fast. I seemed to be hurling through space; I ducked and dodged vivid flashings. I was dazzled by the display beaming into my eyes, so bright, so glaring, even behind eyelids clenched shut.
But I was driving! I forced my eyes open.
Anxiety hit, sucking air, blinding sight.
Cars rushed by, demanding concentration.
Anxiety jolted again.
Ohmygod. Again I was driven by a power beyond me.
Again an external force ruled me, racing me through a tunnel that low clouds and mist had formed about the expressway, like the tunnel my mind had become.
I was paralyzed by the mad parade, by its blazing raid.
Recognition of delusion hovered, deflecting me from the shoals, even as I understood that the power driving me now was death, not hope.
Still, colors snared sight.
The Lake Forest Oasis showed through on the right, its walkway marching across the highway, gaining ground against the undulating distortion drawn by my mind.
I spun the wheel and suddenly I was speeding in front of the hood of an oncoming car, holding my breath until reaching the ramp, following white lines to a parking place.
Once safe, nausea hit me, along with dizziness, sunspots and shuddering spasms in my stomach, heart and head. Retching gasps fed air to my lungs.
I got the door open and leaned out, heaving in the blast of chilled air. When there was nothing left to lose, I got out and locked the car.
In the ladies’ room I rinsed my mouth and looked myself in the eye in the mirror. I never saw that look before, portrait of terror. Cornered in a booth, I drank tea for an hour, analyzing the ride. The “messiah” had been no more real than the colors, yet I hadn't known he was a figment of psychosis.
I never saw him.
What did it mean that the colors had been visible?
What did it mean that I knew it was a hallucination even while it was happening? But I couldn’t be psychotic. I wasn't psychotic.
Had expressway panic occurred last summer, perhaps I would have felt joy, not fear. Perhaps I'd be dead, not huddled over tea.
Panic had attended the messiah, but I hadn't had a label for it then. The illusion of delusion had been reality then. Yet I'd been conscious of mental trouble back there on the road, and there had been nothing I could do to stop it.
How much did awareness count? Could disorder be yielding to time, talk and lithium?
I couldn't wait for Marv's response to this latest offspring of imbalance.
By the second pot of tea, my pulse slowed and terror faded into a softer dimension of memory.
I was torn between returning to Milwaukee and going home.
I let that question simmer while I worked on regaining equilibrium, focusing on the positives of having been with my brother and his family.
Thirty minutes passed slowly. I was bored, ergo I was ready.
I was steady on my feet, and in my mind.
In the car, I gripped the steering wheel as if it were the reins of a wild horse and I re-entered the streaming line of traffic. Keeping below the speed limit and edging the emergency lane, I fought intermittent slashing colors, repulsing the more devastating forms of panic.
The journey took another hour. The phone was ringing when I walked in the door. My brother had begun calling ninety minutes ago, worried about my ride home, he said. Had I not answered this call, he'd have come looking for me. The last of fear drained from me when he said that.
Marv said the slashing colors were thoughts moving too fast to decipher. As in the speed of light? I asked, suddenly delighted by something I had to say.
"Congratulations," he said warmly.
I felt as though I'd just come through a final exam — with flying colors I dare say.
Hatred for disorder surged when expressway panic emerged as a full-blown phobia whether someone was in the car with me or not.
Disorder had distorted reality, it had commandeered self-trust. Now it wanted literal right of way, too.
Two or three times a week after work, I aimed my car at the expressway, hoping to conquer fear. Rage grew with every failure. I refused to stop trying.
Journal June 10, 1982
Fear of driving is easier to bare.
The last days of June were humid and still. In less than three months, I'd be lithium free.
The frequency and intensity of my mood swings grew fewer and further apart.
My hands shook with less and less perceptibility.
The buzz that assaulted my ears quieted, a soft dull drone, an impression.
The impact of literally having lost my mind was lessening. I began to write in my journal about it again and when the pages ran out, I retrieved my typewriter and set it on the dining room table, facing my forest green living room this time, not the dining room windows that had greeted me at dawn when I was writing “Breaking Through to Happiness.” I gave myself three hours and set the alarm, free to return to the typewriter. It felt wonderful to be writing to sell help rather than fashion and beauty products.
I couldn't write about my drift into depression. The thought of how that pain had hurt me drove me back into the tight, muddied tunnel of hopelessness that I’d crawled through to get to feeling more like myself. I couldn’t return to that sewer, that hell. I escaped my growing claustrophobia by calling Susan, turning my back on the typewriter, leaning against the doorframe entrance to my kitchen and, while we talked, focusing on the greenery and brick patio in the yard below.
Every night I spent alone, I edited and added to my story of mania. When I read what my heart and spirit had written in a stream of my consciousness, I noticed that my descriptions became more detailed, fleshing the outline of my previous version. I tried now and again, after seeing Jess or Jake, to unload the months of my suicidal desire. But when I forced myself to describe a difficult situation, despair engulfed me, until I returned to what I’d written about mania, called someone, read a book, watched TV, slept.
Every time I reworked my story, finding better words of expression, the joy of creation rose high again within me. If insanity could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. I really should write a book about it and save others from my fate. People survived physical trials more easily when their spirits were free, I knew that from personal experience. Painting and writing stories about my loves took away from my body’s torment, and my heart’s, but I hadn’t been able to paint since 1978 — I no longer could count that one manic night late in the fall of ‘81. But now I was painting again, with words this time, words that would save people from a fate worse than death.
Forewarned was forearmed, Jess said. She reiterated her offer to edit my “important story.” We knew I was too close to the subject for objectivity, and also that I needed an education in English grammar, not to mention one on how to “make readers care about” me. “You have to tell them what you think, what you feel, what you do for a living, the fact you're single. You’ll have a good beginning once you make them care about what happens to you; then they’ll be open to learning what you’ve learned about madness," she'd always add.
She had high standards and she was hard on herself, hard on others, but fair. Someday she'd say, "You've done it, it's good." I just wished that day would come soon. Her relationship with Stan was difficult, growing more so. Weeks would elapse when she'd refuse to see him, hoping that this time he'd propose marriage. Her three months in Mexico hadn't changed his mind about that. Nor would she consider the couch. Now and again, I'd suggest psychotherapy, usually after one of her panic attacks. The very idea made her visibly anxious. We'd talk then about writing.
Monet knew the joy of nuances, and I would gather nuances each time I retold my tale of madness. And when I fell in love with a revision, I showed it to Jessie.
"You're getting there," she'd say. And she'd point out what she liked and didn't like, and she told me why, her responses to my acts of creation following in my mother’s footsteps. But writing wasn’t like painting. Until Jessie started tutoring me, my sentences often were run-ons, I spelled a lot “alot,” and committed a host of other sins. I attributed my sentence fragments and run-ons to fashioning ad copy. Jess attributed my failures to the gothic mysteries and espionage books that I consumed. She often told me to read F. Scot Fitzgerald, Rebecca West, Colette, but their fertile prose somehow seeped inside me and their rhythms became mine, throwing me off track. I said I’d read them when I finished my book.
Every time Jess read the scene about the time I’d showed up at her place at the crack of dawn, believing that I’d written a bestseller, she'd rehash her impression that I'd been smoking pot. She never said anything about my depictions of her and others we knew.
"Add more details," she insisted. "Birthplace, career, the color of your hair and eyes. And describe feelings and reactions as well as actions."
There was so much I didn't know about the fine art of writing, and Jess was an unparalleled teacher: illuminating, demanding, inspiring. After our sessions, passion drove me back to the typewriter and chapter one.
I felt alive only when passion centered me. Passion carried me only when I worked on my book, or when I was with Jake.
When I mentioned my book to my sister, Maggie, she'd say: "Why would anyone want to read a book about you?"
"It isn’t about me, it’s about mania and depression. If I'd known the symptoms, I wouldn’t have lost my mind."
"But it's about you," Maggie would repeat. "Write about something else. Make up a story. Then someone might want to read it."
Luckily, everyone else encouraged my book. They said my writing was improving. Jess also demanded that I read Hemingway. But I couldn't. I read to escape reality.
Maggie kept putting down the only thing about myself that I could like, my book the only thing I could talk about with her without tears. Our conversations shortened. I wasn't strong enough to tolerate her rejection. It implanted doubt, accessory to anxiety.
I stopped calling Maggie, and she didn't call me.
* * *
Writing my story helped me. Writing it made order of disorder; it let me taste self-control; it softened the shock of living with the knowledge that I’d lost my mind. It gave my hell a positive spin, it gave me meaningful work and purpose.
The joy, the intensity and the conviction of mania were gone and I missed them. Writing to help others avoid my mistakes sated my passion. Otherwise, I needed Jake.
I tried to write about my cycle of depression again. Panicky feelings choked me. I kept trying, but I was having as much success with this as I was having in overcoming expressway panic.
Anxiety tracked time, at times with a fierce strength. I really was very lucky to have enough people in my life to catch at least one of them on the phone whenever I stepped into another minefield.
Last night anxiety attacked again. Too much. Next time I literally would have a heart attack. As soon as I got to work, I called Dr. Simon. Luck was with me again — instead of getting his machine, I got him. "It's happening too fast. I'm up, I'm down. I've lost control. What do I do?"
"Help yourself and just stop writing," he said calmly. "It stirs up your thoughts too much. It sets you off balance."
The thought of not writing anymore was hurtful, but I had no choice. I mourned this loss of love and then realized that I’d stopped the craziness without having to increase the lithium. My reward was a gain in self-respect, if not self-trust.
After hearing of Marv’s edict to stop writing, Jess read the latest version of my manuscript. She said, "When you can come back to it, you've got to think about every word choice; you have to consider whether adjectives add to or take away from what you want to say. And stop worrying because you can't write right now. You need distance to tell this story properly and you're still new to manic-depression."
"New! Almost a year, thank you."
"It took Eugene O'Neill fifty years to write Long Day's Journey Into the Night."
"You mean I can't write my journey through psychosis till I'm ninety?"
At home that night, I pulled out the manuscript and inked block letters on the first page: Journey Through Psychosis. I put the pages in a box and stored it under the bed.
Days moved swiftly now. Withdrawal from lithium would start in September. The process would take ten weeks. Each drop required two weeks for evaluation. Impatience was a burr in every thought, but I gladly would pay any price to own my own mind again.
Marv listed the steps of approaching disorder. Increased agitation and overreaction made sense, though agitation was easier to discover. The fact he claimed that happiness was more suspect than any other reaction seemed hilarious. I did laugh the first time he told me that. But then I remembered that Dr. Richard had listed happiness as the most insidious quality of mania. Anger edged my words as I said, "So joy becomes a persecution I've got to prosecute — should joy ever come my way again and I've the objectivity to recognize, not to mention remember, that happiness has become a suspicious character in my book."
Marv agreed that objectivity was not my strong suit. He also promised me that objectivity would come in time. This statement sounded reasonable to me, which reassured me.
The week before Labor Day, Marv told me to drop five lithium to four. I was on my way back to myself. It didn't matter that I felt stable. I wouldn't believe it until I was operating without lithium. Only then would I dare to believe that I was free. Only then could I know that my mind was mine again.
The horror of this past year slid further off my back, a cape of black satin lined in blood red, the kind the supernaturals of the underworld wore. Oh yes, I thought, hugging myself. Journey would not only help people, it was a good story. Not many ride with a god who becomes a holy hell.
Excited and tempted as I was to write, I waited, fighting impatience on the way to zero lithium. I wanted this work to be all mine, no credit to, no hindrance from, lithium.
I'd only four more weeks to wade through before my rendezvous with Journey. Oh why wasn't I born with patience.
* * *
Jess and I sat down on the tufted black leather banquettes in the wine bar at La Bastille.
Finally settled, she said, "What bee stung you?"
"Tomorrow I drop another lithium. Just two pills between me and a messiah."
"You've had no problem on three and chances are that you’ll feel even better than you do now!"
"I love optimism."
"You used to call it positivity."
"If I start uttering that word again, throw me in a padded cell!"
"You've been paying attention to your mood changes, haven't you?" Her words thrummed with nervous energy.
"So far this cucumber ain't in a pickle!"
"Do you trust Marv?"
"His phone number's tattooed to my wrist!"
"How would you feel if I went to him for therapy?" Her voice quivered with anxious question.
"You'd be out of your mind if you didn't!"
"Maybe I'll give him a shot, then. Sure you wouldn't mind?"
"If you don't see him, it won't be just panic that attacks you."
Jess often had met me for coffee after sessions with Marv. We'd analyze his perceptions, methods and attitudes, and how I felt about them, decompressing before work. Also, I realized now, they must have served as an audition for his possible role in her life.
"You're absolutely sure . . . "
"He's not a lover, Jessie." I grinned and she raised her wine in salute. "And we both need help with dilemma. I want off lithium so badly I could scream, but I'm terrified of losing its protection. You want Stan to commit to marriage, but you don’t want to lose him."
"What would I do without you?"
"What would I do without you?"
Emotion overwhelmed me until I remembered her love-life. "What happened with Stan last night?"
"The ultimate backslide." She finished her wine and flagged the waiter. "The only thing we shared last night was the sound of his voice — yet another emergency at the hospital." Her sigh was more like a moan. "Stan's my lithium conflict. And like you, I've got to let go."
"Gird the loins, woman. Denouement approaches. But Jessie, does breaking up with Stan have anything to do with your decision to see Marv?"
"Possibly. Probably." Glazed with tears, her eyes looked like fragile blue crystal. She toyed with a box of matches. Open, close. Open, close.
Her break with Stan was more than the end of love, it was a break with the past. In my sorrow for her, I was happy for her.
Journal Entry September 1982
Either I've been down so long it's now up to me, or else I'm actually coming out of disorder. But too well I remember the speed of mania and its singular compelling force.
Good thing some things stayed in my mind while I was out of it.
The phone on the floor by the sofa rang.
"I have some rough news from Florida,” my brother Michael said. “Dad has cancer again. He’s having minor surgery for a ‘small tumor’ tomorrow afternoon."
"Are we going down to be with him?" In the drilling cold of his news, fear shot through me, rang hot in my ears. I clutched the phone and paced the living room rug. My thoughts were narrow and black, like the rug's border. “Michael?”
"It’s minor surgery. We aren’t needed for this one. And we’ll know more afterward."
Perspiration soaked my forehead, my upper lip, my hair. My skin felt like ice, my insides were icy. "What time will that be?"
"By four or five tomorrow afternoon. I should have waited until we had answers before telling you about this."
"Oh no you shouldn’t have! I’m a voting member of this family. I'm just shocked that cancer came back. How are they doing?"
"Dad sounded good, Mother a little tired. They'll call you tomorrow."
"Michael . . ."
"He's having minor surgery."
"Sure. A minor problem — "
"Take it easy. You can't do anything about it now. We have to wait for the facts. All the tests could come back tomorrow afternoon."
"Oh, Michael. Everything was finally, finally . . . "
"He's strong, Patricia. He'll beat this too. Sure you're okay?"
"Yes . . . Yes." How could he sound so calm?
We talked about family, about work. When we started on the weather, we said goodbye. I dropped heavily to the sofa, my head pressed into my palms. I stared at the rug until its geometric design blurred. The streaking pain of a headache roused me.
I dragged myself to the bedroom and crawled into bed. Fear and rage and hopelessness warred inside me. I turned on the television. Reds, there were so many reds on that screen. And darks. No reds, all darks.
Moving colors and mingled voices increased my confusion. I turned off the TV, grabbed the phone and called Jess. No answer. I didn't speak to Susan's machine.
My lithium-free paradise was lost.
I set up the dining room to write and read the first page of the manuscript that I’d abandoned last July. Before halfway through the second page, I inserted a fresh sheet in the typewriter and started again at the beginning of my run into mania.
I worked on “Journey Through Psychosis” until my back hurt and my eyes began to close.
My father left the hospital three days later. Not very minor, I told Michael.
I told Marv that I had to work on my book for a few hours at night. He said, “Just remember that, if you speed up and your moods begin to swing, all you have to do is to stop writing.”
Writing my story to warn others filled me with purpose, gave my new life meaning. Writing enveloped me in the golden warmth of compassion, even as my passionate spirit and heart were freed to conceive in streams of my consciousness. I didn’t find out what I’d written until I read my new flow of words, amazing and challenging me. This joy had been mine when I used to step back from playing with colors on canvas and first see what my spiritual forces had produced.
Even in art school, I never knew how my paintings of models would turn out.
Writing and TV, books and Valium got me through the nights, and work or friends got me through the days.
The week ended at last; my father was given a prescription for a series of intense radiation treatments. His spirits were up. I tried to match my mood to his, succeeding when we spoke on the phone.
He got better. My mother's cough got worse.
Mih-the my Mih-ther, was hospitalized for pneumonia, which upset me for her, but didn’t worry me. Michael and I both had pneumonia once and had survived it. And her doctors were two of the best in the country, thanks to Uncle Benny, our father’s older brother; he’d been the orthopedic department chief at Buffalo General Hospital for many years. The old boys’ network in the medical profession linked him to the best specialists available.
Today’s call from Michael was shattering. X-rays had revealed a spot in Mother’s lung. Her medical team suspected cancer and would operate as soon as she recovered her strength.
My throat closed against food. My two packs of cigarettes a day went to three. My lungs felt heavy and tight. By mid-evening, the searing that followed each inhalation made me put out cigarettes after two or three puffs. But it didn’t make me stop me from lighting them up.
My father. My mother. My creators, my saviors.
At work, concentration was impossible. At home, I hunched over the typewriter until exhaustion sent me to bed. I noted that I was speeding, that sleep occupied less time. I didn't ignore my agitation — my state of mind was due to circumstances beyond mental health, circumstances that would arouse these responses in anyone.
Dr. Simon eyed me at every session, exaggerating that look in his eyes as he repeated what he knew he didn’t need to say. We discussed my fear for my parents, my return to my book, and the fact I was speeding again.
He told me to slow it down, to stop writing by eight at night, to focus on one project at a time at the office. Also, he told me to eat more. How could I? My throat barely opened for air.
Food and sleep were the first to go whenever time was intense, for as far back as I could remember. What I was feeling had nothing to do with mania, or depression.
The Thursday before Thanksgiving, at Marv’s office, "Is it happening again?" burst out of my mouth without premeditation or consideration. I locked my eyes on the smoke trailing from my cigarette, bracing myself for whatever his answer would be.
"You're in a stress-loaded situation. If you don't alter your present course, hypomania will run you into mania. Pay attention to yourself, Patricia. The conditions I've just cited are a breeding ground for disorder." His stern delivery was more upsetting than his words.
"You won't see me next week, will you?"
"No, but you have my home number. Use it. And if you want to see me, we can arrange something. Okay? And let’s start the lithium again."
“Not yet!” I was shaking when I left him. The “not yet” surprised me, sickened me, hinting of capitulation.
Skyscrapers reared around me, seemed to waver in the billowing raw mist.
Hypomania. How could that be?
But he was right about my being in a stress-loaded situation. If only . . . I diverted helpless rage from cancer to mania.
Maybe I was hypomanic. But I would not enter mania again. I would find an alternative to writing at night after eight. I could curb my writing, if not the insanity of cancer. And no more pizza at the typewriter.
That night, I combated sleeplessness with Valium. Fifty milligrams hadn't worked in the days leading to my messiah. I'd take them until they knocked me out. I would write till eight, I would sleep at least seven hours, I would . . .
"Come into the kitchen while I fix dinner," I told Jess that evening. "I'll be damned if I'll tempt psychosis."
"Did you pick up fruit?" she asked, eyeing strip steaks, wild rice and salad ingredients.
I dropped a head of lettuce in the sink, dried my hands, added fruit to the grocery list. "What else should I stock, o' seer of proper nutrition?" I turned the notepaper over to add her suggestions.
We ate on trays in the living room — the manuscript owned the dining room table.
“Dr. Simon seems to know his stuff," she commented after confiding that her anxiety and nightmares were waning. "But I'm not sure he's handling you right. You're losing too much weight too fast and, by the looks of that stack on the table, you're . . . How much sleep are you getting?"
"Not a lot, doc, but I cannot turn off fear with the lights unless I'm too tired to think. I only reach that point after too many hours at the typewriter, even with the help of Valium." She shook her head. "But I won't write after you leave. Marv said I was hypomanic. He said to stop writing at eight."
"I better. What else can I do?" Tears filled my eyes. My stomach churned.
"There's lithium . . . "
"No! Absolutely not. I'm going to master mania if it's the last thing I do!"
"Just make sure it isn't the last thing you do. And exercise. Exhaust your body after work and save the writing for weekends. You'll be surprised what miracles are worked by physical exertion."
"Exercise is against my principles, Jess."
"Running every day has tamed my anxiety. Try it. What do you have to lose? And don't judge the benefits for at least two weeks. And while we're on the subject, start eating between meals."
I fought the fury that rose at her words. "Who hired you to be Marv Two?"
"Your mother's operation isn't for another two weeks and your father's radiation treatments won't be over till May. You can't go on this way. Something's going to give. And if you're adamantly opposed to lithium — "
"It'll be the last resort," I said, tasting defeat.
"Then see how it goes. If turning off the typewriter at eight doesn't work, then you have a choice: good food, sleep and exercise . . . Or lithium."
"I'm off lithium. I can control my own mind. You'll see."
"Patricia," her tone was a warning, "eat and exercise. You no longer have a choice."
"I'm open to suggestions, not directives, okay?"
"I'm not going to stand by while you fall apart again. You know what's happening. You've no excuse this time."
"I'll stand or fall on my own, thank you. No one appointed you my keeper." My ears burned. My heart hammered. My fists clenched.
She puffed on a cigarette, eyeing the smoke as it left her mouth, watching it drift in lazy layers in the air between us.
My anger dissipated with the smoke and wearily, I said, "I’m sorry. I think I'm afraid I won't be able to make a move without consulting you first."
"I keep forgetting you've been through this already — I should think you’d do anything to avoid losing your mind again. However, I'm telling you right now, if you don't get yourself into a solid health program, you'll head right into trouble." She looked at me worriedly. "To be honest, I'm not sure it's possible to control your brain chemicals without lithium, no matter what you do."
"Thanks for the confidence, pal." Hurt and fear twisted inside me. But I swallowed wine and said, "I'm telling you right now, this thing may be bigger than both of us!" I laughed, and when she joined me, the noise of our mirthless release slowed the speeding beat of my heart.
The last of the friction between us cleared and Jess said, "What's the latest on your parents?"
"My father's amazing! He's on the golf course the day after radiation. It's my mother who worries me most..."
"The tumor might not be cancerous. You don't know. And your father's coming along. They're going to be okay, Patricia. Both of them. That's what you should think about. And that's a direct order, Obletzkrieg! Hear me?" Her lips formed a pinched line, hiding the grin that had briefly shaped them. "They shouldn't have to worry about you, too."
After she left, I found myself standing before the typewriter. It was just after ten.
I turned out the lights on the way to the bedroom, turning on the news before getting into bed. In the night table drawer lay Valium. I took out the vial and debated how many to take.
I read for a while and felt drowsy. I didn’t need the Valium.
When I turned off the light, the session with Marv and the evening with Jess lodged in my thoughts.
It was impossible to lie still, eyes closed. Jessie's take-charge manner earlier came back to me and anger inflamed me. And yet, I needed her: her strength, her knowledge. Her love. If not for Jess, I'd still be seeing Dr. Geltzer, I'd still be on lithium. I'd still be helpless and hopeless. Our friendship, as Marv had observed, was unusual. We knew mental bondage. Jess had pointed this out months ago.
Confrontation with abnormality had taken our pleasure in each other’s free-spirited wit to the deep and dark dimension of need, a tie with the power that made the unbearable bearable. Not even Stan and Marv knew the terror of aberration as we did. With all their medical education and experience, they knew only of mental treason.
But Jess still didn’t know the source of her panic and, although finally getting help, she refused medication beyond exercise and wine. How dare she tell me to take lithium! Perhaps abhorrence of lithium in itself was an aberration of sorts. I knew it worked. Lithium it would be — if I couldn’t master my mind on my own. That decision expressed either strength of character or lunacy. So what? It was the only way I could live with myself.
At four-twenty AM, I took another ten milligrams of Valium. I would've taken more, but I’d still be drugged when the alarm went off. Tonight I'd start with twenty milligrams of Valium at eleven, and continue taking one until sleep claimed me.
* * *
"Susan, I'm so glad you could make lunch today."
"What's wrong?" She viewed me from across the wooden plank table in the Towne and Country restaurant, her eyes filled with anxious inquiry.
"Don called me into his office this morning." I pulled a cigarette from a pack and lit it. "He wanted to know if everything was okay with me because my work of late was rushed and superficial." I dragged on the cigarette, held the smoke deep in my lungs, released it in a cloud. "He gave back the last three projects — they were positively green with the ink of his comments, all negative."
"What did you think of them?" She seemed so calm in the face of my stir.
"I'm afraid I had to agree." I groaned and ground out the cigarette in the ashtray.
"Does he know about your parents?"
"Yes. But as we know, personal problems have no place in professional matters . . . I guess I was in too great a hurry to clear my desk before the holidays. I'll stick to third gear from now on." I couldn't meet her eyes. I lit another cigarette.
"Use first and second before you rev into third," Susan suggested easily, adding a smile.
"I'm not sure I can."
"Have you talked to your doctor about this?"
"No, not this precise specific, but last week, he told me to concentrate on one project at a time."
"I thought I had, but obviously, whatever it was I was doing didn't work. Susan, I'm losing control again. I — "
"Take it easy. You're not losing control. If even one of my parents had cancer, I'd be a wreck. You're scared, that's all. I'm sure Don understands."
"He was supportive, concerned and kind, as always. It's just. Oh Susan. I'm not sure I can handle this . . . "
"Yes you can. Now just try to relax."
"I'm glad you didn't just tell me to relax, I'm glad you understand how hard it is to relax under these conditions — fifty milligrams of Valium can't keep me asleep five hours."
"That doesn't sound good. Maybe you should tell the doctor. When we get back, call him and then start with the first piece you gave Don. Just take your time, reread the strategy, and Don's comments, and begin again. I should never have let you talk me out of reading your work before Don did, so bring the revisions over and we'll go over them together. Don't worry, you'll make the rewrites good."
At my desk I reread the copy Don had returned. It read like my thoughts: incomplete. When I gave it to Don, I'd thought that it had been absolutely on target, that the headlines had been shows of brilliance. The fact I'd lost my professional eye was a cramp I couldn't unlock.
I'd once thought I was typing the messiah's new bible.
I was speeding faster now, physically and mentally. I left a message for Marv. He called within the hour and said he could see me at 4:30 the next day.
Time took on an underwater slowness, and then suddenly it was the next day and time to leave work to see Marv.
"I've been writing," I told him, quick to add, "but not past eight, except on weekends. And I'm eating right every day." My bravado faded. "My boss returned my work. He said it was unacceptable."
"What about sleep?"
"Somewhere between intermittent and superficial." I looked at him. "Fifty milligrams of Valium slows me down enough to close my eyes maybe five hours."
"How much time are you giving the first ten milligrams to act?" He was leaning back in the Eames chair, stroking his goatee, watching me.
Why was he avoiding my problem at work? "Twenty minutes, I guess. At the end of which, I'm still so cranked up, I'm afraid not to take another one."
"Start taking them at eight and wait thirty minutes. If you're not slowed down by then, then take another ten — they're more effective that way. If you need more after another thirty minutes, take it. That's what they're there for. But call me before you take more than three. How do you feel in general?"
"Scared . . ."
"Is the unacceptable work why you called?"
"Yes. Little things throw me, too."
"How so?" He fired a cigarette and puffed quietly while I ordered my thoughts.
"I panic at the slightest provocation now: traffic, sudden noises, shadows . . . Nothing full-blown!" I added when his features reflected concern. "I feel a near constant but gentle kind of anxiety. And I'm reacting, not acting. Overreacting, probably." I fumbled with cigarettes and lighter and extended the silence until smoke exploded from my mouth. "When not at the typewriter or with others, I pace the floors. I can't concentrate on TV or books anymore. In fact, this past weekend, writing was the only relief I — "
"The story of the messiah?"
"Yes. Why is that my only way out?"
"You've been keeping journals for a long time, haven't you?"
"On and off since I was ten."
"There's your answer. Writing about the madness helps you exorcize the experience. Just keep the writing to a minimum — for you, it can cue imbalance."
"Do you think I'm okay?"
"I think you're reacting to your parents' situation." He offered his hands palms up to me. "But as we've talked about before, you're exhibiting all the signs of hypomania. Try and slow things down. And Patricia? Calling for an extra session was a healthy thing to do. Let's meet twice a week for a while. That way, we'll be able to keep a close eye on things."
"I expected some resistance from you," he said with a smile.
"Not anymore, Marv. I don't want to miss a trick, I don't want to take any chances — if seeing you more often will help control my mind, I'm all for it."
"And if I say you should start lithium again?"
"But you haven't said that!" I cried, alarmed by the idea.
"No, not yet. But when will you accept the fact you have a chemical imbalance that’s easily triggered by stress? And easily balanced by lithium?"
"When the scales of injustice balance," I snapped. I cringed under the sympathy in his eyes. "Taking lithium again would mean defeat. It would mean that I have no say, no control, over my own mind. Don't you understand that?"
"I do, Patricia. And that's a problem you have to come to terms with. The propensity of your brain chemicals toward imbalance under stress won't disappear. You have to stop fighting it and start dealing with it."
"But I did deal with it — for a whole year!"
"And if you're not careful, you'll give it another year, and another . . . "
"You're so inspiring, I may just jump out that window right now." Unwanted tears filled my eyes. "I didn't mean that. It's just . . . just too much, that's what it is. Too much."
"It is a lot. You've a right to be upset. But you're doing okay. Just don't lose your perspective." He offered a wry smile. "And remember: you have the power to control imbalance simply by taking a little pill."
"Sure, Marv. Right, Marv. Thanks Marv.”
Journal January 31, 1983
Why does no one understand my fear of lithium?
Is it unreasonable? Irrational?
What kind of life can I live if I cannot trust my thoughts and actions?