I woke up and took a walk around the very small space that the psych ward occupied in the oldest hospital in the United States. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin established Pennsylvania Hospital to provide for the convalescence of the ill, and Benjamin Rush wrote some of the first treatises on psychiatry. Ironically, both men who developed this field that kept me confined (Rush), and built this building I couldn’t walk out of without 72 hours notice and a doctor’s concurrence (Franklin), signed the Declaration of Independence just blocks away. As for the modern application of their model, the unit was a long hall with a bend at the end. My room was around the bend. At the other end was an exit onto a small balcony where patients smoked, caged in and overlooking a small historic cemetery with headstones from the 18thcentury. The only way to get time outside was to bum a cigarette and contemplate the road to the grave. My father smoked when I was a kid. He used to give me 35 cents to walk to Bonash’s Market and get him a pack of Viceroys. I’d keep a few pennies to buy myself a pack of candy cigarettes, and roll them up in the sleeve of my t-shirt like he did. That’s as close as I ever got to smoking, until now, when I needed to see the sun and hear the traffic beyond the walls.
In my room I took my Walkman and Radiohead’s Kid A and put the song “How to Disappear Completely” on repeat, tempering the confusion and the emotional pain with the line, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” over and over again for hours. My roommate, for they put you in a room with another person in these places, someone maybe soul-searching, maybe suffering, maybe escaping something less certain, was a young black man who wanted me to listen to his rhymes about racism and power. He charmed my mother when she visited. She said she always wanted to have a black friend, but I was disturbed. When in group therapy he said the voices in his head were quieter and the therapist passed that off as progress, with no follow-up, I protested. I had to sleep with the man. Stabs at “whitey” peppered his rap. I wanted to know what the voices were telling him to do.
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In the middle of the unit was the nurses’ station, always alive with activity, as the patients tossed unanswerable questions over the counter toward the staff, who just sat there and wrote everything down for later review with the doctors, who themselves were seldom seen. Across the hall from the station was a padded room with a high window. I remember a woman inside, screaming. Her shouts were a cry for all of us, as if she embodied the frustrated suffering of all the patients who sat picking their nails and picking their noses in the day room right next door, with the TV tuned to a channel no one was watching, while the staff urged people out of their pajamas and into clothes, still, at 4:30 in the afternoon.
It was a closed unit not segregated by diagnosis or prognosis. I was from New Jersey, but everyone else was from some challenged neighborhood in the city, and for the first time in a long time I noticed class and racial divisions. More people talked to themselves than each other, and those who did start conversations always ended up back at the topic of how to best game the system and remain on Social Security Disability Income. I saw no healing going on, and just wanted to go out to the balcony and breathe. But the air there was choked with smoke, and with each drag on the cigarette that I bummed from another patient, I sensed a bad taste in my mouth that reminded me of the charcoal forced into me in the ICU just days before.
One woman sat on the floor of the day room, rocking back and forth. She dressed everyday in baggy sweats and an Eagles jersey, and wore a pink baseball cap pulled down over her eyes. She interrupted patients, nurses, and therapists constantly to rant about a CIA mind control experiment we were all the subjects of. She insisted that when we were used up the government would eliminate us, and as this went on for days, I viewed any such actions as a mercy killing. One day seven of us were lounging around. Rambling conversations uncovered that everybody there had some connection to the intersection of 15th and Snyder - maybe a friend or a relative, maybe a shop. Everybody but me. I didn’t know that part of South Philly.
Suddenly, everything made sense to the woman in the pink hat. The epicenter of the CIA experiment was 15th and Snyder. They got to everyone through the water supply when they were there, and there tagged each person for this lockdown. Everybody but me. She wondered how I fit in. I was from South Jersey, dressed everyday, and, aside from the detail of trying to kill myself, seemed pretty normal. I never added much to the conversations in the day room, and was acquiescent to the staff’s requests. I was a plant.
She railed to the group that the CIA put me inside to monitor the experiment. I was there to ensure that the suffering continued, the information needed was gleaned, and that everyone broke down and did what the government wanted. She didn’t get it when, in my defense, I cracked that I was a libertarian.
But soon it wasn’t funny anymore. A few of the patients in the day room began to nod along with her, as if all she claimed seemed reasonable. The aggression elevated to shouting and I was chased out, into my room with my angry roommate. I told the staff I felt threatened and the woman in the pink hat was removed from general population. But the damage was done. The other patients gave me suspicious glances and wouldn’t talk to me. I resolved to do and say whatever it took to get out of there.
Dr Dube visited after Dr Baldassano told him what I’d done. He assured me his immigration status was almost set and we could see each other again, soon. Like the therapy sessions and the group smoking, the Radiohead song, still repeating, began to bore me. I wanted to get back to work and, maybe, see Courtney. I was well enough, except for the continued suicidal ideation, about which I told no one. The doctors, none of whom I even remember speaking with, concurred, and in mid-September my parents took me home.
Shaken and unhealed, I arrived home from the hospital and instantly and obsessively read Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast – understanding suicide, from cover to cover without stopping to eat or sleep. I wanted the numbers, and the book was full of them. I wanted to gain some insight into why I did what I did, and explore what the chances were that I would try it again. I felt like a gambler with my life at stake. I felt like the house was winning, and I faced long odds to come back and recover. I saw Courtney a few times, and this obsession concerned her, but she kept after me, and in her I saw a chance. Without getting to know her much, or even consider what we may or may not have in common, I fantasized a normal life with a partner and a future, and grasped onto this myth with all I had, using that grip to pull myself out of the dark, muddy hole I was stuck in. She saw some potential in me I didn’t see in myself, or she was ignoring the fact that, to date, I had lost in life and was unlikely to win again. She, too, set reason aside, and soon we were seeing only each other. We each overlooked the other’s failings and unrealistic expectations, and we much too soon planned a future together. We didn’t want the same things, but we lied to each other and said that we did.
Dr Dube was soon back in his practice and, just seeing him, I began to feel better. We hit on a cocktail of medicine that seemed to work to my benefit and we met for therapy weekly. Needing to hold on to my health insurance desperately, I went right back to work at Presser. Florrie, the store manager, was moving to headquarters for a larger role with the company and the manager position at the store at which I worked remained open. Fresh off a suicide attempt I applied for the job. The company owner visited me and took me to lunch for a deep and caring discussion about how I was doing and how a more responsible job would impact my prognosis. Suitably confident that the change was in my and his best interest, he offered me the job.
Much is written about the stigma surrounding mental illness, and at times during my life it has held me back. But in this instance by Theodore Presser Co., I found that if I was honest, careful, and sincere about how the illness impacted me and how, through treatment and effort, I intended to get better, then people could give me a chance supported by great care and dedication. The true stigma is sometimes within, and sometimes, by listening to the distracting and diminishing self-talk, I internalized society’s misunderstanding of mental illness and only failed. Occasionally though, the right explanation at the right time, a true heart-felt disclosure, inspired in others a compassion that healed all. Most people are good and seek to be more informed, and to understand. When I’m both mentally ill and confident, honest, and forward-looking, everyone involved can learn. Not always, but sometimes, people can forgive, extend a hand, and help me, when defeated, rise up to my full potential. My bosses at Presser extended this understanding as a life raft to help me return to a promising possibility. They overcame the stigma I felt limited by and offered me a better life, more responsibility, and love. I could break the stigma in my mind once and for all by giving back the same, or, reinforce it not by failing, but by failing to be honest and failing to honestly try. They were up to the challenge. Unfortunately I wasn’t, and I failed them totally.
I really screwed up at the store. I began spending most nights at Courtney’s house and keeping a musician’s nocturnal hours, with dinners after concerts and drinks after that. I started to sleep in and open the store late. Then I had a staff member start opening the store, which was a manager’s responsibility, and clearly violated company policy. I took long lunches, mostly with Courtney, surfed the internet, mostly for porn, left the shop to sit in Rittenhouse Square to take in the sun and the sounds of the buskers when I should have been selling piano methods and orchestral excerpts, and I fell behind on customer and inventory orders at a time when customers were beginning to be able to get things quicker on-line. All we had to compete on was service, and I offered so little. The contrast between the help and knowledge I offered each customer before and after my hospitalization was striking. I wasn’t myself and I brought nothing to the job. The computer in the shop and my work ethic moved slower and slower, infected with the viruses of bad ideas and fantasy images of what could never be. My relationship with Courtney was as infused with fantasy and lies, and all I had was set up for a bad ending.
Courtney was from a small, rural town and grew up a minster’s kid. She was strong and cut and had the blonde hair and Germanic face that would remind others of Debra. She felt great allegiance to her friends, and offered them quiet, confident counsel and charity. Wholesome and naïve, she struck people as truly happy even though, pushing 40, she pined about soon being too old to have the family and future she always wanted. She saw me, however flawed, as a last chance, and ignored in her planning the fact that I had just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Her talent and practice took her far in her career as a musician with the orchestra, and that career paid her enough to windsurf, make wine, travel, and eat out often. I was soon spending every possible hour at her house; all the odd hours she kept. She stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning practicing, followed by a lazy mid-morning and a nap in the afternoon after rehearsal with the ensemble. I began staying up with her just as late without the nap the day after. My coworker did open the store so I could get a little extra sleep, but it wasn’t enough, and my moods began to suffer. One of the doctor’s orders was to “guard your sleep.” I let my guard, and him, down, and life began to speed up.
Courtney was up front after just a few dates that she was a fundamentalist Christian. She subscribed to the whole program, both the right-wing political stance and abstinence from sex before marriage. I was so desperately in need of the validation and security that comes from a loving relationship that I falsely aligned myself with her principles and worldview and completely sublimated my classical liberal ideals and closed my open mind. She thought the revelation of her insistence on no sex before marriage would cause me to lay skid marks as I ran away, but I stayed, and learned not long after that only intercourse was banished and other acts, ones not explicitly forbidden in the bible as fornication, were OK and entered into enthusiastically. She dealt with the guilt and the perception when we stayed late at the Academy Ball and came back to the hotel the next morning for breakfast. She was afraid someone would think we spent the night together at the hotel, revealing our sins. Then I practically moved in with her, a secret we kept from her family.
Her family was unabashedly intolerant. Somehow, to them, Jesus was against gun control and the progressive income tax and, after gospels full of prostitutes and miscreants, God ended up unfeeling toward the strivings and surrenders of the poor. My reading of Christian faith and charity was very different, yet I nodded along and even began to talk to others like one who has been saved. My closest friends wondered what happened to me, and when matters of religion came up, they didn’t want me around at all. Linda was especially let down, and soon I didn’t see her, ever.
Still, Courtney was nice and attractive and truly cared for me, and my family took to her and encouraged me in the future they all hoped we would share. Everyone was pretending that everything was normal. I went to orchestra concerts almost every night she performed. I waited in my seat as the musicians left the stage and she’d linger at her chair. She’d spot me in the hall as the lights came up, the Kimmel Center paneled with cherry wood that curved around me, as if I was at the vortex of her striving. She’d wave to me, and I felt full of love and pomp and, as the crowd shuffled out through the dark exits and into the soaring glass atrium outside Verizon Hall, I was left standing in the parquet, increasingly alone. In the wake of the searching, searing, agnosticism that followed my suicide attempt, I should not have entered into any relationship, let alone one that required me to compromise my principles and hide my lack of self-worth behind a façade of confidence set within the proscenium arch of a stage on which I acted a part I auditioned for and won only because I sold out what I truly believed in. I was playing a part and soon I forgot my lines, and Courtney and my relationship, nearly a year on, grew dysfunctional.
She liked small shops and fine restaurants and was always spending. Increasingly manic from the striving and the loss of sleep, sitting agitated and always in touch through my first cell phone, I felt the need to keep up. Inspired by her playing, I practiced the guitar as much as I could and ended up buying an instrument much too expensive for my talent and my bank account. We played Sor seguedillas together. I took a master class with Ana Vidovic. Then I started cooking for Courtney when I would otherwise practice, and couldn’t interrupt her practice at other times, so I played the new instrument rarely, until I stopped my lessons with Bill. I just left the guitar in my apartment and never touched it.
In the frantic pace to keep up with her lifestyle, I emptied my IRA. I made a quarter of what she did and spent like I made more. But as with my disagreements and discomfort with her beliefs, I couldn’t be honest about my insolvency and, with nothing left to spend, I became resentful and controlling. I’d fully invested myself in becoming what she wanted me to be, and after trying such a final act that I’d attempted just a year before to escape who I was, I wanted now to escape the false God I worshiped with her each Sunday and the false idols I set up as my guides. They soon all abandoned me and, alienated, I didn’t know who I was anymore. Courtney and I began to fight. Vicious, visceral fights laced with vitriol about choices we, for some reason, still wanted to make, all the while knowing it would end in a collision of wills.
But great music still held us together. Art had a communal effect and the best of it, like Bach, Mahler, and Stravinski, became the resin that bound us together in a solid expression of harmony. But dissonance loomed large in the modern repertoire, and she wouldn’t listen to the rock and jazz I presented her. So I left unheard much that I loved. I read a book about Fanny Mendelssohn and became obsessed with the idea of a woman who could create so much. I convinced Courtney to arrange some Fanny Mendelssohn songs for her instrument, and we published the work. Courtney became so wrapped up in the whirlwind of my energy and unchecked confidence that she arranged to record the songs and perform the pieces at a prestigious music conference. My own work suffered as I spent so much time away from the store driving this project.
My father was sick, yet I cut Courtney’s grass and shoveled her snow and not his. I did find joy in all the music, but my center moved so far outside of myself that I turned like a compass spinning without direction. My family loved her (they had rejected Debra and Theresa, but adored Courtney), so I felt a chasm open between what I wanted and what they wanted for me. Then Courtney went away on a tour and with rage and thievery I rifled the drawers in her house looking for evidence of affairs I knew could never happen. All I found in her drawers were dried flowers and copies of “Our Daily Bread.” I was jealous of something I couldn’t finger, all the while thinking we were still best planning a future together. I met her in Miami after the tour and it became more and more apparent that our love, and my money, was gone. Spent, I wanted to control her lifestyle and her mind and show her how wrong she was about all she believed in. I argued all of this from a table at a restaurant in South Beach called Tantra, that had real grass on the floor and soft-core porn movies from India projected on the walls. We returned to New Jersey barely speaking. My petulance and lack of reason were so assertive that when she left for the conference to perform the Mendelssohn songs, the songs I thought I was responsible for, she broke up with me over the phone.
Back in the apartment at my parent’s duplex I discovered “Suffering” from Philip Glass’ 5th symphony. Its scales swirled about my rooms and its chanting choirs forced messages from countless faith traditions into my pleading ears, and I became a font of religious thought and public shame. Grandiosity and religiosity combined to make me feel the aspirations of the writers of the ancient texts quoted in the symphony. Feeling martyred, I began to walk the city and look up at very high places from which I could jump.
I tried to claw back friendships I had neglected, and judged the last year wasted. Linda and Bill were forgiving and took no kidding pleasure in my return to big questions and elusive answers, and simpler, smaller music played quietly on a long-cased guitar became my soundtrack as the mania mixed with depression. I sat and played the guitar for hours, and Bill worried that the pieces I chose were so dark. He told me I could only listen to Radio Disney, but I put Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki on repeat and mourned all that had passed. Setting myself to right seemed too hard and possibly not even worth the time.
Work had had it with me and my meager effort at combatting the new threat of internet sheet music sales, and Florrie put me on a performance plan that codified her disgust that I let the store, and my opportunity, go so completely wrong. The job was the favorite one I had ever had. While at Presser I discovered new worlds on two clefs and went out with opera singers and violin students from Europe. I came alive with sheet music, the pure expression written down for others to interpret. Then I lost myself in a relationship and just tossed it all away like a poorly copied score. I could only do one thing at a time, and I chose the wrong thing to do. I had two weeks to turn sales around at the store. I spent them looking for another job.
Devoid of judgment, I accepted a commission-only job with a fly-by-night small business consulting firm in Chicago - the kind of job where anyone who applies and can fog a mirror gets an offer. I paid for a plane ticket to fly to training with the last of my money, a sum that would only be reimbursed after I made a required number of sales. Too late, my research revealed that the company was saddled with lawsuits and sex scandals. I cancelled my plans to go to training, but only after I gave Presser my termination notice. The prospect of being without health insurance didn’t phase me a bit, as I was out of my mind, and I threw the non-refundable ticket into the trash.
On my last day at the store I made a date with a piano player I longed for, one who was trying to recruit me into the Landmark Forum, and then I took the subway to see Dr Dube. I so wanted to jump in front of the oncoming cars, but instead climbed inside. I entered his office broken and in tears, and he walked me to the emergency room. On the way along 36th Street I managed to pull it together enough to call and cancel my date. I told her an emergency had come up and I had to leave town for a while. Assured that I would call her when I returned, the pianist wished me well. Even at my worst I could still fake it. In stupefied awe Dr Dube took my arm and led me to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. As we crossed Spruce Street I suddenly remembered, and we laughed, that some years ago I used to eat at the Melrose Diner. The linoleum on the floors and walls encased orange vinyl booths, and people lined up to take out pies. My ham and cheese omelet came with hash browns and rye toast I had to butter myself. Waitresses there called me “hon,” and guys in track suits, South Philly tuxedos, asked if “youse” are the one parked beside the new Lincoln, blocking in the classic Charger. We laughed because the Philly landmark sits on the corner of 15th and Snyder.
At HUP I was informed that the hospital didn’t accept my expiring insurance, so they arranged transportation to another hospital, one where Dr Dube did not have admitting privileges. Panicked that I would not see him again while I was away, I entered the ambulance and said nothing but “thank you” to the EMTs as they drove along the Schuylkill River where the crews rowed past the boat houses reflected in the water, and the lights of the city came up in the small window in the back of the vehicle. I faced only where I came from; out the front I could see nothing but the back of the drivers head and the dials on the dashboard. The ambulance held to the speed limit, and I had plenty of time to think.
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I have read several good memoirs about life with bipolar. This would be another one. It’s kind of like I’m wearing your clothes and listening to Thom Yorke, too.