I never finished high school. Because of my parent’s travels I was enrolled in eight schools over nine and a half years. I finally dropped out after two weeks of tenth grade at Pacific Palisades High School. My legal guardian at the time was my 24 year old, pregnant, sister Tina. She was terrified that a truant officer would arrive on her doorstep, but no one ever came. I may as well not have been enrolled! Tina sent away for a correspondence course and set up a friend of hers as my supervisor but I refused to cooperate. Instead, I set up a reading program for myself covering history, literature and poetry, the only subjects I was interested in. After finishing a book I would write an essay about it. I would also write papers about my own various philosophies. I loved learning. I hated school.
But then a friend of mine from back east arrived to stay with us for a couple of weeks while her mother packed up and moved to LA. Valli, who also dropped out, and I, spent our days down at Santa Monica Beach, loaded up with filter-less cigarettes and baby oil. We would walk down Temescal Canyon, right in the middle of the road, because that was when the road was still under construction. (Yes, I am that old!) We would smoke weed and cigarettes and walk the new yellow lines. Needless to say, my time of learning anything beyond Drugs and Sex 101 came to an end.
I endured life in LA for six more years. By then I had graduated from Drugs and Sex 101 to consumer of hard drugs including my favorites – speed, cocaine and LSD. Alcohol, of course, washed everything down. My parents stepped in and I moved to Tucson where my grandmother lived. I had always wanted to attend college so, since I had just turned 21, I was able to attend Pima Community College instead of suffering through a GED. Community Colleges ROCK! I earned a 4.0 which allowed me to continue on to American University in D.C. But something else was happening, something sinister and out of my control. My moods began to dictate to me, to cycle.
Each time I plummeted from the high of mania into depression I would berate myself and declare that I wasn’t going to get so out of control again. These words would be my mantra while I lay in bed, miserable, embarrassed, unable to take care of myself, too ashamed to face anyone. I remember testing myself to see if the good me was back in full force; if I could write a poem then I was better. If not, I would continue to despair.
When I arrived in D.C. I rented a studio apartment up the hill from Georgetown. The place was a dark, ground floor unit with bars on the windows. This environment helped lead me to my first psychotic break. When I was sitting at my desk studying, I felt the hairs on my neck stand up. I turned and I saw me sitting on my bed. I saw a pale self with dark smudges under my eyes that looked at me, my long hair hanging down like swamp moss. I froze and very slowly turned away from the sight. When I looked back, my heart pounding, I was gone. After that I couldn’t leave my apartment. I was stuck inside as though the door had no handle. I ate everything I had and when I finally got down to a head of iceberg lettuce I knew I would have to force myself to open the door.
At American University I declared a major in law, a minor in literature. I had been introduced to business law at Pima Community College and really loved it. But I remember my mother visiting and me telling her my plans and her face growing somber and she telling me that she didn’t think I could do that. She knew my mood swings even though my family didn’t know what to do about them. I think they tried to protect me from myself as much as they could. They thought it was me, not mental illness. The dawning 70’s did not bring any understanding to mental health issues, not that I knew of. Mental health was not in our vocabulary, neither were the words ‘manic depression’ which was what bipolar disorder was called back then.
When I finally returned to class I also looked up campus psychiatric help. By this time I was manic and my appointment with a psychiatrist was a waste of time. He was very good looking so I spent my time flirting with him and being as wonderful as I could be while manic, which was very wonderful. I left his office never to darken his door again.
As usual, when manic, I had no time for anyone who didn’t want to play. I knew I was different. With the audacity of mania I knew I was charming and beautiful: who wouldn’t want to be with me? I was blonde for God’s sake! After a year I dropped out of American University too.
The last of my formal schooling took place at Manhattanville College in NY State. I challenged myself to a summer graduate course in Philosophy. I passed with an A minus. I figured I was smart enough to continue on with life without more college. I was too young, too isolated and too mentally ill to realize I was doing myself a great disservice.
Depression got my attention. Mania just ‘was’. I saw no fault in feeling great. Drugs and alcohol softened that awful feeling of energy pushing itself out and through my skin. And drugs and alcohol worsened depressions when they inevitably arrived after a manic phase. I was in my early twenties and thought that this was just how I was.
Many years passed before I got the help I needed.
But before I was properly diagnosed in 2004 and given the right medications, I left a flattened path of husbands, houses and cars in my wake. I honestly don’t know how many cars I’ve traded in. Once I learned about balloon payments I was all over it! Houses were more trouble to get ready, and inevitably, once they were cleaned up and ready for the marketplace, my mood would change and I’d want to stay. Unfortunately, the real-estate agents wouldn’t see it that way. I moved Mattie and myself twelve times in eight years. Now I watch House Hunters on TV.
But husbands were the most trouble. I went through five. (It’s easier to keep track of husbands!) Three of them told me “I just can’t take this anymore,” and two died many years after we divorced. So now that I’ve passed the husbands quota (and now that I don’t get manic or drunk anymore) I live with only my dogs. Any correlation you may make is strictly your own!
Then my son, Calen Pick, developed schizoaffective disorder, his symptoms beginning in his early teens, blooming and taking control of him when he was 18. By the time he was 19 he had been hospitalized. He came home for vacations but stayed at the hospital for two years. My family finally began learning the vocabulary of mental illness. When Calen was hospitalized I was so distraught that I had to get away. I flew to L.A. and stayed with friends in Malibu for six days. I stayed in bed, crying, for all that time. My grief was so profound that I knew, if I walked down to the water, I would be swept away by my grief, my lack of a hold on our earth.
By age 50 I’d gone beyond knowing something was terribly wrong. But what? Calen broke the mold and my family saw that I needed help too. I went to the hospital when I was 50. I began a medication that worked miracles; I could function without fear or confusion or anxiety. Then that medication turned on me with a rare side-effect: I ended up in the hospital again and the grief I felt was the weight of the world. I began another medication that didn’t work as well as the first but it allowed me to leave the house, have conversations even though verbal fluency wasn’t what it had been with the first medication. It took me a long time to absorb the loss; the inherent feeling that whirled around me when depressed was overwhelming.
When it finally sank in that I had been alive but not living over so many years, that I had sacrificed my youth, my adulthood, my relationships, my children, to the mental illness that lived in my brain like a creature, I fell into deep grief. Depression and grief can feel the same but they’re not. Depression cuts me off at the knees, grief slammed me into a wall. But I did get through it. I got through that wall as did my son, Calen. He is now 33, I am 61.
With the help of family and friends I’ve gotten to where I can give love and give back. I’m here today because life is a miracle. If you live with a mental illness, take care of yourself; keep pushing and gifts will appear. Find a therapist or counselor you can talk to. Stay in school! Don’t give up; try try try again.
I can identify with almost everything you write Jessie. The exception being I have a son who suffers from depression and has been on medication and I saw a great change in him. Now he refuses to take the medicine has a job and has gotten married. I worry so much about him. He is married to a nurse but I don’t think she realizes the extent of his illness!