The first psychiatrist I saw was Dr. Pitt. Even at the time, I thought that was not the most propitious name for a psychiatrist. His wife, also Dr. Pitt, was my psychologist. She sent me to see him because he was on the staff at the local hospital—the hospital where I ended up six months later—and she was concerned I might need some time there.
I remember the appointment as taking place in a cold February, but by my journals I see that it was actually April. The cold again. All I can remember of this time is the cold that seemed to be in my bones, all the time, as if my body were encased in ice. I had recently turned sixteen. I had been seeing Dr. Pitt, the psychologist—I called her my psycho in moments of grim humour—for a number of months. She had been assigned to me—or I to her—by some mental health clinic. I had been suffering from depression and a feeling of being overwhelmed by life increasingly for a year or more. Probably more. I remember writing and thinking about suicide since age twelve, anyway. But the year I turned fifteen, my grades became affected, as they had way back in third grade, so my parents finally noticed. Maybe it’s not the only thing they noticed, but it was certainly the factor that figured most prominently when the subject came up. “You’ve got to keep those grades up,” they’d say. “The most important thing in your life right now is getting a good education!” To which I’d reply, “How can you possibly know what the most important thing in my life is right now?” I don’t recall them answering that question. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. I can imagine it, though. Probably they told me that parents always knew best and I couldn’t know anything at fourteen or fifteen, much less what was important or what I wanted. Or they pulled out the threat of THE DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS, to which I would be sent as a punishment if I didn’t keep up with my work. I told them often enough that I’d rather go to Cass Tech than the hellhole I attended, but they never believed me.
My parents were old school: married in the 40s just after WWII, raising children in the 50s. I came along in 1962, nearly eight years after my brother. It must have been a shock. As much of a shock as the cultural revolution of the late 60s, during which my two oldest sisters both became liberated in extremely dysfunctional ways, which made my parents ashamed to hold their heads up in public. So when I started listening to loud rock music and dressing in unconventional ways, it must have been déjà vu all over again. I see now that they were afraid—not for me, but for themselves. To my parents, my sisters’ defection was all about what the neighbours would think. So I heard a lot of stuff like, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to grow up to be just like your two older sisters.” No more than that, but enough to know that I had to be bad because I couldn’t be what they wanted.
Anyway. At fifteen, I felt like I was drowning. Or on the edge of a breakdown of some sort. My mother blamed my friends, the books I read, anything she could. She said I should talk to her, but how could I? I learned early not to bring my problems to her, with that, “Don’t let it get your goat” business. And besides, I’d already been judged unworthy. And unimportant. When I started cutting myself and she found out, she was angry at me for doing something that might upset my brother when he was home on Christmas break. How could I expect any help from her if I shared my fears with her?
I begged to “see someone.” She replied with, “I won’t take you to see a psychiatrist. They’ll only say it’s all my fault and I haven’t done anything wrong. And besides, you could shape up if you really wanted to.”
Later she changed her tune. “If you won’t talk to me, I’ll take you to someone you WILL talk to,” she said, like a Nazi interrogator with “ways of making you talk,” and by making fulfillment of my deepest wish a threat turned it into the last thing I wanted.
But that summer, my mother took me downtown to the Lafayette Clinic for an evaluation. It came about like this: One month there was an article in Reader’s Digest about clinical depression—in those days it was quite a new term. And I went through and underlined in red everything that I could relate to. Later, my mother appeared in my room—she may have been in tears—waving the article in my face and saying things like, “How could you be so cruel,” as if this last ditch effort to communicate with her were a pointed attempt to make her feel bad. But she did make the appointment.
I was both relieved and scared. Scared, because I really did think it was a possibility that I was losing my mind, and the constant reassurances from teachers, family and friends that I was not had a hollow ring and did not make me feel any better or different. All I could think was, a normal person does not suffer this darkness. Doesn’t think about suicide on a daily basis. Doesn’t scratch her arms with her nails until they bleed, or cut herself with razor blades. Relieved because I thought I might finally get someone to listen to me without bias.
Lafayette Clinic was mainly an inpatient facility for people with serious mental health issues or drug problems, but they did evaluations, too. When our turn came, my mother and I were shown into a room to be interviewed by a mental health professional of some kind. With me present, she asked my mother why we were there. My mother said I had “threatened suicide” to my friends. Which got her marks on the one hand for paying enough attention to me to have any idea what I said at any point in time, but earned my contempt for thinking what I had uttered were threats. Sure, I’d mentioned that I’d thought of suicide (and in my circle, who didn’t?) But that doesn’t count as a threat. A threat is a tactic for manipulation: If you don’t do this, I’ll do that.” In fact, I think anyone who uses the words “threaten” and “suicide” in conjunction doesn’t really have any idea what the desire for suicide is all about.
Anyway. I was sent into another room and set to sorting computer cards into stacks according to whether, in my estimation, the statements on them were true or false. This was my first experience of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, which I had occasion to take perhaps another half dozen times in the course of my life. When I was done, I came back to talk to the woman mental health professional alone.
I was excited. Finally I could have my say. I guess it was to my disadvantage that I had created an entire metaphoric language to express emotions I had no other way to express, full of pits and pinnacles and seagulls mournfully crying as they hovered over a grey plain that led down to a dull grey sea. When I was done, the MHP looked at me very seriously and asked,
“How real are these things to you?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I said.
“I mean, do you actually see these things?”
How seldom people understand that seeing things in your heart is as powerful—sometimes more powerful—as seeing it with your eyes. That being trapped is being trapped, no matter what the trap looks like.
“No,” I said. “They’re metaphors for what I feel For what I experience inside.”
And that was that. She immediately labeled me “Not schizophrenic” and booted me out of the office.
I don’t know what she said to my mother, or what the diagnosis was, if any. All I remember is the long car ride home, the strained silence thick with my mothers thoughts: “You wasted my time dragging me all the way downtown when I could have been gardening; at least you could have had the decency to be good and sick!”
The clinic did send an application to some mental health clinic home with us, however. For a long time I didn’t fill it out. My mother had made it clear that was my job and I knew she didn’t really want me to; she wanted the whole business just to go away. So the papers got piled on my father’s desk along with a whole bunch of other papers (his desk always looked on the verge of vanishing altogether beneath his mounds of correspondence). And for a long time I ignored it, but I never forgot it. Finally, after a particularly low period shortly after I turned sixteen, I dug them up and filled them out.
The worst part was going to my mother and telling her. There were blanks for her to fill in about insurance and such, and a parent had to sign the form. My mother has this way of radiating disapproval when things don’t go her way that makes me fear her to this very day. Every time I get a birthday card from her, I have to make my husband open it because I’m so sure this will be the time that her note, instead of remarking on her garden and the health of her cat, will inform me what a horrible person I am and how disappointed she’s always been in me. It never is that note, but I can’t stop expecting it, not after twenty years.