I filled the papers out sometime in November and mailed them off. I never heard anything about them again, but in December my parents told me they were taking me to see a psychologist. They told me on a Friday and we were to go the next day.
Now that I think about it, the forms must have had something to do with this sudden reversal. I don’t think my parents would have taken action otherwise. They were good at ignoring things they didn’t want to acknowledge, like my increasing depression. If they did notice it, they blamed me for it. In their minds, it was something I did to them out of some mysterious, malicious motive. My own mental health had nothing to do with me and everything to do with punishing them.
Despite my mother’s insistence that I was perfectly normal until third grade and mostly normal after that, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed. I found written reference to it in a journal from when I was only twelve: “I’m so sad all the time; I think I’m going crazy.” But it didn’t really erupt into full bloom until I hit fourteen and it was fertilized with a whole new infusion of teen angst.
As I said, my parents were old-style conservatives. Not like today’s Right Wing Evangelicals, though. My father, a minister from a line of ministers stretching back to the Mayflower, regarded charismatic and fundamentalist movements as the last refuge of morons who couldn’t think for themselves. Rather, my parents were people who regarded being talked about, even within the family, as the very worst thing that could happen to anybody. You’ve probably heard the old saw that a person should have his name in the papers three times in life: when he’s born, when he’s married and when he dies. To my parents, that was three times too many. The very idea that their children could grow up without sharing their values first mystified and then shocked them. When it happened, their first impulse was to cover it up—not because the deeds done were so terrible (at least not by today’s standards)—but because the neighbours might gossip. The community at large might think my parents had failed in their duty.
My eldest sister got pregnant in her senior year of high school. Not such a big thing these days, in those it was unthinkable that a girl of good family should have thoughts of sex, much less do the deed. If she did, it must mean she hadn’t been properly brought up. Once when I was extremely depressed, my father lit into me about how I had no reason to be depressed as I didn’t know how bad life could be. My mother, on the other hand, had been through the worst ordeal anyone could face and come out standing. She’d had to go to my sister’s teachers and explain to them why Anne wasn’t coming back to school. Compared to that horror, and the inferences about my mother’s capabilities it must lead to, my pain was trivial.
You might make note here that this attitude leads to a lose-lose situation, whichever way you turn it. Either Anne was a good girl whose mother had done wrong, or my mother was a good woman whose daughter had inexplicably turned out bad. Bad mother or bad daughter. No in between.
Any health problem in my family posed a similar problem to communication. Things simply weren’t talked about. Not to the family, not to outsiders. My parents probably discussed things, but whether in any depth I couldn’t say. I had to piece together what I could from looks, sighs, whispers half-overheard. Once I came upon my mother and father looking at pictures of a toddler. I asked who that baby was and they told me it was my second sister’s daughter. I hadn’t even known she was pregnant. As recently as a few years ago, my mother sent me some Christmas pictures of a little girl, about seven, whom I had never seen before. When I asked, she told me it was my niece’s daughter. I can’t say for sure that my family—and my parents in particular—withheld information on purpose, but that surely might have been the case.
It was not only in matters of reproduction that my parents showed such reticence. My brother’s flu; my father’s arthritis; my mother’s headaches: none of them was a topic for conversation. It had the effect of making any kind of sickness a matter of shame.
In my tenth grade year of high school, my mental health problems came to a head. I just knew that the feelings I was experiencing weren’t…normal. I didn’t think most fifteen year old girls lay awake at night crying and thinking of suicide. But no, my mother assured me, “You’re just going through a phase.” When the phase went on and on, my parents took me to a lot of doctors, looking for a physical problem. An EKG turned up nothing. A test of my blood sugar showed me to be slightly hypoglycemic, so for a while that was held to blame, and thank God that it was something one could speak of in public without blushing and hanging one’s head. I was sick a lot that year, too. In fact, looking back it seems that I missed at least a week out of every month with some kind of cold or fever. But in the main, nothing physical turned up and that was taken to mean that nothing was the matter. And that, to my parents, meant I was acting up on purpose to hurt them.
Once again, as I write this, I am agitated and sick at my stomach. I started this tale on purpose to be “NOT ART.” To be a real and blunt recollection of what happened, with only the names changed to maintain some semblance of privacy. But it is very hard for me. As far back as I can remember, I have narrated my life, distancing myself from reality by describing it in the third person: “She went down the stairs. She heard the other girls calling her names. She suffered.” I have become a character in the story of my life, while the essential “I” remains hidden.
Of course, this tendency to narrate posed a problem when my parents accused me of making up stories. Every time they insisted my experiences were not real, I had to wonder. Did I feel what I felt? Did that happen or not? Am I seeing things the way they are, or is there some objective reality I am blind to? On some level, to this day I remain confused about what actually happens and what doesn’t. It has taken me years to understand that this is a sign of my illness, and not just a personal flaw.
I think the silence, the isolation—my family did not socialize—and the lack of information-passing also contributed to my difficulties in determining objective reality. I was constantly told my interpretation was wrong, but I was given no alternative. As a child I had no context. I had to glean what I could about my world and my place in it from things dropped by the way. From an early age I had to create my reality from those gleanings and the truth of my own gut. So I may have made an inaccurate picture. But it was the only picture I had and I was loathe to let it go when my parents and teachers told me that wasn’t the way things were without offering any substitute.
So I have always been a story-teller and have always put story in place of my life. I am trying not to do that here and I feel I am on shaky ground. Making raw material into art is a reflex. Grammar and spelling and symbolism pour out of me like sweat; I have no conscious control. On the other hand, the raw material is ugly and painful and terrifies me. Yet this is the material I feel I must return to now, despite digressions, repetitions and ill-turned phrases.
When I began I thought I was writing about my mistrust of psychiatrists and the whole mental health profession, because I was about to see a new psychiatrist and I was afraid.
But I know now I am writing to make myself real.