During my first weeks of college, a group of kids from my dorm bicycled off-campus to see "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I had never read the book, so I didn't know that in the end (spoiler alert!) McMurphy undergoes a lobotomy and Chief, rather than letting him live as a glassy-eyed idiot, smothers him to death.
I became hysterical. In the theater. Surrounded by strangers, I sobbed and sobbed. I could hear my new acquaintances whispering: "Do you know her?" "No, I thought she was your friend."
Finally I stopped crying, blew my nose and bicycled back to campus with the gang. I didn't know what to say because what I was feeling was, "I'm terrified that that will happen to me."
Back in the '70s, two books cornered the market on mentally ill women: "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" by Joanne Greenberg and "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath. Each book features an artistic but suicidal young woman suffering from mental illness, and a brilliant female psychotherapist who slowly leads our fragile heroine to wellness.
I saw myself in both books. I aspired to be artistic, and there was mental illness lurking in my family tree: My maternal grandmother alternated between mania and catatonia, and once tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge (she survived). I lived in fear that her illness ran in my blood.
I could take my pick: depression ("Bell Jar"), schizophrenia ("Rose Garden") or bipolar disorder (my grandmother's probable diagnosis, made posthumously). And, playing beautifully in the background, serving as a soundtrack to my anxiety and depression, was "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor. "Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone / Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you." (Suzanne being another presumably artsy young woman who successfully committed suicide.)
Although the song offered no happy ending, didn't "Bell Jar" and "Rose Garden" end on optimistic notes? Our young heroines overcame their respective mental illnesses and ventured, tentative but strong, into their futures. (Never mind that Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven one month after her book came out in England.)
For a long while, it seemed that I'd escaped the rot in my family tree. I survived college and graduate school, a health crisis, a marriage, a divorce. But one day life suddenly became gray, hopeless and practically unendurable. I slipped from what I call "little d" ("I lost a client," "my wallet was stolen") to "Big D" (severe and persistent clinical depression).
I couldn't get out of bed or even eat. Hugging me in those days, friends have told me, felt like I was no longer "there." Every morning for over three years, my first thought upon waking was, "Fuck! I'm still alive." I didn't want to kill myself; I just wanted to be dead.
Chronic depression is especially difficult in that friends and family, no matter how well-meaning, don't get it. If there were broken bones, blood, a fever, they could see that I was sick. But mental illness? No one sees the disease, only the symptoms. They wonder if I'm malingering. Trying to be helpful, they admonish: Just get out of bed! Go for a walk! Life is wonderful!
I met with doctors, psychiatrists, neurobiologists, psychopharmacologists. Each medication I tried could take up to six weeks to be effective. If a med didn't work and I was desperate to try something else, my doctor would instead increase the dosage. Another six weeks of hell. The heroine of "Bell Jar" undergoes electro-shock therapy, and I too looked into it. Now renamed Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), it's actually a useful treatment, but I was deemed a bad candidate.
I exercised (nature's antidepressant). I got enough sleep. I ate healthy foods. I cried and cried through talk therapy sessions. I was between jobs, so I volunteered at a food pantry to force myself out of bed. I tried adult outpatient programs and cognitive behavioral therapy, researched magnets and trans-cranial stimulation, looked into fish oil, folic acid, and SAMe. Nothing worked.
I tried Wellbutrin, which made me tremor so much that I actually fell down at a party. To calm the tremors, my doctor prescribed Klonopin.
It was mid-afternoon when I left the pharmacy. I read the instructions on the label, which said, "Take one three times a day." That means there are no drowsy side effects, right?
I swallowed a pill, and 10 minutes later I was in a three-car crash—all my fault. (Thankfully, no one was injured, but I didn't know that then.)
I sat in the car for a moment, asking myself if I was hurt, when there was a knock on the window. It was a policeman.
"Ma'am, could you get out of the car?"
I was taken to jail and booked on a DUI. "But I don't drink," I said. That's when I learned that "Under the Influence" doesn't refer solely to alcohol.
Contemplating bail and legal fees is difficult enough without being majorly depressed. I was also panicked at the thought of driving ever again and afraid to be alone. So I took another page out of "Bell Jar" and "Rose Garden" and checked myself into a mental hospital. I fixated on a place with clean white sheets and billowing gauze curtains, certain that a brilliant woman shrink would save me.
The reality of the hospital was far different. We had group therapy, not one-on-one, and six meals a day, as if the hospital didn't know what to do with us. We were lucky to see a psychiatrist once every three or four days. And, when I was found on my bed, reading an actual book, I was chastised for being antisocial and told to interact with the other inmate—er, patients.
One social worker reprimanded me for not working hard enough in group. "You act as if a magic bullet will come along and save you," she said. And she was right. I was waiting for a magic bullet—the right meds to stop my brain's psychotic whirl, its frenzy and delirium. Since I found no help in the mental hospital, I checked out.
In time I did find a cocktail of medications, along with a brilliant female therapist, to save me, and I've been stable ever since.
I recently reread the books, which seem dated to me now, but what does hold up is "Fire and Rain." I still cry when I hear "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground."