“Girl commits suicide after being shut out of graduation”

As if living with childhood depression isn’t bad enough, this young teen’s school decided to exclude her from graduation festivities. It was the last straw.

Mental illness is not contagious, but the way it’s treated, you’d think it was.

Riding For My Life: Part One

I just turned sixty.  Can you believe it?  Neither can I.

I look in the mirror.  My face hasn’t changed much, except for a few creases in the jowl line that I’d rather do without, but hell, since I only look in the mirror to check whether I’ve brushed my hair today, I’m not bothered by it.

On the other hand, my skin has gone all weird.  In some places it’s loose and jiggly, and in others it’s tight and thin and fragile.  If I scratch an itch on my forearm, for example, I’m rewarded by a big red-purple splotch that takes weeks to go away.  If I bang myself there, which happens all the time because I still crash through the world as if I were sixteen, my skin sometimes also rips and then I have a dreadful mess that requires bandages and ointments for a couple of weeks, and then I have a scar to remember it by.   Yech.

And then there’s the skeleton.  I’ve trashed most of my joints through overexertion, as I will explain below; and those that managed to survive my athletic excesses are slowly being eaten up by the arthritis that runs in my family, on both sides.  Couldn’t dodge that bullet.

So even though my weight is exactly the same as it has been since 1985 when I had my first and only baby–well, I mean after I lost all I was going to lose afterwards, not WHEN I had him, because in the days preceding his birth I looked like a small house–my body looks just like you would expect a body to look if no one took care of it.

Before I launch into a maudlin description of why my body is in such deplorable shape at the moment, let me tell you some of the back story.

I have always been bipolar.  Unlike many, who discover their bipolarity in their teens or young adult years, I have always had symptoms of depression and passive suicidality on the one hand, and racing thoughts, extreme restlessness, and a feeling of being out of my body on the other.

I managed to funnel my depressive gloom into poetry and art.  Since I came from a family of depressed artists I just thought it was the “artist’s temperament” and considered it normal.  So I did get a lot of good art done, and a lot of bad poetry and maudlin writings.  

I am a rapid cycler.  Even as a child, I would find myself catapulted from states of near-suidical melancholy into a state of restlessness that shot through my body like an electric current, demanding physical and mental activity, the more rigorous the better.

My first and only love was for the equine race.  My parents would not buy me a pony, citing countless reasons: mainly that we never had a permanent home and moved 19 times by the time I left home at age 16. This, coupled with the abject poverty that we lived in.  But I never felt that we were poor, because, well, that was how I grew up.  In fact, I thought that most other people lived lives of shameful excess.

So wherever we moved, it was always somewhere rural because that was what my father liked, and we could always have a garden to feed us.  And for me that was fine, because there was always a neglected pony somewhere in the vicinity: one who had been bought as a Christmas present for the children who enjoyed it for a few months or a year and then ignored it after the shine wore off and all that remained was the constant work of upkeep.

I was thrilled to muck out stalls and sheds, clean and polish tack, clean and polish and feed the pony, doctor its thrushy hooves, and do whatever would convince the owners to let me ride it as much as I wanted.

Pony after pony, wherever we moved, I poured my roaring excess energy into making it spiffy again, spending hours untangling matted manes and tails, getting bitten and kicked in the process.  I didn’t care.

In my depressions I would go and bury my face in the current pony’s neck, inhaling the comforting fragrance of eau d’equine, which is still the most intoxicating smell to me, to this day.  My tears would make a wet place in the unclipped winter coat, and for reasons unknown, the pony wound stand still, snorting but unmoving, and let me embrace its neck, absorbing my sobs.

We moved again when I was 12.

I was beginning to develop then, got my period, and started getting chubby.  Despite the fact that everyone in our entire family on both sides had been chubby at puberty, my mother began a campaign to get me to lose weight by means of verbal abuse.

“Fat-ass” became my nickname.  I was a silent, isolated child then, having no friends since we had just moved, and I had no where to go except into the woods behind our house, to lie in the mossy glades and cry.

Then I discovered, not a pony, but a horse, about a mile away.  His owner had gone off to college and left him in his stall.  A hired man cleaned his stall and fed him, but otherwise no one paid any attention to him.

The owners of the horse had a daughter my age, who weighed about 200 lbs, didn’t care who knew it, and menaced anyone who gave her any crap about it.  She kept a pair of parakeets and derived sexual pleasure out of watching them mate, and from surreptitiously watching her big sister and her boyfriend “doing it” on the couch.  She was not interested in the horse.  I was not interested in the parakeets or the boyfriend, but I courted Caroline until she introduced me to her mother, at which point with bated breath I asked her if I could take care of the horse in return for riding him.

She was ecstatic and immediately called the hired man (did I mention that this was a huge estate that encompassed an entire small mountain?) and ordered him to show me around the barn.  I had my first real horse to care for.

That horse became my passion, my savior.   The moment I got off the school bus I would race upstairs and change into barn clothes, jump on my bike and roar off to meet my paramour.  After turning him out into the paddock, I cleaned his stall down to the floor, fluffed it up with new straw, then brushed him out thoroughly, combed his mane and tail, picked out his shod hooves, and swabbed his entire body down with citronella-smelling fly repellant that I can still smell to this day.

I would tack him up with his flat English saddle and double-rein bridle–this I have to give my parents, that they had started me in English riding lessons since I was six, on tall Thoroughbreds, so tall that I resolved that since I must instantly be killed if I fell off, then I would never fall off.  And I didn’t.

And off we would go, down the dappled lanes through the New England woods, all acrid with leaf mold.  The estate covered acres and acres, and I had no restrictions, so we criss-crossed the property for hours every day.

One day we were ambling along one of the many areas of bare granite, scraped clean by some glacier, when he pulled up lame.  I jumped off, wondering how I was going to get back on, since at 4’11” I required a mounting block or at least a fence in order to mount the tall Thoroughbred.  But he needed help, so off I hopped.

He was holding his left front foot as if it hurt him, and when I picked it up I saw that one of the many oval granite stones that populated the area had lodged in his foot, so I dug my hoof pick out of my jeans pocket and went to work.

The stone was wedged in between the two sides of his shoe, so I had to lever it out.

Now, normally a person who is working on a hoof stands with their back to the horse’s head and the hoof securely held between their knees; but the last time I had done that I had been dumped upon my head, so I stood to the side facing the horse’s shoulder and held the hoof in my left hand, working on the wedged stone with my right.

Finally the stone flew out with a “pop,” but it must have hurt the horse because he snorted and stomped his foot down hard on the rock we were standing on.  But my foot was between his iron-shod hoof and the rock, and first I heard CRUNCH and then I felt my tall riding boot start to fill with something warm.  I knew what that was.

Luckily it was my right big toe that had been crushed, because I needed my left foot to mount with and I don’t know what I would have done if it had been my left. Horses get used to being mounted from one side, usually the left, and they are skittish about the other side, and I had enough problems already.

I found a stump to mount from, and had no little trouble getting him to move alongside it and stand still; but I finally got on and back to the barn, untacked him, rubbed him down, and rode my bicycle home.

Then I tried to get my foot out of the boot.  It had swollen so that it filled the inside of the boot and was stuck.  I had to cut the boot off, shedding many tears, because I knew it was unlikely that I would come by another pair.  They are very expensive.

I was relieved to see, after gingerly and painfully soaking the foot in the bathtub, that the source of the bleeding was that my toenail had come off; but there were no bones sticking out. I thought that it would be better not to tell anyone, because that might result in my being forbidden to ride.   So I wore roomy sneakers for a couple of months, and it healed without incident.

To be continued……..

It’s Not Easy Being Brilliant

Last night I had the strangest dream.  I was walking down alleys in some foreign country–it might have been Morocco, judging from what I saw in store windows.  I have never been to Morocco, but I went to the Moroccan restaurant in Disney World and had some fantastic food.  And a store that I frequent in Jerusalem, Rika’s, carries Moroccan stuff, everything from clothing to solid brass mortar and pestle sets, which I regret not getting when I moved to the States.  Never mind, I’ll get one when I move back 🙂

Anyway.  Back to the dream.  I was consumed by anxiety because I was supposed to meet with someone at a restaurant somewhere around there, and I couldn’t find it and my cell phone had turned into a wristwatch, courtesy of Dick Tracy I’m sure.  So I had no way to locate the place, or to tell the people I was going to meet with that I would be late.

In my growing state of panic, I turned out of the narrow lanes and found myself in a cityscape not unlike the South Side of Chicago, which is where I did my undergraduate work.  Dreams, right?  I decided to just let my intuition guide me, since I had no other guidance, and found myself in an underground mall full of fast food joints and cheap clothing stores.  I wandered through the passages in the mall until I found the restaurant: a shiny, upscale place full of chrome and stainless steel, very unlike the people I was going to meet.

And those people were:  my ex-husband, his wife, and my ex’s sister’s husband.  I joined them and apologized for being late, but they were very understanding.  We got right to the reason for the meeting, which was:  my ex was having a breakdown because of the guilt he suddenly felt for how he believed he had treated our son when our son was little.  I was shocked, because although they didn’t have a lot of contact for a few years, I didn’t think he had done anything more than most parents do in the way of mistakes, and he had already been forgiven for those.  But there he was, crying and begging me for forgiveness.  I didn’t know how to feel.  Ah, dreams.

In a few days we will celebrate our son’s 28th birthday.  In the Hebrew system of numerology, 28 is the number for “strength.”  I bless our son to have lots of strength, for now and for many, many healthy years to come.

He was not an easy child to raise.  The brilliant ones never are.  He always wanted more, and better, and faster; but at the same time he would get overloaded and have classic melt-downs, needing to be bear-hugged until he calmed down enough to go to his room and totally wreck it.  And he wasn’t so good with children his age.  In kindergarten he absolutely refused to participate.  I went to the child psychologist he had been seeing since age three, and together with the teachers we worked out a behavioral contract: for each five minutes that he cooperated and participated in class, he got to do whatever he wanted for fifteen minutes.  At first that was reading to himself in a loft they had in the room (he had taught himself to read when he was three).  Then he discovered the laminating machine in the office, and fell in love.  All of his out-of-class time was spent laminating things for the teachers and staff.  I joked that they should have paid him.

First grade was a wash-out.  It was a lovely Quaker school, and each morning the children had a meeting to cooperatively decide what they would learn today.  No dice: my son staunchly refused to participate, and stationed himself in a corner like a wooden Indian.  But somehow managed to get perfect grades on the tests.  Countless phone calls from the sweet young teacher later, I said to him, why don’t you just give him a job?  How about giving him a tape recorder and making him the class documentarian?  It worked.  He followed the class everywhere with his tape recorder.  That was his role.

Second grade was better because the new school had a pull-out Gifted Student program, and not only did he get one-on-one instruction, but he had peers with whom he could interact, that were on his wavelength.  They did stuff outside of school together too, like observing our goats having babies and speculating about how the babies got in there.  Then they observed our stallion in action, and that answered that question.

But then there was the constant bullying, because my son was weird.  Time after time he’d come home crying with a new bruise he’d acquired on the playground or the bus.  Countless phone calls to and meetings with the school principal bore no fruit, as they insisted that the incidents had to be witnessed by an adult, and of course the bullies were smarter than that.

So one day when we were at wit’s end, I said to him, look, the next time someone hits you, you hit ’em back!  And indeed the next day some kid whacked him upside the head while standing in line to get off the school bus, and my son turned around and decked the little bastard.  Oh, didn’t that precipitate an uproar!  The kid’s parents called the principal and threatened to call the police (on a seven-year-old?), and my son was suspended for two days.  But the bullying stopped.  That time, anyway.

After a few years of relative peace, we moved to another state, and there the bullying started anew, and my son stopped doing school.  He went, yes, but once again he stopped participating.   There was a dominant religion there, and the boys used to follow my son around yelling “You’re Jewish and you’re going to hell!”  One day my son turned around and said, “Fine, at least you won’t be there.”  Suspended again, two days.

Things progressed from bad to worse.  He was in seventh grade; I took him for educational testing and he turned out to be working at college sophomore level in reading, and college freshman level in math.  No wonder he wasn’t interested in seventh grade.

But he began to have behavioral issues similar to what he had had as a three year old: tantrums, but now with a simmering anger that frightened me, as he was literally twice my size.  His alternating angry outbursts and silent gloominess had me worried about depression.  We have a long family tradition of depression, and he certainly had both situational and genetic reasons to be depressed.

So I took him to a psychiatrist.  He would not say a word.  The psychiatrist recommended a psychologist, but the same thing happened:  arms crossed, staring at floor.  After five iterations of this, I gave up.  But then I found the suicidal note that “just happened” to slip out of his notebook.  Terrified, I got him into the car by means of screaming threats of calling the ambulance, and drove him to the emergency room, where I showed the note to the doctor and they sent for the psychiatrist on call, who read the letter and asked him if he felt suicidal now.  He shook his head.  Question repeated, response repeated.  Recommend follow-up with regular doctor in the morning.

Please, I pleaded, please just admit him for a 24 hour observation.  This note is really serious.  (As a pediatrician myself, I was trained that there are two kinds of suicide threats:  serious, and more serious.  And this one was more serious, because it specified a plan.)  They sent him home.

Then, it seemed moments later now, the Columbine school shooting happened.  Panic shot through every school in the country.  Some went on lockdown, some installed metal detectors.  Many started conducting regular routine locker searches.  Our school was one of those.

When they searched my son’s locker, they found it stuffed with papers.  Most of them were his homework papers that he never turned in: all done perfectly.  Some of the papers were more concerning: images of guns and missiles and ominous, dark poems about death and mayhem.  They called me in, showed me all the stuff, and threw him out.

It was at this point that I sent him to a wilderness therapy program, one that he couldn’t get out of until he started seriously dealing with his “shit.”  That is a whole ‘nother story, but it was the first of many outpatient and residential treatment programs.  He got into drugs, much more seriously than I had any idea of, as he told me later.  At the age of sixteen he had failed many programs and torn up the family, and his step-mother–I had sent him to live with his father because I couldn’t handle him anymore and thought that being with his dad might help–threw him out.  He went to live with a bunch of gangsters and sold drugs until they thew him out, and then he crashed where he could and ate cold pizza out of the dumpsters.  Somehow we got him into an adolescent psychiatric hospital, and they drugged him into a stupor, and there he lay on couches listlessly watching TV, until some kid started bullying him and he picked the kid up and threw him into a refrigerator, and they threw him out.  So he went to live in a homeless shelter, back to dealing drugs.

Then, serendipitously, he got busted for a small amount of pot.  I called the judge–I worked with the courts in that county a lot and knew all the judges–and begged him to remand my son to long-term residential therapy.  I knew that if I didn’t do something before he turned 18 that he would be lost, in jail, or dead.  The judge did me that favor, and I found a wonderful therapeutic boarding school that helped him find his way out of the hole he had fallen into and discover his wonderful talents.  He also got started on the right antidepressants, and thrived.

And now, bli ayin hara (a Jewish prayer against the Evil Eye, just ignore it), he is working on his Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry, doing things with the insides of cells that no one else has done before.  I am so proud of him!  He has taken charge of his mental health issues, working with a therapist and doing DBT.  He consciously cultivates hobbies that round out his life so that he’s not spending all his time in the lab, which he knows he would do if he didn’t do something on purpose to change it.

Looking back on this post, it’s amazing to see how many paragraphs of difficulty and heartbreak it took, to get to this last paragraph of triumph over desperation and despair.  And what I’ve told you is just the tip of the iceberg.  And he still has to work constantly to keep himself on an even keel, and living a healthy life.  But he’s doing it, thank God.  It isn’t easy being brilliant.

 

 

The Depressed Self: Reblog from Depression Comix

**TRIGGER ALERT**
When I saw this new work from Clay it kind of hit me between the eyes. For most of my life, there was nobody you could call “Lost,” because I had never had the experience of NOT being depressed.

So of course I didn’t know that what I was had a name, “depression.” I did know that I felt like shit all the time, even (especially) as a child, and I didn’t want to be alive, and often really wanted to die. I even tried to one time, by riding my bike in front of a car. I got a head injury and a number of other wounds for my trouble, and was really angry at G@d that I didn’t get to die. I was 10.

I tried to kill myself again when I was 22, by breathing pure nitrous oxide. I did die that time, actually, but was in the presence of someone who knew CPR so I got sent back again. That story is for its own blog entry: this is just a teaser (sort of).

I never knew that what I was, was depressed, until I was in college. There was an ad in the student newspaper for paid volunteers for a drugs experiment in the psychology department. Free drugs plus money? Yeehah! I went and applied.

They gave me an entire day’s worth of psychological testing. I went home and waited for the call to come in and get my drugs, and my money.

I got a phone call, but not the one I wanted. You must go right away to Student Mental Health, they said. Your tests show that you are suffering from Major Depressive Disorder.

Hmmm. I wasn’t feeling any different than I always fely, but I dutifully trudged through the Chicago snow to the Student Mental Health Center.

After the usual wait, a nice lady called me into her office. I sat down. She smiled and waited. I had nothing to say, so she began,

“Well! I see that you were referred for Major Depressive Disorder.” She smiled bigger. “Well! You’re very attractive. I see you get good grades in school. So why are you depressed?”

I stood up, thanked the lady for her time, and walked away from there.

Depression Comix

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