It all started the day after I had been accepted for early admission to Columbia College.
December 19, 1993.
I was seventeen years old.
I had left my family at home in Providence, Rhode Island, and was attending my senior year of high school abroad at an international school in Paris. I was having a great time, living with friends of my parents, Edgar and Linda Phillips.
I don't remember everything that happened.
Some memories I've forgotten over time.
Some events I blocked out as soon as they happened.
And I suppose it didn't start on that exact day,
that it started in high school,
much before maybe,
or pre-birth; it started with my grandfather, who had this illness, or with the relative of his who passed it along to him.
What started the day after I found out I was accepted to college was an episode so horrific that it would become impossible for me to deny that I had a mental illness for the rest of my life.
Though I had always known that something was wrong with me, what started that day was evidence, concrete evidence.
Hold on. Rewind.
The history of the inside of my head is the hardest to tell, because it is nonlinear, because it is fractured, because there are so many subplots, and because I have spent so much of my energy in my young life hiding that history from the outside world.
I was born on March 23, 1976, and was loved immediately by many many daring and dazzling people. First, by my mother and father. Imagine her a stunning and leggy rebel, and him a quiet and good-natured community man. She is a sex expert, a college administrator, a coordinator with Haitian Voodoo priests in their native land and tongue, a marathon runner. He is a pediatrician, a Little League baseball coach, a napper.
My parents' mothers are extraordinary women. My mother's mother was a lifetime social worker, who chased people off the dunes near her summer home in Cape Cod, and made quilts, and supported public radio, and recycled, like, decades before anyone else, and read revolutionary poetry, and worried angrily about everything but loved me with tremendous ferocity from moment one. Those hugs! Would my ribs make it through her hugs! She is still alive, though currently in very advanced stages of dementia.
My father's mother is a hot-shot theater producer. Her father and uncle started the dance hall Roseland in Philadelphia and New York City, so she grew up around nightclubs and live performance. She can be a mean lady; don't cross her or be silly or forget for a moment who you are dealing with, but oh the soft spot...when I turned one she wrote me a birthday card: "Have your mother show you this when you're older and I make more sense to you: My love for you is irrational and uncategorical." As a teenager I spent many summers living with her. Our relationship is intense and spirited.
My mother's father died of a sudden heart attack when he was thirty-eight. My mother was eight years old at the time.
My father's father was a very successful orthopedic surgeon and involved community man. He was also bipolar, but our family kept it a secret. He was diagnosed the year I was born. I was diagnosed the year he died. We passed the baton.
Before he was treated, he would buy property manically in Florida or take outrageous trips into the ocean on his boat. His depressions were severe and terrifying for my grandmother, my aunt, and my father.
Like everybody else on the planet, my parents are not perfect people, nor are they perfect parents. But they loved me -- I'm sure of it -- from conception on forward to today. And they love each other, madly. They travel together and listen closely to each other and launch each other off into the world the way young lovers would.
I was loved and looked after by my older brother, Aaron, who was a prodigiously talented athlete and daredevil (at three he dove off of the Olympic-height diving platform at Brown University...yes, yes, an insight into my parents: they let him, they launch us too). And then later, eight years after me later, there came Ben, who seemed to emerge into the world in a cheery and mindful Buddha-like state, which he remains in now, even as a teenager. I taught him to talk and to walk, and when he mastered that, I made him dance and sing.
The atmosphere in my house growing up was always exciting and upbeat. During the week, we had dinner together every single night. My parents insisted. On weekends, my mom and dad blasted their rock and roll or folk or soul music from the moment they woke up. At parties, they were the first and last on the dance floor (my dad can actually do this thing where he swings my mother to either side of his hips and then dramatically above his head and into the air). We seemed to have an enormous network of friends from all over the world and from different parts of their lives: old hippie radicals from my father's medical student days; students from Brown, where my mom was Dean of Student Life; actors from the theater where my nana worked. Our home more often than not had guests.
I was a child actress from the age of three to thirteen, so I received an enormous amount of attention from my family and their friends. Show me your latest commercial! Lizzie, sing that Johnny One Note song!
There's so much more. Great-aunts and uncles, cousins -- there were dozens upon dozens of people ready and loving at my birth and around through my childhood and adolescence. All of them intense, complicated, but gentle. They are artists and dancers and writers; they are bankers and doctors and college professors.
My family was spread in New York and Los Angeles and Providence and Brazil. We seemed willing to go any distance for a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a reunion, an event. There was always gossip and secrets upstairs and children downstairs making up a show.
My great-aunt Ruth, the matriarch, told me at one meeting of the annual Kissing Cousins Brunch (which only the female members can attend) that mine was "a good generation." And we are. My cousins are all fun, loving, and creative. We are noisy, and we laugh hard. We make time for one another. And we have inherited our parents' and grandparents' gentle and protective nature.
In my family, and extended family, we might each of us be a little crazy, but our intentions are pure. We never set out to hurt one another, and so we rarely do.
This is where I come from.
The larger universe, as you might understand, has always seemed unnecessarily brutal.
dParis was wonderful. Knowing that I had successfully escaped my high school in Providence made it all the more delicious.
A beautiful elite private school, Providence Academy is set on a hill with rolling greens and beautiful facilities. I had gone to public school until ninth grade, and after nine years in the public school system, the Academy was a culture shock stranger than any before or since. This tribe I came upon at the age of fourteen, in CB jackets and polo shirts, had the oddest and most fierce codes of conduct for itself.
I suppose I was an insider, but I never felt that way. I was invited to all of the parties. I was friends with the right people. I dated popular guys -- but I never really got it. The ski trips. The parties where no one danced. The humor. The arrogance. The racism and homophobia. Everybody agreed about everything. Lacrosse players were demigods, kids drove Beamers, and the coolest guys in my class pissed on one of the most popular girls at a party our sophomore year. They were the sons and daughters of the wealthiest businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and Mafia leaders in Rhode Island. Everyone was imitating what prep school should be and had always been. But none of it came naturally to me.
I was stuck. I had begged my parents to go there because my older brother attended. Understanding the financial sacrifice they were making, I couldn't possibly complain.
Little ole me, who grew up in a politically radical and charged household. Who had kept a journal of her feelings every day since kindergarten. Who had performed professionally as an actress since she was three, spending a better chunk of her childhood missing school, surrounded by artists. Who still suffered, despite at least a dozen therapeutic interventions dating back to almost prelingual times, from intense and inexplicable mood swings.
By my sophomore year, I had started dating this really popular boy named Chace Metcalf. He was a junior, but his friends immediately accepted me into their clan. It was not a serious relationship. We were not intimate emotionally or sexually. Actually, I think he was in love with someone else the entire time we went out: a girl who was away at boarding school. By my junior year our relationship was over, but my fixation on him had just begun.
I obsessed over him. It shames me to remember hundreds of pages of Chace journal entries, hours of conversations with friends on the subject, and countless futile attempts to resurrect what had only been a limp connection in the first place.
Chace was never cruel to me, but he didn't need to be.
I tortured myself.
My depression and anxiety used Chace as a tool for their torture. It's hard to read my journals from that period because I kept writing how much I hated myself. At the time I decided, with what felt like clarity, that Providence Academy was doing me in. I needed to escape.
I devoted myself to completing my credits in three years and convincing my parents to let me go to Paris to finish high school.
I think I was happier in Paris than ever before.
My French school was like college -- you didn't have to be there nine to five. I would wake when needed, pack my bag for the day, and walk past the high-class hookers on the corner to the Metro. I'd ride ten minutes to school, passing views of the Eiffel Tower. I would spend my free time wandering around or sitting in cafés smoking and drinking coffee.
No one in Paris had ever heard of lacrosse or Winter Solstice Balls or the Sophomore Girls Posse.
It was my first taste of power, the power I had within me to change my conditions to better my life. I had a lot of freedom, a lot of time on my hands. I felt attractive, intellectually stimulated, adventurous. I thought myself naive and unknowing in so many areas -- international politics, French culture, sex. I was always in a position of learning, and it was comfortable. I just learned a lot every day. I understood only half of every French conversation; I relied on my new school friends and Linda to let me know when something was due or when I had to be somewhere.
I have always enjoyed the company of adults, and my relationship with Linda Phillips was very important to me. When I got home from school she asked me how my day was, and we'd sit in the kitchen and talk. We discussed everything -- our families, the neighbors, sex, politics. Linda is really smart and has a mind for personalities, so it's her pleasure to chat for an hour and analyze a friendship or a boy situation. She really took me in as a peer, brought me to parties, took me out shopping. She was fun. The neighbors would be changing, and she'd turn off all the lights and we'd watch.
My new friends were fabulous. I had a theater class, and we were required to go see a show every week. Franklin and I would get stoned beforehand and then walk around the city. Tildy had lived her whole life moving every three to five years -- DC, Mali, Haiti, Paris. She called herself a global nomad. These kids had stories; they had been around the world and had had intellectual people at their dinner tables their whole lives. They read; they went to museums. They had theories about history, about America, about just about anything.
I remember going to a nightclub on a school night with the whole gang of girls. It was sadomasochism night, and Bethany wore a skin-tight black dress and jumped up on a speaker and gyrated away as soon as we got there. I wrote in my journal that she danced like a cheap whore and that I couldn't wait to go out with her again. Those were things you wouldn't find Carter Danforth doing back in Rhode Island. But my new friends knew about freedom.
I really felt that I belonged. The social rules were lax. There was no dress code. No one wore fancy clothes, or hip clothes. We just put clothes on.
I was enjoying the adventure only an urban locale can provide, and time was flying. I remember thinking I had never been this happy for this long my whole life.
And then I got into college. And everything was perfect. For just a moment, a few hours really, a morning. And then I went insane.
I remember walking slowly through the courtyard of my school in Paris, and I remember seeing Tildy through the window. She had heard the news, and she was waving fiercely. I remember Franklin telling me that I wore a shit-eating grin all through English class later that day.
I remember a little fuzz building in my head that made Paris a bit grayer than it was already.
I remember attributing the fuzz to my achievement.
I remember I felt uncomfortable, as if my jeans were too tight and my shoes too big, but in my head.
"I'm having troubles expressing myself to people," the last entry of my journal reads. "Maybe I don't know what I mean. It's hard to remember the beginning of my sentence now that I'm all the way at the end."
I remember thinking, why were things off when I had just gotten into college? I mean, I had worked my whole life for this.
The spiraling of my logic was getting more severe, chasing conclusions at quicker and quicker paces, while my actual articulation was getting slower and slower. I remember feeling I could not say much at all that would be right.
And I remember Linda explaining it away. I was going home the next day anyway, and Linda always thought that I had some pretty seriously mixed-up feelings about my family. She, of course, had some pretty mixed-up feelings about my family. I remember that. But I was going to Providence, and I remember reassuring myself that these circles would diminish once I was on domestic territory.
I remember the pit in my stomach, no thanks. I remember not wanting to go out for the celebratory dinner Linda and Edgar proposed.
When I woke the next morning, it was time to leave. I remember the plane ride well. I remember being very Linda in French blue jeans and the right shoes and jewelry and a blue sweater that I still have. I remember it covered my butt, and Linda thought that was a good thing. I remember the nervousness hadn't disappeared; in fact, I remember wondering why it was getting worse. I was jittery, worried, riddled with anxieties that created paradox laid over paradox. I don't remember what it was all about, really, but just that the load was getting more and more burdensome.
I remember it was the kind of plane where the last row was a smoking section. I sat there next to a guy about my age. My first impression was that he was probably on drugs. He looked raggedy; his hair was blond, long, and stringy; his face was scruffy. He looked skinnier than he should be, and he had a drink in hand. It was the kind of flight where you could have an unlimited number of cocktails, and he and I drank quite a bit during the flight. He certainly didn't fit the composite of the people Linda wanted me around. Where had he been in Paris, and why hadn't I been there?
He broke the ice. "You know," he said, "the most interesting people I have ever met were in the smoking sections of airplanes."
"Really?" I asked, giggling, not fashioning myself as all that interesting.
He was an artist, and he said he had been bumming through Paris.
Eventually he revealed that he had gone to a prep school near my house. So we were from the same place, going back home. And I was getting drunk, and feeling much better about life. His sense of humor was spastic and offbeat, and my vision of reality was already morphing, so he was pleasantly perfect. He was my first relief. We flirted and teased the stewards. He made fun of me, and I gazed at him. I told him he looked like Kurt Cobain. We sat half in our seats, half slumped to the floor of the plane, hurling out irreverences. We smoked and smoked and smoked. His eyes were very, very blue, and I felt safe with him, and I believe he saw my confusion. He moved liked a caterpillar, and he was fuzzy like one too, though now when I imagine him I see a halo. He churtled in and out of my space, and I wanted him to kiss me. Before we got off the plane, we exchanged phone numbers.
Now I was drunk and a bit elated in love when I found my mother and told her I had just met the man of my dreams. He slithered over, reeking of liquor and cigarettes, all dirty and gangly, and met my mom. She said he had an ephemeral quality to him. I thought she meant effeminate, but she said no, she meant, uh, heavenly.
After that point things start to fade, because I slept very late the next day, and I just don't remember much at all until memories of sobbing in bed, and memories of leaving a Christmas party. And I was drifting and drowning, disappointed that I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to call my friends from home. I was worried about being worried, about having no energy. The walls swooned, and my journals emitted passages about previous depressions until that was all I could remember: suicide attempts at prepubescent intervals, broken-hearted letters, other tears, other darknesses. I had never been so tortured; I felt a mass of pain at every instant, and it was deepening, thickening. I could not speak of it because I had lost the consciousness needed to identify that something was wrong.
Lizzie ended. I was something else, and I had no appreciation of the past or any other present. The way it was those days, it seemed as if that was all I had ever been.
And in the middle of this, my parents were annoyed. They said I was so antisocial, so mopey. What the hell was my problem? And when Tom, the boy from the plane, called I wouldn't pick up the phone. My mother forced me to call him back. He kept wondering what was wrong. I said my family was bugging me. He was coming the next day, and he wanted me to show him Providence.
He picked me up, and we drove around. As it happened, my Providence Academy yearbook inscription copy was due that day, so Tom and I worked on it. Now it is filled with stuff that makes no sense (for example: BNE is cheese), but it ends with our flight number. I couldn't really speak; there were a lot of awkward silences, and I was perennially on the verge of tears, which once begun I feared wouldn't cease for hours. Finally we stopped for lunch. "What's wrong?" he kept asking. I had nothing to say. I felt like such a failure. I felt I had ruined something wonderful.
He, on the other hand, was amazing. Sat with me for a long time in silence, at the beginning of an episode during which people generally terrified me. I was stripped and vulnerable to injury that wasn't actually being inflicted -- but if you can understand anything about episodes, see that it was all real for me. But Tom didn't scare me. He sat with me at the window of a sandwich shop, offering to do anything, go anywhere. I said, "Take me home." I broke into tears; I said "sorry" eighteen times; I couldn't hear him any longer. "Please take me home."
He took me home. We went inside, and my mom chatted with him. He said good-bye, I think. I went to my room and sobbed until days later.
The next thing I remember is being driven to a therapist. I sort of felt that I was successfully proving to him how I felt, until he told me that I had been talking in circles for ninety minutes straight, and that I wasn't making a bit of sense, and that I was clinically depressed -- so depressed in degrees he had rarely ever seen, and that something absolutely had to be done. With pills. By that point I was a slug, and my dad led my sluggy body to the car, and I probably cried until our next outing on New Year's Eve day to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist sat with me for a few minutes, asked a few questions, and gave me Paxil, an antidepressant. I'm pretty sure he said that there wouldn't be any side effects. My parents were nervous about my going back to Paris alone. But I convinced everybody to let me. I had exams to complete. I couldn't miss them. And I remember thinking that Providence had caused all of this, anyway.
Things were so strange and dark for me, but I was more worried about taking my finals than I was about taking my Paxil.
My mom dropped me at the airport. She looked tired and frazzled, and I remember thinking that I couldn't say anything to make her feel better about my situation. I remember promising her I'd call a psychiatrist when I got to Paris, though I never did. I remember promising to take my pills, which, of course, I did. And I remember a tremendous body shock when I slammed the door to my mom's car. It had been warm, and the radio had been playing Mary Chapin Carpenter. The door closed. A world rolled off, and I remember feeling alone, cold, and burdened with luggage.
I remember arriving at my friend Gina's in Paris to stay for a couple of weeks while Linda's kids were in town. I sat Gina down and told her I was on antidepressants. I made her swear not to tell her mom and not to tell anyone at school. She promised, and we studied for our next day's math exam. After just two days of Paxil, the pistons in my head had already sped up to normal "Lizzie speed" and were quickly surpassing that level. That night, I made Gina stay up until 5:30 to study math. Even after that, I couldn't sleep. I attributed it to nervousness.
I don't remember anything chronologically, really, until I arrived at Linda's two weeks later in a psychotic state. Only scattered flashes remain.
I remember standing in my English class while we were discussing The Invisible Man and sparking a long tirade about how the book was really one line from every famous book ever written, woven together to make sense, but the trick of it was that it makes sense in the beginning, but not at the end. Furthermore, I argued, Ellison constructed it so that no one could possibly get past chapter six. "Has anyone here," I challenged, "gone past chapter six?" And who here can prove that Ellison existed? "Son-of-Ellis," I pointed out. "Son of America's roots." I directed the class to the back of the book, where a reviewer had written that the book belongs on the shelf with all the classics of literature. "On the shelf," I beamed, electric with my discoveries. "On-the-shelf." My teacher stared at me blankly, as did my classmates. They don't get it, I thought.
In my mind, everyone slowly became complicit in a plot to get me.
And so I remember avoiding people, which is part of why I was psychotic for so long. Gina, being a good friend, kept her promise of secrecy. Perhaps people thought I was drunk, reeling from my early acceptance into college. Perhaps it is part of French culture not to intercede in someone's life if you've only known the person for four months. Perhaps my friends, at age seventeen, were ill equipped to save someone psychotic. It was final exam time of their senior, and most important, year of high school. Perhaps they had other things about which to worry.
I saw men from the CIA when I walked to the Metro. They flashed behind corners, but I always managed to escape them by running. I ran quite a bit. I also avoided their scheme to rape and kill me by not eating. They had contaminated whatever food I could get my hands on. I also didn't sleep, because I couldn't, and because I knew they would capture me if I were to close my eyes. I vaguely remember figuring out that my international school classmates were all hostages, but that I hadn't been fully brainwashed, and that I needed to escape before I became one of them.
A skinny tall girl with big frizzy blond hair stole my lighter to tease me. When she gave it back, I was certain that she was going to kill me so, I lit a cigarette and tried to burn her eye out with it. Someone held me back while she screamed at me in French, calling me a lunatic.
I remember not going to school one day and wandering the streets of Paris, avoiding enemies who approached at every corner.
I remember trying to return to Gina's one night but getting very lost. I don't remember how I got there, but I remember it was extremely late, and Gina was worried when I finally arrived.
I remember going to Linda's one day. The entire family was away skiing in Switzerland. The apartment was dark, and the concierge's kid, who was three or four, came in with me. It occurred to me that everyone was going to accuse me of molesting him, so I screamed at him and made him leave.
I remember not being able to do a simple exercise in my theater class, because everything had become too confusing.
I remember sitting in a cafe on a sunny day, standing up and announcing that I was going to walk until I got laid.
I remember walking and realizing why the Mona Lisa was smiling. I was figuring out so many things.
I remember sitting in my bedroom at Gina's, and finding that there were microphones everywhere. Many nights I spent in the dark, waiting for killers to arrive.
I remember writing about a dozen letters to semirandom people -- teachers from back home, Chace's sister, an old friend with whom I had lost touch. I remember sending those letters.
I remember my last moments at Gina's. I went to the bathroom, and I saw blood on the walls and microphones in the corners of the ceiling. I grabbed my papers filled with manic ramblings into a bag, left a note for Gina pleading with her to try and escape, and ran out of the building. But then I ran into her. She started to cry as I got into the cab, and I told the driver to go to Linda's. I could see Gina on the curb helplessly wiping tears from her cheeks. I can still see her there.
When I arrived, I couldn't find any money. The driver locked the doors and told me to give him a blow job. I started screaming viciously, and he let me out. I ran up to Linda's apartment and told her I needed to escape. I also told her that I was a cat, a realization that had come to me a few days earlier.
I remember that she couldn't get in touch with my parents because they were in Puerto Rico, and there was an earthquake in Puerto Rico. I took those details and understood that the CIA had created disturbances around the world to prevent my escape. Linda made some strange choices. She asked her son, who was a certified EMT, to check my vital signs. I thought he was going to rape me, so I bit down on my hand until it broke the skin. She thought I should take a bath, which seemed like a good idea to me as well, since I was a bug-infested cat. But she locked me in the bathroom, which convinced me that she was out to get me, too. She then locked me in the chambre de bonne, a room with no windows on the top floor of the building, a room meant for a maid back in the days when people kept maids in such rooms. In that room I sat wet and terrified. Linda came up and tried to psychoanalyze me, and she was holding a long stick. She then told me she was going to an embassy party, and that I had to come because she couldn't let me stay home alone. Apparently, she couldn't miss an embassy party either.
In my psychotic reality I thought I was the CIA's most wanted cat, and I was being dragged to an embassy party. Soon after we arrived, I began embarrassing Linda, so she had Edgar walk me home.
I was just about to jump off the terrace in a suicide attempt when the phone rang. It was a woman who sounded just like my mother, but I knew that it was probably the CIA, so I pretended I was Linda. My mother was really confused, and was clearly distraught that Linda had left me alone in the apartment.
Linda eventually returned. On advice from the American Hospital in Paris, I stopped taking the Paxil that night. Linda informed me that the pills proved I had something called bipolar disorder, which I thought meant that I was a hermaphrodite. But that still only began to explain to me why I had turned into a cat.
The next morning Linda and Edgar took me to the airport. I had packed a bag full of schoolbooks and journals. These items seemed most important for my survival, and I had to keep them from the CIA. The books, if found by the wrong people, would ensure my extermination. If I could get them into the right hands, I could usher in the revolution. It was a very heavy bag. I was pleased when we arrived at the airport, for I had been certain all night that they were plotting to send me to a boarding school in the north of France. Linda bought my ticket, and a small Asian woman led me to the plane. The horror struck me, my most terrifying realization so far: the plane was going either to a prison in Siberia, or to hell, and all of the people on the plane were in my condition.
The people on the plane were very odd. Most were drenched with sweat and seemed sickly and disturbed. Almost every person on the plane was wearing an article of my clothing, and in their hands they held my belongings -- my books, my journals, my pictures. The flight attendants were rubbing their fingers around my pills, and overhead the sounds of more pills dropping on the ceiling menaced me.
I couldn't sit still.
I tried at one point to open the emergency door, but a flight attendant grabbed my arms and sent me back to my seat.
There was always blood on my pillow, so I kept trying to move. But it seemed as if every chair I sat in presented another problem.
When we were served a meal, there were rat feet markings in my food and hairs sticking out of the beef.
One man told me I needed to take my shirt off, so I began to.
In the bathroom, there were cameras hovering overhead and inside the toilet. If I was going to relieve myself, I would have to suffer the humiliation of everybody on the plane seeing my peeing from both angles. I really had to go, so I did, but I let everybody on the plane have it as I returned to my seat. By the end of the trip, everybody knew who I was, and I let them know that I knew exactly what was going on.
Near the end of the flight, I asked one man where we were going.
"Boston," he said. Yeah, right, I thought.
I remember I wouldn't fill out the embarkation card because there was no box to mark "cat" under gender. I ranted and screamed my way through customs somehow, and then I saw my grandmother waiting. I was elated: I had escaped.
I was really excited that evening. I was bug infested, but I was home and in America. Surely my father, the doctor, would know where and how to decontaminate me once he got back to the house. Plus, I had just accomplished some sort of international hijinks, and it was just a matter of time before the entire country would begin heralding my terrific feats.
For the time being, though, my grandmother offered to defrost me some pea soup from the freezer. I declined, showered, and got into bed.
I don't really remember much at all after that, but I know what my mother remembers.
She says that by midnight they had returned from Puerto Rico. I had fallen asleep, which was good. I hadn't really slept for weeks. When I woke in the morning, my mother was asleep on the floor beside my bed. She says I woke her up and demanded she find Backlash, by Susan Faludi. I wasn't angry, she says, just incredibly determined.
My mother raced about the house and found the book. I opened it up to a certain section, and handed the book back to my mother. Then I proceeded to recite the book, as if from memory, to my mother. Whole chunks, she says, line by line.
My mom says there was a moment when she first woke up that morning that I seemed so normal, and that even through the recitations of feminist literature she thought, hey listen -- this isn't too bad. She's alive, she's not violent or suicidal, she's almost making sense, she's in our care, we're going to get her help...this is almost over, I think she thought.
I overhead things during moments of lucidity. My mom and dad felt Linda and Edgar were irresponsible for not accompanying me home. My mom was so angry and my dad was so sad.
Linda called and told me my mother and father were irresponsible for not telling her I was on psychiatric drugs.
I was supposed to tell you, I thought. Everybody stop fighting. I'm responsible.
Linda and I were never really friends again.
My parents didn't hospitalize me. It turned out that I was toxic and psychotic from the Paxil, a drug that can induce mania in bipolar patients. I had to be brought down -- and they have lovely drugs for that. Drugs that erase your memory, drugs that make you drool, drugs that drain your brain. One or both of my parents stayed home with me during the time the antipsychotics did their deal.
I imagine the brain like an outer space cosmos, with little ships and beams of light zipping around carrying messages and directives. I imagine my universe at the time in utter chaos, and the antipsychotics as a nuclear bomb. Like we haven't developed humane sophisticated ways to deal with disorder, so let's melt the whole thing down.
I started lithium about a week later. I really didn't want to take it, but things were beginning to get really bad again, depressionwise.
I was terrified.
I was told I should go on it for the rest of my life, that bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that only worsens with age. It sounded very serious. Lithium? Forever? Could I be that sick? What had happened didn't seem like an episode. It seemed like a permanent change, a series of life-altering events in which I would forever be held prisoner. I had been transformed into a raving lunatic in Paris and then into an antipsychoticized heap of skin, floating around like a ghost. What next?
Lithium. I imagined zombies in loony bins. I imagined wealthy pill-popping housewives. I imagined indie rockers. Get her on lithium. Get some lithium flowing through her. Poke the lithium stick through her and set her on the grill like a shish kebab. Lithium. What would it turn me into? That was the big question. Look what Paxil had done, and that was just an antidepressant. Lithium was a very serious-sounding drug. It sounded so sinister. And any reassurance of its safety sounded like nonsense. I didn't exactly trust my doctor or my parents. LOOK WHAT HAPPENED THE LAST TIME YOU CONVINCED ME TO TAKE A DRUG YOU MOTHERFUCKERS.
I figured they'd keep me on the third floor of our house and let me waste away without hurting anybody. I'd be the crazy uncle in the attic. My parents would have guests over, and they'd bring me downstairs. This is Lizzie. Hi Lizzie, the perfumed guests would say, and on the way home they'd discuss what a shame it was what happened to me and how kind and good the Simons were for not sending me away somewhere far far away. LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO ME YOU ASSHOLES, LOOK AT ME, LOOK WHAT HAPPENED WITH YOUR FUCKING PILLS. And that had been only a few weeks ago. Lithium. Didn't Kurt Cobain write a song called "Lithium"? Stick her on lithium; it'll calm her down. Take the lithium. Swallow, sweetheart. It was so menacing.
But lithium worked for me. Just two days on lithium, and I was fine by most people's standards. Lucid, calm, sleeping regularly, eating regularly. Not crazy, not at all.
There were side effects for six months, and then the side effects began to diminish until they disappeared. At first there were headaches -- unreal, world-deafening headaches. And thirst. Oh, thirst like you've never known. I had to have water around at all times. And the shakes -- my hands would shake; it would weird people out. I gained twenty-five pounds and developed a lot of acne.
I looked like a different person. I felt like one, too.
People talk about psychopharmaceuticals changing their personalities, dulling them down, or overmellowing them. I did not notice those changes.
The changes I noticed were the result of the depressive and manic events in Paris and Providence. I felt different. I had lost faith in my parents, Linda and Edgar, my friends, the medical community, God, the time-space continuum, my memory, my brain, my body, my eyes and ears, my heart, and my soul.
Lithium gave me a functional brain.
But now I had heavy and intense shame, doubts, and fears.
Lithium didn't know how to take care of that.
I didn't either.
I remember that period of time as if it were my second birth.
I died when I went crazy in Paris, and started over when I was diagnosed and put on lithium.
I started over, from scratch, at seventeen.
My parents made me go back to school about two weeks after I had returned from Paris. I did not feel ready; the drugs hadn't even settled in. And Providence Academy was the most terrifying place on earth for me. Going back was the ultimate surrender to the power of the illness. I hated that place. I had escaped, and then something enormous and terrible and mysterious happened. And I had to go back there.
I remember my mother called an old friend of mine named Mindy and had her visit me at our house the night before I was to return to school. Mindy and I had gone to preschool together and had remained best friends until we were teenagers, when Mindy began her descent into anorexia and our connection dwindled. Mindy had already been in and out of hospitals, but she was back at Providence Academy, struggling still. She stood before me at a reasonable weight. She looked at me in kindness and friendship.
"What do I tell people?" I moaned to her.
She shrugged her shoulders. "Mitigating circumstances," she offered. "It works pretty good. Mitigating -- you know, most people at Providence Academy get thrown off by the word 'mitigating.'"
I remember my first day back at school. My morning class had gone all right. Nice people, nice teacher.
But now I have a free period. I enter the student center. Everybody's looking at me; everybody's asking why I'm back in Providence. I can't keep my stories straight, and I know people are talking. I retract. I have a homework assignment from my first class: I'm supposed to read an article. I take it from my bag, but I can't read it. The words are jumping all over the page. I look up in despair, and people are looking at me. Nobody sits alone in the student center. I sit clutching the photocopied article, pretending to read it, holding on for dear life.
But I can't read.
I can't talk to anybody.
I can't do anything.
Can I get someone to come pick me up? I wonder desperately. I can't do this....
For some reason, an image pops into my mind. I remember belting out show stoppers in my preadolescence for large audiences to thunderous applause. I was a real hit on the talent show circuit, even though my mom refused me the gaudy costumes and adult makeup. The other girls could toe-tap or climb stairs on their hands; I only had a decent voice but huge unexpected performance balls. Johnny only had one note to sing and the note he sang was this: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!
I was afraid of nothing. Was that still in me? How could I get that back?
Lithium wasn't the only drug that helped me recover after I was diagnosed with manic depression. Eventually I was smoking pot about five times a day, hanging out with an ebullient Campbell soup-looking kid who dealt most of the drugs in our school. The first time I tried marijuana I worried that it might shatter my mental health completely. But when nothing happened except the general dopiness that one expects from weed, I realized that I wasn't quite as fragile as I had previously thought.
I was a pothead for six months. And thank God. It put me into the hands of a bunch of really nice kids who were nonthreatening, creative, musical, and accepting of a new person. I had never been friends with these people before, because my friends were always older and they had graduated. So we'd drive around during free periods and get high, and I had seventeen thousand free periods because everybody was afraid of giving me too big a work load and stressing me out.
I needed to be high all the time because I couldn't deal with the intensity of what had happened to me in Paris, I couldn't deal with my parents, and most of all I couldn't stand being back in high school. For me, pot was a bridge back to real life, a cushiony warm soft bridge that made the day-to-day OK while my brain and body adjusted to lithium and while my soul began to digest the trauma. Also, pot made it easy to be social again after the most alienating and horrifying experience of my life. When I started smoking pot and hanging out with potheads, I felt normal, age appropriate.
I didn't feel like a sick kid.
I didn't feel like the Big Burden.
I didn't feel dirty and scummy and messy and brimming with toxic waste.
Mental illness interacts with the way you define yourself from the instant it enters your life. There was a whole seventeen and a half years of living before this horrible episode descended upon me. Seventeen and a half years of wondering why I never felt quite right anywhere. Not in my home, not in my schools, not in my cliques, not with my boyfriends. Did this mental illness thing explain everything that had ever happened to me? Was lithium going to make me more fit for life, for fun, for love?
And who was going to help me deal with what I had been through? Who was going to understand that?
In the fall I began college at Columbia in New York City. I would get to start over. New people, new city, new challenges.
Suddenly my parents and I were in a long line to move into my freshman dorm with lots of other nervous eighteen-year-olds and their parents. Not a happy day. By four in the afternoon, I sat my parents down and said that the best and kindest thing they could do for me would be to leave. I had a new roommate to get to know, classes to pick, a cappella group tryouts.
I was back on track.
But it wasn't over. Maybe it seemed to be over, to my parents, to my close friends. It wasn't over.
You can't just hand a bipolar person lithium and be done with her. I mean, you can -- and that's exactly what's done for most bipolar people. That's how it went for me, anyway. But that's not treatment. That's not good care.
I never got any therapy. I tried, but my therapists weren't bipolar. They didn't understand.
Who was going to understand what I had been through? How was I supposed to figure this all out? My parents wanted me to move on and away from it as fast as I could. And I did, too. I really did. I thought, if I can achieve success, then I will feel OK. The more success I can achieve, the more my haunting memories and my unanswered questions will disappear. I will put all things bipolar to the side, I decided -- in the corner, away somewhere.
I spent my freshman year winning friends.
I was relieved to find that I could make and keep friends.
That people really trusted me even if I couldn't reciprocate fully.
That I wasn't the only one using Columbia to start over.
Two of my closest friends, Garrett and Genevieve, lived with me for the remaining years of college. We tried to figure it all out together, and we did, but each of us had our own special stuff in our own special corners. Most of the time, my special stuff didn't feel any larger than anyone else's.
I told my closest friends about my bipolar episodes, but it was tricky. Everybody's heard things about mental illness, seen things on TV, read books with mad characters. Everybody's already got ideas in their head about it.
I waited until I was sure they could handle it, and I figured out the best way to talk about it. I made it palatable, and every single friend I opened up to was great (after I told my friend RJ that I was bipolar, he said "oh" and nodded and confessed to me that he had asthma). I certainly didn't seem moody to them, and revealing issues was sort of "in." But my excessive packaging of the experience usually put me at a greater distance from the person I was talking to, instead of bringing me closer, as I had desired.
Now that I had friends, I tried to regain my intellectual confidence. My first year was academically beguiling; almost everything, it seemed, went over my head. I had very little idea what was being discussed and how it connected to anything else in virtually all of my classes.
In my second year, I found a mentor in a class called "History of the Radical Tradition in America." My professor was brilliant and my graduate student teacher's assistant was brilliant and my section was brilliant. I was totally intimidated, but my teacher's assistant singled me out, took me under his wing, and just said, I think you're really smart. You have great ideas but you don't express them well. You seem kind of sad. You don't talk much, but you should. What's going on?
I don't remember what I told him. His name was Tim. He was a devoted teacher and a radical thinker. His lectures were passionate sermons.
Perhaps he intuited that there was great capacity for devotion within me. He started calling on me all the time. I was doing the reading, but I didn't feel that I was really getting it, and I didn't know how to talk like the other kids talked so I would just say whatever came into my head. I would just say why I was confused, and I'd be totally mortified. But Tim would always say something like EXACTLY! with bulging eyeballs, and an intellectual was born within me.
I attended special lectures, pored through rare books, and challenged my conservative dormmates.
Our class extended discussion and debates to the local bars in the area. People in the class started to refer to things I had said -- and these were smart people! I was particularly impressed with one student, Josh. He was the smartest kid I had ever met in my entire life. And he thought I was smart! I really couldn't believe it. All of a sudden I was smart again.
Once I felt I had mastered writing papers, taking exams, and doing research, I again felt a space inside of me, an emptiness, a longing.
When a fellow student offered me his position as arts director at the college radio station, I took it.
I had a weekly show and oversaw four other shows in the department.
I went gonzo.
There was once again the learning part of the quest; I had to master engineering, interviewing, and management skills.
But once again, I took something and applied complete devotion to it. Soon I was interviewing Matt Damon, John Waters, Gus Van Sant, Julianne Moore. I was scamming my way into Broadway shows and industry parties. I had indie film stars and young writers stopping by my dorm room to hang out. I produced an arts festival, which featured over one hundred artists; I was on the air for twenty-four hours straight. By senior year, the phone in my dorm room rang so often that I usually kept the ringer off. When Garrett or Genevieve answered, he or she would say, "Lizzie Simon's office."
Graduation lingered there in the ever-approaching future.
I had mastered college, but so what, I thought. I knew I wouldn't have papers to ace and radio shows to produce for much longer. And when graduation day hit, I didn't take it so well.
The night before graduation I cut my hair, which had been long, brown, and curly; it hung two inches beyond my shoulders. I cut it short, like army head short. And I cut it with a huge pair of blunt scissors.
I remember Garrett, Genevieve, and I dressing into our baby-blue caps and gowns. Their dorm rooms were bare and stripped, empty except for full suitcases and stuffed boxes. Mine looked as it had a few months earlier; I hadn't begun to pack.
While my classmates, high as kites, raised the roof all over campus chanting 98! 98! 98! I wrote depressing poetry and sulked.
Garrett said, "Lizzie, I don't know what you're so upset about; it's going to be like summer vacation but for the rest of our lives!"
I was afraid of the real world. Afraid of being an adult.
I knew I could find a job, but I needed something to throw my whole self into. I wanted a devotion.
Then Jim Simpson came on my radio show, the very last show I did as a student.
He arrives early. Jim has never listened to WKCR 89.9 FM, so I tell him how it's the greatest station in the universe, and I start to describe all the terrific jazz and new music we broadcast. I'm talking his ear off for maybe three minutes, and he's just listening. Then he asks me what I'm doing after graduation. I tell him I don't know. He asks what would I do if I had a job producing music in his space, the Flea.
Now I don't know anything about music; I'm the arts director. I listen to R&B and hip-hop at home, and when I'm lonely I listen to light favorites. I think my friends would say I have exceptionally cheap taste in music. But I say, well I'd do a jazz series and a Latin series and a New Music series and an African series and an American music series. (Those are the names of the departments at WKCR.) And I would make it interactive, I say. (I'd been watching VH-1.)
I figure some pasty sophomore at the station will help me find the right people, and a jazz DJ legend will help me figure out the bigger conceptual picture, and I can figure out the grunt work.
The theater is really a mess, he warns me; three floors of a building, but no seats, or painted walls. No offices, or finished bathrooms. It is a pit, and no one has heard of it.
This doesn't bother me.
The job is mine. The devotion is beginning.
Copyright © 2002 by Lizzie Simon