Seventy years ago my family closed a lumber company in upstate New York. A series of small towns had built up primarily around the business and had to be abandoned and redefined. As is often the case, times change the economy and people have to find new ways to survive.
Growing up, I never considered that the closure of the company had much of an effect on my family. Perhaps as the first born in the second generation since the closing, I just didn’t notice that I carried an unspoken weight. For years I have seen my father at times thanklessly function as the steward of swaths of land and vacation homes up in a small town within the region. This was not a footprint that I in any way would end up following.
Usually one does not think of a child born with such immense privilege as ending up homeless and in a state mental hospital. At some points in my journey I have been defined by long lists of psychiatric diagnosis. I prefer to consider myself as having chosen to find a new way to survive based on a changing economy.
The summer I was fifteen, I started the process of breaking away. I hadn’t slept more than two hours a night over the past six months.
About three months prior to a move to a custom-built, modern, plastic house that I objected to, the insomnia started. I somehow had the premonition that it was the end of our family and that I would be blamed. I could no longer stand to sleep on a bed. I’d end up wrestling on a mobile futon on the floor until around four in the morning. Then, after waking up my mother for support, I would drift off, only to wake in two hours to the hustle and bustle of a day at private school where both my parents taught.
At one point before the move, I reached such a state of angst alone in my room that I plunged a knife into my cheap foam mattress. I did not understand the emotional dysregulation I was experiencing. I did some other bad things to express my angst. I meant business!
By the time the summer rolled around, my father and I were driving the old Chevy Malibu up to the Adirondacks for a week on our own over the fourth of July. We stopped at a fast food restaurant and my father chided me about my work ethic. I had still managed to start on the varsity team as a second baseman and bring home mostly A’s. Still, my father was critical about my slowness. “You just don’t seem to like working for works sake the way Grandma and Danny Dewey do,” he said. Though I was always busy on the weekends with yard jobs, not sleeping was slowing me down. The A’s I brought home never seemed to earn me any notice.
We were going up to clean up the Lodge from the Dewey’s our previous renters who were a welfare family. I had befriended the two boys that were close to my age. The younger of the brothers would get five dollars for his birthday he’d invest on atomic fire balls and insist on sharing with me. We’d had wild adventures. Their older brother was already in jail for holding up a store to help the family survive. For my birthday I had received a hammer that my father had purchased for the elder of the two, Danny. “I wanted to give the hammer to Danny,” my father had said, “I had wanted to say, hey you’re a great worker; but his mother owed me so much money, I just couldn’t do it.”
Sitting in the fast food restaurant with these reflections in mind, I was hurt that my father felt I wasn’t a good worker and decided right then and there that I would not slow my father down on this work trip. I would do whatever it takes to satisfy him. And for that week I slept after 12-16 hour workdays. When I got home the sleeplessness returned
Thankfully, my sleep problem ended later that month when my father paid for me to attend an Outward Bound Program. We had so many slow hikers in our group; we often had to hike into midnight to get ourselves back to base camp. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food to eat because others didn’t share. Most of the kids were spoiled, suicidal, and missed their recreational drugs. But when I saved their lazy asses, they were actually grateful for my intervention and the usual taunting stopped. We ran a half marathon at the end. It was truly a glorious and amazing experience!
When I returned home my father said, “I can see that you have really grown during the program, I can see you better asserting your needs. But now that you’re back in the family I can see that the gains you made are going away.” My father’s negative forecasts about me always had a way of coming true.
I was right about my family collapsing, it happened the following winter. As my peers and my mother began engaging in drinking and partying, I took on the blame and extra responsibility. I soon became anorexic to cope with my strong emotions and my ongoing sense of being excluded and bullied. Then, after a long hospitalization I was placed in a temporary living situation away from my parents, hospitalized again until I met an older woman with whom I moved into the ghetto with to attend a commuter college.
My next diagnosis when I came in off the streets where I worked in a ghetto Deli with slicked back hair and an urban drawl was: schizotypal personality disorder. By that time I was binge eating and purging three times a day, but I evaded a bulimia diagnosis, though. Then more diagnoses were added, ADD and Dyslexia. I stubbornly persevered at work and school in spite of being urged to go on disability and put myself through a Master’s Program working full time.
Always in my career, I managed to overcome all diagnosis. Pretending to be well with boundaries and some genuine skills helped me succeed. A year after I got my Master’s, I moved AMA to start a new life away from my fractured past. My advocacy and political maneuvering cause me to have a lot of success and power in the section 8 community I worked in. Thus, when I squealed to the paper, I faced months of threats until I got scared and caught a two and a half year schizophrenia.
During the two and a half year period I was in severe “psychosis,” I never worked harder maintaining minimum wage employment while believing I was being monitored by the government. With my father’s help I avoided homelessness, shelters and institutions. After I got better and started to make a living wage, the diagnosis would change to schizoaffective disorder and now that the DSM V is out I’ve had a doctor argue that I am bipolar. All of these diagnoses have become ridiculous concepts to me. But to overcome them, I have had to overcome the negative forecasts of my father, the psychologists in the hospitals, and those exacerbated by the covert corners of our government. I have had to learn a lot to recreate myself.
Now that I have been embedded into a responsible job for the past fifteen years where I work in ghetto contexts and have written a memoir detailing my experience with “schizophrenia,” I am participating in planning a reunion for my Dad up in the land I have fought so hard to escape from. Now with the rest of my family, I will have to speak to honor my father’s work as a steward. I will think of all the friends I have made like the Dewey’s over the years: from the ghetto deli, to the project housing, to the deprived board and care homes peppered throughout the Richmond ghetto. I will tell myself that I am fighting now to pave the way opportunities for people who have been through “psychosis” to recover and work to help others who are suffering to recreate themselves. I know it can be done if we halt the institutionalization and change the medical model paradigm.
I really am ready to celebrate my father’s life and his work. I now can see that when I was fifteen, my father gave me what I needed to survive on my own outside our privilege. Now I can see that he spent his life paving the way for my escape and ability to recreate myself in the economy.
As times are changing and the disparities in this country are becoming more extreme, more and more people are being displaced by an economy that functions for the few, I believe psychiatric diagnosis will be on the rise for many of the others of us who want to break away and escape the injustice wealth and poverty, of slavery and genocide that shames our past. No matter what end of the machine you sit on, my prayers go out to those who break away and recreate themselves. We all can survive!