I grew up in the mental health system when Prozac was the new craze. Prozac was the second drug I took and within three years there was the new field of psychopharmacology. By that time, getting the right combo became quite the rave. What that meant there was little to no exploration of the role of trauma in my life. Instead of learning about elements of trauma that were related to the eating disorder that threatened my life, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder and told not to research it because it would only make it worse.
My therapist would repeat to me that the only way to deal with a personality disorder was in the context of a psychodynamic relationship. She didn’t let on that she didn’t think I was college material even though my GPA was a 3.9. She told my parents. They concealed this from me.
I stuck with this psychologist for seven years. It was true I didn’t want to look back at my life growing up with privilege. I also didn’t get the feeling that it was mature to blame my parents for the shameful eating disorder that left me dwelling in the inner-city and without a sense of support. My suffering was nurtured in psychotherapy by a rolling of the eyes and waiting for the impact of the next drug combination.
A History of Class Conflict:
I first started to notice not enjoying being around other people in fourth grade. It started by being bullied and teased by my peers for not wearing the latest fashions that my parents refused to buy. For some reason I dealt with this by fighting back and getting nerdier. My parents sought therapy for me. Perhaps, they were embarrassed by hearing about my social problems from their other friends on the private school faculty.
Back then, I could not understand why I stood out so much. My parents and shrink would tell me that my superego was too dominant. The shrink would get my Mom to let me buy more fashionable clothing.
Meanwhile, in the summers I found that I, in fact, did fit in with the welfare family who rented the downstairs of the Lodge, our vacation home in a rugged boon town in the Adirondacks. My family once owned a lumber company and my father inherited many old buildings which we used to vacation and rent out. With the welfare family living downstairs for three summers, I felt totally accepted. I was too innocent to realize that their lives depended on keeping me happy. We didn’t need to bathe and could be wild and have fun.
My welfare brothers would talk about hunting frogs with bb guns. The frogs wouldn’t die. Bbs would lodge themselves under the frog’s thick skin. They could shoot them all day. They loved to hunt frogs all day. One had so many bbs in it, it just floated in the water with a stunned look on its face.
One morning I woke up screaming from terrors. Pigs were being slaughtered in my dreams. My welfare brothers would laugh at me. They would tell me I was screaming, “Don’t you do that . . . Don’t you do that . . . Ah . . . AAAhhhh!” Then, we would go to work for my father who always told me that my welfare brothers were better workers than me.
I guess I lived and worked with that family enough to see the world from their perspective. And, boy, when I did that my family didn’t look too good. In many ways it only reinforced self-hatred.
Of course, even though I dressed better, things would still only get worse for me at the private Quaker school I attended in a Philadelphia suburb. I would break into my French-Canadian northern drawl to confront my peers about their teasing.
I think my social awkwardness really stood out during summer outings away from the Adirondacks. First, it was a two-week backpacking trip with middle-class Albany, NY kids at the adjacent YMCA camp. Next, it was not fitting in with rebellious rich kids who were getting straightened out at a North Carolina Outward Bound Course. And, finally, I attended a work camp in Belize where all the boarding school kids only wanted to drink and be ugly American Tourists. Meanwhile, I stuck to my stated goal, to live and work as though I lived in Belize. I was told it was the wrong reason for making the trip, but I didn’t care.
The year before my parent’s divorced I didn’t sleep more than three hours a night for nine months. Then, when my parents got divorced things got tough as I had to keep up with sports, work, extra curriculars, travel between both houses, and the sharp increase in school work. My mom started staying out at all hours of the night and forgetting to check on me while I was up working through learning disabilities at two in the morning. My dad still expected me to do his house chores no matter how many papers I had to write or how hard I worked at my fast food job.
I was a hundred and three pounds when I got admitted to the hospital. My parents packed my bags to drop me off at the hospital and the therapist said, “Wow, these bags are really heavy!” Then, he ordered my family to attend daily family sessions with me.
When I graphically failed to gain weight in that setting, my family had to pay out of pocket for two months of inpatient treatment, so I could gain twenty pounds. My father cried signing over the check and I felt much shame. I presumed the expense depleted my college fund. Because my room was converted to a study and I moved in with a friend upon discharge, I chose the least expensive commuter school.
Okay, my choice of College was not quite that simple. In the all-female inpatient unit where I’d be forced to revisit for an additional three months (this time insurance paid for it,) even a repressed fellow such as myself managed to learn to how to kiss. I started a sexual relationship with a twenty-five-year-old newspaper photographer who was schooling at the affordable commuter campus. After I graduated and worked at a summer camp, I moved in with her. Because she wouldn’t allow me to have friends, the relationship only lasted two years.
The latter two years, I hid the fact I was binging and purging by keeping to myself. I never learned to hang out and fit in. I didn’t make it to as much as a single college party. Instead, I worked with the neighbourhood kids at a local Korean gangster’s deli. Community relationships and the associated sociological learning was the thing that kept me going.
I’d do a little better with my socialization in grad school when I was medicated and under psychodynamic treatment. However, when I tried to breakaway and make a comeback on the west coast, it wouldn’t end well. I found myself compelled to uncover murder and mayhem in a local section 8 housing facility. I’d end up in a state hospital and believing I was under surveillance for two years.
It’s true with complex trauma, I am sensitive and overwhelmed by the regular issues that come up between people and in families. My emotions are based on a social justice narrative and I go from one to a hundred when I am getting teased, causing me to be further targeted. I may not get the joke right away, roll with it and have a good comeback. The insult may cut at my core when I think about it later.
During my twenty-something years, when people drank (or drugged,) I generally responded the same way I do when I get teased. I’d get a numb look on my face, withdraw, look at my watch and long to be somewhere else. Then, I notice when people talk to each other as if I’m not there and I don’t know what to do about it.
Of course, despite all the years of treatment I received, nobody noticed or asked about my experiences with disassociation. It wasn’t until I wrote a memoir about surviving the schizophrenia diagnosis that I recaptured a memory of molestation the summer of my third-grade year. In fact, I don’t disassociate regularly, but it can happen in times of excessive stress.
Of course, my response to the molestation incident was so extreme, I wonder if that was my only experience. I have many traipsed memories that feel like dreams and mystery. Are they also disassociated memories? Are they Dreams? I have always had them, and I have always wondered. Additionally, having many hypervigilant memories means, I have lost trust for people without understanding why.
I never really understood how devastating the experience of post-partum depression can be for a mother. Then I heard a severely-traumatized patient I work with say that her post-par-tum depression was the lowest point of her life. Think of a traumatized person. Think of years and years of homelessness, rape, physical abuse, family suicide, substance abuse. And think that all this does not compare to the pain endured during a post-par-tum depression when a woman just can’t connect with her child. This really made me think . . .
Up until recently, my mother made yearly visits to visit family in the area during which she would spend a day at my house. One year I drove out a couple of hours away to meet her at a park local to her other relatives to see her an extra day. Out walking in a flat, marshy California park amid Spring flocks of birds, my mother finally gave me a feel for what she went through after my birth. Her mother refused to support her in her most difficult hours. I knew she had been depressed when her mother died, but I hadn’t known this. I knew she only told me this because she wanted me to stop processing depressing stuff and I listened to her.
In my family two-generations back, lobotomies and institutionalization were the cure for family mental problems. There was no support available to my mother when it came to having depression. She had to buck it up. She still expects me to do the same.
Still the Pariah:
I find no comfortable around people. I avoid social engagements because I feel stigmatized, patronized or outclassed by the comments of others.
For example, while it’s true I do not know exactly what all my relatives really think about me, I think that in observing a slew of collective behaviour, most would conclude that something is going on that is not positive.
It is true I bear the stigma of having schizophrenia because I choose to live out of the closet. Additionally, my memoir was honest and not always flattering toward the family support I received going through the experience.
My grandmother with dementia could not remember who I was, but when she found out I was the author of the book, she declared, “It made the family look bad!”
My mother has said, “I could have written a book about all we did to try to help you and about how difficult you were!”
My uncle, a career professor at Princeton University, demurred in his response for a while and then said only, “the last chapter was positive.”
Even though it won awards in four contests, my aunt gave my book four stars on Amazon and wrote, “it is a difficult book, as the author, a trained mental health professional, dumps the reader into his own experience with precarious mental health . . .”
Many relatives refuse to look at me and only speak to my wife or each other when I am around.
When I had to miss a reunion because of a severe back injury that had me out of work for several months, I was told by my mother and cousin that my relatives said: “well, why couldn’t Barbara (my wife) have come!” It seems it was a joke that was tossed around so much at the reunion, some felt I should get to enjoy it as well. I still don’t know what to make of it. Do you?
It is true not all the responses of family members are necessarily negative. For example, the judicious comment of my uncle may not have been as negative as it had seemed. He later told me he liked my book when he saw I was upset. But it is much easier to withdraw and avoid my family. If my uncle really supported me, would he tolerate the jokes about me that are at my expense? I often wonder.
I perceive similar acts of hostility from other groups of people and choose to withdraw and write when I am not working.
Recovering from Psychiatric Treatment:
Being a psychiatric survivor means that I along with other marginalized groups in America like many veterans, homeless, felons, inner-city children and other abuse victims can relate to the symptoms of complex trauma. While it’s true there is the potential history of emotional neglect, the disassociation, the molestation, the hypervigilance, the psychic numbing, the emotional dysregulation, the avoidance of related things, the shame, the people-pleasing, there’s also a history of privilege.
It’s true, I didn’t have it that bad until I entered the twisted system of care that is based on a schizophrenia diagnosis.
While it’s true I continue to be dependent on medication, I do so because it helps me manage the oppression that surrounds me working in an inner-city outpatient psychiatric unit. I have learned with the help of the medications to have a public relationship with consensus reality that enables me to have meaning and purpose. I am liked and helpful to people on the unit where I work.
I suppose when I was coming up no one could get it right because a complex trauma disorder didn’t exist back then. Instead there was disorder after disorder after disorder. Nurses on the eating disorder unit suggested I was an adult child of an alcoholic. Now there’s another disorder or two to add of the epigenetic sort. What can I say, I am an easy person for whom to ring up a bill!
When I was in state hospital they couldn’t shut me up about how much trauma I was enduring locked up for being a whistle-blower. I circled the day room I was confined to for two weeks and got on the phone and yelled to my family and friends that the mafia was following me.
Meanwhile, I negotiated unwanted relationships with a red-state-Mexican-mafia-female and resisted the offers to run away with her. Then, I resisted the opportunity to join an outlaw gang for protection against her.
Also, there was a short, illiterate thief with severe scoliosis who said he was there to recruit me into the Navy Seals. He said I had what it took to be a great assassin. He said I passed all his tests. However, for my last test, he said I had to say that Ronald Reagan was a great president. I failed that one! As a result, I was sentenced to stay in the hospital against my will for three months.
Six months later, after two moves, the only job I could find and maintain was a job at an upscale Italian Deli. So, all gaslighting, taunting and teasing aside, maybe I had a point!
Believe me, still taking medication for complex trauma is not the worst thing that can happen to those of us who are coming from an era of misinformation! But if I had been treated for trauma and experienced more compassion, I wonder if I would continue to need the medication?