me story

November 9, 2010

Something I had posted to an online group of psychiatric survivors:

When I read stories of psychiatric survivors like us, I am amazed that so many of us speak of heavy sexual, physical and emotional abuse. I feel very bad about this and how it’s marginalized by psychiatry. My problem was the lack of any sort of emotional attachment to my parents.

I was adopted when I was a tiny baby by two people who were desperate to have a child. They wanted to do everything right. And I suppose they did, with the exception of one tiny thing that none of us could help. They were so different. They simply were not like me. The list of differences, the list of things not like, was endless. It was very, very weird living with these people. They had the very best of intentions. I can’t argue other wise, but they were completely different people living in a completely different age. They did not think like me and they seemed to bear no resemblance to me. It was so, so frustrating.

They were hard-working, like their German ancestors. Everything was a chore to be completed. They always wanted to DO. I, on the other hand, was lazy and lackadaisical. Nothing really required attention unless it was burning or falling down. Life was not work. Life was a pleasure to be seized and I was simply happy to BE.

A dear friend of mine, the man I call my Mentor, would look at my dark complexion and stocky frame covered in hair and would tell me one day, “You look like you come from Eastern Mediterranean stock. They’re a little more laid back than the Northern Europeans. And it’s little wonder that your lazy, indolent ass has been a never-ending source of consternation for your hard-working German parents.” And I laughed uproariously because my Mentor was generally always right.

Compounding to this list of things not like, my parents had grown up in a completely different era. They grew up on the tail end of the Depression and during WWII. They had learned to be respectful and trusting of authority. I was growing up in the time of the hippies–people my parents absolutely hated–and I was quickly learning that authority more often than not lied.

For the most part my dad was easy-going and hands-off. He kept largely out of the picture. It was my mother who I had the most problems with. She struggled to impose what she thought was right. What she thought was right I thought was absurd. She refused to brook any differences and took affront that I dared to be different. I could never do anything right for her. It all led to argument, criticism and hostility. It was a mess, but I can’t doubt that she had the best of intentions.

One good thing that came out of all of this, I guess, was that I grew up expecting that people were going to be different from me and that this difference was unavoidable. I learned that it was something to be enjoyed and savoured and that I had absolutely nothing to apologize for.

As I got older, I discovered one group of people who wanted to nurture and encourage–my teachers. They wanted me to be who I wanted to be. They wanted me argue and to ask questions and weren’t offended when I disagreed, within reason, of course. These days I hear a lot of hate directed at the school system and teachers. I just don’t understand it. Certainly there were teachers that I liked more than others, but I never really found a bad one in the bunch. And I went to a small, poorly funded rural school district.

One of my favorites was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs R.  She was always primly dressed and no nonsense, yet elegant and indulgent at the same time. I loved her dearly. She let me have the lead part in our class’s play because I could memorize the lines so quickly. She encouraged me to read and write. Under her I began reading voraciously and taking piano lessons, two things that are now encouraged for that age.

Another thing I loved about my teachers is that they stuck up for me when I got teased. And I got teased mercilessly because I was so fat. This was at a time when childhood obesity had not become, as they say, an epidemic. I was the odd man out and some the bullies liked to pick fights. My teachers saw what went on and knew that one little boy wouldn’t start a fight with nine other little boys. They knew I was on the receiving end from the get-go. They watched me walk away so many times but knew there were times when I couldn’t. And they always stuck up for me.

This obesity had bedeviled me all my life. My mother put me on diet after diet but I just had this compulsion to eat everything in sight. I was also clumsy and uncoordinated and dreaded any sort of physical activity. As I got older, I gained more and more.

Finally, after I read some Ann Landers columns in the newspaper, a light bulb clicked on. I learned how I could take care of  being fat– I could vomit everything I ate. I say a light bulb clicked on because ever since I could remember I could simply contract and clench my diaphragm muscle and up the food would come– no hands or fingers needed to induce vomiting. I had never put 2 and 2 together. I had never thought of using that to deprive my body of calories to lose weight. It also took me years to understand, Oh, most people can’t do it this way. I think sticking a finger down your throat is actually quite disgusting — no offense to the people who do it that way–and never would have become a bulimic if I’d had to do that.

So at around age 13, I lost about 70 lbs pretty quickly. It made me feel light headed and dizzy but pretty soon I learned simply to groove on this. It became quite pleasant.

That’s a little counterintuitive, isn’t it? You’re depriving your body of calories necessary for survival and you’d think you’d feel awful but instead you feel awesome. The people who study such things have a little better grasp of what goes on here than they did back in the late 70s when I started doing this. You really should feel awful, but the brain plays a little trick and does the only thing it can when there’s such a painful shock to the body– it hyper-secretes the endogenous opioids, the endorphins, to make the body feel better and to deal with the trauma. You get so, so high. It becomes such a reinforcing thing and suddenly you discover that you have this incredible monkey on your back.

I never could do it until I was at death’s door, the way some people do. I got skinny enough and then stopped. Gained a few pounds and then restarted. In between times, I needed something else to keep me occupied. By the time I was 15, I had started to develop a taste for other drugs.

II.

Like I said, my parents were completely different from me. They had stayed on the straight and narrow all their lives and I had a wild side.

I had never gotten drunk until I was 15. I absolutely hated the taste of alcohol, but I loved the effects. What the effects were I can’t exactly describe, except that they totally altered the present and I was absolutely entranced by it.

They caught me drunk a few times and my Mother went into this hysterical shrieking, which I loathed. Alcohol was like the purging, an on and off thing, but by the time I was a junior in high school I had been suspended for coming to school drunk. A few months later I had my first blackout.

My Dad talked about having a sip of whiskey in the Army, which made him wretch, but other than that my parents had never taken a drink in their lives. They were a poor source of information on the Demon Rum. I had no idea that downing almost a liter of 100-proof vodka in a short period of time could have some very dire consequences.

I woke up in the hospital with tubes stuck down about every orifice imaginable. They said I had almost died. I was put on the psych ward for about week and then allowed to go home to continue with school. This was my first encounter with mental health.

I was given a psychotherapist, Matt H.  Everyone gushed about what a wonderful psychotherapist he was, but the more I talked to him, the more my skin cawled. He was one of those straight men I’ve encountered now and then, who seem to need testosterone supplements to actually be a man.

I asked him questions and he had no definitive answers. He just paraphrased what I had just said in the form of a question or tried to alter or restate my point, so that it fit into the Procrustean Bed of what he wanted to think and what he considered healthy and appropriate.

When he asked questions, I offered reasons– the only honest-to-God, truthful answers I had– and he called them rationalizations but refused to explain why. And when I tried to draw out some of his points to logical conclusions–which always seemed to end in inconsistencies– he said I was intellectualizing, although I was just trying to think and ask about what he had said. Or, I’d ask him a question and he’d say he didn’t know.

I remember sitting there and thinking, but I just asked a question in your area of expertise and I think it’s very bizarre that you don’t know. He would hold out some painfully obvious point as though it were some ground breaking insight or alternatively say he didn’t see something obvious and couldn’t understand why I said it was there. It was all very confusing.

The man seemed incapable of being like my school teachers, whom I greatly admired because they could actually teach because they actually knew something. I walked away from my experience with him wondering why people thought psychotherapy was so great because as far as I could see there was absolutely nothing there. It was probably one of the most painfully pointless experiences I’d had to endure.

But that experience of that blackout had terrified me. I had had no idea that alcohol could do that to a person. And so I met with a psychiatrist and asked to be put on antabuse. It causes a violent, allergic reaction whenever anything alcohol-based is introduced into the body. He gave it to me and after I had been on it for a while, I started itching. I went to him and asked if the antabuse was causing it. I showed him the tiny red bumps on my skin. He looked at them and he said he didn’t know what could be causing the itching and didn’t know about that as a possible side effect.

I finally stopped seeing the psychotherapist because he led absolutely nowhere and I stopped taking the antabuse because I didn’t know if it was making me itch so. And ultimately, I found out what the itching and red bumps were.

I had a dose of crabs. I guess I should have called Orkin.

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