Hello there... I am working on structuring my memoir... if this turns out to be the chapter it still needs work, editing and such, but just to give you a little bit along the way. xoxo
I got my GED in a psych ward.
It was part of my treatment plan along with eating food, attending group therapy, and standing in the med line. I would have graduated with the class of ’79 from Wheaton-Warrenville High School had I not dropped out. I needed my parents’ permission which meant I had to come up with a plan that sounded like I knew what I was doing. It never occurred to me I could run. I couldn’t even drive and I didn’t have a job. I told them I’d get my GED and go to the College of Dupage, which I had no intention of doing. At least not right away. First things first. Get the hell out of high school. Studying for the test while residing in the psychiatric wing of our local hospital was not part of the plan. But anything I came up with would have been a relief to my parents because I don’t think they knew what to do with me.
No one did.
I was sent to the guidance counselor when my grades started dropping. We discussed my plummeting GPA and the limitations I was creating for myself in regards to college. He asked me about my career path and where I saw myself fitting into the world. Fit in? I never felt like I fit in and I couldn’t imagine that changing. Something was wrong with me. And frankly, I was pretty sure I’d be dead by 30 anyway. That response got me an invitation down the hall to the social worker. So, off I went to the place for kids with “problems”.
And kids talk.
I’d heard enough gossip to know this would go a long way in cementing my reputation for being a mess. The social worker, whose name sounded like that of a yogi master, had long salt and pepper hair and wore floating flowery dresses with a lot of beads around her neck. She kept the lights of her office down so low you could never be sure she was there. I was hoping I could also get in and out of there without being seen, although I think the mood lighting was more to be Zen. Every square inch of the room was wallpapered with posters of mandalas and nature. The still beauty of the pictures did nothing to make the quotes that were plastered all over the top any more believable. They hung there like to do lists.
“Be somebody nobody thought you could be”
“Nothing worth having comes easy”
“A river cuts through rock not because of its power, but because of its persistence”
Having faith and courage was something I wanted, but could not begin to imagine. The social worker calmly asked me questions, but I didn’t want to talk. I wasn’t sure if it was safe. I’d like to say it was the practice of healthy boundaries, but I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling. Half the time I didn’t know. I opened my mouth and tears came out. My therapist gave me a feelings chart so I could begin to voice what was bottled up inside me for decades. Panic began crawling up my throat as I read the titles on her bookshelves. “Family Therapy for Adolescent Behavior Problems” was not what I was looking for. “Nurturing the Difficult Child” made my skin crawl. Just the thought of all that healing and hugging was making me nauseous. Once I saw, “Your Body Belongs to You”, I checked out. She wasn’t going to reach me.
And kids go to class after this?
All I could think about was getting out of there in enough time to smoke a bowl with my friend Dave in the parking lot before I had to be in Math lab. I could kinda talk to Dave. He was not my boyfriend. We were just inseparable pals. He had a car with feathers and a roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror and Pink Floyd triangles all over the dash. We’d drive around listening to music and getting high. He was a little geeky strange but I thought he was cool. When he wanted to join the Swing Choir band, he taught himself piano in like a day I swear. My jaw dropped and he became my hero.
One day we dropped acid and went wandering around the hospital where he worked. That’s the thing about tripping. We could plop a smiley face on our tongue and it no longer mattered what we did. We were comfortably numb and happy doing it. Our main objective was to investigate the psych ward. We stood outside the bolted door and took turns peeking in the window as if we’d see a Cuckoo’s Nest inside. There was an intercom to ask Nurse Ratched to buzz you in, but then she’d have to buzz you out. Little did I know I’d be a patient in that unit just a few years later. We were laughing so hard hours went by unnoticed. Laughing is good. I could forget the way I saw the world for a while.
And stop waiting for something bad to happen.
When we finally made it out of there, we realized we had locked the keys in the car and decided the only thing to do was break a window. There was a very handy concrete block available to quite literally, “crack the wing”. Unfortunately, the vent window was way more expensive than the main window which we had to break anyway. The vent window wasn’t big enough to reach in and unlock the door. That’s where our best thinking got us. A day and a half went by before we made it back to my house and my Mom was pissed. I told her we went to Great America. It’s an amusement park near the Wisconsin border which would account for being gone so long and our residual giddiness. I came up with this excuse on the spot and considered it a little white lie. Better for everyone. After all, we did go to an amusement park of sorts, full of thrilling rides and main attractions. And little white lies were ok in my family.
Especially where the neighbors were concerned.
My Mom shrugged her shoulders and went back to whatever she was doing in the kitchen. She’d long since given up on me and run-of-the-mill style of parenting. I was never grounded, just ignored. I turned around and ran smack dab into the sliding glass door that led to the backyard, twice. When I finally made it outside, I thought I was still seeing things. Dave was right behind me and we both completely freaked out. There was a gigantic hole in the backyard. “Was it a crater?” “What in the hell was it?” “Mom, did you see the big hole in the backyard?” She came outside and stopped us from crawling down into it, although she probably wished we would and she could cover us with dirt.
She yelled, “Surprise! We’re getting a pool!”
I had to ask Dave if what I heard was real when we made it safely to our cozy little house on wheels. “Are we really getting a pool?” He practically lived with us. He said he thought so, but couldn’t be quite sure either. My dad tried to give us everything in the only way he could. Money. Things. There is a photo of my parents having a cocktail by the poolside. My dad is so handsome, my mom so beautiful, they were a lovely young couple. It was dusk and all of us were swimming. The scene was so idyllic. My Dad was raised in a barn by his grandma. Or at least that’s how the story goes. His Dad also invented the ball bearings used in cars.
I ruined everything.
Dave and I skipped school all the time. He would call in sick for me using one of his many alter egos, but somehow, he pulled it together enough to graduate. Try as I may I could not seem to rally myself to do the same thing. He was a year older than me but even after he graduated, he’d pick me up in the morning to get high and drop me off at the doors alone. I’d grab a Dr. Pepper from the machines and head to class. It was like an airport full of bees making their way to the gate. I just had to make it until lunchtime.
We were friends for a long time until he told me I needed to lose weight, that if I didn’t watch it, I would end up fat. We were stoned and I remember getting off the couch and going to the mirror. I waddled back and forth singing HR Puff and Stuff. I had him rolling on the floor. It was funny, until it wasn’t. Then I started sobbing uncontrollably making matters worse. I could grab my stomach like a pound of beef I was shaping into burger patties. I was so ashamed and felt disgusting. But it wasn’t Dave’s fault, it was my Dad who put him up to it. Dave was very uncomfortable telling me and really didn’t want to, but he loved my Dad. My Dad had a way with people. He seemed to come alive when other people were around. I always felt a little jealous. Things got weird with Dave and I after that.
And a ravenous case of the marijuana munchies was never the same.
I made a last-ditch effort at high school, but I was so far behind I wouldn’t have been able to graduate with my class if I studied around the clock for a year. I got my hands on some “black beauties” so I could stay up all night studying and lose weight while I did it. I got through that quarter and lost enough weight to fit in the smallest Calvin Kleins I could find. Those Calvins were my measuring tape long after they were the only jeans a girl should wear. I wanted to be skinny more than anything else. Getting good grades, let alone graduating, was secondary. But I did finagle straight A’s which would not have been possible if my P.E. class was anything other than Square Dance. I find it quite unfair that it’s nearly impossible for a non-sporty type person to get a super high GPA. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to get above a C in Gym.
I HATED GYM.
The school was full of cubicles. Why not have them in the gym? Instead, the whole class sits on the floor in front of you while you try to climb a rope. I know it’s just hand over hand, but there’s so much more to worry about. Like those red stretchy shorts with the elastic waistband that cut into your stomach. And the horrid red stripe T-shirt that would rise just enough to see it. Stripes make you look fat. My mother told me that. The class would sit there counting my one chin-up, or one sit-up, or one push-up. Up, Up, Up, and get me out of there. It was mortifying. All of this done under the guise of health.
Physical, not mental.
Team sports were not much better. I was that person. The last kid picked for any team. There are therapist’s offices full of us. Because, it’s traumatic people. I hope they’ve figured it out by now. I wonder if they still do this, allow a captain to pick their team. I’m hoping we’ve evolved past this tradition from hell. I could not hit, kick, throw, dribble, spike, or catch a ball. I think the worst for me is volleyball. Something about the game of volleyball makes the players crazy. To this day, I avoid all backyard summer parties on the off chance there could be a volleyball net involved. The only game I was ever any good at was Bombardment. My guess is they don’t play that game anymore. Two teams, a line in the middle, lots of rubber balls of all sizes, the object being to hit someone on the other team with a ball. I’ve been the last man standing in that game.
P.E. should be pass/fail.
I’m just sayin’
But then my GPA was never really a concern. This was an argument for other people. My parents seemed cautiously hopeful when I was on my study binge, but I knew I couldn’t keep it up. I was literally exhausted and all I wanted was to quit. I probably wasn’t thinking clearly because I only ate on Fridays. I’d starve myself all week and then hit the White Hen Pantry when school let out for the weekend. My sisters and I would sit in the parking lot eating Frozen Yogurt, Hostess Cupcakes, and Fritos. We’d wash it all down with a Slurpee which would turn your teeth bright blue. Then I’d begin my fast again. It was the only thing I felt I could control. I looked good but it was only superficial.
The classic beginning of an eating disorder.
I wanted to believe that dropping out of high school was the answer just as much as my parents did. There wasn’t much of a fight. We all walked in together. This was one of two times my father came to school. The year before he came to school to drag me home. I showed up black-out drunk for Swing Choir practice. They called my Mom but I wouldn’t get in the car with her. I never saw my Dad much, unless I was in trouble. Big trouble. Or when I needed more money than what I could steal from the top of his dresser. Then I’d have to track him down. He was always working. But this was a special event. It took 8 years at St. Michaels to get to high school and about 10 minutes to drop out.
Before I knew it, we were back in the hall and leaving. Thank God, the bell didn’t ring. The kids were all in class and it was empty. I could vanish. I wouldn’t have to answer questions and I could make up my own story. I was practicing the art of lying to myself and keeping secrets I should tell. I was relieved, but it was lonely. I wanted to be the kind of kid that could do it. That could sit in class. That could finish things. That could make my parents proud.
My biggest regret was that I didn’t get to be in the Spring musical. Mr. Schomas stopped us on our way out of the principal’s office. I had known him since the first grade. I played youngest child, Gretl, in “The Sound of Music” at the high school with the big kids. He was the director and we had talked about the future, when I would be in high school, and how fun it was going to be. He said “oh I wish you wouldn’t have quit. That’s too bad. I was going to give you the lead in the musical “Little Mary Sunshine”
He saw sunshine in me
Even though I couldn’t
I don’t think my parents said a word as we drove home, but then neither did I. The hardest part of any loss is in the aftermath. When we were wrapped up in the details, it felt like we were fixing something. We had decided it was the solution. I think we all knew it wasn’t. It was me who had convinced them that it was. I was so depressed I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I had to do something, anything. Once I got what I wanted, which was freedom, I thought the pain would stop. But I wasn’t free at all. I was trapped inside myself. When it was over, and there was nothing left to do, it hit me. I just dropped out of high school. And even though I had a plan, it wasn’t real. I couldn’t do those things any more than I could finish high school. And in the lost and lonely moments that followed, I had no idea what to do.
I felt paralyzed
Six years later, I was checking into the psych ward with all the same problems and more. I may have felt hopeless, but it was very clear to my Dad what I needed to do. My father still felt that if I got some version of a high school diploma and went to college, I’d be fine. My doctor had arranged a meeting with my parents. It wasn’t my idea, but I must have agreed. I was well past 18. I didn’t know I could ask for what I needed. But then I couldn’t have told you what that was. I don’t know, well maybe, and I suppose I should were all acceptable answers to me.
Then I’d let you decide.
As a result, my Mom and Dad and I were sitting in Dr. Crane’s office on various pieces of tattered and tired tweed furniture designated for talking. You can buy this kind of furniture at any Good Will for a few dollars, worn-out from too much drama. If only Dr. Crane’s couches and chairs could talk? Countless stories tucked away in the cushions were begging to be told. I took a plastic bat to one of those chairs, forcing myself to scream the day before. The meeting seemed to be going well as Dr. Crane related what she deemed to be my core issues. It appeared that everyone was on the same page until my Dad stood up, shook Dr. Crane’s hand, and said, “just get her back in school”. And the meeting was over.
Apparently, he wasn’t listening.
I was listening. It was all I could do. I sat there in my green hospital scrubs and fumbled with the plastic plant between our chairs. I hadn’t graduated to sweatpants and a T-shirt which was the universally desired attire on the unit. I had to start eating first. I ate a half grapefruit, dry white toast, and decaf coffee the day before but threw it up in the shower. The nurse tech assigned to me was all too familiar with this tactic and caught me. I really didn’t care if I ever got out of those scrubs anyway. And they think I’m going to school? I’m screwed. It seemed like a good idea to tear a leaf from the plastic plant between us and start chewing it.
No one noticed.
My Dad wanted me to be a dentist. I blame myself. I got caught up in all the excitement of the 6th grade science fair. I really wanted a ribbon. I could hang it in my room. Other girls had ribbons, trophies, and pictures of their triumphs displayed in their rooms. I needed some of those. I got first place for my experiment “Does toothpaste really wear down the enamel of our teeth”? I came to the foregone conclusion that yes it does, Close-Up being the worst. It made sense to me being that it’s red, my favorite color and way too fun to be good for you. It was the first gel toothpaste in the world. How exciting! I figured it must be bad. Yep, Close-up should probably lose. I fabricated all the data and spent the left-over time on an elaborately fancy display. I considered composing a soundtrack that would play in the background, “Give up your Close-Up, and Shine”.
I’m not a medical-type person.
I’m the art-type. But somewhere amidst all the hoopla, my Dad decided I was going to be the dentist in the family. Apparently, every family should have one. It made him so happy that I went along with it. Whenever anyone had a tooth problem, the response was, “ask your sister”. I rather liked the respect and attention. This was hard to come by in our family. It was easy to be overlooked growing up in a rather large and chaotic alcoholic family. I made the mistake of accurately diagnosing a cavity and it was over. It became common knowledge that I was the resident expert on teeth and all things teeth related. This was the dawning of the dentistry plan. Debbie the dentist. I continued this charade until I started to believe it might be what I wanted. Deep down I knew it didn’t interest me at all. But I was pretty sure what I felt deep down should be left right there, deep down.
I got good at burying things.
The whole dentist thing continued to be something I should have done but didn’t for many years. It hung out there as proof that I wasn’t and would never be a true success in life. I was the crazy one. And when I came to my senses, I’d see that they’re right. Music, writing, art should only be regarded as a “side thing”, something you do in your spare time or on the weekends. It should never be chosen as a career. Doing what you love to do just wasn’t sensible. You should not expect to make a living at anything creative. Following your dreams was for other people. If I was realistic, I would see I wasn’t good enough. There’s too much competition. I needed to be sensible and “get my act together”. I couldn’t seem to do it and I came to the conclusion.
There’s something wrong with me.
I had been seeing Dr. Crane for about 6 months before that first hospital stay. She even seemed baffled as to how to help me. She gave me sodium pentanol, otherwise known as “truth serum”. Her intention was to ask me questions in a trance-like state and gain some insight. But I answered every one of her questions in musical notes and she could not decipher it.
Q: How do you feel about your Dad?
A: C sharp
Q: How do you feel about your Mom?
A: B flat
And so on…
Music has always been my language. This was a clue. I left them everywhere growing up. If I hadn’t been so drugged up, I might have been able to explain myself. But I don’t even remember getting into the car when my Mom picked me up. I couldn’t drive myself home after this procedure so it was arranged that she would drive me home. I woke up from my drug induced state wandering the aisles of Jewel. My mother went to the grocery store every day. The magical boxes and bags of sugar and salt spoke to me. I caught a glimpse of my fluorescent face in the mirror behind the bakery counter and started to spin. I couldn’t ask for what I wanted which was muffins, pies, and scones. Normally I’d pull it together enough to lie to the lady in the hairnet and apron. I’d act like I was having a party for all the people I no longer knew in an apartment where no one ever came over. I panicked and scared my mother enough to leave before her cart was full.
It wasn’t long before I was checking myself in.
While I was in the psych ward, I studied for the GED and they let me out on a pass to take the test. I traveled to the testing site in a hospital bus. Alone. At best, it was a relief to have a plan. Something to do. I’ve spent decades getting my ducks in a row. Finding a way to distract myself. It seemed to make everyone happy, including my psychiatrist. I felt like it was taking me too long to get “better” and I felt guilty. I could almost believe it was the cure. And aside from Math, it was an easy solution. Easier than telling the truth. Easier than having the courage to be who I truly am.
My parents gave me a pewter serving plate they had engraved.
“Congratulations from Mom and Dad 1985”.
I still have it.
I moved my pewter serving plate from apartment to apartment in the Chicagoland area. Then I moved to Minnesota and it now resides on the plate shelf that wraps around my dining room here in St. Paul. I’ve never used it as a catch-all, top of the dresser dish or kitchen counter dish. It’s never been a place to throw coins, fortune cookie fortunes, and those mysterious keys and things one ends up with. I have many receptacles that house all the strays I’ve encountered in my life. I have a beautiful heart-shaped dish that says “You have my heart” which is so chock full of haphazard artifacts that I never get to see what it says. That’s ok. I don’t have his heart anymore. I never really did. And I’ve never used my plate for serving food. God forbid a party guest reaches the bottom of the toothpick hors d’oeuvres and asks “Congratulations for what?”
I keep it on the shelf
Where it’s impossible to read
Most people have a cap and gown and a framed diploma with an embossed foil seal. I have hospital scrubs and a plate. I don’t know how they do it. Graduate from things. I’m proud of them. Making it out of high school alive with a diploma in hand is some very hard work. In my opinion, high school is hell. And fantastic at the same time.
However, my troubles started long before high school. I missed nearly all of Kindergarten. I had no friends because I wasn’t there enough to make them. I had mysterious pain in my legs that I don’t remember feeling but I do remember doctors and struggling to walk. Every week, I went for injections of what I don’t know. When I asked my mother what was wrong with me, she told me I had a slight case of polio. Years later, she said she had no idea what I was talking about. She said she never told me that, that it must be my imagination. That I’m such a worry wort. This was her standard answer to all my many questions.
She could be done with me and get back to drinking scotch.
My only memory of Kindergarten School is nap time. The teacher turned the lights off and told us to lay down on royal blue gym mats that were cold and sticky. I laid there thinking about death, while the other kids appeared to be sleeping. They seemed to be fine with this arrangement. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I figured whatever was next had to be better than this. If I fell asleep, I might sleepwalk. So, I kept my eyes open and tried not to think about the fact that we all die one day, and the nothingness of it. But I could not escape the truth. I thought, this must be what it’s like, I’ll be left to lie alone in a dark room on an icy gym mat for eternity. And nap time was not an option. Neither was death.
A slight case of polio was working for me.
I recovered in time for first grade. My mood had changed for reasons unknown. I ran from the car to the classroom. I couldn’t wait to go to school. St. Michaels was a Catholic grade school. The teachers were primarily nuns with a few lay teachers filling in the gaps. My first-grade teacher was not a nun. She was a Mrs. Bobblehead. Her head wiggled on top of her neck as she walked. This was especially noticeable when she got stuck with playground duty. Her head bobbled even more wildly when forced to chase after us. We didn’t come up with that name until she wasn’t our teacher anymore. Kids are so heartless.
She was such a nice teacher
She would pace back and forth in the aisles of the classroom, helping us learn things. Some students needed more help than others of course and she’d stop at their desk. I was a good student and I learned very quickly. My pages were covered in foil stars and praise. I didn’t need any special attention but I wanted it. I felt lonely at my desk. I needed to come up with some relevant issues that would call for her help.
I decided I was bad at Math
I answered the Math problems wrong on purpose. 2+3=8, 3+6=2, 8-4=6. So as not to be obvious, I answered some right. How did I know to do this? It was more calculated than the Math problems I was claiming to be baffled by. I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing. The assignments she returned to me were covered in red marks. My report card said, “She is a very bright girl, but struggles with Math??? Three question marks. It puzzled my teacher and she seemed disappointed. It didn’t really work like I thought it would, but I discovered that too late. I had to roll with it so they wouldn’t know I lied. I played along until it became what I believed. My parents still maintain that “Math is not her strong point”
And I don’t know where the truth lies.
What I wanted was attention. Love. I didn’t sit in my bedroom and come up with a way to get it. It was automatic. Like I’d practiced manipulation for decades. If you want something, you must act a certain way. And it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Besides, little white lies are ok in my family. Somewhere deep inside me I believed if I wanted to be loved I had to really need it. If I was good at things, it meant that I was fine. I didn’t need it. If I loved myself, no one else would.
Rule #1 - Nobody likes a person with a “big head”