People Exactly Like You
Sometimes Molly refused. To get out of bed. She'd spend days there. In the bedroom off-the-kitchen of the two bedroom Webster Street walk-up, a railroad apartment where she raised four children with and mostly without her husband, Aloysious, window-washer by day, itinerant barfly by night. This was in the 1940s and 50s, long before that part of town became home to the bourgeois elite.
She simply refused.
No one used the word agoraphobic; it was just something they all knew about her.
There were stories of another sister. Dorothy. Over from County Clare. One day Dorothy went out for a loaf of bread. She never came back.
It was snowing the first time I heard my uncle tell this story—the story of Dorothy, the loaf of bread. He was laughing and in my memory everyone else was laughing, too. But the older I get, the weirder it seems, all that laughing. It wasn’t happy laughing, I told my Mom one day, who just shook her head and looked sad in a way that scared me. Something incomprehensible about her sadness. Scarier for it.
The other thing: no one saw a shrink.
There was a day early on, before it got really bad--that feeling—I didn’t know what to call it, because it wouldn't fit into words--which had me desiring a certain obliteration—threatening even though yes I realized it was only a feeling, as Lyle reminded us, as if that mattered--that made me want to stop eating, or to smoke lots of cigarettes, or to run, or to put on bright red lipstick and walk down the street until someone would touch me. A desire to be touched by a married man, Maria told Lyle one day. It will cause you to suffer, he said. Desire. To think that they spoke of it. Years later I hear a great man admonish young people: Don't be afraid to want what you desire and I remember Lyle. It will be this way, how he comes to mind, how I can touch those years. In the produce section, my hand on a watermelon and there they are.
The way my father stood in the kitchen when I asked: leaning toward the counter, the sports section open. A Cubs game on the small television behind him, the volume low but audible. Peanut butter spread generously on Ritz crackers, his favorite. I asked him if I might, you know, see someone.
“Why?” he said, and without looking up. He was still reading the stats.
“I have problems.”
I looked down to the floor. It was extremely hard to pronounce the consonants in “problems” which came out slightly slurred, the –b under-defined, as if I had a slight speech disorder. An acting coach at theater camp once told me that I lisped slightly. That was the summer I played Anne Frank.
My father made a face that was something between discomfort and disregard. Then he said,
“Everyone has problems.”
We were quiet for awhile.
“Don't you know the T.S. Eliot line: “All men lead lives of quiet desperation?”
A few years later I would read Walden in a transcendentalist literature course. The line was there, from Thoreau, who was nothing like Eliot, as far as I could tell. Later I read The Wasteland. I would think of my father.
On second thought, maybe it's not fair to say no one saw a shrink. There was a moment early on, in the months before and then the year after my mother’s death that we went, all of us, to see a doctor who was unlike other doctors. His office was downtown Aurora. He had curly hair and thick glasses and may have been the only South American Jew in Aurora. A doctor who asked me to play with the dolls and toys in his office. Strange but wonderful. Who cared why we were there.
Only later did my brother tell me—in the same conversation where he told me that the smell that filled our mom’s deathbed-bedroom was of marijuana—that the doctor was a shrink, and that our other brother saw Dr. Balazs through high school for persistent stomach ulcers believed to be stress/grief related.
And later I heard that not one but two male cousins spent lots of post-college time in therapy; another female cousin had been on serious meds for unipolar depression for over a decade, having found herself, much like our maternal grandmother, unable to get out of bed.
“Only when you are the one who can’t get out of bed does it become less of a joke or a story to tell,” this cousin told her shrink, an Evanston-based Adlerian specializing in trans-generational agoraphobia.
Lyle came to Ward Six to meet me. He told me about his highly-ranked Ward for SuperSensitives. I was to be discharged. My insurance was running out. 30 days. It was standard. His ward was free--he added and emphasized--as it was a protocol in a research hospital, set in the state psychiatric institute, paid for by the state.
“I think you'd be perfect for us.”
Most of the girls on the S.S. Lyle were of moneyed families who knew—without Lyle's courting--to send daughters off to Austen Riggs, where girls had well-appointed private rooms with doors; or to McLean—a place even the MacAvoys had heard of.
I couldn’t figure out what else to do.
That's what I told Lyle.
By that point, I was pretty sure that living a life of quiet desperation was not going to work for me.
My desperation was a lot of things, but it would never be quiet.
Which is how I ended up on Ward Six. Which is where I met Lyle, who had been recently named the head of the Long Term Ward for Promising Hypervigilants/Super-Sensitives (dubbed the S.S. Lyle by former patients), a research protocol housed in the old State Psychiatric Building across the street at 168th, a building erected in 1895, where Marilyn Monroe herself had been treated once, long ago; a state institution connected to the Presbyterians of Columbia University. Lyle took over the Long Term Ward, which had been created and designed by the Chilean analyst Otto Kernberg, who’d become famous for his creation of a long term ward for a type of usually-female difficult patient.
The kind of patient that nobody believed would get better.
But Lyle had a thing for the difficult ones, he told us. A calling.
Lyle’s goal for the new incarnation of the Unit, a 1990s version of the Unit, was transformational. It would become a place of understanding, of growth, of healing.
There was a big poster on the wall of the kitchen, with these words in boldface. There weren't kittens on the poster. Just words: UNDERSTANDING, GROWTH, HEALING. Someone before me had circled the acronym of Lyle's slogan: UGH.
The Unit would be a microcosm, he liked to say, of the world Out There. In Here, it would be functional. In Here, a girl would receive all she hadn’t received Out There.
Can you imagine that? All that you haven't received? Your life defined by neglect, by loss. What if it could be remedied? Would you want that? Would you believe it possible?
These girls, Lyle would explain excitedly to the young residents, learned maladaptive skills. The S.S. Lyle would offer a rare chance to re-experience childhood, but this time with functional caretakers, ones who would teach them, in turn, how to be functional. This was the heuristic of the S.S. Lyle, he told us, his patients, and his staff; we will study and we will learn. Together! We will have study groups. We will read Trauma and Recovery. We will study Zen Buddhism; everyone will meditate daily. We will read Thoughts Without a Thinker. We will learn new coping skills. We will practice being present and mindful. We will learn to be still.
We will watch our thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky.
We won't attach to anything.
It was all very post-Cuckoo’s Nest but also even post-Girl Interrupted, which maybe hadn’t been published yet.
“You will stay in the city. You will finish college. The Ward, after all, is just a subway ride from campus. It will be something like a dorm. We have lots of patients who are Columbia students, after all. And some from Cornell, some from Princeton. Just think of it as an extension of the Ivy League.”
There are other ways to tell this story. Ways to explain it. But this is one way of explaining how I found myself there, convinced that where I was going to spend the next six months (I believed that: that it would be six months) was a dorm, sort of. Just a bit uptown. And to the left.
“You will meet lots of people,” Lyle assured us, without quite explaining what he meant, “who are exactly like you.”