A nervous breakdown...
what it's like to be me
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If you are reading this, it's despite the fact I've considered deleting it numerous times before hitting 'publish.' Most know me by my resume bullet points. Some will find this column off-putting, too revealing. Weird.
For a very few, it will hit home. If not now, someday in the future. I am writing this for you and the people who love you.
Conversations are taking place today about mental illness, thanks to Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and others. So, I'll take a turn.
I've had three nervous breakdowns. The first happened when I was 22, the second four years later, and the last occurred 30 years ago. It is in these experiences where I learned I have a Super Power.
First, mental illness can happen to anyone, even those of us who had childhoods free of trauma or hardship. And, each experience is individual.
I've wondered if the amphetamines prescribed to me at age 16 had anything to do with creating a biochemical imbalance. Who knows?
Even though I weighed 110 pounds at the time, when I told my family doctor I was feeling fat, he prescribed them without question. [Many women go through three life phases: saying we are fat, thinking we are fat, and then actually being fat.] He agreed to monthly refills until I quit on my own four years later. So, there was that in the background.
From ages 19-21, a bunch of stuff happened bing, bing, bing in rapid-fire succession. A favorite teacher/mentor died. A mysterious car accident had killed my best friend's boyfriend. A year later, she developed migraine headaches that turned out to be a malignant brain tumor, and then my father had surgery for esophageal cancer.
He didn't tell me he was having surgery, I learned in a phone call after the fact. Rushing home, I looked for his hospital room in the frustrating tangled maze of corridors and got a cold chill as I realized he was in the very same room where my friend had been when she learned a brain tumor was causing her headaches.
While most associate Kentucky Derby Day with hats and mint juleps, it's the hospital room and those puke green walls I think of every Derby Day. That's what was on TV in his room when I walked in and saw the pale face of mortality.
So, I was 22 with the two people who most defined my identity facing death.
Thus began a cascade of coincidences, real and imagined, culminating in the night where I became a disciple.
Three life-changing experiences lead up to my hospitalization.
I hadn't known my dad was sick and scheduled for surgery until after it happened. He had called the night before, and I remember he sounded strange, but I had no idea why.
[Hey, if you think you're protecting loved ones by keeping stuff like this a secret, think again.]
The news of his surgery and cancer came out of the blue. I rushed home to see him but was encouraged to go back to work because 'everything would be fine.'
The four-hour drive was long. I’d never felt so alone.
That night, I drank bourbon, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary's 'Great Manadalla' song over and over. The view from my window was of a hill, a creek, and brown grass before spring showers work their magic. The sky was dark, but the outline of trees was visible. I still picture every detail in my mind.
And then came the light from within.
Hanging on my apartment walls was art made by my friend Jacie or me. Each piece represented an aspect of one form of angst or another. In this new consciousness, these images told a different story.
The rest of the world believed it to be 3 a.m. central time. For me, it was the day time stopped. Human differences stopped. All of us, every living being on the planet, became one. A white/gold pulsating light took over me, and a knowing occurred. In that knowing came an understanding—a magic place.
My 'assignment' was to bring people together out of their diversity. A higher power-infused this message within me, not by a booming voice, but a knowing.
I started dialing the phone to tell people we are one.
Attorney General Richard Turner was the first. He was in the conservative wing of the Iowa Republican party, and thoughts of being one with the likes of me weren't something he could fathom. Let alone at that hour.
On the other hand, John Tapscott didn't think it odd to be calling at that hour. He ran for governor in 1972 on a platform of legalization of marijuana and increasing welfare benefits for the poor, so call us both crazy.
There I was with this new reality. Time wasn't time. I had a lot of work to do to teach others the human paradigm had shifted.
Up to that moment, I'd been a rudderless rebel, bouncing from cause to cause. That year, I'd broken up with a guy 20 years my senior who worked for Attorney General Turner. He didn't like it that I wouldn't drop acid with him and wanted to find someone who would.
When hospital workers on the psych ward first handed me pills, memories of the acid-pusher and my family doctor made me refuse. Non-compliance wasn't an option, however.
Oh, one more incident happened just before the breakdown. The old family friend who created the job I then held had come on to me. He was 60; I was 22. One night, we had martinis and smoked grass, leading to his inhibition-less reading of the moment. I recoiled; he abruptly left, and I heard he quit drinking the next day. We never spoke of it again. I left the job and went home after being hospitalized. We cannot control our feelings, only our actions. This wasn’t a ‘me too’ moment. We loved each other, of that I am sure. Just on different dimensions.
So, what causes a nervous breakdown, a misfiring of synapsis, or a born-again experience?
What's it like? Well, pretty glorious until it isn’t. Trying to convince mortals that we are all an omnipotent essence was a tough sell.
It was especially dubious that in 1972 an institution with an intake form asking if I was 'white' or 'colored' would tell me what was what.
I tried the doors. They were locked. The med station had little cups of orange juice each morning for patients who would be receiving electroshock therapy. I shut up and uncharacteristically followed all rules, hoping to go unnoticed so that I wouldn't get a cup of orange juice.
A mandatory field trip to the local zoo with my ward companions caused me to lock eyes with a lion. He and I commiserated in the knowledge that captivity was our life.
So, avoiding captivity while maintaining the light and being human can be a challenge.
This consciousness stuff does not happen in typical conversations. Very, very few.
I had a deep one, however, with Harold Hughes in 1993.
He had been a truck driver. In 1952, after years as an alcoholic, he attempted suicide. At that moment, Hughes had a spiritual experience that changed his life. He went on to become governor of Iowa and represent the state in the U.S. Senate. His presidential ambitions came to an abrupt end when he revealed he spoke to his dead brother in a seance.
I'd known Hughes, written about him, admired him, but it wasn't until our three-hour lunch when we compared our spiritual experiences.
Our paths had one vein of similarity, but the rest was so different. Mine had a mental illness narrative while he was 'born again.' Both versions make others uncomfortable. We laughed.
I don't know what it was. There are days I think it was a chemical imbalance in the brain. And, there are just as many days when I believe I've had intense spiritual experiences.
I'm not an organized person about much of anything, especially religion. Even though I come from a long line of Episcopal priests, my memories of church are more around the discomfort of wearing patent leather shoes.
And in my judgy teen years, believing church-goers were hypocrites.
What if there is a genetic trait, and the clergy was a safe place for my ancestors to land?
All I know is that experience was authentic to me. It is my magic space, and when I operate from it, life works. On the other hand, when I'm angry, judgmental, or competitive, I'm human. This paradox is what it is like to be me.
Being in the flow, or my magic space, is my Super Power.
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Thank you for writing this story. I have a similar one, but my first visit was in 1977. I was diagnosed as being in a manic phase of what is now called bipolar disorder. I was on top of the world, I had one hallucination that was a revelation.
My life since then has been mostly good, with a few episodes in ten year intervals, but none for many years now. I have an excellent doctor and I take care of myself.
I do believe that the brain is still something of a mystery as far as these types of mental illnesses. Mine is considered to be a chemical imbalance, and the med that works for me is used primarily as an anti seizure drug.
Thanks for the candor, wisdom, and memories of Gordon Gammack and Harold Hughes.