This blog is an attempt to make sense of what brought me into the world of psychiatry as a child and of where it would take me for the next fourteen years. It is an effort to document where I go from here and how I come to make sense of who I am apart from diagnoses and medications and mental hospitals. In essence, I am embarking on a new journey towards ‘self’, towards gaining an understanding of what lies underneath the drugging, numbing, and altering that once, not so long ago, left me convinced that I was resigned to life as a chronic patient.
As a child, I thrived on life. Any and all free time was spent outdoors, my nerdy tendencies to finish homework in record time after school most surely fueled by a craving to be in the fresh air for as long as possible before dinner. I felt at home in the woods by my house, every stump, hidden rock, and rotting log an ingrained part of my geographical memory. Obsessed with horses, I created trails in the woods scattered with fallen logs that I’d drag my poor terrier over for hours on end, imagining that I was training a thoroughbred for competition. She’d come home panting, tongue lolling desperately out of the side of her mouth, and make a mad dash for the water bowl, while I, cheeks flushed with exuberance, would sit down to dinner with plans to create a new trail the next day after school.
My imagination was healthy, to say the least. I was lucky enough to be content with exactly what the world gave me. While other girls played house during recess, I was often crouched by the measly little stream on the periphery, frog-hunting and fantasizing of the day when I might see a minnow. My ability to suspend reality to further my imagination was impressive, as this stream was created by a metal drain atop a ten-foot rock wall that released an unreliable source of water quickly stolen away a hundred feet later by a grate next to the parking lot. I saw that strip of dirty water as a tributary of the Mianus River, and didn’t care that no one else did. Nature centered me and allowed me to be fully in the moment. I was able to forget everything else that I had on my plate.
That plate, for better or worse, was continuously full. I was of the mind that I could and would play every sport, get straight A’s in my classes, sing and act in the lead parts of my school plays, and participate in student government. Not doing these things, and not doing them exceedingly well, simply wasn’t an option to me. My mind operated on the premise that there was the best, and there was everything else. Settling for anything less than perfection was, well, settling, and I was not a settler.
You’d think I might have stood out as some freakishly neurotic, anal type-A kid. The truth was, I didn’t. There were so many others just like me at the all-girls private school I went to in Fairfield County, Connecticut, that I blended right in. We were born and bred to be ‘perfect’. The stereotypes often attributed to my hometown of Greenwich are mostly quite accurate. It’s a fantasy world of big houses, lush gardens, fancy cars, and beautiful people. You are what you wear, the title you hold at work, who you know, and where you ‘summer’. Hence, my sense of self from a young age was cultivated entirely around what I accomplished, achieved, or produced. I was a conglomeration of numbers and letters on paper. I didn’t know another way.
There were surely parts of me that didn’t conform to the standards of being a Greenwich girl. I was ferociously tomboyish. I lived in baseball hats, spent my weekends in the winter at the local skating club playing hockey with the boys, and, when not in the required plaid hunter green frocks at school, dressed in a self-imposed uniform that included Sambas, Umbro shorts, and baggy T-shirts that stated things like, ‘Hockey is life… The rest is just details’. I asserted my ‘independence’ by being the exact opposite of what most of the girls in my school tried to be. I cringed at the site of a dress, absolutely refused to let my hair grow long, and wore boys’ boxers over my underwear under my school kilt.
However independent I felt, I was desperately, though entirely unconsciously, clinging to the idea that my ‘self’ was inextricably tied to how I dressed, to the fact that I could outscore most of the boys on my hockey team, or to my baseball hat-molding capabilities. [Sidebar: For those of you interested, you (1) cut the netting, (2) pop the button off the top of the hat, (3) wear it every time you shower for a week, and (4) carefully curve the rim until it fits perfectly inside a tall glass and let it sit that way each night for another seven days, and you’re good to go!]. This mentality translated into every facet of my life.
When I’d get into bed each night and think about the success or failure of my day as I looked at the glow-in-the-dark sticker stars pasted across my ceiling, “MM” for Mark Messier of New York Rangers fame spelled out front and center, I thought about whether or not the headmistress of my middle school thought I’d done a good job running assembly that morning, or if my two goals in the game were enough for my coach, or if my outline for the upcoming presentation on thirteen century feudalistic society in Europe would put a smile on my teacher’s face. I was fueled by the reactions of those around me to each and every thing I did, though I was entirely asleep to this fact. I moved about in an idyllic dream world of prepubescent youth in which self-awareness of the existential sort was simply not yet on my developmental radar.
At the end of the summer before eighth grade, everything changed. My sense of ‘self’ began to shift. More accurately, the entire concept of ‘self’ entered my vocabulary. My once blindly accepted understanding of who I was- an accumulation of accomplishments- was suddenly destabilized in my awakening thirteen-year-old brain. My life no longer made sense to me, and I felt lost, disoriented, and empty. I realized that if someone were to ask me who I was in a few words, I’d say ‘athlete’, ‘student’, ‘class president’, ‘singer’, ‘volunteer’, and so forth. Beyond that, I just didn’t know. I knew that people respected and relied on me, but that was merely based on my superficial accomplishments. Who was I underneath? I was nothing. Blank. Void. I felt like an amorphous blob covered by a mask, an actor unknowingly giving the best performance of her life. I was nothing more than a conglomeration of waves bouncing off of the countless sounding boards– parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, peers- that were plastered throughout my world.
My mind was suddenly on overdrive, shocks of electricity stimulating never-before-conceived-of thoughts, but my body felt numb. One evening, a few days before eighth grade was set to begin, I looked in the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at me. It wasn’t soon after when I’d be told that everything I was experiencing was symptomatic of an underlying condition that was not just abnormal but also pathological. And, like that, I was no longer a prepubescent kid struggling with the pressures of impending adolescence. I was sick, and needed to be cured.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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Laura, Wow…you took me right back to my childhood. I was on the outside of the inside in Greenwich being from a ‘Riverside’ family. I remember there being no alcoholics in Greenwich; there were only ‘problem’ drinkers or those who could not hold their liquor. W
[…] her recovery memoir, A Journey Back to Self, Laura […]
Oh Laura, this is beautifully written and so familiar to me. I also went to a private school where there were no options other than to excel in everything, which I also did. The difference was that my crash came later during my first year of college, when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia (very common at the time). I look forward to reading your blog. Thank you so much for sharing with all of us as you have so much to teach those who have been running the mental health “show” for so many years!
First of all, let me just say how much I admire your courage for doing what you’re doing with your blog. I wish I had the courage to use my real name.
In any case, I wanted to write primarily because your deep questioning of your sense of self (which is very lucidly described, by the way) seems quite similar to what some people have gone through when they started having spiritual/mystical experiences. I cringe a little when I use those words, because they may come off as sort of wishy-washy, but I think there’s a very strong basis for this type of self-inquiry in certain branches of Buddhist philosophy which don’t require any acceptance of dogma, faith, or ritual. In other words, your sense of depersonalization may have been, ironically, the beginnings of an awakening experience which was then presumably thwarted by diagnoses, medications, and stigma.
If you want to explore this topic further, I’d suggest looking into sources like the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism as well as Zen Buddhism as interpreted by Alan Watts (his book “The Way of Zen” is a fantastic introduction, in my opinion).
All the best,
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Chapter One: Journeying Back to Self | Mad In America…
Chapter One: Journeying Back to Self | Mad In America…
Laura, I don’t know if you’ve seen Allie Brosh’s depiction of trying to train her dog as if it were a horse in her book of autobiographical comics “Hyperbole and a Half” but you might relate.
Perfectionism is such a strong theme in many women I know who were self destructive in certain ways…
I feel like you would be amused if you could see me sitting here reading your blog responding passionately out loud much like my family members do while watching sports so I thought maybe I’d comment instead.
“I was sick, and needed to be cured.”
[…] In Journeying Back To Self, Laura has written the story of what happened in her life after being labeled “Bipolar” at fourteen up until the point at which she accidentally discovered Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic thirteen years later, in May 2010. The story of how she left the “mental health” system is being saved for a larger writing project, and in the meantime, Laura now writes more generally about her experiences as an ex-patient. New readers to her blog might want to start here: story from its beginning. […]
Just finished reading your first post, and I love it. Well written, wonderfully clear picture of the “perfect” person, perfect woman, American stereotype. Son Nathan and I are writing a book; I mentioned that in my note to you. I have two Facebook pages (Janice Haagensen Collett, and “Down the Mental-Illness Rabbit Hole) and will start a blog soon. I haven’t decided what format to use.
So glad to connect with you. I’ll stay with your blog and get to know you, although I’m quite familiar with the “stages” as one begins medication for the supposed “problem.”
Laura, I have read this before and have enjoyed reading it again. My own childhood wasn’t much different except I sucked at sports, but loved the outdoors as you did, and also was a wannabe tomboy. I saw wannabe since my friend down the street was a far better one. I was lucky to be in a very good public school system in Massachusetts. I know this had to do with unfair funding, excesses given to a community already affluent enough. Still, many of the instructors we had were exceptionally good. We were told ahead of time that adolescence was supposed to be stormy and that we’d get pimples and not to pick them. An older girl was extremely helpful and also acted as guide for me during those years. I told her I had a crush on a teacher, for instance, and she said that was okay and part of growing up. We learned the German words Freud used to express the normal stormy adolescence. We learned that due to body changes, we would be likely to experiment with drugs (such as LSD, in the day) no matter how much warning we heard from our elders. I so wish that the generations that came later, such as yours, were told the same thing, that these feelings of insecurity, fear, doubt, these are all part of growing up, and they don’t mean you’re sick. Other cultures honor adolescence with wonderful rituals such as the Vision Quest and various initiation rites. In the Judeo-Christian traditions we have Bar Mitzvah’s and something they do at 16 but I don’t know what that is. Have these sacred things lost their meaning? Have we flattened out and narrowed what “normal” is supposed to be? Where are those pouty kids with pimples who always do the exact opposite of what “adults” advise? Would Woodstock even happen now? This was honored, memorialized, treasured, filled with wonderful young people, who were growing just like the rest of us. Time to bring it all back.
the same thing, or “experience” is similar to me…it was at a young age, around the middle school age where I one day looked in the mirror, and i sensed something different when looking at myself…..i felt, like it was the 1st day i began looking from the outside at myself, and no longer existing from the inside looking out, but rather now on the outside looking at myself, almost like i got pushed out of myself in a sense…i just new that something was different….it was an experience i always remember….the day something felt different….and it was like a combination of sensing something different and not actually knowing or even exploring what was different…i just continued on….like a phenomenon happened but there was nothing there at the same time….now im 32 and its been years since ive been journeying back to myself…..its definitely something that didnt feel right….but i must say the truth……there is hope…..you will always return back to yourself……when you truly want to…..like i am