|Mar 12 2011|
When I first told my present therapist about my prolonged stays at my boarding school infirmary, she asked: Didn't you get restless lying there day after day, for weeks on end? I was surprised by this question. I had never been restless when there. I don't remember having any energy at all while staying there. In fact, I'd been weak and tired and quiet.
The infirmary was an old building with old checkered linoleum flooring, metal beds, and a dumbwaiter that made clanking noises all days. For sometimes three weeks or more I would remain in a room with nothing but a bed, desk, chair, and a television that received two, sometimes three channels. What I remember the most is the white, lace curtain that would billow up as the wind came and then fall slightly upon the window sill as if someone or something were breathing into my room. For hours I stared at it, noticing that it was different each and every time. It was beautiful, and it somehow reminded me that there was life going on outside that room.
Sometimes, I was legitimately sick -- Running on four hours of sleep a night for weeks made my body shut down. I collapsed into those infirmary beds and barely shifted position for the first five days. I'd have strep throat, some virus, etc., and then catch one opportunistic infection after another. Alternatively, there were a few times when I was healthy but tired, overwhelmed, and horribly depressed. The depression was my secret, or so I thought -- I'd feel it coming on and I'd run to the infirmary to hide.
As long as I said I was sick (and could pay the bill) the doctor would agree with me that I was physically ill. The easiest to fake were stomach ailments and ear infections. Plus, I slept so much the doctor and nurses assumed that something was wrong. In addition to all the standard ills, I was tested for Mono and Hepatitus numerous times, and on one occasion it was believed that my spleen was enlarged. I was malingering. It felt like a terrible thing to do. But I had no choice.
Suicidal students were always sent home, about two or three per year, and everyone found out about it regardless of whether there had been an attempt. I'd visited one of the school psychologists early sophomore year complaining of fatigue, boredom, and sadness, and he'd strongly advised that I go on antidepressants. This sounded great, but there was a catch: Since I was under the age of eighteen, I would require my parents' consent.
This was, of course, out of the question. In the state of Massachusetts, I could be under the age of eighteen and legally petition the court to get an abortion, but I wasn't allowed to take Prozac. I wanted my parents to be proud of me. For years I'd received awards and high grades and had become a suffering perfectionist. How I hadn't developed an eating disorder by now, I'll never know (that would happen later). I looked great on paper and I had a good reputation. Within my family, I tried as best I could to play the role of the perfect child.
My brother, on the other hand, seemed to do everything wrong. We evened each other out. Recognized as being borderline ADHD, he had trouble making friends, regularly pissed people off, was disruptive and disorganized in class -- and that was outside the home. Within the family, he caused arguments and repetitively provoked family members on purpose, all before 7:30 AM. My brother went through Ritalin, Prozac, and several other medications without success; he had also been to therapy with a guy who spent fifty minutes with him playing checkers -- a total waste as far as my parents were concerned. With my father away on business during much of the time, my mother was understandably overwhelmed -- and she showed it. She always seemed tired and had a tendency to become angry and anxious. Towards me she often was often tearing me down, yelling, forgetful, and had even endangered me on a number of notible occasions. I figured she was doing the best she could, and that by going to boarding school, still playing the role of the perfect daughter from a safe distance, would decrease her stress. Another reason I wanted to leave: I never got any recognition for my acheivements while at home. The adults were always too busy dealing with my brother while carving out some joy for themselves. I wanted to be appreciated, and I needed to get away from my brother. I thought that boarding school would solve all of my problems -- a combination of "The Facts of Life" and "Madeleine" -- but I was so, so very wrong.
I was miserable, tired, disappointed, sick, and anxious; I felt lonely, defeated, confused, and often pissed off. By the end of my first year, I already wished to be alone, was hiding my feelings, and distrusted people (for good reason). I was already thinking about suicide. But these were not good enough reasons for me to leave school to go home. Nothing was. I had an inflated sense of my role in the family, and it seemed to me that if I broke out of character that my family would be at risk -- that I, too, would be seen as sick, and that my mother would crumble if forced to take care of two psychiatrically-impaired children while my father was away. The careful balance between my brother and I would be fractured, the family system would shut down, and I would watch my mother's head turn all the way around. Staying in school would eventually help me get into a good college as everyone expected; it would also make sure I remained the good daughter, the good student, the good person. I was sure it would would help maintain balance within my family, maybe even make things easier on them. I would endure anything to remain at that school. I quickly realized this meant hiding all of my negative feelings, of playing an uncomfortable role that I could only carry out in spurts.
In between these spurts, there was terrible depression and anxiety. When this happened, I ran to the safety of the infirmary. I did this to stay safe from my own self-destructive thoughts, and so no one would see this ugly, sick side of me. Brooding, anxious boarding school girls don't make it into Harvard or Brown. They don't win awards, they're not asked to show prospective students around campas, and they're the first people to be suspected when drugs, alcohol, or kleptomania emerges.
The school psychologist suggesting an antidepressant, one from a new type known as SSRI's -- he made it sound so simple, that all I needed to do was make a quick phone call to the parents, go downtown to where everyone got their meds (a monopoly of sorts, a dirty little boarding school secret). He didn't get it. The problem was so much more complicated than he thought, but then usually it was. Painful family histories, skeletons in the closet, not to mention the number of students attending the school because they had nowhere else to go -- this beautiful boarding school housed a great deal of drama. The worst place to find yourself was sharing a box of cookies at two in the morning with an insecure girl crying her eyes out about what her uncle had done to her -- heartbreaking, yes, and it's always difficult to console someone who is in the midst of baring their soul -- until the next day, when this girl has realized that you contain all of her family secrets, that you are dangerous and ugly and to be avoided at all costs by her and her friends. Another scenario you wanted to avoid was to become the confidant of the bulimic girl. She doesn't shut up. She talks and talks, followed by a cycle or two of bingeing and purging, and then, before you know it, she resents you -- you made her sick, literally.
I wasn't the type to draw people into my misery. In fact, I hid it from people for as long as possible. I developed skills. For example, I discovered how to lose myself by staring into a white wall. It would take a few minutes, but eventually I'd find myself alone surrounded by white light. I would do it in the halls, where the light was best but also where I was feeling agitated. Another skill I learned was at "Free Swim" on Sundays -- while everyone else did laps, I remained alone in the dive pool intermittently sinking down to the bottom near the pool light. For as long as I could hold my breath I'd be alone down there bathing in light, yearning to be born again. With that yellow light I felt that someone was watching and holding me, telling me that this would someday end. Like the white wall, I found myself bending in this yellow light. And occasionally, down there, I could actually scream without anyone hearing me.
But these were tricks, not permanent solutions. Sometimes I'd go weeks sleeping four hours per night, writing two or three papers. There were always errands to run, and instead of walking, I did, in fact, run. I'd skip lunch, and my to-do list kept getting longer and longer. I had so much to do but never enough time to do it all. Then I would crash.
Other times my anxiety would soar, and I'd wind up bursting into tears during math class without even realizing it. I'd run from class to my dorm room, blast a song or two, then run fresh-faced to philosophy. Everyone in my math class knew that I was unravelling. This might have been okay from her girl with Mono, but not from someone like me. I'd sat there paralyzed, believing that it would look worse to get up and leave (I was so wrong). The board was filled with numbers, and none of them meant anything to me. In fact, the teacher enjoyed "explaining" certain equations by filling up four chalkboards with scribble. To me, this experience was the opposite of staring into the white wall, the quiet pool light. It made me panic, like everything around me was falling in on me. I was choking. I cried. On a few occasions. No one ever said anything to me about it. No one asked if I was okay, not even the teacher. I found myself fading away, but this time I had not intended to, I hadn't used any of my tricks. I got scared. I went to the infirmary and remained there for three weeks. Had I gotten restless? Absolutely not. I don't think I moved the whole time I was there. And as it turned out, I actually was sick and received antibiotics, and then contracted a stomach ailment.
I'd been hiding away from everyone at this point. Somehow I had managed to slide away from everyone and everything. When I spent weeks in the infirmary, no one wondered where I was. No one noticed. So this is how I found myself alone, laying on my left side, watching the white lace curtain flowing in the breeze, dancing. I stared at it for hours. It made me think of how beautiful white lace can be, and I wondered how long it had been hanging there -- certainly for as long as I'd been at school. The olive linoleum tiles, the pipes, the ancient toilet, the fifty year-old shower where the nurses forced me to wash once a week -- all of it was straight out of the fifties -- dull, scratched, moldy -- and then there was this curtain. It never came down, and so I wondered how it remained so white and wrinkle-free. This curtain -- rising, falling -- also made me hopeful. With everything that happened at school, all the illnesses and scratches and tears, still this curtain would rise, then fall. Even when there didn't seem to be any wind. Even when it rained. Like a beacon, I watched it. It was reliable. I'll bet it's still there, that it's still free of wrinkles, that it's still bleach white.
When I turned eighteen, it was time for the antidepressants. Surprisingly, though, I went ahead and told my parents, downplaying it, saying that maybe I'd give it a shot, that I was curious. I was first placed on Zoloft, which did nothing for me except make me fall asleep -- in the student lounge, in the library, in the computer lab, in class. The doctor at the infirmary noticed my struggles and allowed me some breathing room with being allowed to take one of my final exams after break. I chose math simply because it made me miserable. I still had that math teacher who watched me cry in class, and the following events occured: He looked up my information to find out who the most important adults in my life were (my dorm head, my college counselor, etc.). He then "bumped" into them on campas -- notably at the dining hall -- and, during the process of chatting and catching up, he started telling them about how I had duped the doctor and everyone else so that I could spend the break studying to raise my grade in math. My college advisor told me about this, and I was livid. I went to another school psychologist and told her the story. Immediately, while I was sitting in her office, she phoned the math department, got him on the phone and ripped him a new one. She set things straight. And when I came back to class he was forced to formally apologize. He is a sleaze. A few years after I graduated he received an award for being "Teacher of the Year."
I want to close by telling you how I spent my last weeks of high school. After the Zoloft I'd been given Desipramine, and although it had made me lose weight it had done nothing for the depression. I was discouraged, but then I was told about the magic of Prozac. At that time it was relatively new and considered to be miraculous, so about three or four weeks before graduation I started taking it. Right away, this drug really hit me. Hard. I felt a difference, and any difference was better than what I'd taken in the past -- at first. My core temperature seemed to rise. I began to feel hopeful. Some time went by and then about two weeks before graduation I became agitated, shaky, and restless. I paced my room, and things went dark. At one point I sat on my couch for hours listening to "The Wind Cries Mary" over and over again. My skin was crawling. At one point, my friend and her boyfriend tried to get me to go out with them on a Saturday night, but I hated the idea. I needed to stay in my room but couldn't explain why. Never had I felt this way before. I called my school psychologist and begged her to let me leave school and go home. She told me that I really, really didn't want to do this. Really. I'd been waiting to graduate for four years!
Back to the infirmary, one more time. I told the dorm head and she hugged me, which was embarrassing because I was drenched in sweat. I was really, really sick this time. I lay in the infirmary for ten days, seven of which were spent without any sleep at all. At some point the doctor authorized that I be given Benadryl, which of course did nothing. I took my exams in the infirmary, my brain barely functioning. And then finally someone thought to call my psychiatrist and I was given a large dose of Trazadone. I finally started to sleep, but by graduation I felt rough, fragmented.
There was fervor at graduation, and I posed in all the right photos, but to be honest I wanted to get through it all and go home. There were after-parties, but I had no interest -- I felt apart from everyone somehow. We were all there because the end had come, but it felt like my end was different and that it had come so close to not happening at all. I went home with my family. My medication and mood stabilized. By July 4th I'd met the most incredible guy, and I'd started living again. Nighttime swimming at the beach, road trips, frolicking and partying and doing all the things an eighteen year-old girl is supposed to do. My life was beginning.
Through it all I became particularly attuned to my surroundings, those of the natural world that remind me that life still goes on. The wind will still blow. The waves will come and go. The moon will always be there, even when it hides. Clouds will come, bunch up or stray and then move on and more will come. And the sun will be there in between, always, even when it rains. As for me, I will always strive, I will always be, even when I want to hide. Being a teenager, being unmedicated, studying in a pressure cooker school, hiding and developing and using tricks to survive -- the four years I spent trying to live and keep living, by far the worst years of my life -- I am done with it, and every day now I live life beyond it. I can't wish away the chemical flow in my brain, but at least I understand what it is. There is movement, a waxing and waning, a moon dragging waters across sand -- marked yet smooth, and beautiful -- over and over again.
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