June 16, 2020
Present, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, Tuesday, 1:00 p.m.
The three psychiatrists and I sit at the conference room table writing trauma case studies. As the professional writer in the room, my job is to smooth out the prose, prune the jargon. We’re writing about children to whom awful —sometimes unspeakable things—happened. The psychiatrists would say these case histories are factual, but I know they are stories and, like all stories, have inciting events, climaxes, and resolutions. Readers long for epiphanies and revelations, redemption, and happy endings. But shift a few words or reorder paragraphs and epiphanies evaporate, redemption erodes to reveal darker currents.
As I write these children’s stories, I wonder which of them will grow up to be memoirists, compelled to put down their own versions. I also can’t help but think about my own story, and all the various ways I could skew it, and what I will inevitably leave out. I can’t help but wonder why I feel so compelled to tell it—as if I could still get it right. As if I could fix my childhood firmly in the past and not feel haunted by it. As if I could achieve clarity.
But the truth is, I don’t want only clarity. I also want to slow down and relive the best glimmering moments, to wash the terror out of the bad parts, to get it all back—only better this time. To feel some kind of pure love again.
What I can’t tell the psychiatrists is that down the hall from this room lies another room that holds a critical piece of my own story. Though it’s a cliché that people go into this field because of less than idyllic upbringings, these psychiatrists never talk about their own histories, at least not here, not to me. I am the one who knows she is passing.
The renowned head of the center, a brilliant, charismatic man in his sixties, leads the discussion. Strict hierarchies are observed in medicine, still largely patriarchal hierarchies. His colleagues defer to him. I try to appear as if I’m deferring to all of them.
The clinicians in this room identify with the doctors in these case studies–– the protagonists in these stories. I identify with the children, standing in for them with an empathy that feels a little too raw. Did you hear what the child actually said? and Isn’t this therapist sounding awfully preachy? and Yes, but . . . and what if? Are you sure the emperor’s wearing clothes? Because I can’t stop seeing his nakedness. I repeatedly interrogate these experts’ basic assumptions. In much of my life, I have become the interrogator of basic assumptions.
The Director’s shouting over his colleagues now, using his clout to shut down some minor controversy. Does my ire rise because he reminds me of my father? I’m overly sensitive to markers of blinding paternalistic narcissism. The truth is I’m simultaneously attracted to and allergic to them. I try to hide my allergy because it can get in the way of my deference. But it’s too late, I’ve been caught rolling my eyes again. I make amends, look down at my notepad, write furiously, nod.
Do these doctors see the signs of my childhood history in my incessant interrogations, in what they call my “provocative questions?” Can they feel my reflexive skepticism at war with my hunger to believe? Can they perceive all the ways my past reverberates in this room?
1968, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute
In the waiting room, a young man with stringy hair and a dirty poncho paced back and forth and muttered to himself. The young woman with him, seated in a chair, leaned forward and whispered loudly enough for my hypervigilant ears to hear, “Was it just acid? Are you sure it wasn’t laced with something?” I could smell his acrid sweat from across the room. I was sixteen; I didn’t know anyone who had taken acid, though I’d seen my father pace in agitation and mutter under his breath this same way.
My mother read a magazine, oblivious to the crazy people around us. I sat there, incubating a sick foreboding as one dark-suited male clinician after another appeared and walked patients back to their offices.
Finally entrapped in a closet-sized consulting room across from my assigned psychiatrist, my immediate problem was his face. A bad-omen face. Too many sharp angles, the edges of his cheekbones threatened to pierce his own skin. His dark eyebrows overhung his nearly black eyes, disguising his intentions.
“Can you tell me what’s been troubling you?” he asked.
What I needed was a joke to break the ice, or some fatherly comfort. Oh, for some fatherly comfort, the blessing my father used to deliver with his hands outstretched over the congregation at Sabbath services: may God shine his countenance upon you and grant you peace.
With his heavy Hungarian accent, my young psychiatrist seemed like a man from a grainy, black and white Holocaust documentary; had he been a victim of the Nazis or a collaborator? A wave of premonition passed over me, stomach, throat, head, and then infused my whole body with a queasy heat. Then it escaped my body to suffuse the atmosphere in the room. Or had it come into me from the room? Telling what was inside and outside had gotten harder and harder.
Something awful was about to happen, I knew it. Something even more awful than what had already happened: my father locked up in the Glendale Adventist Hospital psych unit and me losing it too. If I wasn’t going crazy, then the dead people really were after me.
“I’ve been upset,” I said.
“Tell me more,” he countered.
I tried not to bite my decimated nails in front of him but couldn’t stop myself from picking at them. Premonition shifted into déjà vu; I knew what he was going to say an instant before he said it. I’d be right on the cusp of being able to recite his words along with him, then remain a frustrating beat behind. And then, I remembered his face. I remembered his face.
“I saw you in my dream last night,” I said. “Your face.”
He raised an eyebrow, and I saw a flash of alarm or incredulity which he hid by looking down. That little beat of rejection made my stomach fall out.
“What about before last night?”
“Weird things keep happening, and they all seem connected. I can’t stop seeing the connections and they scare me because I don’t know what they mean.”
He kept taking notes, pulling his body farther away from me, erect in his black leather chair. He was arrogant. Just like my father said, psychiatrists were arrogant, self-righteous, moralizing, bourgeois pricks.
“What exactly scares you?”
The whoosh of the air ventilation system made a dissonant song play in my head. The metallic odor of ozone filled the air, like the scent that precedes a thunderstorm. Or was it more organic? Maybe the smell was coming from him? More likely me. I pressed my legs together. Whenever something smelled rank, I assumed the odor was coming from between my legs.
I had to get out—of the room, of the place, of my head, of my body. If only there were some way other than death to get out. The idea of dying terrified me but so did feeling trapped in my body.
“What’s been going on at home with Mom and Dad? What about with your friends at school?”
Frames from one of our tenth grade health education films flashed before me: wholesome teenagers cheerfully eating lunch together on a school bench, singing hymns at church with mom and dad, playing baseball in the park. How could I bridge the distance between those scenes and my life?
You see, doctor, when my grandmother Rebecca died, my father got depressed, and every night he’d stare out the window and speak to her in her grave. Then he started believing that Mom and my Uncle Nathan were trying to kill him. I spied on them for him. Now my mother’s committed him and some friendly doctors like you are running bolts of electricity through his brain.
I couldn’t stop seeing the way my grandmother looked in her coffin. Then a girl at school died and I got textbooks with her name in them, and these strange coincidences kept happening, and now I’m afraid she wants something from me, that she and my grandmother want something from me. The dead miss the living; they envy us. My father told me.
I felt a compulsion to confess and an equally powerful prohibition against it. I wasn’t allowed to say the dead girl’s name out loud though I had to repeat it in my head a million times a day to make amends for living.
“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on,” the doctor coaxed. Have you been taking drugs? Smoking grass?” He elongated the last word’s single syllable and smiled as if congratulating himself for his hipness. I was more naïve than he realized; I didn’t even know any kids in La Crescenta who took drugs, only a poet with a bottle of whiskey in his glove box.
I saw myself in a long tunnel, exiting my body from the back of my head. No, I shouldn’t have asked to leave my body. Please God, just let me get back into my body, let me get back into my body, and be a normal high school girl.
“There’s something going on at the very back of my head,” I said, “like my brain is too big for my body. I feel it stretching behind me.”
My voice sounded remote, even to me. The psychiatrist would say my affect did not match my words. It was the same erudite tone my father employed when cajoling doctors into giving him the drugs he loved—Butisol Sodium, Seconal, Percodan, and his favorite, Tuinol. He sang out their names as if just forming the words with his mouth delighted him.
“I have an unusually high tolerance,” he’d say. “I don’t react like an ordinary man.”
My father and I were not ordinary; oh no, we had formed an alliance around being extraordinary.
“You can trust me,” the doctor said and that small gesture towards empathy released me. I told him everything.
After our session, the doctor ushered my mother into his consulting room. He showed her my diagnosis written on the top of an intake sheet, Paranoid Schizophrenic.
After my first brief appointment with a psychiatrist, I carried a more dire diagnosis than my father, whose doctors couldn’t agree on what to call what was wrong with him. Schizophrenia, with its onset in adolescence, was likely to progress. Treatments were limited.
My mother came back and sat down in the waiting room next to me, her hazel eyes wet. After all her years of living with my father, my mother still seemed so innocent, so taken off guard by what was happening in our family.
“What did you tell him?” she said. “What kind of crazy mishegoss did you tell him? “Nobody understands how suggestible you are.”
The clarity of her gaze snapped me back into reality. The dissonance stopped. I re-entered my body. All I wanted at that moment was to be normal. Well, not ordinary-normal, of course, but special-normal.
“You’re too smart a girl for this. You’ve got to get hold of yourself.”
I flinched. That was my mother’s usual advice—get a hold, shut down, don’t feel. I could never get the grip on myself she thought I needed. I’d never figured out how to be more like her.
“Do you want to wind up in the mental hospital in a bed next to your father’s? They can give you a matching straitjacket too.”
Deborah A. Lott’s reportage, essays, and memoirs have been published in many places, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, Psychology Today, the Rumpus, Salon, and the nervous breakdown. Her first book of narrative nonfiction, In Session: the Bond between Women and Their Therapists, was published to wide critical acclaim and continues to be used to train psychotherapists nationwide. Her work has been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. Poet and memoirist Mark Doty said of her new book, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, “Funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking – and often surprisingly, all three at once. It’s an astonishingly vivid book, and to read it is to be caught up, just as the writer was, in an impossible, crazy, misfit family. Through grace and nerve and will, Deborah learns that you can’t ‘screw nature,’ or ‘stop time,’ as her father tried to do, ‘but you could turn your grief into love.’ This writer’s love for her deeply screwed-up family is unforgettable. As the best memoirs do, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me makes this writer’s story belong to all of us.”
This prologue is reprinted by permission from Don’t Go Crazy Without Me from Red Hen Press. Copyright © 2020 by Deborah Lott.