Trauma and Separation
“There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that, you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Another writer I would like to quote is one of my favorite poets: Adrienne Rich:
It was your vision of the pilot
confirmed my vision of you: you said, He keeps
on steering headlong into the waves, on purpose
while we crouched in the open hatchway
vomiting into plastic bags
for three hours between St. Pierre and Miquelon.
I never felt closer to you.
In the close cabin where the honeymoon couples
huddled in each others’ laps and arms
I put my hand on your thigh
to comfort both of us, your hand came over mine,
we stayed that way, suffering together
in our bodies, as if all suffering
were physical, we touched so in the presence
of strangers who knew nothing and cared less
vomiting their private pain
as if all suffering were physical.
What is the relationship between my disability and my queerness, and how does this relate to trauma and separation? I think it lies in the compulsory alignment with my family’s values and the shock I incurred when I broke away from them. My choices, of political and economic equality, feminism, anti-nuclear, anti-militaristic, bisexual pacifism—these were not acceptable choices to my family. In fact, they were so unacceptable as to be completely unspeakable. My father absolutely refused to even speak to me about these things. And these were things that were SO important to me. But since my parents were in the dominant position to decide what was crazy or not, when I chose not to speak back to them in return, they had me locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Believe me, by then I WAS crazy. Crazy with rage, with pain, with fear. With the knowledge that their choices were defining me, and, combined with the voices of others, were a threat to the whole globe in their ignorance. Their choices that had been aligned with what the American media found acceptable to print, and what acceptable Americans found suitable to believe. The problem is that it is all built on lies. Dangerous lies.
When I was born, I was born female–that was my original sin. My parents had wanted a boy, and being born a girl meant that I was supposed to be seen and not heard, to look sweet and smile, and certainly to have no opinions, especially contradictory ones.
When I went to college, I was exposed to alternative views, and when I returned to my family, four short years later, I embodied these views. I was, as R.D. Blackmore wrote about in “Lorna Doone”, a stolen child. My body was there, but my soul had been taken.
I think the hardest thing about being diagnosed with a mental or emotional illness during young adulthood is trying to differentiate between the illness and normal individuation. Are they saying that you have a thought disorder because your thinking is impaired, or because they don’t like the thoughts that you have? It’s a hard call, since, being inside your own mind, it is impossible for you to participate in the judgment. There has got to be somebody out there whose decisions you trust.
I go back and forth between believing that mental illness is strictly a chemical imbalance, and feeling like it was a punishment inflicted upon me by my family for having the audacity to stand up to their dominant position in the culture. There was a certain fascism in my family. There was only one right answer, my father’s opinion; and if you didn’t agree with it, you kept your mouth shut, like the rest of my sisters. I was the one who spoke out, and I was the one who took the fall.
The saddest part of it for me, is that my family took something that was precious and sacred and happy to me–my coming out and my budding sexuality–and turned it into something ugly and completely unspeakable—a crime that dare not speak it’s name. This I could not forgive them for.
When I was in college, I studied political theory, and the big question was “can a just person survive in an unjust society”. For me now, the question is “can a healthy person survive in an unhealthy society”. If your society tells you that you are bad and wrong, you feel bad and wrong. And you become unhealthy. How do you become healthy if what is shouldn’t be? And if what should be isn’t there? I wanted to be accepted by my family, but they were and still are hostile to who I have become. When I talk to my mother, she still says things like “remember when you were in college and you thought you had all the answers?”. She just didn’t like the answers that I had. I had to give up wanting to be accepted by my family. But they want it to look like everything is just fine, so they still invite me to all the family reunions and then they just don’t talk about anything because they are so afraid that I will shake up their world.
The summer after my sophomore year I was chosen to go to Washington DC in the internship program and work for Ralph Nader’s Critical Mass Group. I was learning about something that most people in the country had not even considered yet, especially the serious consequences possible from nuclear energy. I ended up working as the liaison between Critical Mass and the National Organization for Women doing research with the lawyers working on the Karen Silkwood case. I was so traumatized by what I learned had happened to Silkwood, and how the news media was trivializing it, that I became severely distressed in worrying about what could happen if nuclear waste got into the wrong hands. Not only could nuclear waste not be stored or disposed of safely, in any way, but it could also be used as a weapon, and who knows who would use it, when or where?
In my work with the NOW attorneys, we found out that Silkwood’s house and body had been contaminated by nuclear waste because she was a union organizer. It seemed like this was a clear attempt to block unionization by outright killing a union rep. Finally they ran her off the road into a concrete embankment. Was the right wing behind this? Was this the mob at work? I didn’t know what was causing this violence, and I didn’t think at the time to question who was behind it. I just knew that they were wrong to victimize a union organizer and a poor woman who was trying to educate people about the health hazards of nuclear power. Why wouldn’t anyone even talk about it? Why wasn’t it in the papers? What else weren’t they telling us, I began to wonder? My greatest fear was that if we were the nation that had beat the Nazi’s, didn’t that just make us bigger Nazi’s? Who would stop us?
One night my friend, Diane and I had planned to meet at a bar in Georgetown. Unfortunately, by the time I got there I had forgotten the name of the club. I wandered around looking for her, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. I finally stumbled into a place where I did find someone who looked familiar. She was a young woman I had met at my college. Her name was “T.J.”. She lit up as she smiled at me and motioned me over. She was about 5’6” tall, slim with a beautiful tight blouse on and slacks that fit her like a glove, belted at the waist and snug around her tight, round behind. Her afro haircut was trimmed carefully about 2 inches from her head, and her olive complexion was stunning. I was in awe of her physical stature and confident manner. I had never found myself so close to another woman who I knew to be an “out” lesbian, who also seemed to be responding to me. It felt like heaven! We dated all summer long and had a wonderful time that summer, but the relationship ended soon after we returned to school. I started my junior year that fall.
Because of the combination of the trauma that resulted from my knowledge of the dangers of nuclear power and the rejection I experienced by my family when I came out, in addition to my failed relationship, I had my first psychotic break before summer between my junior and senior years. It culminated at the end of the spring semester and before exams and I had caught a flu. I went to the college infirmary to get some medicine, and I noticed on the bottle that it said that it was ephedra, which is an amphetamine. I went to bed planning to sleep, but I was up all night, my mind racing wildly with thought after thought. I felt emotions surging and ideas spinning my brain around in circles. I must have been in bed for three days straight, my mind racing and manic. I don’t know why I didn’t seek help at that time. Because the disorder was inside my mind, it didn’t occur to me that the problem was within me. I projected the problem out onto the world. I remember asking a friend to go talk to the President of the College and tell her that she must contact the President of the United States saying that we must have immediate world peace. I couldn’t stand the thought of reading day after day in the papers of more fighting and wars. I would fast for peace. I remember seeing the front page of the New York Times the next day. The heads of the seven leading nations were on the cover smiling and holding hands. I assumed my threat had worked.
I ended up returning to my parent’s home in Phoenix that summer in a terrible state of confusion. My parents were clear that something was dreadfully wrong with me, but they didn’t have a clue what it could be. For some reason, it never occurred to them that I might need to see a doctor, or that they could talk to me directly and ask me how I felt and what I was thinking. Instead, they talked about me behind my back, and I knew it. I could feel it in the air. They called all my relatives and talked to them about it. But nobody, not one, talked to me directly or asked me how I felt or what I thought I might need. It’s true, I might not have been much help in clarifying things, but just to be respected enough to be communicated with directly would have helped a lot.
My mother finally told me that we were going to go to “family therapy”. My father didn’t even get in the car with us, so I assumed that he wasn’t part of this part of the “family”. Actually, he didn’t even believe in the whole field of psychology, so I’m sure he thought he was above it, and this was my problem. Even by then, I was the identified patient. Family dynamics were not examined. My mother and I were in the car and drove downtown. Finally, we arrived at a church, where my mother told me to go in and talk to the minister. This was my parent’s idea of “family therapy”. I explained to the minister that I was a lesbian, that I was a socialist and a feminist, and that my family could not deal with it or even talk to me. My mother then went in and talked to him separately. We left the church and nothing else was said about it. “Therapy” clearly didn’t work.
After graduation, I went back to Phoenix and I told my parents I wanted to talk to them about some of the things I had learned. I tried to stress to them how important it was to me. How I valued their opinion, and I hoped that they would respect my education. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My dad told me there was nothing to talk about. By then he had a pretty clear picture what my ideas were, and they were far from coinciding with his own–rightwing Christian military patriarch that he was. He sat in his chair not looking at me, clenching his fists. He didn’t agree with me, he said, and if we talked about it, we would just get upset. If we got upset, we would get angry, and he didn’t want to get angry. He turned his back to me, sat down, turned on a football game, and pretended that I wasn’t in the room. That was the last time it came up. I just did not exist or at least that was the way he acted, and that was the way I felt.
After a year of working in a lesbian bar as a bartender and having a failed relationship with a woman much older than myself, I landed back at my parents house, actively psychotic. By then, my parents realized that I had problems that needed more care than they could understand. I didn’t care about anything anymore, so after refusing to speak to a county therapist, I let my mother have me committed to a psychiatric hospital. I felt helpless and hopeless. I didn’t know what to do or what I was headed for. We walked in the front doors and mom was quietly sobbing. I put my arm around her to comfort her. We sat down, and the admitting doctor came and asked me to follow him to his office. He asked me what was going on, and I still refused to talk. I didn’t trust anyone by then. He said, “I promise you, things will improve if you will come into the hospital.” He seemed so gentle and compassionate. I trusted him, more than anyone I had met in a long time. So I simply said, “Splendid.” Finally, somebody cared about how I felt. This was my admissions procedure. I went back out into the waiting room, and my mother was still sitting there in this large rectangular white clinical space. Eventually a nurse came down the hall with a wheelchair, which surprised me as I was perfectly capable of walking. She motioned me into the chair, and as I was wheeled away, my mother cried. I found it so ironic, even at the time, that I was the patient, and yet I was the one comforting her. In my mind, it was she and my dad who had driven me to this state of rage.
After the nurse and I rounded a corner in the hall, beyond which my mother could not see, the nurse stopped the wheelchair and gave me an injection. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it would be a full week before I was quite conscious again. The nurse had given me a huge dose of Navane, a popular anti-psychotic used at that time.
We came to a locked door, and the nurse took out a key and let us in. I hadn’t known that I would be in a locked ward from which I would not be released for a week. It was white and very sterile looking, filled with people with vacant looks in their eyes and confused gazes. I was taken to a bedroom with four beds. I was instructed to take off my clothes and get into a hospital gown and slippers. All of my belongings were taken. This whole procedure was a mystery to me. Why was I being treated this way? I was just glad to be away from home and have some peace without being judged.
We came to a square room, the day room, which seemed small for the 35 inhabitants who sat around a few tables playing cards or sitting on a couch staring vacantly at a blaring television. After a few minutes, the impact of the injection hit me and I became less and less able to think or feel. I was in a daze. I felt like I had been given a handful of sleeping pills, but I was awake. What had I done to deserve this induced sedation? I felt like I had been given elephant tranquilizers. Was this level of sedation really necessary? I felt like a walking vegetable. The drug made me tremble. My feet shuffled out of my control, my arms twitched on their own accord. Someone offered me a cigarette and I took it gratefully, finally something familiar to take my mind off these odd sensations. I noticed that others too shuffled around the room, seemingly against their will, driven by the power of the drugs that forced their limbs to shuffle and twitch. We circled the room like ghosts, going nowhere and practically nonexistent.
My first week in the hospital was dreadful. I was almost unconscious most of the time as I stumbled about the dayroom; drugged into a stupor, heavily sedated. I couldn’t explain the treatment plan or the reason for my being there. My parents came to visit, maybe once or twice, but we had nothing to say. My mother came back towards the women’s bedroom with me once and a woman was lying on the floor in a corner. She suddenly pulled up her skirt and threw open her legs and displayed her vulva to my mother screaming: “It’s because of women like you that we are forced to be in here!”. I didn’t know what she meant, but I was secretly pleased that someone could do or say something angrily to my mother that I could not have ever expressed. It WAS partially her fault that I was there, and that it was OK for me to be angry about it..
There was no structure to our days. No meetings. No classes. Just hours of TV and cigarette smoking and endless shuffling about the room with no limb control. Even sitting in a chair, my limbs would move of their own accord. Even if I tried to stop the movement, I could not.
In the twenty years since that time I have worked on my own growth and healing, but that’s another story, so I would just like to close with a quote by
Tich Nhat Hanh in his book
“ANGER- Wisdom for cooling the Flames”.
To understand ourselves, we must learn and practice the way of non-duality. We should not fight our anger, because anger is ourselves, a part of ourselves. Anger is of an organic nature, like love. We have to take good care of our anger. And because it is an organic entity, an organic phenomenon, it is possible to transform it into another organic entity. The garbage can be transformed back into compost, into lettuce, and into cucumber. So don’t despise your anger. Don’t fight your anger, and don’t suppress your anger. Learn the tender way of taking care of your anger, and transform it into the energy of understanding and compassion.
–Tich Nhat Hanh
ANGER—Wisdom for Cooling the Flames