(Edited in 3/2012 . Note that all names have been changed back to their originals except for names of the people involved. Although in Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to disguise everyone, including the hospitals, here descriptions of people once changed to “protect them” have been undisguised. I write nothing but the truth as I remember it — I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this — and I intend no libel in any event. In fact, I want to be as fair as possible and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit where it is due as possible.
Note, because many may have read this before, I want to
I hope this will be a chapter in BLACKLIGHT, my second memoir and a possible sequel as it were to DIVIDED MINDS.
The Ogre Has ECT: 2004
I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, and rimless glasses knocks on the door-frame..
“May I come in?” she asks politely.
“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.
“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”
“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”
“What principle is that?”
“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”
“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.
“I see you have a sense of humor.”
“You should see me…”
“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”
“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…
I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.
“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”
“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”
“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”
“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”
“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”
She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”
The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.
“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.
“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”
We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.
I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.
“Sorry, Dr Corner has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”
I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”
“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”
“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.
“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”
Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.
“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”
At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another’s. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?
Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”
“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”
She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest. ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.
She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.
After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!
I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.
Other people crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.
I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle, saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.
I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.
“I’m , Dr Corner, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”
“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”
“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”
Then she turns and is gone.
As I get to know her, I will like Dr Corner for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.
The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than the to the ECT suite in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are. I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group, under our own steam, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. Then, when we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us so there’s no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait: we’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.
Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Corner looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…
I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”
Strangely, Dr Corner has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.
ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second, even though my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not. Dr Corner tries to persuade me, but I am adamant, No more ECT. Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.
“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”
“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of I it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”
“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”
Dr Corner’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”
She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness. I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.
This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Dr Corner never lies. Worst of all, Dr O’Hayley, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. The problem is that to get a court order I have to have a conservator who will agree to it. They appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.
So Dr Corner wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged, much improved, so everyone says, a month later, promising, as a condition of my release, that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not. I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Corner threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphaels and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Corner a nice apologetic letter, but sorry, doc, no more ECT for me. Ever.
Several months later I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of electroshock treatments.
Wowee zowee, who’da thunk it could go so well? I was more worried than usual and I had this profound dread that — I dunno — somehow disapproval and dislike and even hatred of me would reign overall. Worse, that all those shrinks would find my poetry either cold and incredible (but who are they to say?) or somehow incomprehensible at least in part….This is not just self-loathing baring its usual fangs, but my deep fear that a repeat of my encounter with Dr Z in the Hospital in October would occur, writ large, or with so many others over these past 35 years. Truth is, I am terribly frightened of most doctors, of all sorts, and this despite the fact that I am all too aware, intimately so, of how human, how terribly flawed they can be and how despicably they can sometimes behave. Even so I am aware that I “give” them — give most people — way too much power over me (I have never understood that “give” but it must be true, though it feels like they take it, forcibly), power to dominate and judge and make me feel like shit. Moreover, I am so afraid of them and their power, that I become completely paranoid about — well, any doctor, really any health care professional, from technician to nurse to doctor, I need to see these days! and my mind conjures up scenarios about how they intend to harm me, complete with delusions and hallucinations that corroborate every such feeling.
Just this past week, for instance, when my migraine, along with vomiting up what looked like coffee grounds, put me at the emergency room again, paranoia completely took over. I still believe that they knew everything I felt and perceived, indeed were doing precisely what I “knew” they were doing …. Why I even call it paranoia I do not know, when I believe it was real. Why? Because, because, because…I have to hope and pray it was paranoia. Otherwise life would be unbearable…unbearable! I would at this point much rather be told, reassured, that nothing happened there, at the ER, and that it was “only” my paranoia, than to find out that indeed I was right all along! No, I hope to god I was wrong! And if I need to be labeled paranoid in order to be wrong, then fine, so be it. Better than to be right and find out that what I was so terrified by really was happening there all along…
But where was I? I was speaking of Wednesday night’s reading. I started out — well, the problem began — I was fine up until that point mind you! — when we entered the building because unlike the hotel, it was vast and echoing which produced an immediate physical disorientation on my part, I felt off balance and dizzied, as if under attack and anxious…I wanted to get out from under those echoes and that vastness…So I was scared simply upon entering the building and wanted to get away from it…This did not abate, and being scared almost to muteness beforehand, it only got worse, esp when Mary left me alone in a big room just off the hall where the reception was taking place. I felt then as if I were going to disappear, to implode, to die, to be killed, if she didn’t come back quickly…I didn’t know how to escape and I knew that I would have to, that I would not survive otherwise and immediately. I slunk to the wall near the door, carrying all my things, my coat and bag and my poetry. Adrenalin shot into my chest and poured down my arms and legs, preparing me for flight, when suddenly Mary returned.
I think she realized what a state I was in then, and felt bad. Which only made me feel worse, and I couldn’t talk for a few minutes. But I made myself pull myself together and I did calm down, and made it clear that to enter the room where the reading would take plaee once full would be much harder than to do so when it was still in the process of filling. So we went in, Mary going first and fending people off (so I felt) and when I finally had a chair beneath me, I could breathe again. Just knowing I could keep my head down and stop anyone from talking to me, even if they recognized me allowed me to relax, which was what I needed.
In this room, which had some sort of insulation that baffled the echo in the halls and open space downstairs, the disorientation passed almost at once, and the adrenalin seeped away, until it was only at the level of keeping me alert, not so much alarmed and ready to flee. I no longer felt dizzied or on the verge of hyperventilation or even, as I had, such imbalance as to the possiblity of falling. It was weird to the max but as soon as I left that room after the event was over, I had trouble immediately, having to negotiate the space with great care, using the banister to take the stairs and even so, feeling my feet and legs uncertainly take the steps downward and feeling the alarmed feeling build up and up the longer we remained. I felt even so that I could not hear properly, though all had left and there were scarcely more than 5 or 6 of us left in the building. I was so glad when we finally got outside I barely registered that noisiness by comparison!
But I am ahead of myself! First the “event” took place.
Barbara from the Foundation that sponsors and indeed is the originator of these humanism and medicine events did a brief introduction about the Foundation itself, then my publisher got up in her striking bright red coat, and spoke, wildly enthusiastic, about my book. In bombastic terms she praised me endlessly, until I cringed and felt no one, least of J herself could possibly believe such drivel….. I can only hope she tones it down tonight as it was way over the top…upsetting me because I felt certain she was lying to herself and making everyone laugh at me as well. Finally, she was through and gave me the signal to do my thing. Luckily I had more than cut my teeth on public speaking with our book tour for Divided Minds, so I was fine, once I got started. Of course beginning with, How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual, and a few words of explanation, put most people at ease. So you better believe I start with that almost without fail. What else? And after that my spiel and that poem, I had them…as they say — in my hand. But really, they had me! You see, I was no longer terrified, nor intimidated. Instead I was having fun and wanted only to please.
The rest of the reading went swimmingly, with Mary providing a short intro to each chronological section of the book, and me reading about 3 poems from each, That way, I could let her do some of the organizing of the reading and taking some of the pressure off me, and it eased my tension a bit, even though I guess I could have done it myself, seeing as I had done so at Mystic (though I admit, there I had also started weeping near the end, thinking about Joe as I read a poem about him. In fact, it was probably my crying during that poem there that led Marjorie to suggest I stop at the so-called forgiveness poem, rather than continue through till four o’clock as I was scheduled to.)
In fact, I do not mind crying, it is mostly others who seek to save me from my own tears who mind…They are the ones who cannot take it, who think they have to save me from embarrassing myself, them, and the world. when in fact I don’t mind crying in public, any more than I could care less where I sleep! (I have slept in some pretty weird places, including right in the middle of a labyrinth in a public garden….Could simply not walk a foot farther but collapsed into a heap and slept for a couple of hours, oblivious to the fact of people staring or otherwise wondering what I was doing there, and my family having in disgust moved on…) But at the Academy, I was prevented from crying or at least it never became an issue which at moment, is a source of relief though I do not believe it would ever truly have proved a problem to me.
The following night, I was less articulate, possibly more tired, though I hadn’t felt so, just more tongue-tied, and less quick to think or respond…Nevertheless , the audience was very kind and laughed right on cue, which is more than I can say for the shrinks, kind though they were. and which this audience was not made of particularly. They even responded better, in terms of audible laughter to In Memoriam Memoriae. Laughing at the ending, and esp at the pauses where laughter was most welcome.
Oh, I am such a ham…But in truth this is only on stage, and nowhere else. And only in terms of the truth, not as a true actor, which I cannot be for beans…I dunno how to “act act” and wouldn’t want to. What I think I like to do is be myself, but be a goofy me, or a funny me, which others call, Play acting, but is really just being goofy, and me too. Can I not be goofy sometimes, or might i not achieve that state of innocence where one can play and be irresponsible occasionally? Why must one be staid and unimaginative and awkward and nothing always…
Well, I fear I must stop here, finished or no, as my face is coming off and I simply cannot stay awake longer. I have to go to bed because I am fading and losing touch with whatever i am writing.. When the fingers threaten to fall asleep on the keyboard and the keyboard becomes invisible because you are closing your eyes against your will, you know it’s time to sleep…And so I will, myself, take this body off to bed. Sleep well and good night.
During the second part of what I call my Y2K Meltdown, when I was hospitalized for 3 months, first in central and then in southern Connecticut, I was extremely — but what I call serially– paranoid. What I mean by this is that plots occurred to me one after another seemingly without end. A new conspiracy would “appear” out of nowhere, as of course paranoid plots tend to, generated as they are by that two step process, described in the “Paranoia and Hallucination” entry. It would “do its thing” as they say, run its course, wreak its own havoc, then having done so, pop or be defused, and disappear. But almost immediately and, without my having any sense that this was happening or had any pattern, in its place another conspiracy would arise to take its place.
An example: at one point during that same hospital stay, having smelled what I was certain was marijuana coming from the art supplies room, I became convinced that the staff had been infiltrated by drug dealers selling weed and stronger drugs to patients. I’d mentioned the smell — no doubt some innocuous meaningless odor, if it existed at all — to a male nurse, and the look he gave me convinced me that he was involved. As a result, I realized that my knowledge of the presence of drugs on the unit made me dangerous to him and the other dealers. I felt frightened that he might retaliate, threaten me, or worse, hurt me when no one was around or could help me or know he was responsible.
Terrified enough to start talking, I told the doctor, and I called my sister and begged her to come in and sign me out. Please take me anywhere else, I begged. I would agree to any other hospital only get me out of there where I was in mortal danger. It was, I knew, after visiting hours, indeed it was after bedtime, but she had to come in and get me, now, or I might not survive the night.
Incredibly, she actually came in, if only to make sure that the staff was aware of my extreme distress. I knew only that she came to check out the drug situation and was devastated when she left without taking me home with her, though by then she had managed to “talk me down” some, convince me that I was in less danger than I believed, and that at least some of the staff were on my side and would be watching out for me all night.
Somehow, her words got through to me, and by the next day, the matter of the drug conspiracy was resolved, though I cannot recall exactly how.
All I know is that as the urgency of that situation ebbed, I became aware that a new patient had arrived on the unit. Cally wore a raglan-sleeved sweater made of what I immediately apprehended was a washable wool yarn called “Candide.” Now, I knew only one other person aside from myself who knitted sweaters like that made of Candide yarn and she was the woman who had taught me to do so. “Lisa” not only knitted many such a sweater but did so for her long lost daughter, “Cally,” who had been given away for adoption many years before. The fact that “Cally” lived in North Dakota, last I knew, was of no importance to me. What seemed of paramount, vital and decisive importance was 1) the Candide wool and raglan sleeves, and 2) the fact that Cally appeared to have Lisa’s ballet-slender body type. These two coincidences in fact absolutely clinched the matter. Cally was “Cally,” wasn’t she?
These equivalences might not have been so critical to me, except that, it suddenly seemed that Lisa had died. She had committed suicide, so the message was communicated to me, and I had now to inform Cally of the fact that I’d known her mother way back when. I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell her what she had been like, that was the mission I’d been given. But first I needed to ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt that this Cally was indeed Lisa-my-former-friend’s daughter “Cally”…
If this was not a true paranoia that instantly arose following the death of the drug dealing plot, it was a delusion coupled with the felt urgency to act on what I was certain I knew (not so different from the marijuana delusion after all). And it was only one of a long string of plots and serial delusions that followed one upon another almost without a break that winter and spring. Just as I described in my entry of the other day, not once in the midst of any of these conspiracies or delusions was I cognizant of what was going on or able to step back and analyze the situation with any objectivity. At that time, I did not even have the tools I have now to dissect an incident after the fact: I was at the utter mercy of my brain illness, without any insight whatsoever. Now, at least, I can step back after the experience and say, Wow, I must have been really paranoid to think such a thing, or That was a hallucination after all…My goal, and a real triumph would be to recognize these things in medias res, that is, right while they are happening, but so far that does not seem to be possible.
Argh… An incident of paranoia and, hallucination unrecognized by any of us, including me, caused certain people close to me unnecessary distress this week. I won’t go into the details of that particular incident, except to say that I had absolutely no appreciation for the fact that I was both paranoid and under the influence of false perceptions and so took what I hallucinated as solid reality, with predictable consequences. Since I felt attacked and “heard” corroborating evidence, when I accused the responsible parties, as I felt certain they were, you can imagine how people reacted…Anyhow, I don’t really know how to make things right now, since the accusations themselves seems to reveal a fundamental lack of trust, however paranoid and generated out of the whole cloth that is my imagination going full tilt…I don’t imagine it would help anyone much to say that this has happened many many times before, and that I have accused so many people of so many outlandish things that it embarrasses me even in the remembering…Nor that some, no, most of the accusations have had utterly NO basis in fact other than the predisposition of my brain at that precise instant in time. They didn’t even reflect any longstanding attitude, so much as a temporary, very fleeting feeling that burst out as full-blown paranoia-of-the-moment.
Be that as it may, instead of dissecting this particular incident, I want to discuss paranoia of the rather prosaic sort that afflicts me these days, rather than the grandiose and global kind — involving the usual suspects like the CIA plus certain shadowy figures known as The Five People — which used to. These days, paranoia — which I’ve been taught to recognize and deal with by my psychiatrist, though success at either task remains elusive as best — reveals itself most often at the grocery store or the post office or the lobby of my “elderly-disabled” apartment complex. Or it might pop up in my suddenly suspecting theft by someone near and dear, or accusations of malfeasance or betrayal by someone who would have no possible reason or motive for such an act, if an act of that sort were even in the realm of being contemplated. But usually the accusation is so outrageous as to be laughable if it weren’t so insulting or potentially dangerous to reputation or livelihood.
What happens in general is something like this: (and Dr O has broken it down for me, knowing the neurology of paranoia) my brain generates a feeling, that is the amygdala spontaneously, chemically, spurts out neurotransmitters of some sort that spell “fear” or “threat” coupled with a sense of absolute certainty. I don’t know if there has to be a trigger for this amygdala burst or not, but it seems to me that stress does induce it more often than calm does, and that certain stresses bring it on more often than others. But that is not to say that I can ever predict when or if my amygdala will produce an outburst at any given time; it is definitely unpredictable to the max! So imagine that I am, say, visiting someone in the hospital with another friend, and in that stressful situation — crowded hospital, stress of strange place and sick friend and not knowing what to do — my amygdala pours out the fear neurotransmitter. I’m suddenly on alert and feeling threatened. Someone is attacking me, my brain decides, and he or she is right there in the room with me! In fact, I just heard them both conspire against me, the sick friend and the well friend visiting him…They are both in on it and against me! I hate them both, they got me here on false pretenses and now are plotting against me, they want to hurt me, to do something to me, they…And so it goes.
Anyhow, after the primary flood of “threat” feeling (“the feeling is primary” and that feeling is almost always fear in some form or another) the brain’s longer pathway — as I understand it — kicks in and generates an explanation, a storyline to go along with the “threat feeling.” The important thing to know is that the storyline need not make any sense whatsoever. The brain doesn’t give a damn whether there is any evidence outside of it to explain the threat feeling, because the threat feeling is already inside and felt…So anything can explain it, literally anything can seem or feel reasonable, and does. So wherever the mind goes, or tends to go at that moment, will be the form of the storyline that explains the threat-feeling. If one’s brain travels along the line of (I should only be so reasonable) “why do I feel so threatened? Did they just say something bad about me? Maybe I’d better ASK them! then one is in good shape, because at least then one can check out what is going on, and short circuit any tendency to mistake false perception for reality. But for me, while I do not, often, these days go so far as to opine that cosmic forces are behind my threat-feeling, I do find other less than reasonable sources than reality to explain it: voila paranoia.
One example, when I am in the grocery store, particularly when alone, I almost always hear and as a result know that I am being followed, and instructed as to what I can and cannot buy. I generally race through the store in an effort to get out, and get away from my pursuers, or if I do not, suffer from dreadful fear of imminent assault or at least dire consequences. At a minimum, in the best of times, I know that someone is following me and keeping track of what I put in my cart, and will be transmitting the “evidence” to a central authority, which will lead to later consequences that I will regret (which my mind spins into longer more detailed scenarios that change each time I am in the store but which vanish as soon as I am safely back in the car or walking down the hill a distance away…)
So that is both an explanation of how paranoia arises — from Dr O’s mantra, “the feeling is primary” , meaning the fear that is initially and instantly generated from that burst of neurotransmitters or neuroelectricity to the brain’s subsequent confabulation of a narrative, an explanation for that all-compassing feeling of threat and the certainty that the threat is real. And I hope I have given some examples of paranoia, specific examples, where the situation stimulates the content without the two being necessarily significant or significantly related. For example, in the instance of the two friends at the hospital, it is the fear and the feeling of threat and certainty that provides the stimulus for the paranoia, rather than any underlying distrust of the friends. The friends are simply the carriers of the fear and the certainty of the reality of the threat, which would have been borne by almost anyone stepping into the picture at that time…