A whopping twenty-eight years ago, I harbored the very stigma that I now find so repugnant in others. My prejudice generated from my calling my Dad at U.C.L.A.’s venerated Neuropsychiatric Institute. Dad, who also had bipolar one, would need to stay at “N.P.I.” from time to time.
The wing he stayed in had a pay phone, and when I called I was given instructions to ask for my Dad by his first name only. Chances were that another patient would answer the phone and needed to hunt around for Dad. I was very close to my father, and so I called as often as I could. When his fellow patients answered the pay phone, their voices would frighten me. I knew that I was calling the “loony bin” and that the people staying there were not in their right minds. I could tell by the uncanny timbre of their voices that something was gravely wrong.
If I had been told when I was sweet, naive sixteen that I would be staying at very similar placxe years later, my jaw would have touched the ground. I loved my Dad with all my heart and a big part of me was in massive denial about his illness; I simply didn’t regard him as one of “Them”. He didn’t belong in a “nuthouse” as far as I was concerned.
My father came across as utterly charming, funny, and he was a brilliant professional violinist as well. He had graduated from Juilliard, received a Fulbright scholarship, and won a coveted spot playing in the first violin section for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Many years later, when he left the orchestra, over one hundred musicians auditioned for his spot. When he was acutely mentally ill he didn’t drool, or speak in tongues. He would hole up in his room on a gorgeous, sunny day, drawing the curtains so that it resembled a cave, and stay there for days, risking the loss of his job.
I didn’t understand what was going on with him, although I spotted many medicine containers labeled with unfamiliar names scattered on his bureau. (What the hell was “lithium”? I wondered. It was a pretty-sounding word that rolled easily off my tongue, and it would become a cornerstone of my life just like it was with Dad. Luckily his hands didn’t shake too much from the drug when he played his Stradivarius.)
Today, even though I consider myself a mental health advocate, I still catch myself not practicing what I preach. I live in a rural area close to a tucked-away facility for adults with mental challenges. Although their building is off our main highway, I spot these residents every day. They walk from their home to cross the road on which I drive back and forth several times a day. They are heading for the neighborhood liquor store, and I notice that they usually purchase cigarettes. I worry when I see these people, as they shuffle and we have many speeding commuters on the highway they cross back and forth.
They usually look disheveled and lost, appearing overly medicated, and I have looked at them with repulsion. I am not proud of myself for this fact. I feel this way in part because I see myself in them. I could easily be one of them, and I’ll never bury that possibility from my consciousness. I also spot the residents waiting at the bus stop, often smoking, some of them listening to iPods. When I drive by in my old-but-zippy Forester, I say a prayer of thanks for having my independence, for having my own car and the ability to drive it wherever I want. God knows that wasn’t always the case during my five locked-ward “staycations” in mental hospitals. Those visits now seem like a world away, but my last hospitalization was less than a year ago.
I need to work on deepening my compassion for others, including my neighbors at that facility. It won’t be easy, but I’m finding as I get older that the old adage is true: nothing worth anything is easy.
Aside from wanting my children to have fulfilling, rich lives free of tragedy, my greatest hope is to never have to be treated in a hospital again, for any kind of malady. When I reach my life’s finish line (I’m pulling for an ultra marathon rather than a 10K!) I would like to die at home surrounded by my family, guided by a hospice team. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, I am deeply grateful for all that I have, and for the little things, like being able to make coffee in the morning, or drive to drop my girls off at school, or for the fact that I can write freely on this blog. I’ll never be 100% stigma-free, but I’ll give it my best shot. It’s the least I can do.