Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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TEN years ago, before my mental illness, I saw a story on 20/20 about a girl in Texas who had stigmata. They brought her to an auditorium so the true believers could see the blood drip from her palms, and she walked carefully up to the stage, wearing her long, shiny black hair neat and straight like the schoolgirl she was. And no one to wipe the blood away, or put her hands up to their face and hold them there, or run her hands under cold water until the bleeding stopped. She dreamed of crosses while other girls told secrets and drank milkshakes. And no one told her not to think of such things, that there was no God, no Jesus in heaven, no law that said she had to be good. I wanted to tell her, Live a little.
Her parents sat in the first row, rosaries in hand, and beamed. It was a miracle that their daughter had achieved this communion. The pope, remote in Rome, thought he had the market cornered on the divine, but there, in their very house, the mystical walked in shoes they’d bought. Surely goodness and mercy would follow them all the days of their lives. I thought their religion impractical and hoped, for the girl’s sake, that they hadn’t raised a martyr. Still, I felt a certain reverence when the camera stopped on her lowered head, her thin arms. I wondered if, lost among all that dogma, there wasn’t a grain of truth.
The announcer on TV said the girl’s condition was probably psychosomatic, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Poor girl, indoctrinated at such a young age, so impressionable. But she’d be OK; it was only in her head. Maybe in her teen years she would learn to rebel against the strictures that confined her, as I had. The skin, it healed itself — until it opened again to reveal a wound. And I wondered what her real wound was, if it could ever be healed. I was angry with her parents, but her I wanted to hold, lay her gently down in her bed, pull the covers up under her chin.
IN seventh grade, I became a devout Christian and converted to Seventh-Day Adventism. Someone at my sister’s school had converted her, to save her from a life of drugs, and I, the little sister, had tagged along. At my new church, I was taught that Jesus might come any minute and take all the saved to heaven, and the rest . . . well, the rest would burn in hellfire for a thousand years. The number of saved was so small, and I looked around me uncomfortably. Was he saved? Was she? Was I? I stopped eating meat, wearing pants, telling lies, and hating everyone (even though I had to want Jesus to make the sinners burn). I felt holy. At Wednesday-night prayer meetings, when I prayed in a circle with the others, a golden light surrounded me, and I felt peace. Jesus was close; he loved me. It was as if I could feel him looking down on me with love.
I walked from door to door asking for money for church charities, but our mission was really to save the wicked before it was too late. I don’t know why we were trying to convert people when the number of saved was only 144,000. We should have been encouraging our fellow church members to sin to give ourselves a better shot.
I lived with the knowledge that the town of Springfield and everyone in it was going to fry. I thought we, the saved, should build a bomb shelter and prepare to hunker down and weather the storm. But, no, Jesus would take care of us. We only had to have faith. When the time of trouble came and Armageddon began and the plagues descended and people started to go crazy, we would be protected by the Holy Spirit, who would guide us to safe houses.
I was a terrible converter. When it came time to witness, I could never get the words out. Staring into a skeptical, unfriendly face, I would simply ask if they wanted to donate. How could I tell them of their fate and that I would avoid it?
It was hard being surrounded by the damned. I had the truth, but others refused to believe it. What could I do? Even my mother was damned, because she didn’t go to church with us. I felt bad about that. But she was a reprobate, secular through and through — no use trying to convert her. When I sat reading my Bible at the kitchen table, she just looked at me as if I were crazy. I recited, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” and she made more noise putting the dishes away. Hopeless. But I comforted myself with the thought that at least I was not going to fry in hellfire for a thousand years. No way. I even had a dream about the end of the world and being lost in the rubble looking for a safe place to await my flight into the clouds.
My favorite Halloween was the one I spent in church. Safe and warm inside the sanctuary walls, I listened to stories of witches out there somewhere in the dark, performing blood sacrifices to their king, Satan. The occult forces were gathered in an ecstatic orgy, a celebration of evil. It was a night for the holy to take care. What horrors lurked in the woods, on the tops of steep hills, in the heathen shack just across from the church? This talk scared me, but I was comforted by our brightly lit, wood-paneled room with its musty smell and red carpet, the hymnals neatly stacked, the pews polished, my fellow churchgoers, so kind and good. Together we heard stories of Evil, but it did not touch us. Oh, to be so holy again while the fiendish, the ungodly roamed in the shadows. Richard, accountant and weekend warrior for God, saw me safely home with his interminable smile and his small green hatchback, and I tucked myself in and waited for the night to turn to bright, shiny day.
I THINK I began to leave the Church the day I stood in my heels and my tight blue Sunday suit and realized that mine was not a little girl’s body anymore. I had hips and breasts and nice calves. Amidst the God-fearing, there was no room for my sexuality, but it felt too good to exorcise it from my being. Boys had become interesting, maybe more interesting than God. I wanted to kiss one, but I wasn’t supposed to do that until I was married, and even then I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. I fought hard to keep the faith, forced myself to feel guilty for longing to kiss Danny and Jude and the cute boy in my fifth-period class. But I wanted to make out more than I wanted to be good. God became remote. Like a fever, my religious conviction was passing. Maybe everyone wasn’t damned. Maybe Jesus wasn’t coming. I didn’t want to be a Bible-clutching, dress-wearing, knee-highed seventh-grader who couldn’t talk to anyone. A girl at school dared me to say fuck, and I did. I went to a school dance. A boy came up and talked to me. We danced slow, and even though he was ugly, it was nice. He kissed me, and I was relieved to get my first kiss out of the way. Days later I was still running my tongue over the marks his braces had left on my gums.
I starting hanging around the boys in my neighborhood. I would ride my bike down to one boy’s house on Saturday night and we’d slow-dance with the lights off. He and his friends would get high, and soon, I would get high, too. I stopped going to church. When the church people called, I told them I was busy and couldn’t talk.
The pastor and his wife came to my house to let me know I was missed. They looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife. I thought maybe they were brother and sister. It bothered me, how happy they seemed. They smiled ecstatically. Why should they be so happy? I had been happy like them once, but I could never again be safe and warm in my cocoon. I couldn’t tell them that I wanted to slow-dance on Saturday nights; that, although it didn’t make me smile ecstatically, it did something else for me. Mercifully, they left.
No more church. My mom was immensely relieved. She’d taught us not to believe in a deity. She’d taught us that when we die, we’re dirt. That’s it. And after my religious phase ended, I went back to believing that.
My father believed he was Ingbert Saint Ingbert and that my sister and I were Satan’s daughters, not his. I knew he lived in a government-supported housing facility and that he was obese and dirty. He knew what country I was in and what my phone number was. He would call on Sunday and say, “Hello?” and I would say, “Hello?” There would be confusion at first — were we connecting? He would tell me his TV had broken, that he’d bought a gold chain. I would tell him I was studying, that I was watching TV. And then I’d say, “Goodbye,” and he would say, “Goodbye.” He called every Sunday, and all our conversations went like that.
WHEN I was twenty-eight, I ventured far out on an atheist limb. In my college writing class, I argued that we didn’t need to be moral creatures. Morality was a construct designed to serve the culture. It was up to us as individuals to decide what we thought was right based on logic — if we even wanted to perceive reality in terms of right and wrong. After I spoke, a student named Mark turned to the teacher and said, “She’s right.” And I thought, Maybe he’s my soul mate. And then I thought, Why did I think that? He looked at me for a long time — too long. I stared back. I missed what the teacher was saying. Something about Jehovah.
I was able to keep functioning for a few months after that, but the world had turned strange. Riding home on the bus a few months later, I got a message from God that I would never have children. I was filled with grief, walked home with heavy steps and threw myself on the bed with my shoes and coat still on. I cried until I let my grief go, gave it to Him, and said, So be it. Then I stood, took off my coat and shoes, and made something to eat. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
By spring break, I was sitting in my rocking chair waiting for God to create a new Eden. I thought all I would have to do was walk out my door one day and the Garden would be there. So I drank coffee and prayed for the new world to come. Then God spoke to me. He said, What, do you think I am just going to create a new world, just like that? And I remembered what my Church had taught me about the time of troubles, when Christians would have to flee and wait in the hills. I became alarmed. The damned would all be out to get me, vengeful and murderous. What should I do? The apartment wasn’t safe, so I jumped in my car and started to drive.
Somewhere inside me, the skeptic Carroll fought vainly against the new Saint Carroll. I barreled down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, shaking my fist in the air and yelling for God to prove he was real. I was so confused. I knew I was supposed to get together with Mark, but I didn’t know how. I was hearing so many voices, I didn’t know which one was God’s: one minute the calm, knowledgeable voice was his, and the next God’s voice was the one that sounded like a mad truck driver telling me to stick my ass out. My faith faltered. I couldn’t summon it back.
And then it happened. My brain began to burn until my skull was on fire, and it felt as if my mind had opened to the universe and was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. I journeyed into deep space and saw with eyes that orbited the sun. I was touched by a power greater than a human could understand, or withstand. There is no way to express that unfathomable presence. All I could do was recognize it. I felt it send a message into my unconscious, because my conscious mind couldn’t decipher it. I knew then why they said one could never look into the eyes of God, for my spinal column quivered where it attached to my head and the weak tissue there threatened to melt down. The base of my skull vibrated. I screamed as loud and as hard and as long as I could, and finally the force relented. Then I pulled over and sobbed.
I took long, deep breaths until I became comfortable with the fact of breathing in and out. I was still flesh, still here in my small world. I was just a smart animal, nothing like what I had seen. I waited for my psyche to stop quivering, then I said, OK, I believe in you, and I drove home and slept for the first time in two days.
© Christopher Lopez
BY morning the voices were back, screaming at me to wake up and get going. I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, but I hopped in the car again anyway, ready to travel wherever God commanded. I drove down highways that “felt right” and stopped at a McDonald’s to wait for instructions from the voices on where to go next. I waited there all day and into the night. Then I walked a little ways and saw a streetlight I thought was God. He asked me who I chose to worship: him or Thor, the god of thunder. I chose Thor. God had offered me a barren life of asceticism, but Thor didn’t require me to feel like shit for sinning. He was married but separated from his wife, Medusa. When Thor and his wife got back together, Mark and I would, too.
I walked back to my car, and the police came and said I had to leave, so I started to drive. I was going to go home, but Medusa possessed my right eye and made me drive recklessly along back roads and onto a highway. I kept driving until I ran out of gas at the end of a cul-de-sac in Erie, Pennsylvania. The shape-shifter’s voice yelled at me to enter the woods, where he made lights look like masks and had me wandering in circles with his misdirections. There were so many voices, and I followed them all, madly.
I wandered in the March drizzle until, at dawn, I saw a blue stick and thought, That’s it. That’s my signal, and I went into the barn next to it to wait for Mark to come get me. It was the end of the world, and we were about to ride off together to California. Mark’s voice had spoken to me all night, telling me to have absolute trust in him. I was in the town where Mark and I had lived 150 years earlier. I’d been burned as a witch there. Now I was back to mark witches’ houses by burning a match at their doorstep. That was my job, to mark the wicked. And when I was done, Mark and I would flee to California to await the end.
Wrapped in the blue horse blanket, I waited. But Mark did not come. The police did. I went to jail, an old brick building set among small-town shops. They put me in a cell, which I swore was the very cell they had kept me in the last time, before they had burned me. It was happening again. Three women would come to betray me, claiming I was a witch. I had a nickel and a straw. These were my truths: the circle and the stick, the woman and the man.
No women came. I would not burn. They didn’t do that anymore, I realized with relief. And when Chuck, my writing teacher, came, they set me free. I laughed before the bathroom mirror, a rollicking laugh, a “ha, ha, ha, I am free” laugh, a “no one can stop me now” laugh. My laughter left an impression in the glass, and when Armageddon came, someone would walk into the bathroom and see my wild-eyed, hysterical face laughing at him, and he would know it was the end.
© Alysha Pitsicalis
THAT night I was admitted to Longshore Psychiatric Institute, where I was provided food, cotton pajamas, footies, a shower, and their version of reality, which I was to swallow whole. I couldn’t leave to find Mark, and he did not come. In my head, Mark’s voice said, Wait. It said, Soon. I had to get out. I walked to the elevator and pushed the DOWN button, but the staff sent me back to bed. I went to the window overlooking the highway and watched the taillights, which formed masks, the face of Thor.
In the morning, a staff member asked how I was doing. Well, I had been smoking like a fiend, trying to cope with all that was happening. But God, whom I had somehow come to believe in again, was going to give me new lungs when I was done with his work. And, I thought she should know, I had discovered a cure for anxiety, the cause of all my troubles. You see, I told her, I was supposed to wait by the blue stick in the Garden of Eden for my soul mate to return from hunting, but I grew anxious and ran into the woods, and we’d been lost to each other ever since. If only I had waited in the clearing by the stick! That morning I’d discovered that there was a missing signal in my brain, two synapses that weren’t connecting, so I had gone into my brain and reconnected what was severed, and my anxiety was cured. The staffer took notes, but she did not use my vision the way I’d meant for it to be used. Days later I realized my faux pas. What I had actually given her was ammunition.
“We want you to take your medication,” the doctor said to me. “We know you won’t take it when you get out, but we want you to.”
Who were “we”? How could she know whether I would take it or not? Who was she to sit in judgment on me? I was insulted, and afraid to see myself the way she saw me. But I did it. I accepted the fact that I was crazy, delusional, and hallucinating. I had not walked all night through the Garden of Eden, where the shape-shifter made lights look like masks to misguide me. I had walked through the woods of Erie, Pennsylvania, and there was no shape-shifter. Chuck had called Mark, and Mark had said he knew nothing about meeting me. It was all delusion. I was crazy. I was schizophrenic. (I had to figure that part out on my own. All they would say was that I had a “thinking disorder.”) The angels who had tried to guide me took a deep breath and held it as I denied them. There was no God, or if there was, I had not communicated with him. My God was a hallucination.
And my soul? I had none. It died the day they told me my religious experience had been all my brain’s doing.
I wanted to find the girl with the stigmata. I wanted to know her truth. I wanted to grab her hands and say to the doctors, “Look! This is real! Explain that!” But they could; they had. I wanted friends and family to gather around me and ask what messages I had brought back from my travels. But all my loved ones thought I was psychotic. I was not telepathic. The voice in my head was not Mark’s. The real Mark was not involved. I became both terrified of and intrigued by my unconscious. What was it trying to tell me? How could my mind create people, splinter itself? I wanted to ask the girl with the stigmata, “Is it possible that our bodies and our minds lie to us?” I wanted to ask her, “Does what we’ve experienced have a place in the world?” I wanted to beg her, “Tell me there is a God, and that I met him.”
WHEN they released me, I walked home and found my cat waiting for me by the door. He had been outside for a month, eating who knows what. I brought him in and fed him. And then I lay down on the couch and didn’t get up except to make coffee. I yelled at the voice, “Stop talking to me! You’re not real!” I had no energy, no desire to move. I told myself, “You must do something.” All right then, I’ll put new spark plugs in my car. So I got up and went out to my car and stood in front of it, ratchet in hand. But I really did not want to put those spark plugs in. It was too much work. Just the thought of opening the door and popping the hood was beyond me. Defeated, I went back into the house.
I could not forget what I’d done. I was embarrassed by it. Who had seen me standing on the on-ramp, holding my arms up so the angels could lift me to heaven? But I had seen the angels, glowing shapes with piercing, lightning eyes. I’d felt the ecstasy of heavenly beauty. I’d felt them pull on me.
No, it was all craziness. It was insanity. I turned my back on God and the girl with the stigmata and trusted the condescending doctor who said that my mind was not to be trusted. I took my pills, even though she had said I wouldn’t. I took them and I lay on the couch, because I couldn’t do anything else. Life was ugly. Brushing my teeth was a terrible ordeal I would have to go through every day for the rest of my life: put the toothpaste on the brush; put the brush in my mouth; move it (oh, to move it) back and forth, up and down; rinse (almost done); spit. Go back to the couch. Make more coffee. Sit and breathe the ugly air.
I thought about a time, only weeks earlier, when I was still functioning somewhat normally: a nether time when I was just beginning to suspect that there was more out there than meets the eye, but I was still removed, skeptical, exploring. I worked part time as a fry cook, and one night, having nothing to fry, I was sitting in a cubbyhole in the bar, smoking and watching the customers drink and talk. I had always felt cut off from people, I realized. Even as a child I hadn’t played with others much, but had spent my time alone, watching television. Socializing was a skill I had failed to master.
So there I was at the bar, sitting in my dark corner with my apron on and my greasy jeans and my hair up, feeling alone, when a soft, kind voice told me, Carroll, go outside. And I went. There was the street, the cars at the traffic light. Then the kind voice whispered, Look up. I did, and there was the moon, exquisite and full, bright white in a sea of navy. The sight of it was comforting to me, as if I were meant to be a space traveler. And it struck me that the moon influenced me in ways I did not understand. I, the disconnected one, felt connected to it. The voice said, You are not alone. What? Me, the island? Not alone? But it was true. There the moon was, and here I was, and my heart reached out and caressed it, and its light warmed me. There were spirits in heaven watching over me. I was connected to them. I went back inside filled with joy.
And then the voice in my head told me to wait at the bar, and Mark would come. But the bar was closed, so I pulled my car up in front of it and said, OK, but I will only wait fifteen minutes. I looked in my rearview mirror, and straightened my hair, and then the voice whispered, Now turn your head. And as I did, Mark drove by. But, just like him, he kept going.
How was I supposed to forget those experiences? My hands might as well have bled. My heart might as well have emptied itself onto the street. But according to Longshore Psychiatric Institute, spirits just plain didn’t exist. And if they did, I couldn’t talk to them. When I heard voices, I was supposed to think, You are coming from my unconscious. I quaked before medical science. The hospital building itself was intimidating: fifteen stories of yellow stone with narrow windows and doors that locked automatically when a patient ran rampant. Surrounded by psychotic people who believed God was talking to them, too, I recoiled and faced a now barren world.
Years after my diagnosis, my stepfather tells me Freud and Jung are a bunch of bunk, hokum that’s been thrown out, replaced by drug therapy. We are just neurotransmitters, firing and misfiring. But my wild heart leaps to the moon, that bright white orb laughing down at me. If only I could jump high enough to hold it, to pull it to my chest and let its glimmer fill me, then I wouldn’t be just a chemical process that walks and sleeps and goes haywire, to be set right again by dopamine inhibitors.
There was a woman I’d read about, an ordinary woman, who one day got a message she thought was from God. I don’t know how she received it. The message was: Help the miners with their strike. But she couldn’t help. She was married. She had a family. She lived in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, her house burned to the ground and her family perished. She took the tragedy as a sign from above and became an outspoken advocate for miners in West Virginia. I had no rational explanation for how her life turned out this way, or why. But I wondered what Longshore Psychiatric Institute would have told her, and whether she would have cared.
Once the antidepressants kicked in, I was able to get up off the couch and go on with my life. Within months I was functioning normally — so normally I thought I wasn’t really sick. But I missed the voices, believed they had something to tell me. Something grandiose lurked just beyond my comprehension. So I stopped taking my medication and was once again committed.
This time, the cops handcuffed me and threw me to the ground. They confined my arms and legs because I wouldn’t tell them who I was. And when I said I had to pee, the attendant pulled my panties down, shoved a tray under me, and left me there. I was overwhelmed by anxiety. The confinement made me scream out. I knew I was being unreasonable, but their response seemed a bit absurd, as if they were offended. Didn’t they know I was crazy?
I finally got out of that place and went to my parents’ house to recuperate. After a while, they let me drive their car, unaware that my mind was still running through prophecies of the end of the world, trying to figure out which of them would come true.
I felt I should be more religious, so I went back to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a group of supposedly sane people who thought that Christ would descend with trumpets and burn the world to the ground. But the Church wasn’t for me. I was a drinker, a partier. I liked to cuss and make mean jokes. I had a cynical wit that could cut a person down to the ground. My personality type was found nowhere in the catechism, except maybe under demon possession. But I wanted my belief in God back. It had been so beautiful, so ecstatic. And I thought I should strive to be the best person I could be. I was profoundly moral, and my conscience demanded atonement. I was a spiritual creature, and a relationship to the divine was essential to my existence, even on a heavy dose of antidepressants.
ON vacation from work because I was crazy, I sat at the counter in Bob Evans and ordered pancakes with fruit and whipped cream. A man sat next to me, and we chatted about the menu. I asked what he did, though I didn’t particularly care. He said he was a preacher.
“Get out!” I said. “No shit? I mean, no lie?”
“God’s honest truth,” he said.
Well, I told him, it just so happened that I needed some guidance. I explained how I’d been to church and that it didn’t appeal to me, but that I felt compelled to be more spiritual.
And he said, “You know, it’s interesting. I was going to go home, but something told me to come here today, and now I know why: to talk to you.”
That was it, the beauty and the mystery I ached for. My impulses had told me to do things like drive haphazardly through the night to Pittsburgh, and when I got there, turn around and go home. But this guy, his instincts were connected to the divine. He had a mission: to save me. He gave me his card, and I put it in my purse and kept it there. I really didn’t want to be a part of organized religion, with all its dogma and talk about the Second Coming. No, I wasn’t going his route. But I liked the feel of him and the idea that I may yet go someplace because I actually had something to do there.
What strikes me now is the sturdiness of our planet and, by contrast, the ethereal quality of spiritual beings. Ten thousand angels couldn’t hammer a nail into the wall. We all have minerals from the ground in our tissue, and yet we all have the need to reach out to something higher, brighter, wiser. I can’t dismiss religion and the girl with the stigmata with a sweep of my hand, for I feel a soul pushing at the walls of my breast. I believe in enlightenment and that our paths are divine. There’s no proof of it, but energy descends on me, and I feel like one raindrop amid thousands, all refracting light.
To the girl who bleeds, I say, “Hold my hand and lead me to your truth. Give me a structure to understand my spirituality. Show me how you navigate this world.” But, no, I can’t swallow her religion. That is not for me. When I talk about religion, my thinking goes awry. I try to be sane, but one religious thought, like grace, and off I go into never-never land. All I know is that, for a short time, I tuned in to something. Before I went completely psychotic, the voices led me to friends, and I had connections to them. Being crazy is far from pleasant, but it has its moments, and those are hard to forget.
The shaman said my kundalini had awakened, and it was too much for me. I’d had a bad relationship to the spiritual, but now I was on my path. The kundalini, he said, is a divine energy within us that rises up to our ethereal body. I saw no ethereal body. I saw no energy. But at night I would lie down and point my eyes to my forehead, and there was a place that burned there, and I felt peace come over me and was connected to that part of me which knew best, which saw without being told. I didn’t know if it was my kundalini, but it wasn’t the neurotransmitters. It wasn’t only that. Tell me it wasn’t only that.
The doctors at Longshore would be proud. I’ve told the shaman I can’t see him anymore, for now. I don’t believe in spirits. I go to work, I come home, I eat, I sleep, and when I awake, I find I have dreamed again.
I ache to visit an old blind woman in New Orleans who holds sittings. I want to walk softly to her door and knock, wait for her frail voice to say, “Come in.” I will enter and let my eyes adjust to the dim light filtering through the rose-colored draperies, then sit down on her musty old couch, with its carved legs and brocade cushions, and wait for her to speak. I want to look into her cataract-darkened eyes and have her tell me what I am afraid to admit but already know. I will say softly to her, “But how can I be sure? You know what they tell me.” She will laugh then from the belly and dismiss the notion with a wave of her hand through the dusty air. “You’re here, aren’t you?” she will ask me. “You know how to put one foot in front of the other?” I will look down at those shoes with the worn laces, knowing my feet are shaky now but strong enough to take me to the door. “You will go and know the way,” she will tell me. “Shine. Oh, dear child, shine.”
Carroll Ann Susco
I was diagnosed with depressive mood disorder about twenty years ago. Since that time, my life has become stable. I have a steady job, a marriage that isn’t going to dissolve if I look at it funny, a beautiful daughter, and a few good friends. I still take my medication and am thankful for the sanity it allows me. I often ask, Is this all there is? But, hopefully, I remember to be grateful for all that I have.
I appreciated Carroll Susco’s honest account of her psychosis [“Stigmata,” August 2002]. I want to say to her, “It’s not just the neurotransmitters.” I have always believed that what we consider “crazy” is just a different kind of knowing. There is a place in the middle of the forehead that burns, that knows the inherent wisdom in all creation. As Carl Jung said, mental illness is a kind of gift, because it creates a desire to reach toward the divine.