“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
I remember the day like it was yesterday. I’m talking forty years ago when I was 17. My parents put me in a psychiatric hospital in Rochester, New York because I was literally wasting away. Our family’s good natured doctor, a general practitioner, had no idea what was wrong with me. He was a good guy whose name happened to be James Taylor which I thought was rather amusing, like your family physician could be named Frank Zappa or Duke Ellington.
I had given up eating that year. It turned out I was good at this. If I was blind in school and the target of pranks by kids or even some cruelty from teachers, well hell, I could demonstrate complete proficiency at my own disappearance. I was into the “ars moriendi”–the holy art of dying and it’s no accident I knew the term, for George Harrison had released a song called the “Art of Dying” and I listened to it repeatedly. I was drinking one up of milk a day.
Outside my head the world went on being insistent and tangled, a place of blood and feathers. My mother was a serious alcoholic who also took a myriad of pain killers, a combo that often produced violent and psychotic effects. She would break furniture, fall down flights of stairs, throw dishes and glassware at my sister and I, or lash out with her feet, kicking like a horse. In such circumstances there is no domestic life, no evening dinner with the family, no conversation to speak of. My father, a college president, lived in his own world of denial. He had plenty of work to do. The war in Viet Nam was still happening, there were protests, Kent State was in the news. Life in the house and life outside the house balanced in a seething electrolysis of panic. None of the adults in my circle appeared happy. And as a teenager with a disability I had no kinship except pot smoking with the other unaffiliated and sad kids who would let me into their circus tent. Those were the years when everyone felt like the world left to a free thinker was just a carnival sideshow tent. We smoked pot under an elevated highway: monkey boy, banana girl, bearded lady, stilt man, dog face.
After getting stoned under a bridge or behind a tomb in the cemetery I’d go home, hoping my parents were in bed. My mother was a night drinker and there was never any guarantee she’d be asleep. I had a system: I’d enter the house through a door in the basement, creep up the stairs, and listen for any signs of activity. Sometimes I’d be “outed” by our Siamese cat who heard me despite my efforts to achieve total silence. If my mother was awake she’d have those crazy eyes and the staggers. She would also be projectively paranoid, imagining that I’d been doing something demoniacal. Her rages weren’t reality based and could be dangerous. One night she stalked my younger sister with a knife. My sister and the cat hid in a locked bathroom while my mother, still holding the knife, begged her to come out.
I’ve written about this time in my life once before in my memoir “Planet of the Blind” and still, today, on the 4th of July, I’m flooded with a remembrance. Outside the window of my hospital room at the psychiatric facility was a flagpole. Boy scouts would come and raise and lower the flag.
I could just make them out with my dim vision: perfect lads, Norman Rockwell boys folding the flag like the honor guard at President Kennedy’s grave. And there I was on the nut house, all of 98 pounds, my spectacles thick as dishes, my body so cold I had to sleep under an electric blanket set to the highest temperature. I was the final thing in the sideshow: a blind, stick boy, fit only to be locked away. Not a boy scout.
I have to tell you: to this very day the 4th of July gives me the creeps. As Charles Bukowski might say: it’s a day for amateur drunks. But it’s also a day of excessive boy scouting, a role playing exercise wherein everyone salutes and marches up and down secure that the collective hubris of dressed up jingoism will demonstrate both loyalty to American values and also belonging to those values.
But what if the country is violent, intolerant, with undefended public education and impoverished social services? You see my problem? I survived my starvation period through multiple factors of luck and personal growth. But America is still trying to create more kids like my 17 year old self. I get the shivers just thinking about it.
Here are the things I had to learn:
How to stop hating myself.
How to forgive my parents.
How to eat.
How to believe in social progress.
Here are some of the things that have helped along the way, offered in no particular order:
Archetypal psychology and the work of Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, and James Hillman. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’. Poetry by a vast number of writers: Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Robert Bly, Tomas Transtromer, Harry Martinson, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Emily Dickinson, Edith Sodergran, Pentti Saarikoski, W.H. Auden, Gregory Orr. I suppose the list is too long to go on. I think Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry as Survival” is important reading even if you’re not a student of poetry.
By my late thirties I saw that comparative suffering is a loser’s game. I learned never to say, “You don’t know what it’s like to be me” because even if it’s true, the assertion never opens a door. I learned by reading Helen Keller: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Through Al Anon I learned to stop trying to fix my mother.
Forgiveness is the hardest thing. I learned to forgive my parents. They were weak and wounded people who were utterly unsuited to parenthood. Their lives are not my destiny.
But I still can’t stand the 4th of July. I still hear that squeaking pulley and see those laughing boy scouts. We still have too many smug, privileged “plastic people” (as Frank Zappa would say) running around and crowing about how good and virtuous we are. I’m still not convinced.