Sunday, June 19, 2011

Was That…Allenmo...ville?

“We All Have Our Crosses to Bear” was the truism I used the day before yesterday that I repeatedly tried to conjure and couldn’t until today. Before that, it was the names of a group of women that I just met that I had to identify for a new job and struggled struggled struggled to remember.

Such is my plight: The Flight of the Proper Nouns.

But it isn’t just proper nouns. It’s a generalized fog that leads me to forget names, lose my sense of time, and lose information. The good news: I can buy fewer books because I can’t remember them, and a re-read is almost imperative.

Why is this happening to me and for how long? Of course, it feels like there is no use asking because I can’t remember how long I’ve been suffering memory impairment. But I am moved to ask myself nonetheless to try and pinpoint the reason(s) for my deficit.

Are the repeated manic episodes the cause? Are the medications the culprit? What about that ECT I had all those years ago? Or is it just plain me, that I’m just not the sharpest tool in the shed? My guess: all of the above, except for the sharp tool thing. I know what makes me dull isn’t me.

How do you cope with such a condition? There are a myriad of ways:

--Become a Writer. Documenting daily experience is helpful to combat memory loss. For example, right now I am at a Starbucks with my friend E. trying to put together a NAMI article. Prior to this, I was at Marina Village for a PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) training where I spoke on the NAMI panel. Putting this black on white will help me recall when somebody at the MHA (Mental Health America) luncheon asks me what I’ve been up to. (Or course, the person asking will be someone whose name I can’t remember.)

--Have a Sense of Humor. I often say in a lighthearted way, “I have a mind like a sieve” or “I can be a little bit ding-y.” I don’t say this in a pejorative (a word I couldn’t remember the other day) way regarding myself, but rather to keep levity in the atmosphere.

--Don’t Be Afraid to Ask…Again. “What is your name again?” has become a favorite phrase, and I’m not afraid to use it on the same person more than once, coupled with the previous expression, and smushed into one sentence. So it goes, “So what’s your name again I have a mind like a sieve?:(” It’s become a staple, and no one takes offense.

In spite of my coping strategies, the memory issue still causes me problems. For example, last night at the dinner table, my husband T. reported to our dinner guests that his friend had had his fourth baby. I exclaimed, “D. had his baby?” T. replied frostily, “I told you two days ago. We had a conversation about it. It was on Facebook.” T. has come to believe that the phenomenon is particular to him, that it’s personal.

I guess I’ll have to buy myself a bigger diary.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Something You've Never Done

I was basking in the glow of the NAMI Walks for the Minds of America’s resounding success. The hustle and bustle had great energy, and it was wonderful to see so many members of the community coming together to celebrate the strides in mental health awareness.

I was staffing the Impact Young Adults table. I had my elevator speech down. “Impact is an organization for young adults ages 18-35 who want to have fun. They have activities planned for every Saturday, like bowling, miniature golf, ice skating, museum visiting, and sometimes even camping or trips to Magic Mountain. Impact is a great way to meet people and make new friends. Visit us on the new website www.impactyoungadults .org.”

It was a little ironic that I was the one plugging Impact, as I am a tad older than 35, but I don’t think people were looking close enough to make that evaluation. In any case, I deemed myself an Impact Ambassador. So while Impact members walked, I talked. And did I talk the talk!

So after my duties were completed I drifted through the resource fair and collected as many pens and post-it notes as I could. In actuality, I came home with a load of helpful literature that made my backpack a little heavier than it was when I arrived.
But the finale of my Walk experience was what set this Walk apart from those of the past.

See, my new friend M. was coming back from her house to pick me up by the “big pine tree,” and we were going to go out for brunch. Now, I didn’t know if she was going to find me easily or if we were going to have to have an elaborate phone conversation, “No, I’m under the OTHER big pine tree.”

So there I was, waiting. I attached myself to a group of folks from an independent living organization so I wouldn’t be straggling out there by myself.

Thankfully, in a few minutes, a blue car pulled up with a brunette with longish hair at the wheel. Woo hoo! My ride! I went traipsing over and proceeded to get into the car with great relief. Then I looked up at the driver—plainly not M.—who said, bewildered, “I don’t know you.” Indeed, I didn’t know her. I had gotten into a stranger’s car!

Mortified, I disembarked from her vehicle and went back to wait with the group. I said nonchalantly, “Not my ride…” In fact, that car belonged to that organization, and they quickly mobilized to leave, so I was out on the sidewalk by myself.
I was waiting solo for just a few minutes when M. drove up—in a red SUV. Now, I had been in her car before, but did it register that she drove a red SUV? Absolutely not.

I was delighted that I had a somewhat succulent story for M. at the outset of our visit.

But what was most important is that that embarrassing moment, which would have flattened me a bit in my tender years, was just fodder for a good chuckle.
I couldn’t wait to tell E., the co-founder of Impact, about my baby step in recovery since baby steps are what recovery is made of.

Walk 2011 certainly made its impact on me!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Champ's Last Lesson

On Saturday afternoon, I sat on the ding-ed bumper of my car in a parking lot on La Mesa Blvd. in front of a busy sandwich shop, which was adjacent to a Starbucks. I had pulled over after being rear-ended by a white SUV. The driver was behind me at one point but had disappeared, so I called the cops, hoping that they would deliver me from auto collision hell. I called S., my sister-in-law, whose house I was on my way to visit, and told her I got held up.

I didn’t really know what to do, so I just dawdled until thirst drove me inside a neighboring Subway to grab a Diet Coke. I didn’t even queue properly but hovered by the register, hoping to sneak in line to buy my soda. This stratagem worked; the clerk rung me up, and I skedaddled back to my injured automobile to wait on the police.

Ironically, when leaving my home, I contemplated the likelihood of getting into an accident in the unfamiliar neighborhood of La Mesa. Due to my Severe Driver’s Anxiety, I always envision worst-case scenarios when driving new places. This SDA manifests itself in 1) clutching the wheel of the car at 10 and 2, 2) behaving skittishly around any extraneous movements on the road (swerving cars, motorcycles, pedestrians), and 3) experiencing painful shocks to my system when a pang of anxiety hits. Yes, driving for me has the potential to be painful. And today, I was going to visit S. with sketchy directions. A perfect storm.

But I was doing great! When I was merrily on my way, on Spring Street, with only about a quarter of a mile to go, happily listening to Bruno Mars, I was stopped at a stoplight. It was in the midst of “Grenade” that the SUV not-so-gently hit me. I, strangely enough, didn’t experience any anxiety at being actually hit—it is only the paranoia of possibly being hit/hitting someone else that is heart of SDA—and simply signaled to my right and prepared for the ordeal.

So there I sat on my car, Champ, my dear champagne-colored Honda Accord, guzzling my soda, waiting, as passersby generously ignored me.

Fifteen minutes later, a blubbering blonde girl, the SUV’s driver, approached me. She, apparently, unable to find parking, proceeded out of the strip mall and promptly got lost. Being from out of town, I learned, she wandered for a significant amount of time before locating the rendez-vous point. I was relieved that she had shown up, but impatient with her crying, as absolutely nothing had happened to her vehicle, whereas my car’s trunk and bumper were significantly mangled. As I knew from experience, it would take a pretty penny to be repaired. In the perfect San Diego sunshine, I was peevish but polite, and simply asked for her information.

Her name was Ashley. Ugh.

No functional pen to be found between my car and purse, totally unlike me, I ran into the sandwich shop and begged one from a haggard woman behind the counter. She thrust the pen at me without a word, and I ran back outside to see Ashley still sniffling. I procured an unused Union Bank deposit envelope from my glove compartment and instructed her to write down her information. She did so, her nails glittering silver from her grown-out acrylics.

Trying to be an adult, I engaged Ashley in conversation to a certain extent. I learned that she lived in El Cajon and had moved from Modesto only a month before. I reassured her that the only bad thing that would happen to her is that her insurance premium would go up. This was not reassuring, apparently, as her eyes started to well up again.

Then the police arrived, a woman, who basically said that her presence was unnecessary, due to the fact that no one was injured. Ashley snapped a picture of my car’s damage with her phone, and we bid each other farewell.

And that was that.

# # #

I was directed by my insurance company to take my car to Mission Hills Collision Center, which is right off of the freeway. I was nervous on my way there on Monday morning, but arrived without incident and found a parking spot right in front. (Aside: I also have PPP, Pronounced Parking Phobia.) Whew!

The body shop guy, D., was helpful in spite of the fact that I arrived on the day when the computers were down. This meant that I couldn’t get an estimate on the spot, but had to wait until the afternoon until the computers were restored to health. They promised to get me into a rental, and I waited in the lobby until Enterprise arrived.

In the meantime, my friend N. called and invited me to brunch, and she offered to pick me up. I gave the Enterprise guy my information, and when N. arrived, I thanked the gods for this serendipitous occasion. I also observed that N. was no more skilled behind the wheel than I, but she obviously did not suffer from SDA and took any obstacle lightly. I took note.

After a delightful lunch, N. dropped me off in the vicinity of Enterprise, after we got significantly lost, which she didn’t take personally either. It became obvious to me that my SDA was out of control.

This was definitely put to the test when I got into my rental, a 2011 Chevy Impala. When driving off the lot, the parking brake was still engaged, and the car beeped hysterically. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find the brake. My SDA was through the roof. After futilely looking for the source of the problem, I had to pull over and call the rental car place to ascertain the brake’s location. (It’s by the left foot.)

I won’t say how far I went.

That night, I was afraid to drive the car to yoga. But my friend A. is the instructor, and I knew she would be happy if I were there, so I sucked it up. Kinda. On the way, I thought time and time again of turning around and going home where it was safe. But I did it. I made it to yoga unscathed and did downward facing dog with the best of them.

That night I had a dream that a tweaker hit my rental car and tore off the back bumper.

# # #

On Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from Mission Hills Collision Center.

Champ was totaled.

He was a 1995 Honda Accord with 150,000 miles, so the blue book on him was only $4,000. The body shop determined that he was maxed out. Consequently, I will be getting a “new” car.

My feelings about this are enthusiastic on the one hand—new car!—but sad on the other hand—poor Champ! Being put out to pasture! Champ was previously my mother’s car and has been in the family for many years. His death makes me want to write an epic poem. When I go to Mission Hills to pick up my belongings left in Champ—the GPS, the garage clicker, my coffee mug, a couple copies of bp magazine—I intend to have a good, long cry.

Of course, T. thinks I’m being absurd. I’m getting a new car: Yay! But if I had SDA in my cherished, old car, how am I going to feel in something “new,” something “better,” something “nice?”

Intellectually, I know my SDA is absurd. I have a million examples of how and why I should not be experiencing Severe Driver’s Anxiety. People who are less capable behind the wheel than myself feel no qualms about being on the road. People get lost all the time without the world ending. People eventually find places to park. Why these events are tantamount to disaster for me, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

I do know it wasn’t always this way. As I’ve gotten older, my symptoms of bipolar disorder have shifted. I used to be a firecracker, wild and crazy manic. Now, my symptoms gravitate towards anxiety and depression. I don’t know why. It’s just how things have morphed with age. Now, it hurts to drive, which it didn’t until a few years ago. And with another accident under my belt, it’s going to take some serious personal coaching to keep from being overwhelmed when I’m going somewhere new.

How to keep things in perspective? This will be a challenge for me. T. took a proactive step and bought me a GPS for Christmas. This will help. Also, I am learning PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) from my CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) text. CBT actually teaches one to trade positive thoughts for negative thoughts, and to focus on appreciating life while diminishing personal suffering. Hence, I should think about the wonders of nature and the beauty of San Diego while on the road, rather than fretting about whether or not there’s going to be parking. I will need to change my focus.

Hey, maybe I’ll get some real focus: a Ford Focus.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

When Your Therapist Stands You Up

It was a Friday, which meant that at 11:00 a.m. I would betake myself to Mission Hills for my regular appointment with J., my therapist of many years. Our appointment was so regular that it was set in veritable stone. It seemed that I almost planned the rest of my life around it; it was the cornerstone of my week.

Strangely, at 9:00 a.m., still in bed, I mulled over my plans for the day. I decided that I didn’t really want to go this week. Thoughts of this nature are extremely dangerous because I only have them when my need for a therapist is the greatest. Yet I ignored that red flag and wondered how much energy it would take to locate my phone and call and cancel, something I virtually never did.

When I have actually canceled in the past, my therapist has critiqued my canceling protocol. For example, he chides me if I am too apologetic and congratulates me when I cancel assertively. Today, I felt that I could count on myself to cancel assertively and thus not bum out the rest of J.’s day. After all, it was Friday, what we have coined “Feckless Friday,” meaning, we just chill.

I got up to get the phone, and after all this mental rigmarole, felt newly energized and ready to strike out into the world and attend the appointment. It was the best thing for everyone, and I always felt better afterwards, like (I am told) after a good workout.

I always dressed well for my therapist. I noticed other people do as well, or maybe they’re not even trying to look good—they just do—but my experience was that people in J.’s office looked pretty sharp. After my shower, I was feeling preppy, so I decided to go that route and wear a golf shirt and some spiffy jeans with a favorite pair of cordovan-colored shoes. The blazer completed the look. Business casual.

I coffee-ed and breakfasted, and tooled around the Internet, followed Egypt around for a while, and then it was time to go. I grabbed my keys and took Champ (my Honda) out for a spin to Goldfinch in Mission Hills.

My fear of meters in full force, I parked in my usual spot near the Methodist Church. I stopped in Ibis Market for a $1 iced tea and a couple of bananas to be on the safe side. The same gal that always helps me was there, and we exchanged compliments as usual, and I felt that all was right with the world.

Walking through the auto body place drinking my tea was getting me amped up for my appointment. I turned the corner into the office complex, and my positive vibes came to a grinding halt when I saw the sign on the door, “Dr. J. Sick. Will Call.”

I’d just been stood up by my therapist!

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. What to do? What about all the things I had to tell him? What about my weekly report? Who else was going to care that I was expanding the possibilities of my life? No one else would even notice.

I wanted my personal growth to be a big deal.

As I breathed a sigh and turned away from the door, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to have a witness for every little good thing I did in my life. I didn’t need the affirmation of my Peanut Gallery for every step I made in the right direction. Although I have a built-in cheering section, it wasn’t absolutely necessary for it to be on full blast all the time. The applause did not need to be deafening.

In fact, sometimes, I didn’t need applause at all.

As I walked back to my car past the market, I also thought about J. He was sick. Didn’t that give me pause for even a moment? To wonder if he was OK? He, after all, was human and subject to illness just as I was.

The rhythm of my day having been interrupted, I let myself in my car and turned on the engine. Where would I go? What would I do? The day was pure San Diego, bright, blue, and beautiful. What did I feel like giving myself today if I was to do as J. suggested, to devote myself to my own happiness, to dedicate myself to my success?

See, I had done something along the way, something that it was time to reverse. In order to recover from bipolar disorder, I left my passion at the door. In a sense, I had made a pact with the devil: if I was going to get better, I would have to live less. I would have to sacrifice part of my being, part of who I was, in order to maintain control, to fit in, to be a “normie.”

I opened the sunroof in my car and decided to head north. I thought a visit to Mt. Soledad might be in order, to remind me how big the Earth can be, to remind me that I am free.

It was time to tear up that contract and let the winds whisk it away.

Maybe I had a good therapy session after all.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

next to normal: Not Quite Normal Enough

I recently had the opportunity to attend next to normal, dubbed the “feel everything” Broadway musical by the New York Times. The play hit home for me, as the plot is centered around a character who has bipolar disorder, a woman who lives in an upper middle class home with her husband, Dan, and teenage daughter, Natalie.

The play won both a Tony and the Pulitzer.

Most commendable about the play is its willingness to tackle such a delicate subject as mental illness and bring a discussion of its many dimensions to the country. Less commendable is its actual message.

Contrary to the New York Times, I can’t say I felt “everything,” but the play certain conjured a range of reactions for me. My predominant emotion was pain, as I watched this character, Diana, go through struggles that were all too familiar to me, including bizarre behavior, alienation from family members, and battles with medication.

In one of the first scenes, Diana helps the family by making sandwiches-- on the floor. I thought this was realistic; it reminded me of a time when I sautéed the foam from a pillow cushion with eggs and proceeded to serve it to my neighbor, who looked askance at the concoction.

I also related to Diana when she would stay up late at night, classic manic behavior, full of projects and plans. I was reminded of the days that I spent awake “creating,” in truth, destroying property, even one time, my piano.

The play also depicts fractured family dynamics. Husband Dan is perpetually trying to help, to connect, to do the right thing, be the right man. His efforts are continually frustrated by his alienating wife. The daughter, Natalie, is estranged from the family, isolated by the lack of love from her mother.

These kinds of relationships are all too typical when an individual has a mental illness. I hearken back to the days when my illness was in full force, and I had tough-and-go relationships with my mother and brother. Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to stabilize and strengthen these ties in my recovery.

Another piece that resonated with me was Diana’s song, “I Miss the Mountains,” where she sings about the struggle of taking medication that numbs her senses.

In the third verse, Diana sings:

But I miss the mountains
I miss the dizzy heights
All the manic magic days
And the dark depressing nights
I miss the mountains
I miss the highs and lows
All the climbing, all the falling
All the while the wild wind blows
Stinging you with snow
And soaking you with rain
I miss the mountains
I miss the pain

Here, I think the song captures a true predicament of the bipolar person adjusting to medication. I know from experience that medications sometimes feel like one is covered in latex. Diana’s struggles here are understandable and certainly realistic, but she abandons the belief that medications can bring relief—also sadly realistic--and shortly thereafter, slits her wrists and is admitted to the hospital for ECT (electro-convulsive therapy.)

It is here that the play takes a turn towards One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in terms of its power in generating fear and stigma regarding treatment. Here, ECT is depicted with a mannequin on a gurney with a doctor overhead holding baton-shaped “shockers,” accompanied by flashing lights mimicking electrical pulses. The stage becomes a cacophony of “music” and color. The effect is gruesome and traumatic. From this experience, Diana loses her memory en masse. She can’t even recognize her husband or her daughter.

Then the song “Aftershocks” is sung by her dead son, Gabriel, who is an ongoing vision and trigger in Diana’s psychosis.

ECT, electric chair, we shock who we can't save
They've cleared you of my memory and many more as well
You may have wanted some of them but who can ever tell
Your brainwaves are more regular, the chemistry more pure
The headaches and the nausea will pass and you'll endure
You son is gone forever though, of that the doctor's sure
The memories will wane, the aftershocks remain
You wonder which is worse, the symptom or the cure

I found the sensational depiction of ECT to be stigmatizing, and this greatly saddened me. My experience of ECT was benign. The procedure is safe and painless. The patient is put under anesthesia, feels nothing, and wakes up to orange juice and a doughnut. For me, the memory loss was negligible. I know for others, ECT does have significant memory loss, but I have never heard of a case where the patient can’t recognize loved ones or forgets huge swaths of long term memory. For most, it is quite clear which is worse: the symptoms of depression or mania.

Of course, there is artistic license. The play’s second act hinged on a plot line dependent on Diana remembering virtually nothing of her life with her husband and daughter, which led to the resolution of the play, where Diana leaves her immediate family, sick and untreated, to go live with her parents.

Perhaps I am conditioned to the Hollywood ending instead of a Broadway one (after all, I am from Los Angeles,) but in my fantasy, I would have liked to see the main character find a positive solution, using medication productively and mending the relationships with her family, where she could resume “normal” life. Instead, in next to normal, Diana walks out on Dan and Natalie, and the ending is painful and less than hopeful.

Alice Ripley, the star who plays Diana, in the Q&A after the show, thought that Diana was empowered and experienced “liberation.” My interpretation is that Diana simply stayed in her symptoms, demonstrated deterioration with her illness, and made a rash decision which negatively affected her loved ones.

I think that the accolades for next to normal are valid for its dramatic and musical quality; however, its message is disturbing to someone who promotes the idea that recovery from mental illness is possible, that people with mental illness can live “normal” lives. Rather, deterioration from mental illness and ineffective treatment became the focus of the musical.

I think my positive resolution is not a very sexy resolution, but it is one that does happen in the real world. It would have been nice to have a role model on Broadway instead of a bipolar woman trapped by her illness who thinks that one can be freed by packing a suitcase and walking out the door.

Maybe the final scene of my version of the play would have Diana, Dan, and Natalie sitting on the couch watching TV, laughing at a dumb commercial.

Maybe Diana takes lithium, lamictal, abilify, clorazapam, wellbutrin, metformin, and synthroid. She feels a little tired, but fine.

The name of my version of the musical would be really close to normal.

The last number, sung by Diana, would go like this:

Really Close To Normal

This mellow life doesn’t fit me.
Life should flow like lava, hot and free.
I still miss the mountains
Its torrents of rain.
Something vital
Something I can’t tame.
But I’ve learned to love the pasture.
I know that I can last here.
The pasture’s a place I can grow
Even when I miss the world I know.
I miss the world I know.
But I can spend my life here
With the people that I love.
I may never have another exploit.
But I was spoiled anyway.
I was spoiled anyway.
I’ve learned to love the pasture.
I can last here.
I can last here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Grunion to the Death

Every year like clockwork my family would go on some foray into the great unknown for two weeks and come back sunburned. On this particular occasion, I was fourteen years old, prepubescent, and ugly. In fact, I was so ugly and prepubescent that Cousin Kim, who never quite fit her boobs all the way into her swimsuit, called me Worm.

For this year’s vacation experience, we would be staying at the home of Lou and Ann Dachs, a cultured couple who owned a modern home up in the hills of Malibu, California, a matter of an hour from our suburban house in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley. Lou and Ann were going out of town that summer, the summer of ’86. I don’t remember where they were going, only that my dad offered his able services as the Dachs’ house-sitter.

Now, Lou and my dad had worked together for years, and so it should have occurred to Lou that my father should not have been the steward of choice for his ritzy Malibu home. Dad’s first move was to transform the house-sitting experience into a family get together. Instead of merely taking care of the generous lawn and two over-sized cats, Tiggy and Migsy, we were taking over, and what we were taking over was a museum.

The house was split into four levels. On the entry level, through wall had a hypnotic view of the ocean, and in front of the wall stood a pedestal with a two-foot tall bronze sculpture of an object that looked like a bird. The furniture was of smooth dark leather, and there was a fish tank, a fireplace, and art and vases with ornate, dead arrangements. I’d never been in a house before that had things that you weren’t supposed to touch.

My mother’s side of the family from the Pacific Northwest was the main component of the family get-together and would be staying on the ground floor. The attendees included her parents, Granny and Crapa, hailing from Yakima, Washington, and her younger sister Auntie Carol, and Auntie Carol’s two daughters, Cousin Kim and Cousin Kari, all from Anchorage, Alaska, who were around the same age as me and Mike, my older brother.

In all McNeill family vacations, it was of utmost importance to have an itinerary of some sort. For our house-sitting stint in Malibu, my father came armed with a tiny, square clipping from the Los Angeles Times. He longed to post it on the refrigerator, but the Dach’s refrigerator had no magnets and was a clipping-free zone. As an alternative, Dad put the clipping under the mod salt shaker on the kitchen table and made reference to it constantly. It was the calendar for the phases of the upcoming tides, the schedule of the grunion run.

What I knew about grunion was that they were small fish that flapped up on the beach to fertilize eggs in the middle of the night. During the grunion run, the idea was to scour the beach for the fish, disrupting their mating ritual, and catch them. This activity seemed gross at best, but was soon to become the centerpiece of the vacation experience.

Now, Dad often spoke of the grunion run with nostalgic delight, tales of which were met with serious skepticism and horror by the members of the house-sitting party. Not even my grandparents who were usually moved by the acquisition of food found in nature, were not inspired.

When the time came, all the relatives packed into a couple cars in the middle of the night and headed to the beach.

When we assembled on the beach, my Dad was immediately on his hands and knees in the surf peering up and down for signs of grunion. The family stood around nonplussed. My grandfather, Crapa, named for his monopolization of bathrooms, had labeled this excursion a “snipe hunt” and “a fool’s errand.” Dad, however, had no problem being labeled a fool and instructed the children enthusiastically, “You’ve gotta look for the silver on the water. Go on! Get down to their level! Get down to their level! That’s the only way you’re gonna know when they get here!” Even in the dark, Dad wore his USC baseball cap, and in his semi-recumbent posture, looked absolutely ridiculous.

Cousin Kim, impervious to embarrassment herself, got down on her hands and knees. The pair seemed ludicrous, and though the family knew that the Los Angeles Times concurred with Dad that something marvelous would actually happen, the pallor of disbelief hovering over the crowd was too strong. I stood there with an empty pail, which I was instructed to hold, and waited impatiently to get out of the cold night air and get the hell out of there.

Kim sprung up from her position and dashed farther down the beach. Out of sight, she started screaming, “I got one! I got one! I got one!” When she returned, Crapa held a flashlight out for her to display her spoils which she held proudly clutched in both hands. There it was! A grunion!

Everyone got in on the action. I went berserk. The beach glinted with the silver of the tiny fish as they spawned—or tried to. I raced my back and forth on the beach, capturing fish after fish after fish. I felt exultant. Feeling the joy of being a predator, and in that moment, I was as close to hunting as I ever would get, and I liked it. The buckets kept filling and filling until we had a haul of about 300 fish.

We went home and put the catch into a series of coolers, on ice. What did we plan to do with them?

Well, eat them, of course.

The next day, the job of processing the grunion fell to the children. The kids were set up on the manicured lawn, each with their own station. I was opposite Kari as a de-header. The next child in line would have to disembowel the tiny fish, and finally, the children on the end, Kim and Mike, were the de-scalers. After their work was complete, the mountain of scales reached to their thighs.

After the kids were done with the processing of the fish, it fell to Granny and Auntie Carol to prepare them for breakfast. The little silver fish were breaded and fried in the Dachs’ swanky frying pan, and the heaping platter was served up at the sleek, mahogany table with the eager family gathered round.

Crapa was the brave one. He plucked a grunion right off the top and started eating. The crunching of the grunion’s bones could be heard by all assembled. The platter was passed, and all the children were expected to take a serving of the previous evening’s bounty, bones notwithstanding.

I made a valiant effort and bit into my grunion with as much gusto as I could muster. Chewing warily on the tiny fish, crunching down on the miniature bones, I became nauseated and excused myself. I ran up to Level 3, to the master bedroom’s bathroom and puked.

I returned to the table and refused to eat what was on my plate, at which point Granny uttered one of her standard epithets, “You crappy little kids!” In the Depression-era mind, it was a sin to waste food, and her little suburbanite grandchildren she considered spoiled beyond repair, although she loved us just the same.

This hoarding of food went so far that all the remaining grunion were packed up in freezer bags and prepared for distribution to all the family units. A third would go to Yakima, a third to Anchorage, and a third home to Los Angeles. So strong was the power of this principle of thrift that my mother nor my father offered a peep of protest.

The grunion ended up in the freezer in the garage for years. My father finally had the courage to throw them away when more space was needed for storage for a party. My grandparents never threw their portion away; after Granny passed, Mom and I found the grunion at the bottom of their industrial-sized freezer.

I guess even the bone-crunching was too much for them.

The Demon Box

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from an unknown man in Canada. This fellow had bumped into a copy of a newsletter I had written for NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) in 2009 called “Suicide is an Illness.” (How he obtained a copy, I will never know.) In the article, I honored an old friend of mine from my undergraduate years at UCSD, a man named T.C., who was named outright in the original article. It turned out that the Canadian fellow, D., was roommates with T.C. in graduate school. D. spoke of T.C. in glowing and loving terms and brought back a host of dormant emotions.

To me, T.C. was all that and then some. I met him in my Latin class in 1990; he was the class superstar. His genius was apparent to everyone as the Latin phrases would slip effortlessly off of his tongue, and his translations were as fluent as English.

His other area of appeal besides his Latin acumen: he was an asshole. His ego could fill the Coliseum itself. He had something to say about everything, pop culture, classical philosophy, music, sexuality, politics, social dynamics, etc. No topic was too obscure for him to weigh in and slaughter any opposition.

He was also striking. Tall, broad shouldered, with a Roman nose and piercing blue eyes.

Then there was his sinister laugh. It often reverberated down the hallway in front of Latin class, authoritative and mocking.

I resented him at the outset, and then my distaste turned to fascination, and my fascination to infatuation, and my infatuation to love.

T.C. and I became fast friends. I’m sure it had something to do with my hero-worshipping ways, but it I’m sure I held some sort of attraction for him. At that time I needed saving, and I don’t think he minded being a savior. He also liked to have someone listen to him talk, read his poetry, and hang on his every word. We spent a lot of time together on the Revelle College campus, hanging out at a stone sculpture called Stonehenge talking until the early morning hours.

T.C. excelled academically. He would take 20-24 units a quarter and get straight A’s. He was in the hypomanic phase of his bipolar illness much of the time and was incredibly high functioning in the academic arena.

I would often ask T.C. about the bipolar condition. He once referred to a metaphor by Ken Kesey who said that the human psyche could be called a Demon Box. It was designed to filter information in such a way that it kept certain things in and certain things out. In a person with bipolar disorder, this filtration system, this Demon Box, was broken, and the individual sufferer could not separate positive and negative information in a functional way. Bipolar people suffered from an influx of demons. T.C. elaborated that once these demons came into play, that they would interact with one another, making the condition even worse. The challenge, he said, was to kill off the demons before they killed you. This metaphor struck a chord; I always appreciated T.C.’s imaginative way of conceptualizing the world.

Eventually, T.C. got a full scholarship to Stanford for a PhD program in classical philosophy.

Our lives diverged, although I would see T.C. when he came home to LA, where we were from. Incidentally, we grew up 2 miles from one another, so his parent’s house was a stone’s throw from my mother’s.

T.C. did well at Stanford at first, and then over a period of years, I noticed that his mind was beginning to fray. Our phone conversations were increasingly alarming. The philosophizing had turned to ranting, and his narcissism ran high. He was becoming paranoid and delusional. The demons were coming to roost, and he was powerless to manage them.

After a dramatic drop out from Stanford, he was moved to his parent’s house and made two unsuccessful suicide attempts until he succeeded on the third.

Before T.C. died, he left a box of his poetry on my mother’s doorstep with a note that he wanted me to publish his work after his death. The following piece that I share is one of his tame, introspective pieces that I feel demonstrates his alienation. He was perhaps 20 years old when he wrote it.


I’m tracing strange tongues
Down the page
Trains bound for the center of
Nowhere hoot in the
August air
It’s a hot, dry day
Here on the edge of the land
The theatres are crowded
With eyes seeking
A cheap vacation from the

The devil is a psychiatrist
And the city noise is
His voice
He wants to know how I feel

How do I feel?
His question coils in the void above my head

I feel like the lower
Half of an iceberg
Staring down into

I feel like a doll in a box
Hanging of the rack at the
After hours toy store

I feel like an umbrella
Discarded at the beach
Flapping in the wind at
The vacant endpoints of
A day gone by

I feel like a wheat field rolling
Before a scarecrow hung
With beads and knucklebones
That rattle when the wind

I feel like a locked
Steel file cabinet
Locked up in an
Empty office.

I feel like a fan
Rattling in a window
Above two naked

I have become silence
I tell the Devil
That is how I feel
I turn back to Sophocles
But he’s not there.

# # #

So, here I have discharged a tiny portion of my duty, to share T.C.’s work, as he wanted. Until now, I have kept his work in a shoebox for over ten years.

I'm still hoping to have a meaningful connection with the gentleman in Canada; his contact certainly brought up a lot of memories for me. I’m relieved that I’ve been able to air out some of my feelings, so for that I am thankful, though the process has been a painful one.

I’ve decided that if I ever have a big chunk of money when I die, I’ll have a bench at Revelle College campus, near Stonehenge, dedicated to T.C. so that generations of students can debate, and hold forth, and recite poetry, and carry on as we did.

As the treatment and awareness of mental illness improves, maybe the T.C.’s of the future can be saved from these deadly illnesses.