New Year, New Dog, New House

For about two years, I had half a dog. If you’re picturing only the front of a dog with no hindquarters, that’s not it, although that would make walking the dog interesting. What I mean is that my stepfather had half custody of my dog, Lily. For a long time my mom was  determined to maintain the status quo until we went to court and got full custody of Lily. A part of me was dedicated to that course of action as well but I also suggested giving Lily to my stepfather and getting another dog. For years my mother refused to hear of it, insisting she wanted Lily and not another dog. I was attached to Lily too and I hated the idea of letting my stepfather win but I figured he wouldn’t exactly win by getting Lily and giving her over would make life easier for us,

Although I believe my stepfather genuinely cares for Lily, I also believe he liked the half custody arrangement because it allowed him to keep my mother in his life and hurt both of us. As the divorce drew to a close, however, he used getting full custody of Lily as a bargaining chip for my mom to get more money from him. At that point my mom decided to give him the dog and I supported the decision. You could tell my stepfather was kind of mad that my mom agreed to it because it meant losing the opportunity to continue to string her along. I knew that would be the case and I know that even when my stepfather wins he loses.

Finding a new dog was difficult because we both work during the day, we have no yard and we have cats (my brother’s cat Stella lives with us now) but eventually we found a dog named Mya. We fell in love with her at first sight and changed the spelling to Maya. She’s a brown mutt who’s a bit smaller than Lily and the perfect size. She had puppies recently and came to us unspayed. We later realized the rescue she came from is shady but luckily Maya is in good health. She’s also cute and sweet, if not exactly well-behaved.

At first Maya ignored Dr. Zeus but now they’re friends who love to play. Sometimes they play too roughly and Maya bites his neck but we’re trying to solve that problem by spraying his neck with bitter apple spray. We’ve solved the problem of Maya raiding the litter box by putting a gate with a cat door in front of it. We haven’t solved the problem of her stealing food from us. On New Year’s Eve my mother realized she’d stolen our Manchego cheese, earning her the nickname Maya Manchego.

Around the same time that we got Maya, a house right down the street from us that had gone in to foreclosure came on the market. My mom always complained that our house was too small. I guess in addition to having half a dog we had half a house. This house was bigger and had an upstairs, which could serve as a kind of apartment for me. We hemmed and hawed about whether we wanted to get it but ultimately decided to go for it.

We had about as much trouble finding a buyer for our house as we did finding a new dog. Ironically some of the potential buyers were a mother and daughter who decided the house was too small. We moved in to our new house without having sold the old one but shortly before New Years an offer came through. Then the divorce came through. So it’s no longer accurate to refer to the man who was married to my mother as my stepfather. Hallelujah and Happy New Year!

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My Crazy Caribbean Cruise

A few weeks ago, I read a news story about a group of people who rioted aboard the Norwegian cruise line because they’d just had it with the poor service aboard, which included clogged toilets and canceled ports. If I’d read that story a year ago, I would have shrugged in sympathy but now I can nod in empathy because I’ve been there.

***

At the end of last November my father asked me if I would be okay with staying in a room with him and his girlfriend for two weeks. When I asked him why he was asking he said he wanted it to be a surprise, but I said I would need to know more details. When he said he was planning a two- week Caribbean cruise on Norwegian, I eagerly agreed. I’d never been on a cruise before, but I’d heard good things about cruises. They seemed so exciting and wonderful.

While I’m not one for surprise vacation destinations, my dad’s girlfriend Gabrielle is, so my father decided to tell her we were going to Florida. When our taxi arrived at what was supposed to be the LaGuardia airport, she was surprised by a cruise port with a hulking cruise ship. I wasn’t surprised but I was impressed. The cruise ship had many stories and the uppermost story had an array of water slides that thrilled the kid in my heart. The outside of the ship was painted with a colorful mural of sea creatures.

Our trip got off to an ominous start when Gabrielle couldn’t find her ID and my father declared that meant we would not be able to proceed with the cruise, but luckily Gabrielle ended up finding it in one of her bags.

The port was crowded and the cruise ship no less so. We hung out in the dining hall as we waited for our rooms to be opened. The food wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of my college dining hall, except my college dining hall didn’t have staff members running around singing “Washy, Washy!” in an effort to get patrons to wash their hands. I had trouble relocating the table of my traveling companions amongst the crowd but eventually I found them, and we found our room.  It wasn’t super luxurious, but it wasn’t shabby either.

The first stop on the cruise was a destination I had been to many times before: Florida. I would have preferred to go to Disney World for the tenth time in my life, but I knew I would be outvoted by my traveling companions, so I settled on going to the Kennedy Space Center for the second time in my life. Unfortunately, I’d also been outvoted in the last presidential election and now a portion of the space center was closed due to the government shutdown imposed by the president I never would have chosen.

Much to my disappointment, the next destination on our trip, the Bahamas, was canceled due to inclement weather. The possibility of ports being canceled had never even occurred to me but apparently, it’s not an uncommon occurrence on cruises. When I lamented the missed port to the woman who was doing my nails, she told me I wasn’t missing much but I wasn’t willing to take her word for it. While it’s quite possible this activity would have been outvoted in the same way Disney world was outvoted by my traveling companions, I’d been looking forward to swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas.

While my father did not enjoy animal encounters like I did, he knew he couldn’t entirely deny me the pleasure, so he booked a dolphin encounter in Jamaica. The tour bus that took us to the dolphin encounter was driven by a friendly man who drove on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to and who kept having us repeat a phrase that translated in to “no worries.” Before we had the dolphin encounter, we were treated to a petting zoo of other animals including parrots, rabbits and iguanas. I enjoyed it but my dad complained about what a tourist trap the place was, while Gabrielle complained about the various people who kept accosting her, trying to get her to buy various products. My father opted out of the dolphin encounter and I thought that was a wise decision, considering he’s so bad with animals he could even make Flipper flip out.  After I had a lovely encounter with a dolphin named Zeus and paid too much for a picture of said encounter, we hopped on the bus to our next Jamaican tourist destination, Dunn Falls. While my father and Gabrielle opted to lounge on the beach, I opted to climb the falls. I was nervous about my decision, but it ended up being the high point of my trip, both literally and figuratively. It was a true natural high. At first I was wary of falling on the rocks amid the rushing water and I was hesitant to take the hands of strangers but soon I was lost in the intense beauty of the atmosphere. I was part of a chain of humans helping each other ascend a fierce natural wonder and I knew it was one of those magical experiences I would count among the most precious in life. I made it to the top.

In the downtown area we encountered a man with a donkey, a rabbit and a parrot. I squealed in delight and had my picture taken with the animals. The man told me he would pray for me. Whether he told everyone he would pray for them because he felt it was a nice thing to do, or whether he felt a grown woman who got this excited over animals really needed prayers, I’m not sure.

I would have liked to stay longer in Jamaica to see more sights and participate in more activities such as bobsledding and zip lining, but we had to go back to the cruise ship. The feelings of wanting to stay longer and do more were feelings I experienced at every port.

The days when we didn’t go to any ports were known as at sea days. I used the time to swim in the pool, slide down water slides, exercise in the gym, dance at clubs, dine in restaurants, see shows at the theater and pamper myself in the spa. The water slides were fun for me but my enjoyment of the other amenities on the ship were tempered. My father was outraged when I came back from the spa with a body brush that cost forty-five dollars. I defended myself by explaining that he didn’t realize how persuasive the woman at the spa was. I hadn’t wanted the brush, but I hadn’t felt comfortable saying no. I was proud of the miles I was achieving on a treadmill at the gym but then a staff member told me I was going too fast and wearing the wrong kind of shoes. One day while we were dining I heard a woman at the next table telling the waiter that they should give one slice of meat to women and two to men and telling her dining companion that she had no patience for people who were on welfare because they all needed to just get a job. After she finished eating, she came over to our table to apologize for talking too loudly. I guess my facial expressions of disgust had been too obvious. There was no good way of telling her that it wasn’t the noise level but the content of her speech that was the problem for me.

I found the comedy show I went to unfunny and the hypnosis show embarrassing. I was not hypnotized, and it was clear that no one else was either because they did a poor job of pretending. The 80’s musical show didn’t do much for me and it did even less for my traveling companions, as they walked out on it. The pool was too crowded for me and with all the people at the club, I was hoping one would talk to me, but it didn’t happen.

Our next stop was Belize. In the parking lot of the information center a man on a bike approached me. He gave me his name and said that today was his birthday. Then he explained that he wanted to buy a pizza but didn’t have enough money and asked if I would give him some. His story seemed suspicious, so I refused but then I became wracked by guilt. As our tour van got ready to leave, I gave him the money. Our tour guide asked him to leave and then explained to us that he was using the money to buy drugs. “But you’re nice,” a man who had seen me give the money said. Then I was driven to Hell.

Hell is a group of domed black rock formations you can look out over and of course there is an accompanying devil cut -out where you can insert your head with the logo “I went to hell” printed over it.  After that we went to an aquarium where I got to further indulge my love of animals by petting turtles. I found more humor, in the downtown area when street chickens gathered in front of a KFC and of course I couldn’t help but take pictures. Then I found magic in an unexpected place.

I’d seen a tiny beach in the town and after we’d finished walking around the town, I told my father I wanted to go back to it, and he said I must have imagined it but sure enough it was there. I hopped into the water and discovered it was littered with fish carcasses. They appeared to have been discarded by fishermen. I could have left the water in disgust, but I kept swimming and soon my attention was drawn to the other people in the water. There was a handsome boy of about five or six with chestnut colored skin and shining hazel eyes. An elderly bronze- skinned man with a smile that revealed missing teeth kept reaching into the water and grabbing fish carcasses. He would extend the arm with the fish carcass out to the boy and say “Phoenix!” as he did so. The boy would grab the skeletal remains and gaze upon them with wonder and delight, as his pale-skinned mother watched from the shore. Meanwhile an adolescent boy who gave off the aura of being mentally younger waded through the water in shorts and asked me when the cruise ship was leaving. And somehow this aquatic fish graveyard became imbued with a sense of magic akin to that of the waterfall.

The old man hugged the boy’s mother around the waist and said it was nice meeting him as she packed up her things on the beach. I dove under the water and grabbed the biggest fish skeleton I could find. “Phoenix”, I said as I handed the treasure to the boy with the shining eyes.

When it came time to reenter the ship, I discovered to my alarm that I did not have my boarding pass. The woman taking the passes looked at us in consternation. Then she said, “You owe me a drink” and whipped out the boarding pass I had apparently dropped on the ground earlier. I was embarrassed at my carelessness, but I hope that woman enjoyed her drink.

As we ascended the ramp to the ship, we encountered something more alarming than a lost boarding pass. An inert and unresponsive old man with blood across his face was carried out on a stretcher as paramedics. I figured he’d had a heart attack and wasn’t long for this world.

Meanwhile there was a norovirus outbreak on the ship. Announcements were made to report any sickness and extra precautions were being taken to halt the spread of germs. At the buffet we were no longer allowed to get food ourselves but had to have it given to us by the servers. Elevator and room doors were constantly being scrubbed down. Gabrielle was feeling queasy and she vomited that night but the next day she decided to power through for our first Mexican port destination. The Mayan ruins ended up being a worthwhile destination, but the bus ride took forever, and the tour guide’s jokes about human sacrifice just became disturbing after a while. The vineyards didn’t do much for me, but my wine connoisseur father appreciated them.

When we got back to the ship that night Gabrielle came down with a fever and my father called the doctor. The doctor said Gabrielle would have to be quarantined for two days and so would my father and I. I said, “No way!’’ and figured we’d be able to circumvent the doctor’s recommendations.

The next morning when I woke up and gazed out my window, I saw a body bag being taken to an ambulance on a stretcher. Seeing my second dead person on this cruise, combined with the norovirus outbreak, was a bit much for me. This was starting to feel like some horror movie zombie cruise. I may have screamed a little too forcefully at Gabrielle when she touched my water, but the last thing I wanted were her Norovirus germs.

My father got a call reminding us that we had to stay in our room, and he exploded in righteous anger, saying there was no way they were going to quarantine healthy people and slammed down the phone. I summoned up my own righteous anger and side by side we determinedly walked downstairs to go to our final port of the trip, another Mexican port that included more Mayan ruins and a park full of butterflies.

We encountered a problem at the gate. Our passes had been flagged and we were told we would need to speak to the captain. My father kept saying that the quarantine rule was unfair and nonsensical, and the captain kept saying the cruise ship was legally obligated to enforce the rules and if we weren’t going to follow them, we needed to disembark and fly home. When I expressed my concern that being confined in the room with Gabrielle would guarantee I got the norovirus, an accommodation was made that I could have my own room. Unfortunately, this room was on one of the lower floors and the feeling of rocking in the sea nauseated me. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that my anti -depressant/anti-anxiety medications had melted due to the moisture in the previous room. Even though I wasn’t sick I was placed on the same quarantine diet of Gatorade and yogurt that Gabrielle was placed on. The ship personnel had apologized for the delay in bringing the food, but we had to understand that a lot of people were sick. The guard placed at my door to make sure I didn’t leave the room didn’t set my mind at ease. I started sobbing. A doctor was sent in to talk to me and assess the situation. When he asked if I felt comfortable remaining on the ship, I truthfully answered no. For a few terrifying minutes I was afraid I would be sent to a mental hospital in Mexico and I could only imagine the horrors that would await me there, but the verdict was that I would disembark in Cancun and fly home with my father. Gabrielle would have to remain on the ship due to passport issues. Amazingly she did not dump my father right then and there for leaving her alone on the cruise ship of doom.

At first my father was angry at me for my behavior and pointing out the hypocrisy, considering his own behavior would have been pointless. “Look at what you’re leaving behind,” he said as we walked towards the city and the ship’s massive hull receded from our view. I knew my father was expecting me to feel regretful but all I could think was “Bye, Felicia!’’

I did, however feel regretful, that we didn’t get to explore Cancun because from what I glimpsed from the taxi, it looked like an amazing place.

My dad’s attitude towards leaving the cruise and towards me softened that night at the hotel. Unfortunately for him, the Norovirus caught up with him and he spent the night vomiting. He was convinced I would get the Norovirus myself soon and so was I. My mom was so convinced of it that she had a whole arsenal of supplies ready for me upon my return including, gloves, masks, medicine and disinfectant. Miraculously, the virus spared me.

In the aftermath of my ill-fated cruise, I realized that it’s a certain kind of person who enjoys cruises and I’m not that person. While I did have some enjoyable moments on the cruise, they were mostly experienced off the boat and they would have been better experienced through a different travel medium that gave me more time and freedom. The showy, gaudy, crowded, restrictive atmosphere of the cruise ship is not for me. Many people are shocked when I tell them I saw two people die on the cruise but one friend pointed out that it’s not that surprising because a lot of almost dead people go on cruises. We’re not able to get any refund for our cruise because we disobeyed the captain’s orders, but we take it as a lesson learned.

Norwegian still sends me notices about discounts on upcoming cruises. I’m going to have to pass.

 

An Indentation Situation

I hope you all enjoyed my essays “Teacher’s Pet” and “A Series of Shocking Events”, which  I published on this blog a few weeks ago. I wrote them over a year ago for the creative nonfiction class I took online in my final semester of college. With how much I used to hate writing in college, it’s ironic that I took a writing class as an elective.

I also find it ironic the way creative writing classes inhibit creativity in writing by requiring your writing to meet certain guidelines. Sometimes those guidelines change your writing for the better, sometimes for the worse. Of course better or worse is in the eye of the beholder though.

I poured my heart and soul in to the Teacher’s Pet essay so I was less than pleased when the response I got from the professor upon posting it was “Kira, please resubmit this essay with proper indentation.” I like to think of myself as a good writer so I was also displeased to get a C on the first draft of that essay.

I did overall enjoy the class though and that professor did give me some helpful writing feedback. For example, when I wrote a sentence that included the words “I wondered to myself”, he said “You can take out the word ‘myself’. There’s no one else to wonder to.” I also liked the readings we did for the class, especially the one that pointed out that nonfiction seems to be the only thing defined by what it’s not. After all, we don’t call classical music non-jazz.

The professor also had positive things to say about my writing and I ended up getting an A in the class. I gave a copy the of the “Teacher’s Pet” essay to the main character of that story, and I can’t imagine a better gift.

I’m taking a writing skills workshop class now as part of a professional writing certificate program. Overall it’s a great class and I’m enjoying it. I am, however, having the issue of having my writing criticized for not fitting the “structure” or “the point” of what my essay is supposed to follow/be about, when I just want the freedom to write how and what I want.

Of course I do have the freedom to write whatever I want outside of class, but it’s the structure and deadlines of writing classes that motivate me to actually get writing done. Left to my own devices, I just put pieces I’ve been meaning to write off forever and ever.

My current writing professor objected to my use of the word crazy in the title of my essay, so I can imagine what she’d think of the name of this blog. Personally, I think after all I’ve been through, I’ve earned the right to take back the word crazy and use it in a tongue and cheek manner. Plus, I liked the alliteration in the title of my essay, just like I like the rhyming in the title of this blog post. Notice how I didn’t indent though.

Grief Speak: Questions not to ask (of or about) the bereaved

“Were you close (with the deceased)?” Think about why you’re asking that question and how you’ll reply if they say “No.” I hate that question because closeness can be a hard term to define and it seems like a way of trying to assess the depth of your grief or whether or not you should be grieving at all.  I’ve lost people I wasn’t close with and when I was asked that question, I felt awkward responding no. I felt like that would make the person think I wasn’t grieving or that I needed to provide justification for my grief. People can feel genuine grief over people they weren’t close with and the lack of closeness can complicate the grief.  I felt similarly dismissed when I was asked if I’d had my dog who died for a long time and I had to reply that I’d only had her for two months.

“Do they have any other children?” (regarding parents who have lost a child) Let’s think about the question behind this question. Perhaps you’re concerned for the welfare of the other children but more likely you’re trying to assess “how bad” their loss is and if they have other children you’re thinking “Well, at least they have other children to live for.” A compassionate response never begins with at least and losing a child with five siblings is as devastating as losing an only child.

“How did they die?” Ask yourself if you’re asking that question for the bereaved’s benefit or for your own curiosity.  The other person may not feel comfortable revealing how their loved one died and how they died is not the point. The point is they lost a loved one and are grieving. If the manner of death is important and they want to share it with you, they’ll reveal it in their own time. If you must ask at least express your condolences first and ask it in a more delicate manner, such as “Was it expected?”

“How do you manage to go on after your loss?” You’re so strong! I could never do it!” It’s meant as a compliment but the subtext is “I’m so glad it happened to you instead of me” and “I love my loved one more than you love yours.”  These people are “strong” because they don’t feel they have any other choice.

A Series of Shocking Events

August 2, 2008

I turn twenty-three today and it’s the worst birthday of my entire life. I receive no presents and no cake. The only person who wishes me a happy birthday is my mother. There’s nothing happy about it. There are no candles to blow out that year, so I don’t make a birthday wish but if I did it would be to die or to at least be anywhere but here.

The misery I’m feeling is in stark contrast to the beauty of my surroundings. I’m in a rustic house in the woods surrounded by the lakes and mountains that make up the landscape of Couer d’Alene. Turns out there’s more to Idaho than just potatoes. Of course, no one dreams of spending their birthday in a residential treatment facility, but all things considered, Innercept had seemed like it would be a rather nice place to be. That’s why my mother had chosen to send me there. The brochures and the website made it seem like a nurturing and relaxing atmosphere, an environment that engendered insight and healing. Looks can be deceiving.

The staff here seems bent on the “tough love” approach. My therapist, Darlene tells me I’m too old to be living with my parents and informs me that she’s convinced my mother to kick me out of the house. The things I tell her in therapy sessions are often met with looks of incredulity and contempt. At the end of one session she tells me she doesn’t really care what happens to me because she’s not the one who needs a life. She has one.

A few months ago, I had a life too. I was attending college in Florida and participating in extracurricular activities. My twenty-second birthday had included cake, singing and friends. I’d struggled with depression and other issues in the past, but I was doing so much better now.

One day in the school cafeteria a friend of mine had talked about how he’d struggled with depression, but he did not believe in taking psychiatric medication. I’d decided he was right and that I did not need to take my medication anymore. Things went downhill from there.

A black cloud spread over my life, but I refused to seek help until the day I went to a school counselor and told her I wanted to kill myself. She decided I needed to take a mental health withdrawal and that if I wouldn’t willingly go in to a mental hospital, I would be legally forced in to one on the grounds that I was a danger to myself.

 

***

A few weeks after my twenty-third birthday I’m sitting alone in the back ward of a mental hospital in Idaho. I’m not allowed in the main ward because it’s thought that my behavior would be too upsetting to the other mental patients. After withdrawing from college in Florida I’d willingly gone to a mental hospital in Princeton, but I’ve been forced in to this mental hospital. A residential counselor from Innercept told me I was going to the regular hospital, so the doctors could make sure I was okay after the episodes of vomiting, diarrhea and fainting I’d experienced at the house

“That’s what happens when you eat out of the garbage,” the director of Innercept had said to me contemptuously when he learned of my episodes

My depression had resulted in loss of appetite and by the time I’d arrived at Innercept I was quite underweight. I was given medication to increase my appetite. It worked a little too well. Their plan of giving residents appetite stimulants and then limiting their food intake was about as well thought out as their plan of providing residents with a high fiber diet and then writing them up for “passing gas in public.”

Not that my own plans were particularly well thought out. Food out of the garbage wasn’t even the only inappropriate item I ate while I was at Innercept. I also ate a dead snake I found by the side of the road. Nor was inappropriate eating my only form of inappropriate behavior. I also displayed inappropriate hygiene, inappropriate affect and inappropriate touching of myself. I engaged in acts too disgusting to mention. Bodily fluids were involved.

 

I willingly got in the white van with the male residential counselor who told me he was taking me to the hospital to make sure I was okay just like a few weeks ago I’d willingly gotten in to the van with the female residential counselor who told me we were just going for a ride. It turned out that lady was actually taking me to a place called stabilization, which was a separate house in the woods owned by Innercept, where misbehaving residents were brought to spend some time in isolation. This man was also bringing me to a place of solitary confinement, but he had not been lying when he said I was being brought to a hospital to check on my physical well- being. He’d been telling a half truth. At first, I was brought to the hospital, where EKGs were placed over my heart but afterwards I was brought to the dungeon of the adjoining hospital for the mind.

The mental health professionals felt compelled to find an explanation for my behavior and the simplest, most logical explanation was that I was psychotic. They were shocked to discover that my reality testing was perfect. A few staff members noticed that I “seemed to be  responding to internal stimuli.” They asked me if I was hearing voices and when I said no they seemed skeptical.

“Why are you behaving like this?” Darlene had asked me.

“Because I want to shock and horrify people.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“Because I get a sick pleasure out of it.”

I’m not sure that wanting to shock and horrify people is the best explanation for my behavior or that sick pleasure is the best description of what I’m getting out of it, but I do know that I’m feeling shocked and horrified myself-by what I’ve done to myself, by where I’ve ended up. I do know that sometimes when people are in great pain they feel the need to inflict that pain on others, to spread it outward.

By the time I get to the back ward of North Idaho Behavioral Health there’s no one left to shock or horrify because I’m kept in isolation and there’s no pleasure to be had, sick or otherwise. Now the misery I feel inside is matched by the misery of my surroundings. My world is enclosed by sterile concrete walls. I spend the day pacing aimlessly between those walls as mental health technicians take turns observing me from behind a glass window. They interact with me only to give me my meals, which are cold and encased in plastic. I sleep on a mattress that has been placed on the floor, covered by a thin blanket. I do not bother to change out of my pajamas or to wash myself. Waking up in the morning is the worst moment of the day because it means acknowledging once again that all of this is not a nightmare; it’s my reality.

Innercept decides that I can’t come back because my behavior is too upsetting to the other residents. They send my mother a bill for the mattress I soiled during the vomiting/diarrhea incident and tell her she has to fly down to Idaho to pick me up. Before she arrives, Darlene pays me one last visit.

“You’re in the back ward of a mental hospital,” she says in a belittling manner, pointing out the obvious.

I shrug.

“So, when I call your mother a year from now she’s going to tell me you’ve been permanently locked up in a mental hospital?’’

I shrug again.

When my mother arrives, she tells me I’m not stable enough to stay at home now so she’ll have to find another mental hospital for me. My case is now too severe for the mental hospital I went to in Princeton a few months ago.  My mother tried to get me in to McLean, the mental hospital where Girl, Interrupted takes place but they wouldn’t take me either.

 

November 4, 2008

“Obama’s going to lose by one vote,” my mom jokes to me.

She’s referring to the fact that I can’t vote in tonight’s election because I’m in a mental hospital. This time it’s Payne -Whitney hospital in New York City. She was able to get me in here after we got back from Idaho by bringing me to the emergency room.

It’s one of the few moments of levity we experience in this place. The other time was when she told me the psychiatrists were having trouble diagnosing me and I replied, “Why don’t they diagnose me with Crazy-NOS?” (not otherwise specified.)

Eventually I’m diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, despite my perfect reality testing. I’m put on anti-psychotic drugs, which send me in to a zombie-like haze. I sleep a lot and when I’m awake I’m lethargic. My eyes are glassy, and my hair is matted. My reactions are slow, and my affect is limited.  I don’t talk much, and I don’t smile much. Not that I have much to smile about.

The zombie haze is distressing for my loved ones to witness but I can hardly complain. I’ve already adopted a kind of emotional numbness as a defense mechanism and maybe a zombie haze is what I need to survive this situation.

Before she leaves on election night, my mother reaches forward to hug me, but a nurse stops her, telling her hugs are not allowed here. My mom looks at me forlornly.

“Oh, honeybunny,” she says, her eyes tearing up.

My mom has brought a friend with her to visit me tonight. The friend starts sobbing.

“This place is so horrible. Seeing Kira like this is so horrible,” she sputters through her tears.

My dad visits me that night too. He spoon- feeds me green beans. That makes no sense because I can feed myself and I don’t like green beans but nothing in my life makes sense at this point.

I have more space to wander about in this mental hospital than I did in the last one. I have a TV to watch and therapy groups to attend. I’m surrounded by other mental patients. But I don’t watch the TV, I don’t pay attention in the therapy group and I don’t interact with the other mental patients. In my mind’s eye all the mental patients are the same-they’re all Hasidic Jewish men with black caps on top of their heads and curls on the side. All the days in this mental hospital are the same too. They’re all permeated by the same drab hopelessness that radiates off its walls. They are banal yet horrifying.

 

 

I know others have experienced worse horrors but the feeling of waking up in this mental hospital every day for weeks on end is so far outside my previous personal realm of reference for horrors, that it seems like something that cannot be described by any words in the English language. It’s a feeling I suspect people who have never woken up in a mental hospital will never be able to understand.

The worst part of this horror is knowing that it’s a self -inflicted horror, that it’s all my fault. Why did I make such terrible decisions? How did I fall so hard and so fast?

***

Darlene did not call my mother a year after I left Idaho like she said she was going to but if she had she would have learned that I was not permanently locked up in a mental hospital. I was back at home. The gray house I resided in with my mother, my father and my stepbrother was spacious but confining. My stepfather told me he found it unnerving when I paced so if I was going to do that I had to stay in my bedroom My stepfather also crowded the house with junk. Everywhere you looked there were boxes filled with the sports memorabilia he’d collected over the years-baseball bats, autographed basketballs and Wheaties boxes spilling over the edges. Then there was the emotional junk we all crowded the house with.

Although I was no longer trapped in a mental hospital, I was still trapped in an emotional prison. I was still depressed all the time and still in a haze from the antipsychotics I was taking. I still took little pleasure or interest in anything.

Around that time, I saw an elderly psychiatrist named Dr. Wineapple, who probably should have been retired since he could not seem to remember my name or my appointment time slots. He did, however, give me an invaluable gift. He questioned my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, saying that if it was schizoaffective disorder it was much more affective than schizo. He took me off the antipsychotics and suggested I undergo a procedure known as Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), also referred to as shock treatment. It involves passing a small electrical current through the brain in order to trigger a brief seizure. It has been shown to be effective at treating depression.

This was not the first time ECT had been suggested for me but the first time it was suggested my mom and I had refused to consider it. It’s a very controversial procedure with a brutal history and some serious potential side effects including loss of memory. It has been characterized as barbaric and inhumane and there are people who want it outlawed.

This time my mom was more open to the suggestion and I agreed to the procedure. I doubted it would help me because I did not think anything could help me at this point, but I also didn’t think I had much to lose at this point. If ECT destroyed my memory or my brain that hardly seemed worse than the state I was in now.

If this were a work of fiction that portrayed ECT in the typical way, ECT would have been the end of me. I would have been subjected to a horrifying and painful treatment at the hands of cruel and controlling people. Afterwards all the life would be sucked out of me and I would essentially be a vegetable.

If this were an upbeat work of fiction ECT would have completely rid me of depression once and for all and I would have lived happily ever after.

Real life falls somewhere in the middle. The first sign that ECT was working for me was when I picked up a book and started reading. For most of my life I had loved reading, but I had not touched a book in ages. Depression had sapped me of my desire to read.

Before each ECT treatment anesthesia was administered to me through a mask placed over my nose. In the few seconds before the anesthesia took effect the edges of my world would become blurry, my head would feel as though it was starting to float away and I would be enveloped in a haze that was not unpleasant. This anesthesia induced haze led to the clearing of the mental haze that had enveloped me for so long. As the treatments wore on I continued to show renewed interest in life. I talked more, I smiled more, I became more engaged. I took classes at a local college and I volunteered at a preschool.

During and after ECT I continued to struggle with depression, but it was not as severe.  Never again did I fall in to that level of catatonic depression that left me unable to enjoy anything. I did not experience significant memory loss, but I did lose some memories. Some of the horrible things I did at the treatment center that I related earlier in this narrative were things that I saw written in reports but that I have no memory of. I think I was better off forgetting those things anyway.

I still hear people talking about how horrible and inhumane ECT is. I’m sure those people would rather see depressed people sent to cozy treatment centers in beautiful, rural areas than be subjected to brutal electric shock treatments but if you ask me my ECT was much more humane than the treatment I received at Innercept.

September 5, 2010

When I wake up that morning my mother and stepfather are standing in front of my stepbrother’s open bedroom door, speaking and gesturing frantically. I peer in to the doorway and see my stepbrother laying sprawled across his bedroom floor

“Brett’s dead!” my mother gasps, placing her hand over her mouth.

I hope my mother’s wrong.

“My son’s not breathing,” my stepfather breathes in to his cell phone.

I hope the paramedics will make him breathe.

The paramedics arrive and carry Brett out of his bedroom on a stretcher.

I hope he’ll get better at the hospital

Downstairs in the kitchen a woman from the police department is speaking to my stepfather. She’s talking about the lists of drug deals found in Brett’s room. Then she’s saying something about police procedures and toxicology reports.

Finally, she says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I know then that Brett is really dead.

The house fills up with crying people. My mother asks if I’m okay. I know she’s worried that Brett’s death will destroy my fragile mental health and unravel all the gains I’ve made. A mourner asks me if I was close with Brett and I hate that question so much. Saying no seems cold and saying yes seems dishonest. It seems like a question meant to gauge my reaction to Brett’s death and assess what it means to me.  But “closeness” doesn’t account for the shock of seeing someone dead on his bedroom floor after you saw him walking up to his bedroom with tacos and soda less than 24 hours ago. Closeness doesn’t account for what it means to have someone you never expected to be in your family to begin with suddenly subtracted from your family. Closeness doesn’t account for the experience of going from being one of two troubled young adults living under your parents’ roof to being the only one.

The concept of closeness or lack thereof cannot encapsulate all the unwelcome thoughts, memories and questions that are swirling in my mind now. I remember when my stepfather said to me “Brett’s kind of a disappointment but you’re more of a disappointment.”

“Who’s more of a disappointment now?” I wonder.

Brett was only two years younger than me. He died a few months after he turned twenty-three. The months following my twenty-third birthday was the most difficult period of my life. Brett’s demons were different from but similar to my own. I find myself thinking that it could have been me and it should have been me. But I don’t find myself wishing it was me.

 

July 15, 2015

My mom and I are sitting at a Starbucks in Illinois with my aunt. She’s showing us a Youtube video of dogs and telling us about stray dogs in Brazil, the country she recently moved from to marry my uncle. My mom and I have recently moved to Illinois to live across the street from my aunt and uncle.

Although my mother had long been unhappy in her marriage to my stepfather and with the way he treated me, I was afraid she would never leave him. Yet a month ago she did. My stepfather did not react well to the news that she was leaving him and returning to her hometown in Illinois with me. He said he was not going to let us take our dog, Dakota with us. He knew we loved Dakota and would not leave without her. Eventually he relented though and let us take her. So, in June we hopped in to the car with Dakota and drove halfway across the country to a home we’d never seen in person.

A month in to the move we both have to admit that it’s not going too well. The house is shabbier than advertised and the town has a sewage problem that leaves it smelling like raw eggs. It rains almost every day. We had envisioned a friendly, loving Full House kind of family atmosphere with my aunt and uncle across the street from us and other relatives nearby. My uncle has become moody and temperamental though. He often rages at my mother and at my aunt. When my aunt and uncle come over to our house it’s usually separately and to complain about each other. The convicted pedophile living in back of us and sharing our WiFi certainly doesn’t help matters either.

Yet as we head home from Starbucks I tell myself that all these issues will resolve with time and we’ll get our happily ever after. When we return home, Dakota does not greet us at the door like she usually does. I call her name, but she doesn’t respond. I walk towards the area where her dog door is and when I see her my heart stops. She is lying still on the floor with a Tostitos bag over her head. I dash towards her, an icy feeling of dread spreading through my whole body. I lift the chip bag off her head and her head flops back. She does not move. Her tongue is blue. I let out a blood curdling scream.

“What is it?” my mother inquires in alarm.

“Dakota’s dead!” I shriek

“WHAT???!”

My mother tries to get Dakota to breathe but it’s hopeless. She screams.

I retreat to my room and sob. She runs across the street to my uncle’s house, disturbing the peace as she wails the terrible news.

We are two hapless fools belting out our grief to an indifferent world.

I Google “Dogs suffocating on chip bags” and find myself a member of a club no one wants to be in. It’s not uncommon for pets to suffocate on chip bags but hardly anyone knows about the dangers they pose unless they find out the hard way. When I was a child two of our family dogs were killed by cars. Since then we’d been rather paranoid about our pets and done everything in our power to protect them from cars and every other danger we could think of, but Dakota has died because we’ve failed to protect her from a danger we didn’t know existed.

I’ve never believed in God and I’ve never been one to question why things happen or why the world is cruel but as I cried myself to sleep that night, I couldn’t help but wonder. This turn of events just seemed ridiculously cruel and unfair.

I know you’re not supposed to compare animal deaths to human deaths and you’re certainly not supposed to be more affected by an animal death but if someone had asked if I’d been close with Dakota, the answer would have been a clear and unequivocal yes. She slept by my side every night and her absence now is agonizing. She was truly my best friend and I am truly heartbroken.

I also know what Dakota’s death means for me and my mom. Dakota’s death has broken my mom as much as it has broken me. She has turned to my stepfather for comfort and he is offering it. He is preying on her current vulnerability to convince her to come back to him and she is convincing herself that he’s not so bad after all. She has booked a flight back to New Jersey for the following day .I know our time in Illinois is over. Their marriage didn’t survive the death of a child and their divorce will not survive the death of a dog. I will go back to living with a man who mocks me, belittles me and tells me I’m worthless. I will go back to living with a man who regularly threatens to have me institutionalized. Institutionalization is not some vague, unfathomable threat to me. I know all too well what it’s like to dwell within the walls of an institution. The problem is that as much as I hate the way my stepfather treats me, I suspect he’s right about me.

 

July 15, 2016

Exactly one year after the loss of my dog I experience another loss, but this loss is not a death. It’s not a loss in the traditional sense of the word. Many people feel I deserve it and many people feel it’s for the best but it’s shocking and devastating nonetheless.

I am banned from an internet forum that I have been a part of for twelve years. For several years that forum has been my main social outlet and my only social outlet outside my family. Since it was my only social outlet, I posted there a lot and became quite dependent on it. People got annoyed by how much I posted and by what I posted. They would target me in a cruel and humiliating manner. A lot of very hurtful things were said to and about me. There were many people who wanted me to leave the forum, but I would not leave because while I had a lot of enemies on that forum, it was also the only place where I had friends. I would put up with all the people who regularly told me I was annoying, rude and immature and I would put up with being called a liar, an imbecile and even a pedophile because the few people on the forum who would make me feel that I was a smart person with interesting things to say made it all worth it to me. I made it my mission to generate conversation on that forum because I needed a purpose in life and validation that I existed outside my bedroom.

Finally, after yet another onslaught of attacks from forum members that leaves me feeling humiliated, the matter is taken out of my hands. When I submit a message trying to defend myself, I am informed that I have been banned. The moderator sends me a message saying I have burned through everyone’s good will and am destroying the community. She says she feels for me because she knows I struggle but this place isn’t going to help me. It’s time for me to move on.

Before I am banned I am called a troll repeatedly and when I am banned a picture of a troll being struck by lightning is posted. I have been rendered as ugly on the outside as I feel on the inside and I have once again been shocked.

I feel unbearably lost and lonely now. I don’t talk about this loss with anyone in my real life because I never even told anyone about my participation in the forum to begin with and I’m ashamed. Shame rules my life.

 

October 12, 2016

My friend is waiting for me on my front porch. I open the door and hug her tightly. It’s been about ten years since I’ve seen her. It’s been about ten years since I’ve socialized with any friends. I’ve been too ashamed to show my face, even online. As devastating as being banned from that forum was, it ended up being the best worst thing that possibly could have happened to me. I was so lonely without it that I decided to take a risk and contact old friends on Facebook. The first people I contacted were my former special education teachers and therapists because they seemed like the best bet when it came to not judging me and from there I branched out.

I get in to the car with my friend and seventh grade special education teacher now and while I’m excited to see her, I’m expecting the conversation to be awkward since it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other.

“So, how’ve you been?”

“Miserable.” I fill her in on some of the details of my life.

“What are you going to do to change things?’’

I’ll have to get back to her on that one.

From there the conversation shifts to more pleasant topics like pets, funny memories and the upcoming presidential election.

I’m shocked by how naturally the conversation flows and how little the intervening years of silence seem to matter.

We meet another friend for dinner, who I have not seen since Brett’s funeral. She hugs me tightly and joins in on the lively conversation.

When I return home from dinner, I get a call from my friend, Ava. I’m excited but nervous as I pick up the phone. Perhaps I can relate to people who work in special education because they’re nonjudgemental by nature but how could Ava not judge me?   In the intervening years I’ve been so ashamed and fearful that I’ve been downright rude to her. She’s tried to call me a few times, but I’ve refused to speak to her because I just couldn’t imagine what I would say. I’m not sure why she’s willing to give me another chance now but she is. We talk for about an hour and spend most of it laughing.

I’m shocked by how much I still matter to my old friends, by how much they still love and appreciate me. It’s the most pleasant shock I’ve received in a long time.

 

November 8, 2016

I walk in to the voting station with my mother, who’s dressed in a pantsuit in honor of Hillary Clinton. I was indisposed in a mental hospital in the last historical election, which resulted in the first black president but today I will make my voice heard in the election of the first female president. This election will symbolize new hope and new beginnings for American women, which jives nicely with the new hopes and beginnings I’m sensing in my own life

I watch the TV excitedly as the votes start to come in. I can’t wait to see that nasty, idiotic bully, Donald Trump defeated, and the poised, intelligent, articulate Hillary Clinton emerge victorious. This time it’s not just me but the entire nation that’s in for a shock.

“How could this happen?” I ask myself once it has become obvious that Donald Trump will unfortunately be our next president. I think of all the statistical predictions that put his chances of winning the election at around one percent. I bitterly remember the time last year when I asked my mother what the chances were that she would go back to my stepfather and she claimed they were less than one percent.

 

July 12, 2018

I see an e-mail in my inbox from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Back in November I’d submitted a story to them about the Thanksgiving I’d recently spent with my family in the new house that I shared with my mom. I opened the story by making it seem like we were an intact, cookie cutter family but then I revealed that my parents had been divorced for a long time. My father was spending Thanksgiving with us at my mom’s new house because he did not want my mother to be alone for her first Thanksgiving without my stepfather. I talked about some of the illness, divorce, and death my family has experienced. I emphasized my family’s love and devotion to each other through the hard times. I concluded by saying that even though life can break your heart and shatter your family and become abnormal in a thousand different ways, sometimes things turn out all right in the end.

When I was at Innercept a residential counselor had asked me what I wanted to be “when I grew up” and I had replied that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no intention of actually becoming one. I’d been told that I was a good writer, but I hated writing. Yet as I began to emerge from the pit of mental illness, I began to feel the urge to write about my experiences. Remembering that joke I made years ago in the mental hospital, I called my blog Crazy-NOS. Writing became enjoyable and therapeutic for me. It gave me a sense of self-worth.

I’m shocked when I open the email from Chicken Soup for the Soul and see that my story has been selected for publication.

August 2, 2018

I forget to make a wish when I blow out the candles this year but if I had made a wish it would not have been to die or to be anywhere but here. I’m actually pretty happy with where I am right now. My dad’s girlfriend says she’s never seen me this happy before. As a gift she gives me a sign that says, “Home sweet home.” She says it seems appropriate since I’ve been living in this house for a year now and I like it so much.

This house is the smallest I’ve lived in yet in a way it feels like the largest. In this house I have room to grow emotionally and I am coming in to my own. No one in this house is trying to bully me or bring me down. No one is encroaching on my physical or emotional space. My mom tells me my stepfather sent me a birthday text, but I did not receive it because I’ve blocked his texts. I’ve decided I don’t have room for people like that in my life.

Yet I think of my stepfather often. One of his favorite ways to shame me was to remind me of my age and tell me how pathetic it was to be as old I was and to live and act in the way that I was. Now that I’m another year older he’d be able to up the shame factor. Perhaps he believed that in shaming me he would motivate me to change but shame has the opposite effect, destroying the mechanism that makes one capable of change.

Although in the year that I’ve been away from my stepfather, I’ve made some positive changes in my life, I’m sure it wouldn’t be enough to please my stepfather or Darlene either for that matter, should she decide to do a ten-year follow up phone call. After all, I’m still living with my mother. That’s okay though because I don’t live for the approval of others.

I think of my stepbrother often as well. Every time Brett’s birthday rolls around I think about how old he would be and today on my birthday I think about how thirty-three is a birthday Brett will never get to celebrate. I wonder what he would be doing right now if he were still alive. He might still be imprisoned by his demons, but I also know he could have recovered. He might not have recovered in a day or a month or a year or even five years and recovery isn’t always a permanent thing nor is it always an all or nothing thing, but recovery is possible, even when it seems impossible. I should know.

 

The talk around the table turns to my upcoming college graduation and the volunteer work I’m doing. My mom says I’m flourishing now and this is the best year I’ve had in a long time. When we first moved we thought that what we needed was to get far away from where we were. It turns out that what I really needed was to stay close to where I was and (re)connect with people who support me.

While I’m happy with the progress and accomplishments I’ve made, I can’t help but feel inferior when I compare myself to others. Most of my peers graduated college a long time ago. They have jobs and partners and kids. It saddens me to think that I may never have those things. Yet I know that comparison is the thief of joy and I think I’ve had enough joy stolen from me. Besides, I don’t really know what life has in store for me. Life has a way of shocking me.

 

 

 

Teacher’s Pet (Part 3)

In June of last year, I attended my niece’s high school graduation. I was happy for my niece, but I found the ceremony speeches tedious to sit through. The speech of an elderly English teacher told the story of a boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back in the ocean. A man comes up to the boy and tells him that he can’t possibly hope to make a difference when there are so many stranded starfish on so many miles of shoreline. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it in to the sea and replies….

 

“Makes a difference to that one!” I said smugly to my sister as the teacher paused for dramatic effect. I’d heard that fable before. It was in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books I read when I was in middle school.

 

As tedious as that graduation ceremony was, I think it ultimately played a part in me finally returning to college to finish my degree the following winter. During the first week of class I had dinner with a friend of mine.

 

“Hey there, dinner date!” my friend greeted me, as I stepped in to her car from my driveway.

 

I kissed her on the cheek and asked her how her day was.

 

“Stressful. My students are driving me crazy.”

 

“Too bad you can’t have more students like me.”

 

Although I call my friend by her first name now, in a part of my mind she’ll always be Mrs. Walters.

 

“You’re looking good,” she said as she turned to me from the driver’s seat.

 

“Thanks. I brushed my hair and there’s no toothpaste in it…Remember when I got that sewing needle caught in my hair?’’

 

“Of course. I’ll never forget that.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what you said when it happened 20 years ago.”

 

“Gosh. Has it really been 20 years?”

 

We settled in to one of those diners off Route 1 that are so emblematic of New Jersey.

 

A loaf of bread was placed in the middle of the table. I told her she should cut it because her fine motor skills are better than mine.

 

I congratulated her on winning the teacher of the year award and told her no one deserved it more than her.

 

She told me she will be retiring at the end of the year and that next year she will be volunteering in the school with dogs. She showed me a funny cell phone video of dogs. We talked about our previous and current pets. She asked if I remembered Mrs. Staggard and I said that yeah, I remember I was jealous that her class had a hamster and ours didn’t.

 

“I like how you remember everyone by their animals.”

 

Throughout that dinner as the intervening years between middle school seemed to melt away and the past seemed to meld with the present, I was filled with the kind of joy that comes with catching up with an old friend that you connect with so genuinely and so completely, but I also felt tinges of sadness. I found myself wishing I’d “overcome” the struggles I’d faced in middle school and become a “normal” adult. Instead I’d become the kind of adult who can’t hold a job, live on her own, or have a romantic relationship.

 

Yet I knew the fact that I was sitting there right then having dinner with a long- time friend was a testament to what I have overcome. Maintaining friendships with other humans once seemed impossible for me. Now I have become a social animal. I know I owe it all to the good animals, good friends and good teachers in my life. I also know that those are overlapping categories.

 

On the drive home my friend talked about how special education has changed over the years, how she could never get away with being as friendly with her students now as she was with me back then. She said she’s seeing an increase in aggressive, depressive and suicidal behavior in students. She said she used to think she could make a difference as a special education teacher but now she’s not so sure.

 

That statement shocked and bothered me. As I reached across the car to rest my hand on her shoulder, that starfish metaphor entered my head and it was as though my arm had been transformed in to the arm of a starfish.

 

“You made a difference to me.”

 

 

Teacher’s Pet (Part 2)

“Hey, kid, want to go have lunch together?” Mrs. Walters asked as she approached me in the cafeteria on the first day of eighth grade.

 

I wasn’t sure why she was asking me to have lunch with her since she wasn’t my teacher anymore, but I acquiesced.

 

“I just loved all those letters you sent me over the summer,” she said sarcastically.

 

“Sorry. You know writing’s a chore for me.”

 

“So, how was your summer?”

 

“Good.”

 

“And how’s Frisky doing?”

 

“He’s doing well.”

 

“I’m glad but you can tell me if he died. I can handle it.”

 

“No, he’s alive and well.”

 

“I have two new rabbits. They’re black rabbits.”

 

“What are their names?”

 

“Midnight and Charcoal.”

 

I was thinking those were not very original names for black pets, but I just said “Cool.”

 

“How are you liking eighth grade so far?”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“How do you like your new supplemental teacher?”

 

“I don’t like her. I wish you were still my teacher.”

 

“I’m still your friend.”

 

***

I knew I had a much friendlier relationship with Mrs. Walters than was typical for a teacher and student, but I was still pretty shocked when she suggested I come over to her house for dinner.

 

“What? Why would I do that?’’

 

“So you can meet my animals.”

 

“You’re allowed to take me home with you? Can’t you get in trouble for that?”

 

“As long as your mom says it’s okay, I think I can get away with it.”

 

 

For years my mom had been trying to facilitate playdates between me and my peers but with little success. I basically considered playdates to be a form of torture and getting me to participate in them was like pulling teeth. I rarely got invited on playdates and I never initiated them. On the few occasions that my mother was able to arrange playdates at our house she would stay home from work in an effort to facilitate appropriate social interaction between me and the other kid. Things like conversing with the other person, showing interest in the other person and making eye contact just didn’t come naturally to me. My friendships never lasted very long.

 

Being friends with a teacher was pretty weird so I figured this would be the most awkward “playdate” of all. I figured I would not be invited back. I figured this friendship would dissolve even more quickly than my other ones had. Yet somehow this friendship worked. Somehow, I was invited back over and over again. Somehow, I was readily accepted by her entire family-the two-legged members, the four- legged members, the members who had more than four legs and the members who had fewer than two legs. I’d never liked little kids when I was a little kid myself but now I took a liking to her kids and of course to her animals. The only issue that ever arose was the time I was playing with the family frog and it got loose. I started panicking but I was told to calm down. This wasn’t the first time an animal had gotten loose in the house.

 

One day as she was taking me to her house I said, “Oh my god! Let’s stop at my dad’s house and see my chickens!”

 

“Oh my god. You’re crazy. I’m not trespassing on your dad’s property when he’s not there to look at chickens under a trampoline!”

 

“Please, please, please,” I begged, flashing her my sweetest smile.

 

“All right. I’ll do it for you.”

 

Mrs. Walters wasn’t one of those friends I “just barely tolerated.” I completely and utterly adored her. Some people were confused by our friendship though.

 

“Why is Kira always having dinner at her teacher’s house? Is she in trouble at school?” my babysitter asked my mother.

 

“No, she likes her teacher. They’re friends,” my mother replied.

 

“She’s friends with her teacher?’’ my babysitter said incredulously.

 

“Yeah, they’re good friends. I’ve never seen Kira respond like that to anyone.”

 

 

While the dinners at Mrs. Walters’ house were not a sign of trouble at school, unfortunately I was experiencing some trouble there. I hadn’t been kidding when I’d told Mrs. Walters I didn’t like my eighth- grade special education teacher, Mrs. Robinovitz. Mrs. Walters and I had been a perfect match. She was someone who completely understood me. Mrs. Robinovitz and I were a terrible match and she did not seem to understand me at all. She was one of those teachers who tended to interpret my struggles as rudeness or laziness and would chide me accordingly. The problem was that now that I was an angsty teenager who had gained some social courage, I was reacting to those kinds of encounters not just by blushing and crying but by defending myself, sometimes a bit too aggressively. When Mrs. Robinovitz said she was going to write me up for I don’t even remember what, I replied “Fine, write me up, bitch!”

 

“Couldn’t you have just said ‘Fine. write me up’ and left off the bitch?” the school psychologist asked.

 

“You know, there’s a staff member in this building that I dislike and disagree with, but I realize I have to get along with her,” Mrs. Walters said, after the school psychologist had asked her to talk to me about the situation.

 

“Who is it that you dislike?’’

 

“It doesn’t matter. The point is…”

 

“Is it Mrs. Strachan?’’

 

“Kira…”

 

“Is it Ms. Maurer?  Mr. Glass? Miss Gi…”

 

“Kira! The point is how do you think it would go over for me if I called this person a bitch?’’

 

“Not too well.”

 

“Correct. And it didn’t go over too well for you either, now did it?”

 

 

I was also having problems at home that were carrying over to school. For years my parents had had this weird not really married but not entirely separated relationship but now the marriage was moving toward divorce. Things were getting ugly and I was getting blamed and caught in the middle. I started getting bad grades and running away from home. A meeting was called with my parents, the school psychologist and some of my eighth- grade teachers to discuss my situation and well-being. Mrs. Walters attended the meeting too.

When she next saw me after the meeting she held her arms out to me and drew me in tightly.

“You don’t deserve any of the hard stuff you’re going through, kid. People say things about you that aren’t right. I’d stop it all if I could.”

 

I did not doubt for a second that she would move heaven and earth to help me and in that moment in spite of everything, I felt incredibly lucky.

 

“I love you,” I said as I leaned my weight against her, absorbing the comfort she offered.

 

My next neurologist report said that I was now expressing affection and humor towards others in a way that I never had before, and that people were flocking towards me in a way that they never had before.

***

 

Perhaps no female coming of age story would be complete without a mention of that time when the girl “becomes a woman.” It happened for me a couple of weeks before the end of eighth grade. As close as I was with Mrs. Walters, I was not inclined to discuss my period with her, but she ended up finding out about it anyway and in a very dramatic fashion.

 

As you might imagine, first periods are particularly rough for the hygienically, socially and fine motor skills challenged and particularly when they’re accompanied by gastrointestinal upsets.

 

I sat in a stall of the middle school girl’s bathroom moaning and unable to cope with what was happening to me. Someone must have noticed and tried to help but I was overwhelmed and unresponsive. A teacher was called in to the bathroom and then so was the vice principal. They tried to get me to come out, but I was in pain and having trouble cleaning myself up. I just wanted to be left alone. Their efforts to get me to come out became more demanding and forceful. It was when the teacher climbed over the wall of my stall that I really lost it.

 

“I hate you!” I screamed.

 

The vice principal threatened to knock down the door of my stall.

 

“Go away, asshole!”

 

I burst in to tears. I could hear frantic discussion being carried out over stalls and across walkie talkies. More people entered the bathroom.

 

“Go get Mrs. Walters,” a voice was saying

 

“She’s busy now.”

 

“We need to get her. She’s the only one who’s going to be able to calm Kira down at this point.”

 

I buried my head in my hands, feeling hopelessly trapped and wishing for an escape. The walls of the bathroom stall had become a pink prison.

 

A blur of pain and hysteria and then Mrs. Walters’ voice.

 

“Kira, it’s me. Are you okay? Can you come out?’’

 

“Make everyone else go away first.”

 

On this day of becoming a woman I couldn’t have felt more child-like. I heard hushed voices and retreating footsteps.

 

“Okay, everyone else is gone. Can you come out now?”

 

“I’m bleeding…and… and… my stomach hurts…and…I can’t get this pad on….and…”

 

“It’s all right. It happens. Just do the best you can.”

 

After adjusting my underwear and making ample use of toilet paper, I finally pulled myself to my feet. I cautiously opened my stall door and walked over to the sink where Mrs. Walters was standing.

 

Mrs. Walters pressed a wet napkin to my face and rubbed my back. As she took me in her arms, I spilled tears all over her and prayed to God that was the only bodily fluid being spilled.

“They said they were going to break the door down…and she climbed over the stall…and…” I spluttered.

 

“I know, honey. It’s okay now. I’m here now. You were just scared.”

 

She dabbed at my face some more, then sighed and said, “But for the love of God, you can’t call the vice principal an asshole!”

 

I was suspended from school the next day, although Mrs. Walters told me not to think of it as a suspension but a day of rest.

 

She took me to her house for dinner that night and as she drove me home, I fretted about facing the music at school the next day.

 

“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Just write an apology letter and you’ll be fine.”

 

In my apology letter I compared my actions in the middle school bathroom to the actions of a trapped and terrified animal and emphasized my need to behave in a manner more appropriate for a human being.

***

 

The day before school ended I sat in the gym with the rest of my eighth – grade class rehearsing for the graduation ceremony that would occur that night. Although my period was over now, I was once again experiencing pain. This was emotional pain but the pangs it was producing in my body were not entirely dissimilar from menstrual cramps. It was the pain of anticipated separation and loss.

 

The mood in the gym was jubilant. My peers had every reason to be happy. Soon they would be leaving middle school and next year they would be entering high school along with all their friends. I, on the other hand, would be leaving my best friend behind. It was enough to trigger another meltdown. After a teacher noticed that I was crying, I was removed from the graduation rehearsal and Mrs. Walters was once again called in to attend to me.

 

“What am I going to do without you?” I asked plaintively, reaching for her hand.

 

“What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“But I am.”

 

“People don’t stop caring about each other just because they’re in different buildings. That’s not how friendships work.”

 

“But I won’t see you anymore.”

A pregnant pause filled the air. I could tell Mrs. Walters was measuring her words carefully.

“I can’t promise that I’ll see you every day or every week or even every month, but I can promise you I’ll be your friend forever.”

 

My mom took me to the store that night to get goodbye presents for my eighth- grade teachers and of course for Mrs. Walters too. I got her a birdhouse and an accompanying birdwatching book. This time there was no need for my mother to write a note thanking her for all she’d done for me. I wrote that note myself.

 

After putting the note in its envelope, I laid on my bed and cried some more. My mother tried to comfort me. She assured me that Mrs. Walters would keep in touch with me and would always be there for me. She said she could tell she was that kind of person just by looking in to her eyes. She also said that while she was sorry I was hurting so much, she was glad that I had gotten attached to someone. For a while she was afraid I would never be attached to anyone besides her.

 

“You’re so sweet,” Mrs. Walters said the next day as she read my card.

 

I thought I was all done with crying but when I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Walters at the end of the day, I shed some more tears.

“Crying again? You are such a turkey.”

In spite of my distress, I found myself amused by that animal reference. I told her that I was really going to miss her.

“We’ll keep in touch,” she reassured me.

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive high school.”

“You’ll be fine. You can connect with other people.”

I could feel my old argumentative streak flaring up.

“I don’t want other people! I want you!”

“You’ll still have me, and you can also make new friends. You’re a very genuine person. People appreciate that.”

“The word is pronounced genu-WIN, not genu-WINE,” I corrected through my tears.

“Well, however it’s pronounced, you’re a lovely person and you have so much to offer.”

I thought back to the first time I cried in middle school-that time when Ms. Maurer confronted me in the hallway over my tardiness and Mrs. Walters came to my rescue. I realized that Mrs. Walters had rescued me in so many ways since then and I had changed so much as a result. Although it sounds trite to say I’d changed from a caterpillar to a butterfly, considering how heavily animals played in to our relationship, it feels like an appropriate metaphor.

 

***

The summer after eighth grade a card arrived for me in the mail, written in the familiar flowing cursive of my favorite teacher.

 

Dear Kira,

Thank you for the gifts. They weren’t necessary! I have enjoyed our friendship greatly. You are a very special young lady and always will be! I will be calling you soon to get together. Keep enjoying your summer. See you soon!

Love,

Mrs. Walters

I put that card from the best friend I’d ever had in my drawer of special things, next to the first one she’d sent me.

Teacher’s Pet (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Here’s an essay I wrote for my writing class last year about a teacher who made a difference in my lie. Enjoy.

 As I walked the hallways of my new school building on the first day of seventh grade, I noticed that the first class listed on my schedule was supplemental. “What on earth is supplemental?’’ I wondered. When I entered the designated classroom, I noticed that it was a small classroom with a table instead of desks. There were only six other students seated around the table. At that point I realized what supplemental was. It was the special education class.

I’d had special education services my whole life, but it had been a while since I’d been in a special education classroom. Back when I was in first grade it was referred to as resource room.

My second-grade teacher had suggested that perhaps special education services in a public school were not enough for me so in the summer my parents sent me to a school for the learning disabled for a trial period. That school said I was welcome to come back in the fall, but they weren’t sure there was much they could do for me because their school was catered toward kids with language- based learning disabilities and my language skills were advanced. My parents asked me whether I wanted to return to the public school in the fall or remain in the special school. I was initially indifferent but when I heard that the third- grade teacher I had been assigned to in the public school kept a pet rabbit in the classroom I decided I wanted to return to public school.

I preferred the company of animals to the company of humans. Animals wouldn’t criticize my poor social skills, poor fine motor skills or poor visual spatial skills. They wouldn’t complain that I was disheveled, disorganized or inattentive. When I flapped my hands, they wouldn’t ask me why I did that or inform me that it’s not something normal people do. Some of them would just flap their wings in return. Friendships with humans were elusive to me but friendships with animals came naturally.

This teacher who sat in front of the table in my first class on my first day of seventh grade was middle aged with shoulder length blond hair and deep blue eyes. She introduced herself as Mrs. Walters. She said she was going to tell us a little bit about herself and then we would take turns going around the table telling everyone about ourselves. I groaned inwardly. I hated telling people about myself. I hated talking to people in general. Elective mutism was one of the many diagnoses that had been given to me over the years and then discarded. I did not fit neatly in to any one diagnostic category.

I was only half listening as Mrs. Walters told us about her husband, her kids and the town in which she lived but my ears perked up when she told us about her menagerie of pets. While my educational and psychological reports often noted that I showed little interest in other people, I was, however, interested in other people’s animals. Mrs. Walters obviously was too since as we went around the room she encouraged the students to talk about their pets. Mrs. Walters had an impressive collection of pets and so did some of the other students in the class but since I was going through my animal hoarding phase at the time, I had the largest menagerie of all. When it was my turn to speak, mouths dropped open as I shared my list of pets. I’d kind of enjoyed  speaking about myself in that instance.

The next day Mrs. Walters decided to ask us if we knew why we were in her class. It was the first time I’d ever heard a special education teacher address the issue.

“Because we don’t do our homework?” a girl named Patience ventured.

“No, actually that’s not why you’re in here. You’re in here because you learn differently….”

Just then something in the corner of the room caught my eye.

“You got a fish?” I asked Mrs. Walters, pointing to the swirl of rainbow colored fins gliding through the water of an oblong tank.

“ Oh, yeah. I just got him yesterday at the pet store.”

“What’s his name?”

“I think I’m going to call him Frisky. He seems pretty frisky, don’t you think?”

“He’s a Japanese Fighter Fish, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“I have a fighter fish.”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Bluefish.”

“That’s a cute name.”

“Did you know that sometimes when fighter fish shit, the shit comes out of their neck?”

“Please don’t use that kind of language in my classroom. Say poop instead,” Mrs. Walters finally replied, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the room.

Fish shit-I mean poop- may not have been the most appropriate conversation topic but it was a rare instance of me choosing to spontaneously engage in conversation and share information with someone I didn’t know very well.

As the days wore on I continued to open up in Mrs. Walters’ class, which was an unstructured class that was in place of the study hall my more typically developing peers got. While conversations were discouraged in study hall, they often took place in Mrs. Walters’ class. Since we were a group of animal loving kids with an animal loving teacher, the conversations often centered around animals. Animals were a subject I was interested in and a subject in which I prided myself on my experience and knowledge, so I took part in the conversations. My contributions weren’t always socially appropriate but after I told a kid that I thought his basset hound was ugly and told Mrs. Walters that I did not like her dog’s name, Mrs. Walters helpfully informed me that I was going to get beat up if I kept insulting peoples’ pets.

I was always the last one out of Mrs. Walters’ classroom. Sometimes I would linger behind with my face pressed in front of Frisky’s aquarium and sometimes Mrs. Walters would hand me pellets to feed to him. Often, I would be struggling to cram all my crumpled papers, battered books and pens without caps in to my backpack. Mrs. Walters would help me get my materials together and since we were both headed towards language arts class, we would walk to class together. While many middle schoolers would walk to class conversing with a friend by their side, I did not. At first walking to class with a teacher felt even more weird and unnatural but I soon got used to it. We mostly talked about animals.

 

Unfortunately, I had a hard time in some of my other classes and I had a hard time adjusting to middle school in general. I struggled to get to class on time and to finish my assignments on time. I struggled with opening my locker and keeping my papers organized. I struggled with math and science and gym. I struggled to sit still and pay attention throughout the day.

Since I struggled so much in school, Mrs. Walters had to periodically provide me with support throughout the school day. Sometimes I would have to spend my lunch period with her working on skills such as opening my locker. At first, I resented it but soon I not only tolerated but looked forward to having lunch with her. I related to her in a way I couldn’t relate to my peers. She would talk to me about her dog Daisy who was a mutt that looked like Lassie and I would talk to her about my chickens that lived under my trampoline. She would ask me what pet I thought she should get and I’d give her my best advice. She’d lament on the pets she wanted but her husband wouldn’t let her have and I’d commiserate with the pets I wanted but my parents wouldn’t let me have.

The struggles I’d been having in middle school came to a head about a month in to the school year. My social studies teacher, Ms. Maurer, called me in to the hallway. “Why are you always late to class?” she demanded to know. I lowered my head and said nothing.

“Please answer me.” She was growing increasingly irritated.

“I don’t know,” I said softly.

“You don’t know?’’ she retorted incredulously. Her face was just inches from mine.

My heart was racing, and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

Just then Mrs. Walters was walking by in the hallway. “Hey, Mrs. Walters, can you come here for a minute?” Ms. Maurer asked.

“Sure. What’s going on?”

“Kira is five minutes late to class every single day!’’

“Okay. I walk to class with Kira sometimes. I’m sure I can help her figure out how to get to class on time.”

“She better figure it out because this behavior is unacceptable!” She was outright yelling now.

My lip started quivering. I struggled to maintain composure, but I lost control and burst in to tears. There I was, twelve years old, and sobbing in the middle of the school hallway like a baby. I hadn’t felt this humiliated since I’d peed my pants in front of the class in first grade.

Mrs. Walters wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Everything’s going to be okay, honey. Why don’t you go in to the bathroom and freshen up while I talk to Ms. Maurer?”

Unfortunately, this was just the first of many indignities that I would face in middle school. Fortunately, it was also the first of many times that Mrs. Walters would comfort me and save the day.

One day as I was getting ready to hand in my homework in science class, I realized I’d forgotten to write my name on it. As I started to write my name on it, Mrs. Strachan, my ill-tempered science teacher, noticed and said, “Kira, I’m going to have to mark your homework as not finished.” My face flushed. Then Mrs. Strachan turned to Cara, the girl who was sitting next to me and the star student of the class.

“Kira, thinks she can get away with slacking off but we’re not going to let her, are we, Cara?”

I slunk down in my seat and wished the floor would swallow me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Walters.

“It’s okay, Kira. Let’s go to the back table. I’ll help you with your lab.”

***

While many of my developmental milestones had been delayed, my speech came early. I spoke my first word when I was nine months old. That word was no. My second word was cat. Those words ended up being a good summation of my personality. I love animals and I have a stubborn argumentative streak. When I argue about animals I am particularly tenacious.

While I was happy to have a class pet, there’s only so much gratification you can get out of a fish. I longed for a fuzzy class pet I could interact with. I longed for the days of third grade in which in addition to Pumpkin and Marshmallow the class goldfish, there was Eppie the class rabbit and the caterpillars we kept on our desk and released when they turned in to butterflies. I knew Mrs. Walters loved animals so I decided to try my luck in convincing her to purchase more class pets.

“Mrs. Walters, can we get another class pet?” I asked hopefully.

She sighed. “No, Kira, we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re only in this room for an hour a day and I have enough animals to take care of at home.”

“Why can’t we get a hamster? They’re easy to take care of.”

“Mrs. Staggard has a hamster so if you want to see a hamster you can go over to her classroom.”

“How come her class can have a hamster and ours can’t?” I countered.

“It would be nice if you were a little less argumentative.”

 

Then there was the issue of homework. I could be a good student when I wanted to be, but I didn’t always feel like putting in the effort and I found the workload in middle school to be rather overwhelming. In regular study hall the teacher just sat at her desk and left the students alone, but Mrs. Walters was always on her students’ backs about homework and I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion.

 

“Kira, did you do your science homework?”
“No.”

“Did you do your math homework?”

“No.’’

“Well, I guess you decided to take the night off!”

“I don’t want to do homework.”

“I don’t want to clean my bathroom, but I still do it.”

 

 

One day after she told me I had to re-do a worksheet I’d just done because she knew I could do better, I snatched the pencil and paper from her and threw daggers at her with my eyes.

She smiled assuredly. “You love me. I know you do.”

I could not argue with her there.

 

When Mrs. Staggard brought her hamster to visit our classroom, Mrs. Walters cooed over it and said, “I missed my calling as a veterinarian.”

Even as I resented the fact that she wouldn’t let our class have a hamster, I recognized that she’d found her calling as a teacher.

 

 

One of our projects in language arts was a speech project about a family tradition that required us to bring in a prop. My speech was about my family tradition of playing an egg knocking game on Easter. In addition to not looking forward to speaking in front of the class, I was unsure about what prop to bring in.

“Why do I have to bring in a stupid prop?” I whined to Mrs. Walters.

“Hey guys, what do you think looks better, Kira standing in front of the class with nothing or Kira standing in front of the class with colorful Easter eggs?”

“I know! I’ll bring in my rabbit!’’

“I don’t know about that….”

“Come on. It would be so much fun!”

“Yes, it would be fun but I’m not sure the teachers would be okay with it.”

“Can’t you convince them?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

By the end of the day I had permission to bring my rabbit to school.

The next day, Mrs. Strachan who I had the misfortune of having as a homeroom teacher, insisted I keep Scarlett O’Hare in her carrier but Mrs. Walters was quite happy to meet her, as was the rest of the class. “Aw, she’s so cute!” they all squealed in delight. They asked me questions about Scarlett, which I eagerly answered.

Mrs. Walters decided we needed a class picture with the rabbit and left the room to get a camera. I held my rabbit as my peers gathered around me and I smiled. Mrs. Walters handed me the polaroid.

As I moved from class to class that day, students and teachers alike continued to fawn over my rabbit. They continued to ask me questions about her and I continued to engage in conversation with them. When the time came to give my speech, being able to pet Scarlett throughout it calmed me down and I performed well.

“I wish you could bring your rabbit to school every day,” Mrs. Walters said to me.

 

While I too would have liked to bring my rabbit to school every day, I recognized that I was still reaping the benefits of my one bring your rabbit to school day months later. I could not find a way to incorporate my rabbit in to my next speech but the confidence I had gained as a result of my successful previous speech served me well when it came to giving a speech as civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. Despite the awkward crying incident in the hallway, Ms. Maurer had really taken to me after I’d brought Scarlett O’Hare in. She did my hair and makeup for my Shirley Chisolm speech and it was quite a change from my usual disheveled appearance. By the time I’d finished my speech, I was the one making her cry. Mrs. Walters was crying too. So were my other teachers.

 

I faced my biggest struggle of seventh grade when I had to take a sewing class. I was just terrible at sewing and not even the fact that I was sewing a type of animal could make up for the trauma that pig pillow inflicted on me. Mrs. Walters tried her best to help and encourage me but eventually we both conceded defeat.

“I hate this! I can’t do this anymore!’’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in frustration.

Mrs. Walters considered for a moment and then said, “I know you can’t and I see that you’ve tried your best so give me the needle and I’ll do the rest for you.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t tell your sewing teacher.”

“Damn it! I can’t find my needle.”

“Keep looking. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Suddenly she was laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I found your needle.”

“Where?”

“In your hair!”

I touched my head and sure enough there my needle was.

“Hold on, honey. Let me help you. There’s toothpaste in your hair.”

“I will never forget this moment,” she said as she reached in to my hair.

I knew I would never forget it either.

 

 

It was in seventh grade that the beast called depression first started clawing at me. As I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t have many people to talk to. However, I did have one friend, whose name was Jessie. We’d initially bonded over a discussion about her pet rabbit. I was described as just barely tolerating Jessie, but I did sit with her at lunch and sometimes I even talked to her.

“Jessie, do you ever get depressed?” I asked in the lunchroom.

“No. what would I be depressed about?’’

It figured that Jessie would have nothing to be depressed about. She was the kind of kid who easily got straight A’s and whose school materials were always perfectly organized.

That evening at home my mother came in to my bedroom to talk to me.

“Hey, Kira. Mrs. Walters just called me. She’s worried about you.”

“Why?”

“She thinks you’re depressed.”

“Why does she think that?”

“ She says you’re always arguing with her and giving her a hard time but suddenly you’ve stopped doing that.”

 

“So, did your mom tell you I called her last night?” Mrs. Walters asked me the next day.

“Yeah.”

“I’m worried about you, kid.”

I stared at the floor.

“Your mom tells me you feel badly about yourself. Is that true?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you feel bad about yourself?’’

“I’m just bad at everything.”

“That’s not true. You’re good at arguing with me, you’re good at making me laugh, you’re good at writing.”

“My handwriting is terrible.”

“I’m not talking about handwriting. I’m talking about the things you write.”

Her eyes were full of concern.

“You do well in all your subjects.”

“No, I don’t. I get C’s in math and science.”

“So? If you try your best you should be proud of a C. You don’t have to get A’s in everything.’’

“Other people do.”

“You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.”

“You have to help me with everything! No one else needs this much help!”

I was afraid I was going to cry in school again. Mrs. Walters looked like she might cry herself.

“Oh, honey, I know some things are hard for you, but I enjoy helping you and you’ve taught me something. You’ve taught me that there are things people can do and there are things they can’t do. You’re a very bright girl. No, you’re never going to be a seamstress but that’s okay. You have other talents.”

I made my way over toward Frisky’s tank.

“Will you think about what I said?”

I nodded.

“So, what are you asking for for Christmas?”

“A goat.”

“Oh, Kira. Can you take care of all these animals?”

“I don’t think you have much room to talk. You have quite the menagerie yourself.”

 

 

Over Christmas break Mrs. Walters allowed me to take Frisky home with me.

“Hi, Kira!” she greeted me when I returned

I fiddled with the strap on my overalls

“Can I get a response?’’

“Hi,” I said softly

“Did you get a lot of presents for Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“What was your favorite present?”

“I don’t know.”

“I heard you got an aquarium. I bet that was your favorite present.”

It was true. The twenty- gallon aquarium had been my favorite present, but the encyclopedia of mammals had been a close second. My mom had persuaded me to invite Jessie over for a sleepover during Christmas break. When she asked us if we wanted to watch TV, I’d replied that no, we’d watch the aquarium instead. For a while Jessie enjoyed and then tolerated all my talk of aquarium fish, which carried on in to the school cafeteria but eventually she tired of it. No matter, Mrs. Walters was happy to continue discussing aquarium fish with me.

 

One day Mrs. Walters was sitting in one of the main classrooms helping me with a reading project and talking to me about chickens when my math teacher walked by. The project was a self-representation collage that involved cutting and pasting materials from magazines so of course it was taxing on my fine motor skills and of course most of the pictures in my collage were of animals. I was talking about how the neighbors had been complaining about my rooster crowing in the morning so my father had decided that my rooster would have to sleep in a hamper in the closet at night rather than in the garbage can under the trampoline with the other chickens and now my rooster had been trained to jump in to the hamper in the closet at night all on his own. This was typical conversation between the two of us, but the math teacher was understandably a bit perplexed by it.

“So, you have chickens and a rabbit?” he said to me.

“Oh, Kira has a lot of pets. Tell him about your animals.”

I clammed up and shook my head.

“You seem to know Kira pretty well,” he said to Mrs. Walters.

“I know Kira like the back of my hand.”

 

In April I missed a day of school for a neurologist appointment. Mrs. Walters was asked to submit a report for the neurologist and since I was a nosy child I took the report out of my mother’s desk and read it. She’d written that I was a great young lady and a proficient writer, but that unfortunately fine motor skills deficits interfered with my achievement. When asked if I had trouble getting along with other students, she said it wasn’t that I didn’t get along with other students, but I chose not to interact with them much and that I tended to only converse with people I knew well. She remarked that I was inattentive and fidgety throughout the school day and that since I struggled with opening my locker, I chose to carry around a backpack that weighed about seventeen pounds. She noted that I often came to class with my hair unbrushed, my shoes untied and toothpaste on my face but that none of those things bothered me.

 

Based on the unusually large discrepancy between my superior verbal IQ and borderline performance IQ, the neurologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder. It was a complicated and poorly understood disorder that seemed to account for all my symptoms except the flapping.

 

My mom accumulated all the books and articles she could find on the disorder. Several of them noted that middle school is the time when things start to become really challenging for the child with NVLD. They gave examples of kids who were repeatedly misunderstood and judged by their peers and teachers to the point that they felt hopeless and helpless. They came to the conclusion that they lived in a world not built to accommodate them.

 

I could certainly relate to those feelings, but I knew that I was extremely lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Walters. She had shown me a part of the world that did accommodate me. She accepted and appreciated me as thoroughly and completely as animals did. I liked her as much and felt as comfortable with her as I did with animals.

 

The trouble kids with NVLD had making friends was well documented. It was said that they tended to prefer the company of adults to the company of their peers. Mrs. Walters wasn’t just my teacher. She had also become my friend.

 

Soon preparation was being made of for the end of the school year. At my IEP meeting we talked about how I’d done in seventh grade. My mother said, “I think she hasn’t done as well this year because it was hard for her to deal with things like switching between classes and using lockers.”

 

Mrs. Walters got along very well with my mother but on this point, she felt the need to correct her. “Actually, she has done well this year. I’m very proud of her.”

 

As I was feeding Frisky his pellets during the last week of school, Mrs. Walters told me that she didn’t think she could keep him over the summer or in her classroom next year. She asked if I would like to have him. I said I would.

 

The day before the last day of school my mother took me to get goodbye presents for my teachers. I selected chicken stationery and a matching chicken bookmark for Mrs. Walters. As I was putting the cards in the envelopes, my mother told me she’d written a note of her own to Mrs. Walters that she wanted me to give to her.

 

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because Mrs. Walters takes such good care of you and I wanted to thank her.”

 

“Smile, Mrs. Walters!” I said as I sat in her classroom for the last time and pointed a disposable camera at her.

She smiled obligingly.

“Another one!”

This time the other students posed next to her.

I flashed the camera a third time.

“Okay, Kira. I think that’s enough pictures.”

“I have something for you.”

I handed her the gifts and the card.

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”

She opened the card and read the note I’d written to her saying that I’d tried to sew her a sweater as a goodbye gift, but it hadn’t worked out too well.

She laughed. “You have such a great sense of humor.”

 

“Are you sure you have everything you need, kid?” she asked me as the day drew to a close and the busses began to arrive.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Promise me you’ll take good care of Frisky?”

I vowed to take as good care of him as she had taken of me.

“We’ve had a lot of fun this year. I’m really going to miss you.”

I crammed the last of my wrinkled papers in to my seventeen- pound backpack and zipped it up.

“And I think you’re going to miss me too.”

I smiled slightly and then started to frown.

“But we’ll see each other around the building next year,” she added.

The last bell rang.

She drew me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Write to me over the summer,” she called after me as I made my way towards the bus.

 

A few weeks later a letter arrived for me in the mail. It was written on chicken stationery.

 

Dear Kira,

I love my new stationery and the great bookmark. I will be using it all summer because this is the time of year I enjoy reading for pleasure and writing letters. I am waiting to receive some kind of correspondence from you…a postcard ..a letter…anything so I know how your summer is going so far. I have enclosed several cards with my address. I figure you should put them around everywhere so anytime you see one of them you will think about writing to me and if you lose one you’re bound to find another somewhere. You are a wonderful young lady and I’m so happy that you were in my class! I have to tell you that you are my favorite student! I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Walters

 

I put this letter from the best teacher I had ever had in the drawer at my bedside where I kept things that were important to me.

 

 

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Enjoy this collection of kid quotes from my work at the daycare and my volunteer work.

Me: Rain, rain, go away!

Kid: Let me tell you something. Flowers need rain to grow, so you shouldn’t sing that.

Me: I went to Wicoff school when I was a kid.

Kid: No! You’re still a kid like us!

Kid: I like to Google pictures sometimes and this one time I googled butt cracks. Don’t EVER google butt cracks.

Kid: How long are you going to stay at this school?

Me: I don’t know. How long are you going to stay?

Kid: I’m going to stay until I’m 28.

Kid: *Runs up to me on playground* I’m here to tell you a story! The story is about..the story is about…I don’t know what the story is about, so bye! *runs off*

Kid: *Cries*

Other kid: What is the reason,Catalina?

Me: *Walks in to room with unicorn horn and tail.*

Kid: You look so stupid

Me: Did you just say I look stupid?

Kid: I said you look so pretty

Administrator to teacher: Teacher appreciation week is going to be like five days of Christmas for you guys.

Kids: *Shrieking in delight* It’s Christmas, It’s Christmas!

Kid: *Cries over fact that she’s been given the last turn on the class iPad*

Other kid: Layla, I’ll switch turns with you.

Me: That was so nice of you!

Kid: *Whispers in my ear* It’s because I know that the person who goes last gets the longest turn!

Teacher: *Yells at kid for misbehavior*

Kid: *Crying* You know I’m not supposed to cry when I have a sore throat!

Me: *Cooing over kid’s baby brother* Hi Dylan! You’re so cute!

Kid: Do you want him?

*Plane flies overhead*

Kid: Obama! I always wanted to meet you!

*Kid draws pictures of her family on board*

Teacher: Does anyone have any questions for Ava?

Kid: Why don’t your sisters have legs?

*Kid at board draws legs on sisters*

Kid to other kid: You really bothered me yesterday but I’m giving you one more chance!

Teacher: You guys are being really loud!

Kid: Yeah, we know.

*Photographer takes picture of kid*

Kid: Is that going to be in the paper?

Teacher to kid: I’m so sad with you!

Kid: So sad!

Me: You need to pull your pants up before you come out of the bathroom.

Kid: *Gazes down at pants* Oh no! I must fix this!

*Kids are gathered in group, staring at a certain girl*

Other kid walking in to room: What are you guys doing?

Kid: *Pointing at the girl* We’re judging her.

Teacher to me: If Adam is still awake at 1:30 take him to the bathroom so he doesn’t pee on his cot.

Kid: Wake me up at 1:30 because I want to go on the potty, not the cottie!

 

Mental Illness in the Workplace

A few weeks ago I called out sick to work and while there was a physical component to my illness, there was also a mental component. But when my boss asked what was wrong, I described only my physical symptoms and didn’t dare mention my mental suffering. The previous night I’d been considering asking for some extended time off of work for mental health reasons, but I found the thought of  doing so terrifying. I feared I would be judged negatively and would lose my job permanently.

When I talked to my mom about it, she cautioned me against telling my employers about my mental illness, because they might think I was crazy and would hurt the children in my care. She suggested I stretch the truth and say I needed time off for “female problems.” I replied that I found the euphemism “female problems”revolting, and would rather just say I was experiencing mental illness. She said that if I was going to do that, I should specify that I had depression, so my employers didn’t assume I had a scary, dangerous mental illness like schizophrenia.

I countered that most people with schizophrenia are not dangerous and do not harm others and I said how frustrating it was that mental illness was not met with the same kind of acceptance and understanding that physical illness is met with. My mother acknowledged that all of that was true, but felt that since the fact is that mental illness is surrounded by misunderstandings and stigma, I would do well to protect myself from the consequences of that stigma.

A few weeks ago a coworker was overcome by headaches and vomiting in the middle of the workday. She told the boss she would have to leave early. I wish it would be as natural and acceptable for me to tell my boss I had to leave because my mind was hurting from all the bad thoughts and feelings I was having as a result of my mental illness, that continuing to work was impossible because I was incapacitated by all the mental vomiting going on within me.

I had to tell my boss I couldn’t stay late one day because I had an appointment. I wish I could have mentioned it was a therapist’s appointment, as freely as I mentioned previous dentist appointments. My bosses are really kind, understanding people, so it’s possible mention of my mental health issues would be met with compassion, understanding and accommodation, but I’m afraid to take the risk.

It’s a moot point for me right now, because I’ve realized not working is worse for my mental health than working is, but I know that’s not the case for everyone and it might not always be the case for me. So many people are suffering in silence.

I don’t think anyone would blame me for being reluctant to discuss my mental illness with my employer or coworkers, but in being too afraid to challenge the status quo regarding mental illness in that respect, I’m part of the problem and I’m reinforcing the vicious circle of stigma and isolation.

Although I started this blog in large part to speak openly about my mental health struggles, since getting a job, I’ve held back, for fear that my employers or co-workers will stumble across it.

At least I have the courage to post this blog. As a wise man once said, courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it .

And I’ve discovered that for me, wellness is not the absence of mental illness, but the mastery of it.