A Different Kind of High School Reunion

I enter the doors of my old high school. There’s a security guard sitting at a desk in the front hallway. I sign my name in a log book along with the time and date. It’s November 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving. Under “Reason for visiting” I write “Academy Alumni Event”.  After confirming that my name is on a list, the guard hands me a name tag, with a drawing of a knight, the school’s mascot, on it.  I put it on my chest, where I can feel my excitement building.

I’m not the kind of person you’d think would get excited about high school reunions. I wasn’t popular in high school and I’m not popular now. I tend to be reserved and socially awkward, to avoid social events whenever possible. I don’t have the kind of life that’s likely to impress anyone from my past and I often dread having to talk about my life with new or old acquaintances. This is a different kind of high school reunion though.

I ascend the staircase and look at the numbers beside the classroom doors. 211…216.. 219.. 222. I’m there. The location of the classroom that housed the class I knew so well and loved so much when I was in high school has changed but the atmosphere is the same. I rush in and envelop Ms. Madigan in a bear hug.

“Now that’s a good hug. This kid over here comes in and hugs me with one arm and I’m like ‘What kind of of a hug is that?’ She gestures towards one of the other alumni.  I don’t recognize him. I don’t know any of the alumni in the room. They were after my time.

I glance around at the decorations in the room.  There’s a bulletin board that says “Lettuce Taco Bout the Elements of a Story.”

“Is Mr. Giarelli responsible for that one?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“No, I came up with it myself.”

“Where is Mr. Giarelli?”

“He’s teaching another class. He’ll be here soon.”

“And Delilah?’

“She’s coming at 11”

I call my mother and tell her not to pick me up until 11:30.

Two familiar faces enter the room.

“Hey, Phoenix!” I say to the adorable toddler in my friend’s arms.

“And hi, Zara” I say to my friend, remembering my manners.

Ms. Madigan takes Phoenix in to her arms. I snap a picture of them. Then I search through my Facebook albums on my phone and compare it to the picture I took of them at this time last year, when Phoenix was an infant.

An alumni enters the room with a puppy in her arms. Phoenix reaches for him.

Zara turns to me. “Phoenix loves him as much as she loved your cat. We’ll have to get together at your house again soon so they can play together.”

“Sorry I couldn’t join Zara and Delilah for lunch at your house that day” Ms. Madigan says.

“That’s okay. I knew you were busy at the school.”

“But you live near the school now so you could walk over and eat lunch with us sometime.”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Hey, did I tell you I ran in to James a few months ago?”

“Really?’

“Yeah, I was walking by my therapist’s house while I was waiting for my appointment and he said ‘Kira? It’s James, Ms. Madigan’s son.’ I said ‘Yeah, I thought it was you but I wasn’t sure and I was too afraid to say anything.  I’m glad you’re braver than I am.” We both laugh.

I walk over to the refreshments table to grab some pumpkin pie. In the center of the table is a ‘Gratitude tree’ with each paper leaf representing what each person is grateful for. I look at the words written on some of the leaves.  Among the gratitude expressed for things like health, friends and family, there is gratitude expressed for the Academy.

“How did the Thanksgiving feast go yesterday?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“It went well. We had a lot of people come. Did we do Thanksgiving feasts when you were here?’

“Yes, I was around for the beginning of every Academy tradition. I started most of them.”

“This is true.”

I remember we were allowed to invite a guest within the school to our feast. At first my brother was reluctant to come eat with ‘the crazy class’ but in the end I convinced him. I remember when asked to name something I was grateful for I said The Academy.

A new staff member I don’t know walks into the room and introduces himself as Mr. Willis.  He announces that a video tape is being made in which alumni will be asked questions about The Academy.

“In answer to the question ‘What was the best part of the Academy?’ you all better say me” Ms. Madigan interjects.

“Should we have the oldest alumni go first?” Mr. Willis asks.

“No, because I’m the oldest alumni and I’m not ready” I reply.

As I buy myself some more time, I glance around the room some more. The journal question on the board is “How would you show other people that you are grateful for them?” The quote of the day is “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles. It empties today of its strength.”

I pace over to the classroom supply closet.  On one of its glass doors is another quote. It reads “There are no endings, only new beginnings.” Underneath it is the year I graduated.

In the closet is the stuffed rat my classmate Ariel gave to Ms. Madigan back in the day.  Many years later, another classmate, Vanessa gave her another stuffed rat. In May I completed the trifecta and gave her a third stuffed rat. As the other teachers show off the flowers and chocolates they get from their students, Ms. Madigan can show off the rats she got from hers.

I pace to the sliding wall that divides the classroom in two. On the wall is a blue paper silhouette of a person. Around the person’s head are black and white images of smaller people with their heads drooped in to their arms, dark clouds hovering above them. They are surrounded by quotes such as “Wasted Talent”, “I was doing better,why am I like this again?”, “Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares”,” I’m not smart enough and I don’t know enough about what’s going on”, “Life” and “Family.”

Beside the blue person is a list of student goals. One of them says “To go to a good college and get a good job.” In the background I can hear the alumni telling the teachers about their colleges, their jobs, their significant others and their children. The familiar waves of shame, jealousy, regret and longing wash over me.

On the blue person’s chest it says “It’s okay not to be okay.”

Mr. Giarelli enters the room. His mustache is gone but otherwise he looks the same as he did when he was my teacher.  “Hey, Kira!” he says as he hugs me.

“Glad to be back in The Academy?’ I ask.

“Definitely!”

“It’s where you belong.”

He sits on the sofa. I take a seat across from him where a circle of of alumni has gathered.  “Do you know Randall?” Mr. Giarelli asks gesturing to a young man on my left.

“I didn’t go to school with him but I met him at last year’s alumni reunion.”

Randall tells Mr. Giarelli he’s heard that Delilah left the The Academy and the program isn’t what it used to be. They discuss what’s changed and what the future has in store. Then the discussion moves to the past. Mr. Giarelli talks about how he decided he wanted to work with emotionally disturbed adolescents, how he used to work at an alternative school with Ms. Madigan and how that led to them working at The Academy.

“Shakira?” Mr. Wilson calls out. I laugh at the name error and then take my seat in front of the camera. The questions appear on the screen. I stumble and hesitate over some of my words. I’m not quite as eloquent as I’d like to be but I get the gist of what I want to express across.

State your name, graduation year and what you’re doing now.

“My name is Kira. I graduated in 2003. Now I’m tutoring English and blogging.”

What staff and students do you remember and why?

“I remember everyone. I remember the main staff, the teachers, Ms. Madigan and Mr. Giarelli and the therapist, Delilah. I remember them because they’re wonderful.”

If I went in to all the reasons why they were wonderful I’d be there all day. I think of Mr. Giarelli and his corny jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh at. I think that it somehow seems fitting that Ms. Madigan needed surgery for an enlarged heart because she has the biggest heart of anyone I know. I think of the Tuesday afternoons I would spend with Delilah, of her belief that she’s not warm and fuzzy and how I beg to differ.

“As for the students, I remember Vanessa and Zara. I’m still friends with them today. I remember Ariel, who was in the same graduating class as me and Vanessa. The staff called us The Three Witches of Eastwick. I remember Laila, who I had a love-hate relationship with. I remember Peter and Annie, who I rode the bus with.  I remember Evan and Toby and Jason and so many more.”

What was the best part about being in The Academy?

“The best part about being in The Academy was the sense of belonging it gave me. When I was in middle school I was fortunate enough to have teachers who took care of me and looked out for me. My freshman year of high school I didn’t have that so much. I felt lost and developed emotional problems. In The Academy I found my place. I learned so much, laughed so much and had so much fun.”

What would you have changed about The Academy? 

“I would have changed the behavior modification system with the rewards and the punishments and the purple sheets. It felt juvenile and condescending and it didn’t help me. I really wouldn’t have changed much about The Academy though.”

I can think of a bunch of little things that bothered me about The Academy when I was in high school but in the grand scheme of all that it gave me they seem insignificant and not worth mentioning.

What advice would you give to Academy students? 

“I would tell them to be grateful for everything everyone in The Academy is doing for them. I’d tell them to realize that even if they’re doing something they don’t like, they may have their best interests at heart. I would tell them not to think that once they graduate, they’re out of sight, out of mind.  The staff say ‘Once you’re ours, you’re ours forever’ and they mean it. If you haven’t talked to them in several years you can pick up right where you left off. They’ll still care about you and they’ll still help you. It happened with me.”

I walk back to the other side of the room. I say to Mr. Giarelli “One of the questions was ‘Who from The Academy do you remember?’ I’m sure you know I remember everyone.”

“Oh yeah. I’ll never forget that day we all played the name game where we went around the circle saying each others’ names. You knew everyone’s first name, middle name, last name, birthday, probably their social security numbers too.”

“She knows my kids’ birthdays!” Ms. Madigan says.

“You know, Kira, through you and  some other students, I learned not just to accept others’ differences but to appreciate them” Mr. Giarelli says.

I remember how in The Academy my pacing, my messy handwriting, my bluntness and my dark sense of humor were appreciated-things many other people just found annoying and inappropriate.

“So Kira… have you found some measure of happiness?’ Mr. Giarelli continues.

“Yes, I have.”

“What are some things that make you happy?”

“My dog,my cat, my writing, living by the pond.”

“Remember when we would take field trips to the pond?”

“Of course I remember!”

The clock strikes 11, the time when the Alumni reunion is supposed to end.

“Hey, do you want to get a picture of everyone before they leave?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“Oh yes, thanks for reminding me. Everyone gather together for a picture.”

I squeeze in between Zara and Ms, Madigan and smile. Then I request that a picture be taken with my camera too.

At 11:15 Delilah walks in carrying art supplies in one hand and a sign with a motivational quote in the other hand. It says ‘It is what it is.’

“Hey Kira! It’s good to see you!” I kiss her on the forehead. Then I call my mother and tell her not to worry about picking me up. I’ll walk back home whenever I’m done.

When I turn around Delilah is saying something about being warm and fuzzy. Then she’s consulting an alumni who’s studying to be a psychologist about an issue she’s having in her own clinical practice.

Finally at around noon I head out of the classroom, Delilah and Ms. Madigan by my sides, struggling to hold on to all the things they have to carry.

“I can’t believe I actually thought the kids would all be gone by 11. Maybe next year you should have the event on a full day instead of a half day” Delilah says as we walk down the hallways.

“Then they’d stay all day” Ms. Madigan points out.

We walk out of the building and in to the parking lot.  I say goodbye. I hug them both and tell them I love them. They tell me they love me too.

As I head towards the route by the pond that will take me home I can feel the crisp November air on my face and a mix of emotions swirling within me but there’s one emotion I feel more prominently than all the others, an emotion that permeates my whole being. Gratitude.

 

Adventures in Mental Illness: Part 3

On the surface the residential treatment program in Idaho seemed like a very nice place. It was located in a beautiful, scenic area surrounded by lakes, forests and mountains. The house the residents stayed in was rustic, charming and well decorated. It had a very cozy, homey feel to it. It seemed like a nurturing, comforting atmosphere, an atmosphere that was conducive to growth and recovery. Looks can be deceiving.

We stayed at a hotel the night before we arrived at the program. As I lay in bed my mom looked me in the eye, said “Oh, Honey Bunny” and burst in to tears. I just watched her cry without saying or doing a thing. On the program intake form she’d been asked to name my positive qualities. She’d written “Kind” and in parentheses she’d written “Not right now.”

The next day I sat in the backseat of a car as an admissions counselor drove us to the house where I would be staying. My mom sat in the front seat and made small talk about her job (the job she was having to take time off from to deal with my mental health crisis.) As I glanced out the window, I took in the picturesque scenery I was surrounded by. Although I’m a nature lover, it failed to lift my spirits. I was just too miserable.

The lovely decor of the house I was brought to also failed to lift my spirits. My mom kissed me goodbye and hoped for the best. This program cost a lot of money but if it helped me recover from my mental illness it would be worth it. Unfortunately the program did not end up aiding in my recovery. A lot of money was paid to make things worse for me and to make me more miserable than I already was.

Shortly after my mother left one of the fellow residents asked me why I was at the program. I wasn’t sure what to say but after pausing for a few seconds I replied “For doing bad in school.”  “Oh, me too” she said.

I attended my first group therapy session and then I had my first individual therapy session with a therapist we’ll call Marlene. My loved ones and I have had some bad experiences with people whose names end in -arlene. Marlene ended up being one of those bad -arlene experiences for us, the worst I’ve had.

When I talked about my struggles Marlene said “You seem like someone who can do anything you set your mind to.”  I am a pretty smart person and while it’s nice to think that smart people can do anything they set their minds to, sometimes obstacles get in their way. One of the obstacles that got in my way was mental illness.

Some of the most brilliant people have been mentally ill. Some of those people have achieved great success in spite of or even because of their mental illness. Others, in spite of their intelligence find themselves unable to complete school, hold a job, live independently or have meaningful, satisfying relationships with other people. Sometimes they end up in jail, homeless or permanently institutionalized. I’d known for a while that there was a good chance I’d end up unable to hold a job or live on my own. Not only is that a common fate of those who suffer from mental illness, it’s also a common fate of people on the autism spectrum. I never thought I’d end up homeless, in jail or permanently locked up in a mental institution but by the time I got kicked out of this program called Innercept, even those would seem like possibilities I had to worry about.

Marlene continued to ask me questions and probe for a reason behind my struggles. In my depressed, confused state of mind I was not very talkative or forthcoming. I lacked the energy, the desire and the ability to clearly understand or express what had happened to me in the past and what was happening to me now. I ended up saying that things had been going well for me at school until I got in a mood in which I wanted to be miserable and that I behaved the way I did because it gave me pleasure to know that I was making bad decisions.

This was met with a weird look from Marlene as she incredulously said “It gives you pleasure to know you’re making bad decisions?” I guess that was a pretty weird thing to say. Does it really give me any genuine pleasure to know that I’m making bad decisions and do I really want to be miserable? No. I just needed some kind of narrative that would explain what had happened to me and that would give me some feeling of control over what happened.

The next question Marlene asked me was if I ever heard voices. I told her that no, I never heard voices. She concluded the session by telling me that at my age I should be moving out of my parents’ house and I better start looking for a job.

From our first session, I did not get the impression that Marlene was evil but I did get the impression that despite her professional qualifications, she did not have a great understanding of mental illness or of how to effectively treat it. I also didn’t feel much of a connection with her.

That night as the residents sat around a fire pit, one of the residents invited me to sit next to her. She was a nice, friendly girl and she told me some of her story. She told me that  Innercept had really helped her, she loved it and she considered everyone at Innercept to be family. “It doesn’t bother you to not have freedom?” I asked. “This is freedom” she replied.

I’m not exactly sure what that young lady meant when she said “This is freedom” but in the traditional sense Innercept offered very little freedom. We were watched by staff members at all times and were pretty much never alone. We were only allowed to eat at designated meal times and were never allowed on the internet. The only people we were allowed to talk to on the phone were our parents and we were only allowed to do that when a therapist was present.

Shortly after I had that conversation with that girl by the fire pit, I asked another resident if she liked the program and she replied “No, I hate it here.” I hated it there too.

Whether or not a residential treatment program is liked by its residents is not necessarily a reflection on the merits of the program. Sometimes you really hate things that are good for you and that you need. Sometimes you really like things that are bad for you and that you don’t need. What works for one person may not work for another person. Even the best programs do not have a 100% success rate. A program can only do so much and in order for it to be effective, the resident has to be willing to work with it.

All this is to say is that while Innercept may have worked for some of the residents, it did not work for me and while I may have been partially to blame for that, there were also some flaws inherent in the program. Unfortunately treatment programs sometimes get away with abuse of their residents because when the residents come forward with their stories, it’s assumed that since they suffer from mental illness, they must be lying or imagining things. This is not the case with me. Despite the title of this blog and despite what certain mental health professionals thought, I’m not actually crazy and I’ve never been prone to hallucinations or delusions. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a very honest person. I’m also not someone who would hate and criticize any treatment program I was put in. I’m very grateful for some of the treatment programs I was in.

I don’t expect every therapist to love me but I do expect them to at least pretend to like me. Otherwise that therapeutic relationship is just not going to be helpful to me. When in one of our sessions Marlene said that she was neutral to what happened to me because she wasn’t the one who needed a life, she already had one, that therapeutic relationship was done as far as I was concerned. Just like I don’t expect every therapist to like me, I don’t expect every therapist to be warm and fuzzy but this woman was a fucking cactus. If I’d had the option, I would have found another therapist but I was stuck with her. As a result, we ended up having a relationship that was rather antagonistic.

“I don’t want to be in this program. Would you want to be in a program like this?”
“No but I wouldn’t have behaved in ways that would get me here.

“Have you ever had a client like me?”

“No, you’re pretty unique.”

“I know you think you’re going to continue living at home but that won’t be happening. I’ve talked to your mother and she’s agreed to kick you out of the house.”

I knew Marlene was full of shit with that last one, that she was lying and messing with my mind. That was another reason this therapeutic relationship just wasn’t going to be very therapeutic for me.

I got the impression that like Marlene, most of the staff at Innercept was neutral towards me at best and some of them also told little lies that messed with my mind.  To be fair, in a sense I was also messing with their minds and I wasn’t very likable at that point. I was acting out in a very bad way.

To start with, my hygiene continued to be a problem. In a group therapy session, a resident said to me “I’m going to be blunt. You’re 22, this kind of basic hygiene should be mastered by 15 at the latest.” In response I laughed. “It’s not funny!” the resident said. “Kira will be clean!” Marlene said.

In another group a resident told me that deodorant should be worn. One day I did decide to put on some deodorant. Unfortunately I used someone else’s deodorant and they did not appreciate it.

My bad hygiene wasn’t even the worst of it though. To be honest I’m feeling pretty apprehensive about putting the rest of the details out there on a public blog. I’m pretty relaxed about privacy on the internet and I know I said I’d be open about my struggles with mental illness but even I have my limits.

There were a group of people on the internet who had a very negative opinion of me. They liked to talk about how I had serious mental issues and how my behavior was socially inappropriate. They  also liked to accuse me of lying about some of my life events/circumstances. I’d always think to myself “Wow, if those people think this poorly of me based on what they know, imagine what they’d think of me if they found out the things they don’t know.”

I know some of those people read this blog and will find out some of the less than flattering details about me that they didn’t know before. I know finding those details out may cause them to mock me, snark on me, gossip about me, think even less of me, feel justified in thinking they were right about me all along or accuse me of further lying. I know those kinds of reactions won’t just be limited to those people either.

Yet I also know that if I’m being true to what I said in my “When Online is Out of Line”blog the proper response to that is “Whatever. What those people think of me doesn’t matter. My responsibility in writing is towards myself and others who have struggled with mental illness.”

So I will reveal all the sordid details but since I’m feeling apprehensive about it and this blog is already much longer than the average internet user’s attention span, I think now would be a good time to take a break. Stay tuned for more. The worst is yet to come.