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Just for the Summer
Memoirs from a Mental Hospital
By Laurel Lorraine Lancer
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Laurel Lorraine Lancer, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
A Growing Anxiety
All except the very deepest puddles in the pavement had been sucked back into the muggy late summer air. The air hovered heavily over the neat row of houses, all oriented identically on their own lot, but each with its eaves and wooden trim across the kitchen window a varied shade of Montgomery Ward's "specially priced exterior matte." A few houses flaunted an added carport, a larger porch overhang, or even some rock veneer. These small differences only served to belie the sameness of each house and the similarity of the families within. The air embarrassed them all with equality and sat heavily waiting to release more rain or to be blown dry from the West. Its heaviness made the sky seem less luminous and decreased the reflections from the dwindling evening traffic. A police car moved slowly through the neighborhood displaying lights that made circles only a few feet ahead of the car and then disappeared in the black. No one observed it.
Neither did anyone appear to notice one of the doors within the tract open to permit my husband, Martin, and me to follow our walkway to the dark street. I walked behind Martin, my head lowered, partly to watch my footing, and partly in denial to myself that anyone might see although I was aware that at least two of the houses held inhabitants who "knew." I was feeling dizzy and a little confused so I let Martin carry the worn weekender. The tacky feeling of the rainy air increased the dampness that I experienced in my hands and feet when the anxiety took hold; the black night exaggerated the difficulty I had focusing my vision. I felt my way along the walk with my feet, keeping each close to the ground and setting each down haltingly, to avoid any irregularity in the cement that, combined with my weak ankle, would plunge me into unseen darkness, causing all my pent-up terror to release and alarm the entire block of residents and thus call attention to our departure.
I edged into the seat of the car, no doubt stoic and controlled to anyone watching but trembling inside. Martin placed the case next to my feet. I wished it were not in my way, although I did like to have everything within reach; I knew I would become confused and worried about how to reassemble everything upon our arrival and that would cause even more stress.
Martin had not spoken at all. I did not know if this meant displeasure, preoccupation, or concern for my feelings. He got into the driver's seat and I flinched as the car started and the headlights flashed on. If only we could shoot out of there, noiselessly and unseen, and arrive at our destination in seconds, I thought. My apprehension about this trip had gripped me all day making me coldly unresponsive to anything. I felt unreal and disconnected.
I wasn't even sure if I had said goodbye to anyone in the house. The baby was in bed, but awake, and Karen had hovered nearby, watching as Martin and I got ready. This had annoyed and upset me. Why hadn't Martin sent her across the street to the sitter's? I couldn't look at my five-year old and didn't want to speak to her. What if she started to cry? She hadn't, but her frightened, puzzled look bothered me even more. I had told Martin to explain to Karen that I would be back in a few days and that she needn't worry. I really didn't feel secure enough to speak to Karen by myself, and I didn't think Martin had done as I had asked. As I sat in the car, I didn't look back at the house for fear I might see Karen looking after us. Had I kissed her or said goodbye? I couldn't remember.
When I was a girl, my own mother had left us once, a little like this, but in an ambulance. I had been offered an ambulance for a similar trip last summer, but I had declined. I had remembered how frightened I had been as a child, seeing the flashing lights and the neighbors standing about. Maybe that was why I chose to sneak away now. When the ambulance had borne my mother away, we children had been taken to a neighbor's house and told to wait there until our father returned. The memory was as clear to me as though it were last night. I had stared at a picture of Jesus on the neighbor's wall and prayed so hard that I almost felt like exploding, "Please let everything be all right!" I had prayed over and over. But it hadn't been.
Why was I repeating this scenario for Karen and the baby? No, I told myself. I wasn't. My mother had been crazy, really crazy, screaming and tearing at her hair. I was quiet. I was controlled. True, I needed help but it was for "other things." As I sat in the car, I focused on my physical sensations—the tingling in my hands, the confusion in my head, and the tenseness in my arms and legs.
There wasn't much traffic on the streets, thank heaven. It was as late as Martin could arrange for us to come. I dug my nails into my palms and whispered "serenity" to myself several quick times even though this trick had never worked for me before and I was far too nervous now to concentrate on the word. My pulse seemed to race and I felt shaky. I could feel my toes curled tightly within my shoes but at least my shoes were still on and I hadn't pulled my knees up to my chest yet. I started to ask how many more minutes till we would arrive, but instead I clenched my jaw harder and said nothing.
Martin always seemed patient when I was "shook up," but tonight I felt a coldness in his responses that told me he was annoyed. Another red light! Oh God! How many more stops? How many more minutes? Every time the car went over even a small dip in the road, I felt as if every nerve in my body was suffering an assault. I tried to breathe deeply but this didn't work for me either. The experts had all these tricks that would supposedly help you not to panic; they probably have never even had an anxiety attack, I told myself, proud that I could even think the thought through to its conclusion. Usually when the panic hit hard, all I could do was sit frozen, legs to chest, heart racing, eyes not focusing, jaw clenched, and repeat frantic pleas in my mind. Then, if relief did not come, I would dissolve into a sobbing uncontrolled pile of insanity.
Even now the electrical charges that seemed to flow through my body had all my nerve terminals activated, and I tried to control the impulse to cry out. And yet despite the aroused sensitivity in each sensory channel, there was still a strange numbness that insulated my mental capacities. It was difficult to concentrate. I lost my sense of direction and balance. I couldn't reason effectively. The best I could do, like now, was try to maintain a normal outward appearance and wait in agony for the trip to be over.
Neither Martin nor I spoke, which was a relief to me, although I wondered if he were annoyed with me or just trying to be considerate. The muted atmosphere, caused by the earlier rain, seemed to distance the few cars from my immediate environment; the muggy air seemed to serve as a protective insulation. I could see the cars from the corners of my eyes but would not let myself focus on them as other people were upsetting to me now. The vehicles seemed less threatening after dark, and I could ignore the fact that the people inside could pass judgment or place themselves in my way, arousing frustration in me, and then anger. Cars were inanimate objects; they might sometimes be in the wrong places but were never deliberately at fault.
I kept my head lowered and focused my eyes on the familiar surroundings within the car. I had asked Martin to take back streets because of my fear of lots of people and cars. He reluctantly chose side streets to avoid traffic and traffic lights when at all possible. Taller two-story houses and mature trees with frightening shadows announced to me that I was no longer in my safe suburban blocks. Seconds stretched to minutes and minutes to eternities. Finally, Martin slowed and moved toward the curbing.
The car stopped on the dark, tree-lined, residential street. When Martin came around to open my door, I felt myself stiffen and tried to make all my body parts work. The entrance was well lit and the only lights on the street were coming from the old white three-story structure. The moon was full and had emerged from the few heavy clouds that remained in the sky. This eerie light would help me find my footing along the walkway. I remembered that my grandmother had always said that everyone in the family reacted strangely to the full moon. They all went a little crazy. Perhaps that was part of what had precipitated my need to come here.
The building wasn't exactly as I remembered it from my first visit and the strangeness of things always upset me. I grabbed Martin's arm and climbed out of the car. The dankness of the night air and the absence of life around us added to the dreamlike quality of the night. I took careful steps, trying my hardest to walk evenly up the sidewalk, so as not to seem out of control. Then, with sudden orchestration, the crickets in the heavily arbored street initiated their concert. All noises seemed exaggerated and penetrating to my ears. The rhythmic high drone of the insects made me want to cover my ears. But I was afraid the extra coordination needed to lift my arms would interfere with the concentration I needed to propel myself normally, despite my firm hold on Martin for my balance.
Oh God, I'm really here, again, I thought. Then I spoke hurriedly to myself, assuring myself that it was not the same. I am different than the others who return, I told myself. I'll just be here for a couple of days. Just until they see how "together" I am. Martin had even said so.
"Why, they probably won't even keep you," he had said earlier. "Maybe just a couple of days. They'll just talk to you. It's nothing like last time."
I prayed that he was right, but on some level I knew that I felt about the same, and that those feelings had been quicker in solidifying this time. Perhaps this time, I thought, they could pull me away from depression more quickly than before and the nightmare would soon be over. Caught up in my thoughts, I let my foot drag over an irregular square in the walk and I stumbled, catching myself with Martin's arm. I wanted to swear but talking would also interfere with my singleness of intent to get to the door without falling or fainting. Besides, Martin hated it when I used that kind of language, and I didn't feel strong enough to cope with his censorship. His annoyance and disapproval of me made me feel so very insecure and I needed his alliance now. I stopped anxiously at the entry and looked at him, watching for some reassurance as we made our presence known. Then Martin rang the bell.
A white-uniformed orderly answered the bell and led us to a rather nice office behind the admissions station and front desk. I didn't remember that there had been offices here but it made sense. It was good to see some logic. It helped me feel that I wasn't completely absent from reality. I dreaded trying to talk to anyone and hoped that Martin would handle everything. I didn't want to seem incompetent but I also didn't want to fall apart in front of the personnel here. Maybe I could "look" intelligent and capable and just keep my confusion and inner turmoil to myself. The muscles in my feet, legs, and arms were all tight and strained but I had learned to hold my hands and face in a relaxed position and appear as if I were okay. The music teacher in the school where I used to teach had told me, "You always seem so calm. You were the last one I suspected." That had been three years earlier when my panics at work got so bad that stepping out into the hall for a few deep breaths no longer provided any relief. So I had told my principal that I would have to leave. I had tried to make it to spring break, but just couldn't manage it.
I had begun crying frequently, at home (though only in the shower where Martin and little Karen couldn't hear), and in the car (making excuses to drive myself around in the evenings and making unnecessary trips to the store after dark, when I felt more comfortable). My tears were partly from sadness that I had not escaped some predisposed tendency to insanity, and partly from the fear and desperation of wanting things to get better just from sheer desire on my part. The spring break would have given me some time to "pull myself together," in my father's words. But things only seemed to get worse so I had admitted to the principal that I had a problem with my nerves.
"What is your doctor doing for you?" he had asked.
"I'm taking a tranquilizer but I've just started and I don't know if it will help." I responded.
He had asked me to give it a while, if I would. He hadn't seen how really upset I could get or he would never have asked this of me. And my one great fear was that I would fall apart in front of someone, especially my third graders. In fact, I had come so close to doing this that I felt relief each day that I succeeded in completing the school day before racing home to safety.
Several days later the principal had asked how I was doing. "What do they say is wrong?" he asked.
"They say I have something called 'free floating anxieties,'" I said, embarrassed.
"Is that anything like torsion ride that you get in the fancy automobiles?" he quipped. "How are the tranquilizers working?"
In response to his flippant tone, I said with feigned seriousness. "Well, it didn't seem to make a difference at first. Then I realized that they should be given to the kids, and things are much better!"
For a few days, things were better, but then a major panic hit me at school and I had gone to the hall, and then to the office. The tears had come as I bit my lip and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. McKenney. I just can't hang in here. I ... I ... I just need to get home ... and cry." I sat there while he went to my class. I cried softly for a while, inside the office with the door closed. After a major panic, with its sudden impact that gave knowledge of impending doom, the absolute consuming terror that made me feel I was being thrown from the face of the earth the fear would gradually recede. I would be left exhausted, with a sense of an incomplete relief that needed tears to expel the tension from the frazzled nerves. I worried about what the children thought, how I would drive myself home, what I would say to Mr. McKenney. Then the bell rang, the children left, and I waited. Mr. McKenney came back.
"I told them that you weren't feeling well. There's a lot of flu going around ..." he offered. "What do you think? Can you stay? There's only one week ... then you'll have spring break!"
I tried to explain that a spring break wasn't going to do it and I needed the pressure off completely. It was more than I could bear just trying to make it from day to day. It was like being in a sand trap with the sand pouring in all around, and no one or nothing to grab on to for survival. I feared the relief of saying to him that it was over because then I would be admitting to the failure. I heaved a sigh, knowing that I had no alternative. I knew we needed the money so I had tried and tried, but I was failing. Would Martin forgive me? Could I live with myself? I wasn't used to failure. I had a dogged determination that I dared anyone to equal. My mouth seemed to make the decision without my head. I could make it be over, finally.
The principal and I agreed that I would try to finish the week and then the music teacher would take my class for the remainder of the year. This meant no music program in the school for the rest of the year, and the added guilt made me feel even worse.
To make the transition smoother, the music teacher sat in on my third grade class for a few days. "I was surprised it was you," she told me one day. "When I heard that someone was having problems with their nerves, I figured I would have to take their class. I considered everyone in the school—except you. You always seemed so self-confident, so calm."
Excerpted from Just for the Summer by Laurel Lorraine Lancer. Copyright © 2009 Laurel Lorraine Lancer, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One - A Growing Anxiety, 1,
Chapter Two - Panic Attacks, 17,
Chapter Three - Insulin Therapy, 35,
Chapter Four - Martin, 46,
Chapter Five - The Great Outdoors, 51,
Chapter Six - Dorothy, 57,
Chapter Seven - The Many Colors of Thelma, 65,
Chapter Eight - What Cheryl Did, 77,
Chapter Nine - Just for the Summer, 87,
Chapter Ten - Occupational Therapy, 90,
Chapter Eleven - Coma, 94,
Chapter Twelve - More Insulin Therapy, 102,
Chapter Thirteen - Mickey and the Rabid Cat, 113,
Chapter Fourteen - Repent!, 120,
Chapter Fifteen - The Audacity of Roses, 127,
Chapter Sixteen - Mickey and Me, 131,
Chapter Seventeen - The Elegant Ladies, 139,
Chapter Eighteen - Wyoming Remembers, 143,
Chapter Nineteen - Mae Throws a Party, 149,
Chapter Twenty - Seduction and Escape, 155,
Chapter Twenty-One - Got a Cigarette?, 160,
Chapter Twenty-Two - Confrontation, 165,
Chapter Twenty-Three - An Interrupted Party, 170,
Chapter Twenty-Four - Escape, 176,
Chapter Twenty-Five - Alice's Nose, 185,
Chapter Twenty-Six - The Dance, 190,
Chapter Twenty-Seven - Treatment Plan for Alice, 197,
Chapter Twenty-Eight - The Girls Come to Visit, 202,
Chapter Twenty-Nine - The Annex, 211,
Chapter Thirty - Practicing Home, 224,
Chapter Thirty-One - Losing Thelma Again, 231,
Chapter Thirty-Two - Final Words, 238,
Chapter Thirty-Three - Last Day, 245,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I find the whole concept of the treatment of mental illness in this era to be fascinating. I really enjoyed getting the inside story from a patient during this time. I have a type 1 diabetic son and to hear how they used insulin treatments to treat the authors anxiety is horrifying to me. The treatment of the other patients and the uncaring staff in the hospital were equally horrifying to me. If you are interested in this subject this book is a must read!
This was an insightful and alarming, yet entertaining read. Lancer frankly describes her experiences as a young wife and mother in the 50s and her time at the mental hospital, providing a stark look at mental health care just a half century ago. I recommend Lancer's illuminating account to all mental health professionals.