Cher, “Minds Interrupted” 2009
I am a child of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. The hospital is a place where I sought refuge as a tortured adolescent. It provided me with a sense of community before I first set foot on a commune. I became quite comfortable in the role of patient. I thought that the stink of institutionalization that trailed me served me well. Until I realized the many ways in which it did not.
The alienation that I felt from the human family caused me to cocoon. My biological father deserted my younger brother, my mother and me when I was nine. Since it was just before puberty, I felt especially vulnerable -- like I’d been thrown to the wolves.
I look back and see how my inability to articulate how I felt about my father’s erratic behavior has rattled me to the core in ways that I will never entirely be healed of. It makes sense that I would have wanted to cover up fresh scars and residual ones. War paint, black clothing and death metal were not what the doctor had prescribed but I loved it.
At age 15, I OD’ed on over the counter medication. I survived. But that was the beginning of a string of hospitalizations, depression and suicidal tendencies. I also started receiving a long list of psycho-tropic meds.
The side effects of the many meds were interesting and unwanted.
I remember being seated at a table in a Sheppard Pratt cafeteria. I was unable to spoon cereal into my mouth because my arm had frozen while making its way to my lips. I don’t recall what pharmaceutical or combination thereof was responsible for that fascinating yet frustrating moment.
Another medication Mellaril caused me to lactate at age fifteen which prompted my peers to ask: “Are you preggers?” I was mortified.
By the time I was 18, my diagnosis was agoraphobia. I was housebound for two years. I almost never left the house. I had almost no friends. Bookstores and restaurants scared me. I thought that people could sense my awkwardness – they could see I couldn’t write a check or catch the bus.
Being in institutions like Sheppard-Pratt intensified my fears rather than giving me confidence. I had missed a lot of high school and all the social life of high school – I didn’t know how to talk to boys or go to parties or shop. What carried me through was curiosity and perseverance. My grandfather who’d been to college encouraged me to take some classes.
After a few satisfying semesters of college, I applied to Gould Farm, the oldest therapeutic community in the country. I wanted some real world experience. Going to Gould Farm was a turning point in my life. Before that I had no real friends. But there I found kindred spirits; being part of a tribe made a huge difference. There I met many creative people who like to paint, write, and play music. The place captured me.
I never imagined that I would have so much in common with the people I met there. Many had experienced similar struggles. I have stayed in touch with several of them. I met my first boyfriend there. He used to call me every day. He’s still my best friend.
Although Gould Farm was not a utopia, I found that there are different ways to live. This experience was invaluable to me as it gives me hope. I can imagine living in a cooperative or even starting one so that people don’t get stuck in a group home that doesn’t really suit them.
My innate curiosity, my quest to find secret passageways through life, brought me to where I am today—from acute agoraphobia to now at this moment standing in front of 500 people to tell my story.
After being put through the ringer I found that raising awareness of the plight of those with brain disorders is imperative. Within me, I have a strong desire to thrive, not just exist.