WRITE POETRY, HE SAID
At age 38, I was dancing and singing at the top of my lungs in my second-storey apartment, while my two young children slept peacefully in their bedrooms. The year was 1984 and I had no idea my brain was rattling and clanging inside as I experienced my first manic-psychotic episode. The visions I experienced! I was Phil Collins himself, playing at the London Palladium. I was Phaeton, the son of Apollo, riding the chariot of the sun around the earth. I was the Alpha Male, my hand held high above my head in victory.
I slept not a wink that night but the next morning walked my children – Sarah was 8, Dan was 6 – out into the courtyard to catch their buses to school.
At six that evening, I was driven in the back of a police car to Norristown State Hospital where I spent the worst three days of my life. My life was transformed. I became a rapid-cycling bipolar woman, shot up with Haldol. Traumatized, I believed my life was ruined. Shortly thereafter I began seeing a kind psychiatrist – Dr. Alex – who put me on lithium and became “my coach.” He encouraged me to start a bipolar and depression support group – New Directions – still in existence 30 years later
My recovery was swift. I found a writing job at a local newspaper. While typing up the “Education Events,” I learned that a young man had just graduated from Hahnemann University in nearby Philadelphia with an MGPGP degree, Master in Group Process and Group Psychotherapy.
This was it! The career I’d been searching for. Psychotherapist. I was accepted at Hahnemann, but first I had to be able to get there. After my breakdown, it was like my brain had cracked open. Humpty-Dumpty needed to be put back together again.
I’d developed phobias. Claustrophobia. Riding the train from my home in Willow Grove for 45 minutes until I arrived downtown was impossible. There was only one thing to do.
I hired a psychologist who rode with me on the train. He also drove with me on freeways and took the elevator with me.
Within six weeks, I was phobic no more.
Class was surprisingly easy and fun. I can still learn, I thought, although I was 45 years old.
At the newspaper, I wrote my last story before entering grad school. It was about a “Hawk Watch.” I visited a state park where I wrote about migrating hawks, thousands of them, which a corps of volunteers counted.
The story was published and I made a copy to show the co-chairman of my department.
“Magnificent,” said Dr. Mike Vaccaro. I beamed from ear to ear. And then he told me I ought to write poetry.
I looked at him, a swarthy-skinned man with a tiny mustache.
“But I haven’t written a poem since I was a kid,” I said.
“You’re bright,” he said. “You’ll figure it out.”
I did. I joined a writers’ group in Lambertville, New Jersey, about 45 minutes from home across a clanking chain-link bridge. It met once a week and was the highlight of my life.
Meantime, I was enjoying my psychotherapy classes at Hahnemann. My lithium basically controlled my mood swings. When I became psychotic, I’d take Risperdal which, after a while, staunched the out-of-reality thinking. But when it came time to write my 75-page thesis, I had another psychosis. My daughter, Sarah, apprised me of it. Onto the Risperdal I went. I was unable to graduate with my class, but did so the next semester.
I got a job as a therapist just six weeks after I sent in my resume to one Richard Henderson at Bristol-Bensalem Human Services. How I loved my work!
In the morning, I got Sarah and Dan ready for school – today Sarah is 41 and Dan, 39 – and I worked on my poetry every single morning. The writers’ group critiqued my work and I kept improving. Since I was no longer a student of Dr. Mike Vaccaro, I mailed him a poem that perfectly described my manic-depression.
You are faithful, I’ll give you that, coming ‘round just in time for Valentine’s Day.
You snuggle close and ask me to be yours. I smile knowingly and say, Show me your virtues….if you have any.
You, in the guise of a gypsy with pots and pans strung across your back, take down a few tarnished wares and hold them out to me.
I snort. Haven’t we been through all this before?
Then, as I touch your rouged cheek, I ask, Why won’t you give me up? What am I to you?
Your gypsy eyes, ringed with soot, brush my face.
Okay, I say, it was good. I admit it.
I saw the stars with you.
We ran with the moon at our backs and
leaped across the sleeping earth.
You showed me the future in a
dead dog’s eye, then led me away
lest I drown in my own dream.
You spun sweet songs from the morning breeze
and trickled them through my hair.
You peeled back the world so I could dip inside.
Took the fire from the sun and winked it in my heart.
It’s February and you’ve come back.
You always do.
I hear you breathing at my front door, soft as a kitten.
I’d know that sound anywhere.
Let me in, let me in, you whimper.
Can’t you be more original?
Ah, Mania, my debt to you is incalculable,
simply beyond measure.
But no pots and pans today, Gypsy.
Put them away.
Today I travel alone.
Fishing for words, as I do,
Fishing, without you.
Today I run my own writer’s group as well as New Directions.
Bipolar disorder? Mine went away a dozen years ago.
Ruth Z Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her poetry and prose published in many literary magazines. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Ruth can be found on her blog.
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