Teri Orr: Between here and there and over there…
May 2, 2014
I don’t remember any spectrum growing up. You weren’t a little bit or a lot of anything. You just were. Or weren’t. Black or white. Happy or sad. Well or sick. Young or old. Homosexual or not. Crazy or sane. Extrovert or introvert. Artistic or untalented. Racist or tolerant. Religious or atheist. Hippie or straight. Addicted or clean. Married or not. Rich or poor. Successful or not. Well-meaning or mean. Smart or stupid. College bound or trade school. There were no gradients — there were only extremes. And normal, well, that was defined by powerful people, who it often turned out, had huge self-interests in creating illusions for others.
I come from damaged stock. Irish on both sides. I have an alcoholic lineage and dark Irish blood that was prone to moodiness and affected by cycles of the moon. I grew up watching wild fights, mostly verbal with the occasional piece of pottery flying. People driving under the influence of unchecked anger and often fueled by alcohol. Mood swings aided and abetted by codeine-laced cough syrup and phenobarbital. I knew none of this, of course, as a child, in any way I could articulate. It was only later, with some hindsight and counseling, I put the pieces together.
I remember some twenty years ago, my nephew telling his grandmother, my mother, his daughter had been diagnosed as depressed and they had started her on some mild medication. My mother, in her infinite capacity for making everything about herself, said clearly this was something that came from-his wife’s side of the family — because no one in our family ever suffered from depression. I came to my nephew’s defense and pointed out my mother’s mother surely suffered from depression. My mother, irate, said what would make me tell such a terrible lie. I pointed out her mother had been an alcoholic who co-mingled phenobarbital as a chaser. She would, every few years, go to the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Loma Linda and "take the cure" for a few weeks. She was a classic self-medicator. My mother responded in fury and with perhaps a bit of Jim Beam.
"Your grandmother wasn’t depressed! She. Was. Irish."
There were lots of things we were a little bit of, truth be told, but truth wasn’t told. Only myths created to perpetuate illusions. At 19, when I decided to leave my mother’s house and get married to create a house of my own, I secretly knew it was a mistake. I started getting horrible headaches. The college nurse prescribed a little something to "deal with the stress." It took less than a month for me to feel flat and unemotional. I tossed the pills and my bouquet and started a new life. Which went well enough for a while. But two children and a business and an abusive marriage, one didn’t talk about in the ’70s, later and my country doctor in Tahoe prescribed something to "even things out." And as The Stones sang on the radio, I would indeed, "go running for the shelter of mother’s little helper." Until my dear friend, a man who sold drugs for a living, as a pharmaceutical salesman, took one look at my pill bottle. He said the dose was twice what a man his size would take but only once a day. Not four times a day. Once again, I was throwing pill bottle’s contents down a toilet.
And I did fine for over a decade, until a break-up sent me spinning. "Just for a while" the doctor said, and it only took a few weeks to remember how flat the world could be. It was the end of the ’80s when I last looked for a pill to fix/even things out. But I remember thinking — wasn’t crazy also creative? And I listed all the Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway stories I could assemble and said to myself, how much creativity would have ended if Prozac had been created 100 years ago? I also reminded myself all these creatives had committed suicide.
There is a new show on television titled, The Black Box, which isn’t a reference about a magic trick per se but about the mind. And the lead character is a brilliant doctor who is bipolar. She solves medical mysteries with her ability to enter the mind and diagnose beyond the capacities of other board-certified folks. But her demons are strong and seductive and her creativity soars and takes her to the edge of… everything. The manic high is rumored to be the ultimate, self-generated, organic drug, capable of wild sexuality and creativity and strokes of brilliance. And strokes of the brain and heart. The new show is only two episodes old, so maybe it won’t be able to maintain the intensity of the two first, but so far, it is a brain slice into a person we might all be, on the spectrum of being.
What keeps us from the tipping point ? The anger that hits? The melancholy that saddens everyone around us? The self-loathing that finds ways to self-destruct? It doesn’t take much time digging into some deep-rooted genealogy tree to discover we are both part slave owner and slave. Part horse thief and jockey. Part Puritan and prostitute. There is a shift occurring, right about now, in the universe, according to those who believe in such shifts. And it involves a growing belief we are all at different points on the spectrum. Any spectrum. Every spectrum. Conversations about mental health and how it can change with the right attention, medication, meditation, mediation, are changing how we navigate the fringes, the edges, the extremes of wellness and illness. And acceptance. It turns out we are not either this or that, we are this and that. For my friend, who is struggling this week with his own spectrum discoveries, know this: a rainbow only works with multiple beautiful colors reflecting and refracting with one another. It arrives after a cloud. And a storm. We’re all in this together. Today, and tomorrow and this very Sunday, in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.