Let Me Be
Amanda K. Berger
Sitting in the cold gray chair next to the examination table, I thought of the thousands of people that had proceeded me on this particular conveyor belt. Their odds had been no better than mine. Like me, the other hopeful had limped to this very seat. Maybe their MRI results would prove they were just over-reacting to the aches and pains of aging. It was possible, wasn't it?
The doctors examination room was small, awkwardly shaped, and overly-air conditioned. Shivering, I looked over to my husband. The hope of an easy fix rose in me as I waited for my doctor. I was doing great. My mind wasn't dwelling on the hopeless. The sickly gray of the office hadn't gotten to me! My spirits soared as I read the sign telling me constipation was normal on narcotics. I wasn't on narcotics and I wasn't constipated! My hopes continued rising. Then, my doctor opened the door. The pear-shaped man didn't look like a person carrying a stay of execution. His gray-colored eyes looked sad. Tears formed and I felt my eyes fill. This wasn't going to be good.
“Why are you crying? He hasn't even said anything.” Seated next to me, David sounded disgusted as he tried to engage my attention. I just ignored him. He wasn't seeing what I was. A doctor struggling to find the right words.
"She never stops crying. She doesn't need a reason.” My middle-sister’s voice appeared in my head, and was childish sounding. It took me about two seconds to realize it was Missy’s eight year old voice. When my crying spells started in public, Missy would calmly explain my behavior to my peers and any adult present. It always made me cry harder.
"I'll give you a reason to cry.” My father’ ghost shoved its way into my reality.
“Dad, you're destroying my carefully constructed memory of you…and for the record. I have a valid reason to cry, hear me…my tears aren't circumspect!”
The portly Doctor kept staring at me. He appeared nervous. Inwardly, I groaned. Great, my neurosurgeon was worrying about my mental illness, instead of the pain claiming my body. Being honest about my label has come with a downside. I better be calmer and more articulate than a normal person in the same situation or people got nervous. The extra pressure didn't feel fair.
“Whoever told you life was going to be fair?”
“Not you, Daddy…but with all due respect, shut the fuck up!”
Holding my hand up to David, I focused my attention on the man who knew my future. My physician sill hadn't spoken.
"Your MRI results show several things."
“Several?” Nausea began deep inside.
Pain management and maintaining quality of life were the first statements out of my doctors mouth. I didn't make a sound but tears started rolling rapidly. Even though I still hadn't heard the results of my MRI, I knew it was bad. The doctor hadn't used one word that carried hope. I wanted to hear cure, fix and stop.
“You had early-onset arthritis, probably late adolescent. Every vertebrae…”
My sob interrupted the doctor.
“Let the man finish before you fall apart.” My husband’s voice was louder than appropriate and I glared at him. He needed to shut the fuck up. I had been on hundreds of doctor appointments with David for his variety of ailments. I hadn't told him how to feel, not once! Furiously, I returned my gaze to my doctors now anxious face. The man looked positively unnerved. Thanks David, I don’t need help frightening people. Being bipolar does that on its very own..
“Four of your vertebrae have partially collapsed. You have four bulging discs and…”
Visions of my future self shaped like the letter U grew in my mind and this terrible image made it difficult to breathe. The tiny room became even smaller as my husband grew in size. Seeing the panic in my eyes, David went on a mission. Controlling my emotions became more important to him than hearing what my doctor had to say. My voice was shaking as I asked the doctor to please continue.
“You need to calm down.” I was in the middle of hearing the horrible and my husband thought I was overreacting. What the fuck? This wasn't about my moods. Instead of speaking to the man who carried answers, I was defending my stability! I was now more than pissed.
“Be fair…how many suicide watches has David kept?” My sister-in-law appeared suddenly in my consciousness. Trace, is an expert at calling me out on my bullshit. This hasn’t always been the case. About nine months before I moved to Austin, Texas and feeling more suicidal than I could ever remember being, I gave my youngest daughter to my oldest friend. Maddy finding my body couldn't be allowed to happen. Only after I returned to Japan, did Trace learn I had been getting my affairs in order. Her failure to see my plan of permanently disappearing, had shaken my sister-in-law to the core. Now, whether I liked it or not, Trace kept her eyes on me. Casting a loving smile her way, I returned my attention to my husband.
“You need to back off.” My voice was quiet as I spoke to him, but my words still carried restrained anger.
“I'll let you two talk.” Before I could process what was happening, my doctor disappeared. I was too furious to speak so I didn't, for about three days. It took two more appointments, that David was forbidden to attend, before I got the truth of my prognosis. Three diseases were battling for the right to plant a flag on my spine. But that wasn't everything, I also had a broken back. Before I left, the doctor warned me to watch out for depression. It's common in people with my condition. Watch out for depression? As if I could pull the blinds, lock the doors and keep the bitch out of my life. It's just not that easy. Living in the moment isn't that awesome when the moment sucks.
"You could try not to get sad." My husband didn't sound hopeful.
"Really? As soon as the pain stops, I'll get right on that.”
I doubt people with acceptable illness are treated as carefully. As my doctors and my husband watched me for signs of madness, I wanted to stand up and scream, “everybody back the fuck up and give me a chance to overreact. I have the right to be upset…Look at me! I'm bent over without lube, again.” Of course I didn't indulge this desire to demand my right to have a normal reaction. Eyes would have met and lips pursed at my excitability. So, I withdrew. Being green isn't easy.
“Hey, that's my song.” Kermit the frog smiled at those convening in my mind..
“I know…but before the environmentalists claimed it, it was the theme song of my life.” Fucking Green Party…didn't even listen to the words.” It's about accepting yourself even if you are unseen, Jeez. That's all I'm asking! I need to be allowed to accept myself even if no one else ever does.
"Not if that means we all have to stand back and watch you go dark!” Trace had tears in her voice and I bent my head in shame. My most recent trip to the abyss had harmed everyone I loved. My doctors wariness around me was painful to watch. And like most unresolved pain it brought anger..
There isn't much that angers me more then when people think they know me based on my name and I do mean name. When I was diagnosed at nineteen, I was sat down and told I was Manic Depressive, not that I had an illness called Manic Depressive. Ever heard a person called cancer, Parkinson's disease or depression for that matter? Nope they aren't their diseases. These patients are allowed to keep their identities. Not so for people like me, we are the abnormal condition we carry.
"Mountain out of a mole hill." My father knew every idiom in the English language.
“You are wrong Dad, there isn't anything more powerful than word choice.” All the guns, gas chambers and bombs wouldn't have made the history books without precisely placed semantics. Imaging the speeches of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, I could hear the misguided roar with approval.
“Are you comparing your past psychiatrists to Hitler? Maybe you should expand.” My current psychiatrist appeared suddenly in my mind and made a note in my impressively sized folder.
“No, more like his followers.”
“That's her theory number two-thousand.” Both my daughters laughed. I had to smile also. It's true, I have a theory about everything.
“Try to hear what I'm saying, girls. Word usage matter. It's how people determine reality, Immigrants vs illegal aliens, freedom fighters vs terrorists, rustic vs rundown and let's not forget my favorite, “boys will be boys” instead of motherfucking rapist. The list is endless. We are told how to feel in the subtleties of the vernacular.” I am not a illness, I have one.
Flipping over my application for a Texas Drivers, I saw what I didn't expect. My home state wanted to know if I had a psychiatric illness, had I been treated for one in the last two years and if I was currently under medical care. “What the fuck,?” I whispered to myself as I felt goosebumps appear on my bare arms. Was my government really asking me to self-register as a member of a subgroup? Standing in the crowded Department of Motor Vehicles building, I stared at the intrusive document and struggled with what to do. Just nine months prior to my visit to the DMV, I had sworn I would never deny being bi-polar again. And here I was being tested with a official document.
The first thing I thought of were the yellow stars of Germany. Rows of the self-registered being herded towards trains filled my thoughts as I tried to remember my history lessons. I couldn't think of one example where self-registration worked out well for the people involved. When a government begins collecting data on a particular group, there is a reason. And it will be used.
"The form states clearly that this information will not be used to prevent you from obtaining a driver's license.” My sister-in-law had driven me to get my proper identification and was watching me intensely as I continued staring at the form. I was no longer in a good mood. Why couldn't I be left the fuck alone? After my release from the psych hospital, that was all I had really craved, the ability to just exist. The questions on the form felt personal and it hurt. I wadded up the half-completed application and left. One year later, I lied, signed the form declaring all of my answers to be true and became a legal driver in the great state of Texas. Beware my fellow citizens, unregistered crazy people are on the roads.
“Drama Queen.” My middle sister said one of my more popular nicknames, as if it were a fact she had found in one of my parents old leather-bound encyclopedias. Over my head Missy made eye-contact with my parents. They all nodded in unison with a knowing look upon their faces. I hate that fucking look! It says, “there she goes…acting weird and making problems.”
“Having a problem doesn't make you the cause of it, Missy.” Gay people weren't responsible for the hate flung their way. Neither were minorities. But labeled as subgroups, the socially-approved prejudices that surrounded them were still their cross to bear.
"Maybe you just think people treat you differently?” My psychiatrist sounded self-assured.
"Yeah...and maybe you are being intentionally obtuse? When your name changed from mister to doctor, did people treat you different? Were your phone calls returned more quickly? I bet the addition of two letters before your name changed your whole life.” My psychiatrist didn't argue, so I continued. “Telling people I'm bipolar changes everything! When I add I've been locked up twice for being nuts…people step even further back…sprinkle a few comments about fugue states and psychosis in the conversation and it is game over. “ Do you hear me, the reality of me is game FUCKING over?”
Seated on my back patio, I looked over at my new friend. I waited for Ari to speak. The married mother of three obviously had something on her mind.
“Luann has gone in to the hospital.”
“Oh…is she okay?” I waited for Ari to continue. Seated next to me at my outside table, Ari looked over at her husband with a questioning look in her eyes.
Their eyes met and Brandon arched his eyebrows as if to say, “you decide, you started this.” Ari smiled at her husband and returned her eyes to mine. Their expressions were not the ones people in our culture normally wear when discussing a person so ill they require hospitalization. My stomach tightened, I knew what was coming next.
“She had to go to a psych hospital.” Ari was whispering as if the mere mention of such a place might invite evil spirits to our gathering. Even though I didn't turn my head towards my husband, I could feel David go still. He knew a minefield had just been entered.
“That's terrible. What happened?” My voice hadn't changed but I could feel myself go on high alert. Ari didn't know I was bipolar and she didn't know I had been hospitalized when my mental illnesses had taken over my life. More to the point, her voice had sounded more like a person delivering gossip on the village slut than that of a concerned friend. My stomach was quickly turning as I waited to see where she was headed.
“You could have stopped the conversation…told her your diagnosis.” My psychiatrist peered at me.
“I was too curious…so I didn't.”
“She's bipolar. Chad said he couldn't get her out of bed…apparently this isn't the first time.” My friend continued talking in a hushed tone. “He brought her by the house on the way to the hospital…she wanted to see me first.” Ari continued as I sat there feeling frozen in place. “Luann told me she was getting shock therapy again…asked me to please remind her I was her favorite friend…in case she forgot.” The forty year old stay-at-home mother grinned uneasily at the three of us as she delivered this last tidbit. My reaction wasn't what she suspected.
Turning to David, I abruptly stood. My voice was louder than the situation warranted. “ Oh my God David, they are going to electrocute her. Are you fucking kidding me? She might not remember who she likes!” Turning to the other couple I continued, “ isn't there something you can do? Does she have family that could help her…oh my God, isn't there someone you could call…”
Brandon interrupted me in a unruffled voice. “Chad said it’s the only thing that helps when she gets like this.” He grimaced as if though electrocuting people was an unpleasant necessity. “She hasn't done anything in months. While Chad is at work all day, Luann lays in bed crying. He has to do everything. All the cleaning, shopping…he's wiped out.”
“Well holy mother of god! The house is messy and the dinner not made! Grab a generator, hook the bitch up and we will give her a reason to be happy,” is what I wanted to say, instead I replied in a voice rich with restrained emotion, “that doesn't make it okay to electrocute a person to the point they can't even remember who they care about…I mean really, are you fucking kidding me?.” David grabbed one of my shaking hands and squeezed. My husband has yelled in the face of more than one psychiatrist for touting the benefits of electro convulsive shock therapy. THERAPY? Does anybody in here have a goddamn Webster’s dictionary? Somebody should look up the definition!
My mind began to reel as I imagined Luann locked up and helpless.
“Oh are you feeling blue?” The unknown psychiatrist speaking in my head, sounded positively cheerful.
Luann, draped in a baggy hospital gown, joined the psychiatrist occupying my brain and nodded sadly, yes.
“Here,” pulling a cattle prod from behind her back the cheerful doctor shocked Luann without warning. Zap!
Slightly disoriented, the forty-something woman asked, “Are adults still hurting children?”
“Now, how are you doing Honey.” The southern euphemism sounded perverted on the lips of a woman who had sworn to do no harm.
Luann didn't respond at first. Then she whispered, “are people getting fat while others starve?”.
“Awww, that's too bad.” Shaking her head, the paid professional went to work. Zap! zap! zap! zap!
“Are you still sad?
Frightened, the mother of two only moved her head slightly and spoke in a tone even more hushed by despair. “Are governments still dropping bombs?”
“Sweetie,I don't think you want to feel better.” ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! Electricity kept flowing into the defenseless woman.
“Can you tell me where you are on the pain scale, now?” The doctor sounded genuinely concerned.
Confused about what the sweet lady was talking about, Leann lifted her blue eyes and smiled.
“Have we met?”
"Cut!...CUT!,…Mandie bring it back down. Subtlety is an art form.” To my former drama coach, anything desirable could be said to have an art form. Even though I don’t believe subtlety is always the best approach, I smiled tenderly at Mrs. Heberly. The tiny wrinkled scrap of a woman had provided a sanctuary at my inner city high school for teenagers who didn't quiet blend. My love for her has never changed.
My latest psychiatrist squeezed back into my consciousness. “Flights of fancy are common in patients like her.”
“That's true Dr. Aycock …do you also happen to know the stats on doctors suffering from narcissism? Never mind, I forgot narcissist don't really suffer.” Dr. Aycock began scribbling rapidly in my file.
“She's going too high! We are going to have to bring her down!” Fuck, it was Dr. Loving. Fear crept into my very soul. The last time the elderly psychiatrist had spoken those words around me, I had been medically assaulted.”
“Assaulted? Isn't that a little over the top?” The last therapist I had fired smiled at me in a loving manner that didn't feel loving at all.
Telling everyone in my head to go fuck themselves, I closed my eyes against the pain radiating throughout my body. Kermit began to sing. As his melody egged me on, I longed to be named anything but insane.
Amanda K. Berger exhibited symptoms of mental illness prior to preschool. Hospitalized at nineteen, she was diagnosed with Manic-Depressive Disorder. In 1987, Amanda received her BS in Sociology from Texas Wesleyan University. After her second hospitalization in 2013, the mother of two began writing. It is her hope to help demystify an illness that manifests both physically and mentally. Amanda has recently finished her memoir, Joy in Dark Water: Mental Illness from the Inside Out, and is currently seeking publication.