Growing up there were two times I was inexplicitly told to not disturb my mother. When Masterpiece Theatre was on, and when she hosted group therapy sessions in our living room. I was instructed to stay in my bedroom until these events were over. The only time I disobeyed was when I felt it imperative to inform her that I had chicken pox in my vagina. I had seen the scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair pees on the floor in front of the dinner guests, and I felt this was a close dramatic second.
My mother told me group therapy sessions were where grownups discussed their feelings and got “support.” Hiding by the staircase I strained to hear people’s “feelings.” Men and women on folding chairs, circled around our glass coffee table talking in flat tones. Every once in a while there would be a sniffle, and a box of tissues would get passed around like the hot potato game. Occasionally there would be a big hearty group laugh, which I found very disconcerting.
“Mommy, why were people laughing at someone’s feelings?? That’s so mean! “
“Sometimes we have to create humor in the face of grief”, quipped my mother clearing away the coffee urn.
It was then and there I learned I was a Jew.
My mother believed in expressing feelings. My father did not. At the age of eight my parents sat my sister and I down to announce my father was leaving us for a woman he taught with. Folklore says I broke into a full fledged Oscar worthy performance. “You are breaking up our perfect family,” I screamed. I didn’t think we had a perfect family but I had watched a lot of television and this seemed like the appropriate thing to say. My father never forgave me for that night. For years after he muttered, “You are just like your mother. Overdramatic”.
After my father left I fell into deep bouts of sadness and considered asking my mother if I could join the therapy group. Some days I would get so overwhelmed with rage that my mother would give me stacks of newspaper to rip up to get out my “feelings”. The ink turned my hands black and blue and I felt better.
I was sensitive. After watching the scene in The Lord of the Flies where Piggy gets killed by a boulder, I had a complete meltdown. My mother sat me down and explained to me that Piggy was played by an actor, and that right now he was most likely at Burger King eating a Whopper. The image of Piggy eating a Whopper at Burger King was so comforting that I used it every time I couldn’t separate reality from make believe.
My father had no idea what to do with me and my sister when his court assigned dates came up. He took us to grownup movies he wanted to see like “Silent Partner”, in which the opening scene depicts a decapitated head in a fish tank. Next he took us to “Kramer vs. Kramer” the saddest fuckin film on divorce ever made. My mother was livid. She set me up with more newspaper and put on the “Free To Be You and Me” album. I loved Free to Be You And Me. It talked a lot about feelings.
By fifth grade I took to sitting on my windowsill, closing the wooden shutters around me listening to Lionel Richie. I would write the names of boys I liked in hearts in pencil, and erase them after my crying sessions.
My father stopped taking us to the movies and married his mistress.
At fourteen I wrote a poetry book in English class titled “My Talkative Pen.”
Heres an uplifting entry:
Truth is, I was completely aware of what I was doing. If he had bothered to read the preface he might of understood.
In my early 20’s I went to see my first therapist. I got accepted to a NYU program where I was to work with a therapist in training. Participants paid a cheap sliding scale fee, but the catch was I had to go to sessions three times a week. I hated it. An older man in khakis and orthopedic shoes wanted me to lie down on the couch and talk about my father. I wanted to talk about why boys I liked always disappeared. My therapist and every therapist after assured me this was connected. I remained stubborn and spent numerous sessions refusing to talk. This was not what I expected.
When the NYU program was over I was more fucked up then when I started. I hated my therapist and my father. I dated boys who were unreliable and cocky. My adolescent crying sessions turned into heavy blankets of sadness that my future therapists labeled “depression.”
My depression hit its high point when I moved to Rhode Island to get my MFA at an acting conservatory. Every presentation or assignment that was criticized sent me under the heavy depression blanket. Competition gave me anxiety. Soon I had chronic insomnia and stopped getting my period.
I found a new therapist in Rhode Island named Debbie D’Agostino. Like the supermarket chain. I really liked Debbie. She offered dieting tips and convinced me walking was great exercise if you clenched your butt muscles and pumped your arms. She asked me if ever considered taking anti-depressants. I remembered my mother had once had a boyfriend from group therapy that had taken Prozac and claimed it saved his life. I was game. Debbie was so un-Jewey and upbeat that she could convince me of anything.
Debbie had to send me to the kind of therapist that could legally prescribe medication. A psychiatrist. Soon I learned the drill. The therapist you talked to about all your shit, and the psychiatrist you checked in with every few months to convince them you were still fucked up enough to get your refill but not fucked up enough to jump off a bridge under their care.
My first month on anti- depressants I called my mother and asked her if this is how “normal” people feel all the time? I couldn’t get over how light I felt without the blanket. How I was able to deal with daily tasks without getting overwhelmed and crawling into bed. I felt like my brain had turned from a garden of weeds into a budding zucchini patch. My sadness for the first time felt bearable.
I spent the next 10 years on medication.
I never discussed my medication with anyone except my family. Even my grandmother took something to keep the edge off. One time I made the mistake of confiding in a girlfriend who didn’t even believe in taking Advil. She looked at me like I’d been duped. “Anti-Depressants are a conspiracy from the pharmaceutical companies to keep you addicted. It’s a crutch! You just need to meditate”.
I convinced my therapist and psychiatrist that I needed a medication break. I was a great actress and it worked.
When the heavy blanket came back I mediated. When the weeds cropped up I told myself I needed to be stronger.
I tried to rip newspapers and think of Piggy eating the Whopper. Nothing worked. I was drowning.
I reluctantly went back on my medication and never told my friend. Or anyone ever again. It scared the shit out of me that I felt better. It felt like the medication fixed a busted fuse. I stopped fighting my brain even when Tom Cruise told the world people like me should take vitamins instead.
Up until the week my father passed away, he accused me of me being overdramatic. I visited him more in the hospital, then I did when he was healthy. When I tried to say goodbye to him on his deathbed, he shushed me and told me I was getting myself all worked up for nothing. I didn’t flinch.
I must have looked like my mother sitting there so full of feelings.
My father was so scared of feelings.