The Man Who Sold the World

I heard this cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on the radio. I was never a fan of Nirvana, and don’t particularly like Bowie’s music (with the exception of “Space Oddity”) but something about this version is haunting and satisfyingly melodic, even with Cobain going off key. Poor Kurt looks terribly skinny here.

Whore, Slut, Loser, Bitch

If it isn’t obvious, I’ve been too depressed to write. There’s nothing like having your stable, beautiful, creative, hilarious, clever child deteriorate into a stark-raving-certified-lunatic to make you question the nature of existence and parenting.

I did everything right. I mean, yeah, I ate some junk food while pregnant with her, but this was before I was a health nut. I never drank, never smoked, never did drugs, and I conceived her before 9/11 so I wasn’t inhaling a daily 24 hours of smoldering pcb like I did while pregnant with the overachiever. I didn’t even have a goddamn epidural (and dear god did it hurt) because I believed all that crap about how it could possibly, potentially, damage your precious darling’s brain. I yelled at the nurses if they tried to interrupt our breastfeeding bond. I nursed her for nearly two years, and coddled and coaxed her preternatural artistic abilities. By age three she could paint recognizable, three dimensional images with a Staples watercolor set. [Hindsight being 20/20, I now recognize this kind of ability as abnormal.]

And then she lost her mind.

In retrospect I can recognize some signs, but very few before age 14. From babyhood into toddlerhood she never made eye contact. She would chatter away but never look you in the eye. If you managed to catch eye contact, she would immediately dart her eyes away and stare at the ground, walls, or ceiling.

She never cried. I took this to mean she was easygoing, but in hindsight it seems odd. She cried exactly once during childhood, when a school friend in fifth grade was rude to her. By the next day she was fine.

And exactly once she became hysterical in the car and refused to exit into the school yard. I let her stay home that day, and yet again, the next day she was fine.

Then she turned 14. From then on it was a neverending nightmare of pacing, mania, raging, incoherence and dysfunction. She was never a great student outside what she was naturally good at, but soon she was failing everything- even music appreciation. She railed against me tirelessly and called me every name under the sun: whore, slut, loser, bitch, idiot ad nauseam. Simple tasks confounded her. Keeping track of her phone, metrocard, or house keys was monumental. Previously a fiendish cook, she could barely manage to microwave popcorn. Bread was left burnt and hardened in the toaster. She aimlessly wandered the house: up, down, across; wandered the yard: laughing, scolding, speaking tenderly to invisible people. At times I found myself envious of her seemingly rich- if imaginary- social life. She started picking out her hair until she looked like a chemo patient. And finally she landed in the psych unit where I was unceremoniously ushered into the hall of Having a Crazy Child [for the PCers amongst you: she doesn’t mind the term crazy.]

Now we’re treading water. School is willing to keep her (why?! she’s nuts!), she wants to stay in school, husband is in abject denial, so it’s a waiting game for her to sink to the bottom. As a diehard pragmatist I don’t see much future for her beyond those outpatient programs for troubled souls. And that is the best case scenario.

I now view those crazy people differently. The guy in ripped clothes with disheveled hair stumbling over the sidewalk. The ugly unwashed woman ranting away to an invisible adversary on the street corner. That’s my daughter, and God help her.

The Strange Case of John Cantlie

Some people may recall John Cantlie as the British war correspondent kidnapped with the doomed James Foley in 2012. He is still being held by ISIS (or ISIL, or IS… that group is worse than Prince) but by all appearances has switched sides and is now in support of his captors.

This struck me as odd because Theo Padnos, in his highly readable account of being held captive by militants in Syria for nearly two years, describes the contempt his captors held for kidnapped westerners who convert to Islam in an effort to spare their own lives. And the bid to join Islam is no guarantee of escaping execution, as was seen by the sad fate of James Foley. Cantlie has appeared in numerous ISIS created videos and has even penned articles for Dabiq, which is kind of the jihad version of The Economist. Here he is taking viewers on a cheery tour of Mosul:

Now, my opinion in watching Cantlie in this video is that he is clearly operating under duress yet has resigned himself to his plight. How much he really believes of what he says is unclear. He may not even be so sure himself- he looks dazed and a little loopy.

I often read about the ISIS propaganda machine yet have had difficulty finding original sources. Does ISIS have a youtube channel? If they do, I can’t find it. Dabiq has been archived by The Clarion Project, but it only comes up in google if you search for PDFs. I did find some of the articles attributed to Cantlie, and while they do read as authentically British, I noticed some small usage errors that would be common for someone not natively fluent in English. So perhaps they are heavily edited before reaching publication.

The funny thing about Dabiq is that it proudly proclaims all the grisly features of radicalized Islam as true Islam- a sentiment that, if uttered in the west by westerners, make progressives freak out and accuse you of intolerance. You can read an edition here if you’re curious, which contains gems like “Islam is the Religion of the Sword, Not Pacifism,” and “The Burning of the Murtadd [Apostate] Pilot.”

Nothing Insurmountable

Ten days into Risperdal my daughter woke up. Sort of. She realized she was in a locked psych unit and couldn’t escape of her own volition. The problem was, she was zombified on most of my visits. If she was talkative, she chattered incoherently.

“When can I go home mommy? I really want to go home. Did you tell the doctor I want to go home? I miss my house, I miss my family. I miss my dog [we have no pets], I miss my siblings, I miss my husband [she’s sixteen, no husband], I miss my children [same], I have twins. They live in basement and eat rats. They drink water from the washing machine. Are they going to get birthday cake?” [next day was her sister’s birthday]

Google education in hand I nodded my head with poker face. “They’ll get birthday cake. Don’t worry about that.”

Inexplicably the next day I was informed she would be discharged. A nurse guided me through the consent forms. I gathered up her prescriptions and we were buzzed out of the unit.

“Yippee!” cried my daughter. “I’m out of the mental hospital! Oh… wait…. I’m not wearing shoes.”

We both observed her stocking feet- shoes had been lost in the shuffle of dragging her to the psych unit two weeks ago.

The next day was outpatient appointment #1 with her “counselor.” Psychiatry has sure changed since I was kid. All the grunt work is farmed out to social workers, and this social worker looked barely older than my daughter. She kindly asked if she understood why she was there.

“My mother says I’m not combing my hair. No worries, no worries, nothing insurmountable.”

The social worker looked confused.

“Nothing what?”

My heart sank when I realized she didn’t understand what “insurmountable” means.

I diplomatically explained that over the past six months my daughter paced, chattered to herself nonstop, and picked out half her hair. My gorgeous daughter pulled back what remained of her gorgeous hair to display a plucked scalp.

The therapist typed into data fields on her computer.

I expressed concern as to her functionality and ability to return to school. The therapist concurred with my observations, as my daughter chattered and rubbed the top of her thighs. We went into the “brain tumor” my daughter was convinced she suffered.

“So where does the brain tumor worry come from?” asked the therapist– in a terribly kind voice.

“I knew I had a brain tumor or schizophrenia, I didn’t want to be crazy, so I picked brain tumor.”

“Well you do have symptoms of schizophrenia,” replied the therapist, even more kindly, reaching for her thick DSM. “Do you want to read about it here?”

“No… no… I already know. But I’ll function. I’ll function! You’ll all see I’LL FUNCTION!”  She declared this like a political manifesto, and my heart sank even deeper.

The social worker gave me a “knowing” glance. Over the past few weeks I’ve learned this glance: yeah, I know, she’s nuts, but let’s try to deal with it.

That night my daughter asked if she could go outside for a walk. We have a large yard by NYC standards. And there she paced: up, down, across the grass with the determination of a soldier, talking to invisible people, and perhaps to her husband.

Townes Van Zandt

Has anyone ever heard of this guy? Yet another obscure (at least I think so) singer with beautiful music. The second song especially makes me think of my daughter. I guess this music would be categorized somewhere between bluegrass and country. As usual, these are finds from the ancient contraption known as “the radio.”

Mr. Van Zandt, by all appearances, led a rather tortured life before succumbing to alcoholism and drug addiction at the tender age of 52.

Crazy Bags

Tonight was visit five with my daughter. I have to visit outside normal hours, so it’s an ordeal to be buzzed in. Today I was asked to wait because there was an “incident” on the ward. I wandered up and down the hallways “crazy bag” in hand (my husband has termed the large paper shopping bags crazy bags, since they don’t allow plastic bags on the unit) until finding a cozy waiting spot in radiology. There was even a TV: I watched news about the pope, until returning to the psych ward.

There I observed remnants of the “incident-” an armed guard, nurses trying to figure out where to dispose of needles (“there’s a sharps container in there now” one nurse advised the other) and a wild-eyed young woman led away. Now I understand why the tech said my daughter is no problem. She might be crazy, but she’s nonviolent- except when attacking her hair, which she’s been picking out of her head for 4 months. I joked that instead of a Save the Whales! tee shirt I should obtain a Save the Hair! shirt. (“Noooo…. save me…. I’ve been growing for five years!”)

I’d called earlier asking did she want to see me? “Not really” replied a deadened voice. But I showed up anyway. Apparently she forgot our conversation because she was delighted by my appearance- unlike yesterday when she spoke all of three sentences to me, including BYE! as she marched back to her room. And unlike last night she talked non-stop.

“You know the subway? How people get pushed onto the tracks? They should invent magnetic boots that can be activated so no matter how hard they push, you don’t go onto the tracks!” And she pantomimed a would-be killer trying to push a hapless victim onto the tracks.

By this point I had educated myself. While no one has mentioned the S-C-H word, after yesterday’s ill-fated visit I googled: How to deal with a schizophrenic. I discovered useful advice, including:

  • Never sit directly across from a person who has psychosis. They will experience this as a confrontation.

(So I made sure to sit beside her.)

  • If a person with psychosis makes a bizarre assertion, agree with it, no matter how unrealistic.

“That’s a fantastic idea!” I replied, re: magnetic boots.

She noticed a playing card discarded on the ground. It was a king of hearts.

“The pope!” she exclaimed. “The pope came to see me!” She cradled the card in her hands for a few moments, then let it drop back to the ground. Then she inquired, as she’s inquired every visit, about my interaction with her school. I told her the truth: they felt she was too dysfunctional to return.

She twisted and picked out a few strands of hair.

“They’re conspiring against me,” she said. “Traitors!”

Remembering google’s advice, I agreed. “You’re right… maybe they are conspiring against you.”

She visibly relaxed at my words. “I’ll prove them wrong!” she declared with gusto. “Test me on French.”

So I opened her French book, which she’d requested the day previous, and quizzed her on some words. She knew nothing, despite this being her third year of foreign language.

She leaned in close and whispered: “I don’t feel different from when I got here. I’m still pacing in circles and talking to myself.”

“Maybe you should tell the doctor,” I suggested, in as diplomatic a tone as possible.

“No, no, they’re conspiring against me too.”

I steeled myself to agree. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. That doctor is creepy.”

She smiled gaily.

Then it was time to leave. I gathered up the paper bag with her dirty clothes (she keeps the paper bag with clean clothes- I am her daily laundry service) and I gave her a big hug.

She wrapped her arms around me. “Love you so much mommy!”

On the way out I inquired at the nurses’ station as to her bloodwork (all normal, so far). Then I left.

This Is Your Brain On Drugs

I visited my daughter this evening, two doses into Risperdal. “Hey mommy,” she said, eyes half closed and looking mellow. Risperdal must be the pharmaceutical version of pot, because she looked stoned out of her mind. “How’s life… …mommy?”

Life is good, I lied. How’s life here?

I’M NOT GETTING A FUCKING INJECTION screamed one of her fellow patients from the inner parts of the ward. A nurse promptly closed our “common area” [for your own safety! readeth the guidelines] door, whispering: “We’re having an incident.”

My daughter smiled in a stoner kind of way. “That’s thorazine,” she said. “They inject it in your butt.”

Already I was surprised by how much she was talking. Normally it’s impossible to elicit more than a sentence from her.

“They inject Rhogam in your butt too,” I advised. “You’re Rh negative so it might happen to you.”

“Does it hurt less on your butt?”

“Probably,” I mused, “More fat. When they gave Rhogam in my arm I swear it hit the bone.”

She shuddered when I said that. I watched through the slivered window on the door one of her fellow inmates request deodorant. He was terribly handsome and sane looking.

“So how may girls are here? How many boys?”

“Five girls two boys.”

“Maybe the boys go straight to jail.”

She laughed at that, still mellow, eyes half closed. “Yeah… that makes sense mommy.”

Since she was talkative, I asked if she felt she was functional enough for school {the tuition clock is ticking, though I didn’t say that to her}.

“No… not functional… I’m not really functional. The doctor keeps asking if I hear voices? Do I have magical powers?”

Then a resident interrupted us. The doctor would see me now, minus my daughter. So she gave me a big hug. “Love you mommy!”

And she was escorted away.

I spoke to her psychiatrist at length. He was a stout guy with piercing blue eyes; the resident doctor in the corner looked like she was falling asleep. He talked about psychosis and medication. Then I remembered a detail I’d forgotten previously.

“She’s drawn the same picture at least a thousand time over the past two years.”

“Oh?” inquired the doctor. “What kind of picture?”

“A half drawn pony. You know, My Little Pony?”

He nodded.

“Well she draws the pony but never finishes it. I mean, sometimes she finishes it, but usually she doesn’t.”

[This is true: I have at least a thousand half-drawn little ponies scattered through the house, in notebooks, on scraps of paper, on book covers, on napkins.]

I asked if she was allowed pencil and paper to draw. Not in her room, I was informed, but during group sessions it was fine. When I departed the unit nurse assured me they would supply her paper and colored pencils for drawing. And with that, an orderly released me from the locked unit, and I made my way to the car.




She No Trouble

Two years ago, when my daughter began to devolve psychologically, I was offered a glimpse of the future. At some point- probably in a couple years- this would all come to a head, and some crisis would compel my husband to acknowledge she’s profoundly troubled, and the school would be forced out of denial to recognize this is a young woman in dire need of help. Until then there wasn’t much I could do, since she herself didn’t want help and my husband stonewalled me. I thought that crisis arrived last year when she wandered off campus before the end of a school day, not knowing who or where she was. But she found her way back to school after snapping back to reality, and the theology teacher bought her excuse of rummaging through her locker.

Then she started picking out her hair. By midsummer a third of her hair was gone. Three weeks into the current school year, half her hair was gone. She looked like a bald mannequin with a central mohawk. What little hair remained was gnarled into hopeless tangles. She paced incessantly, up down and around the house, chattering to- I don’t know to whom or what. If we approached her she shrieked to leave her alone. And this morning it finally happened: after 2 hours of pleading that she go to school while she paced, shrieked, and pulled out more hair, I told my husband: Enough, take her to the ER.

To my surprise, he did.

She was promptly admitted to a locked psychiatric unit- no shoelaces, no glass containers, no hoodies with ties. I later brought her some clean clothes, like an offering to a quixotic goddess.

“Hi mommy,” she said, quiet and tired. She was wearing a crumpled hospital gown, slumped in a chair as vitals were checked. I asked the nurse about visiting hours and allergy medication. Then I left.

Some hours later I returned for one of the two visiting hours allowed. Again, Hi mommy! We were ushered into the “common area” by an Indian nurse- yes I asked if she was from India, and told her I’d watched many documentaries about India- and then a Haitian “tech” watched our every move. “She good,” assured the tech. “She no trouble!”

At first my daughter was cooperative. She wanted to know what precisely I’d explained to the school. I described the phone calls with the vice principal- how worried sick they were because they had found her pacing and talking to herself, in weeks previous, in the hallways during classtime.

“Well I told you that,” she said, nervously scratching her arms and rocking back and forth.

“No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did.” Her eyes were darting, like a cat watching bugs.

She then asked what would happen after two weeks. This facility, apparently, is equipped to house patients only for two weeks stints. Her fellow “inmates” had already informed her of a south shore facility that could take on long term residents.

When I de-tied her hoodie I found the following poem scrawled on a piece of paper in her pocket:

I am a person
I am a human being
But can’t but I am
You could but you couldn’t
And but you wouldn’t and
Shouldn’t (shouldn’t)
I am not a violent…
Person but wouldn’t
And couldn’t
And shouldn’t
We be left
All alone

Big Love

[spoiler free]

Some years ago my husband, who was spending a lot of time in hotels for business, told me about the series Big Love. We didn’t subscribe to HBO at home but he was free to enjoy an array of cable shows. I didn’t exactly feel deprived though, because a dramedy about polygamy sounded, well, stupid.

But when I noticed the series on amazon prime recently I decided to give it a try. I was quickly surprised by the brainy, dark humor and addictive intrigue that develops both in plot and characterization. In that respect it reminds me of AMC’s wonderful Breaking Bad. In fact the two shows share an actor- Aaron Paul, who in Breaking Bad plays the dopey Jesse Pinkman, and in Big Love plays ex-Mormon Scott Quittman.

This is a weird show. I’m up to season 4 and I still can’t figure out if the central message is anti-polygamy or pro-polygamy; moreover I can’t figure out if it’s even pro-christian or anti-christian. Most of the characters are deeply conflicted on some level and their motivations remain ambiguous. And while I’m sure some marriages, either monogamous or polygamous, can keep the pace, the constant passionate sex between Bill and his three wives seems implausible. On a similar note, why are Bill’s wives so beautiful and well dressed, while the other polygamists we encounter have frumpy, badly dressed wives?

For a large household with small children the three wives and Bill manage to find inordinate private time to have deep, lengthy conversations. There is occasional mention of “Ben and Sarah” (the two teenagers in the household) watching the kids, but these are magical hollywood teenagers. Having a wide age range of children myself, procuring even ten minutes of attention from one of the teens to watch the little ones is like squeezing blood from a turnip, and is usually accompanied by shouted complaints from the next room. However, the show does occasionally manage an accurate portrait of the struggles of running a huge household. Our family size here matches the Henrickson’s season 1 head count, though there’s just one of me, another facet that piqued my interest: you don’t often see huge families on television these days, unless it’s reality TV.

The Henrickson homes are immaculately clean though we never see anyone cleaning. Occasionally the wives carry laundry baskets or lackadaisically wipe an already clean surface with a rag. In one episode Margie works through emotional issues by vacuuming a lot. But otherwise the Henrickson clan is somehow impervious to mess and clutter.

There’s a lot of product placement in this series, which surprises me because I thought polygamy was generally frowned upon. The Henrickson wives spend a great deal of time grocery shopping, unpacking groceries, and there are ongoing references to how wonderful orange juice is (while pouring Minute Maid). Many of the food products “advertised” by the series are junk, yet the Henricksons remain slim and fit. Barb and Bill look heavier in Season 3, but appear to have lost it all by season 4.

A guess the million dollar question for any woman watching this series is, could I live in an polygamous arrangement? I can only tell you that around kid #5 I was just so exhausted all the time that another pair of motherly hands would have been a boon, though the long term psychological price of sharing one’s only sexual partner probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Strangely Big Love was created by two gay men, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. More than once corollaries are made between homosexuality and polygamy, including a hilarious scene where “prophet” Roman Grant lectures a group of reporters.

lots of kids, polygamy style

While Big Love isn’t nearly as good as Breaking Bad, it does have its moments of comedic brilliance and emotional poignancy, and for that is well worth watching if you’re in the mood to binge watch an entire series.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

There was one kernel of truth in this misery: the slutty Staten Island housewives congregating about the pool advise you don’t get the benefits of wine until the third glass. Cheers to that!