When I was 12 years old, my elementary school contacted my parents and told them I might be crazy.
Truthfully, I still don’t know, nor remember, exactly how the events unfolded. But I do remember a frantic call from the school to my house, and a subsequent parent/teacher/child conference. I also remember being exposed to dozens of tests, including one where I had to identify what I saw in a series of inkblots. Did you think the inkblot test is only on television? I can assure you, it is not.
“They think you might be a little nuts,” my mother explained to me one day, after I hounded her about what was going on. I didn’t take offense to my mother’s comment in the least; she said those words to me sarcastically, even angrily. The way she spoke was more in the vain of “how dare they,” blanketed by utter disbelief.
The school insisted that I begin to attend regular “conferences” with the school psychologist. Besides the many tests I was given, additionally I was grilled on my home life; they wanted to know if my parents abused me. I was a good student; an obedient girl; and I remained utterly confused about my predicament, or why I was being targeted.
After many of these conferences, my parents were finally called to the school, and we all sat in the Principals’ office together. The psychologist was there as well.
A yellow lined piece of paper was pushed across the desk toward me. I immediately recognized my own writing; it was an essay of some sort; a writing assignment. I pulled it closer to me so that I could identify which one it was; I always enjoyed writing exercises. I remembered it immediately; it was the assignment where we had to describe our bedrooms at home.
I looked up with a “yeah, so?” and I shrugged.
“Did you write this yourself? Or did you copy it from a book?” asked the psychologist.
“I wrote it myself,” I said, feeling insulted.
“Do you remember what the assignment was?” I was asked. I did, of course, and I told them that we were supposed to describe our bedrooms at home, and what it was like to go to sleep in the evenings.
All the eyes of the adults were upon me. The Principal looked frustrated; the psychologist looked impatient. My parents looked angry. “Is this what your bedroom really looks like?” they asked me.
“Did you make this up?”
“Well, sorta,” I answered vaguely. To me at that moment, they seemed clueless. They didn’t seem to comprehend the meaning of “fiction,” and if I had been more articulate at the time, I would have explained the genre to them. But it was more complicated than that; while my descriptions of my bedroom were blatantly untrue, they were based on a very real feeling. I was using my bedroom as a personification of how I felt inside. Did I really need to explain this to my educators?
But the primary thing I remember about that day is feeling sad. Somehow expressing myself often led to my being in trouble. I wondered if they were right; if something was wrong with me; and if I was wrong to write what I had written. I felt shamed.
They asked me to read the essay out loud. I was immediately lulled back into time, when I wrote those images that so inspired me. The bedroom I described existed in a house of destitution. My room was nearly empty, save for one urine stained mattress in the middle of the floor. I was hungry and cold; I had one blanket which was thread-bare; and I had stuffed old clothes into a pillowcase to serve as a pillow. The only light I had was one naked bulb which hung on a long tattered string in the middle of the room. It had a little chain that I could reach from my place in the mattress, and I would turn off my light each night alone after completing my homework on the floor. There were no fairy-tales or good-night kisses. There was just stains and filth.
“Is that the way your room really is?” they asked me again, more sternly.
“No,” I answered sheepishly.
“Do your parents send you to bed without your supper?”
“Then why did you write this?”
I had no answer. Well, actually I did. But I was hit with the awful realization that they wouldn’t understand. I explained it to my parents on our way home, and they understood. In fact, I remember them laughing quite a bit about it all. But the school treated me as though I’d done something bad. It was a pivotal moment in my life.
For weeks they ran a series of psychological tests on me. What I loved most was trying to outsmart the test, and tell them that I knew what the test was designed to find out. I asked about the origins of these tests, and if I could borrow the books they had so I could study them. I was fascinated by what they decided was crazy. They ended up lending me the books, and I began to study psychology on my own. But all of my reactions only seemed to provide further evidence to the psychologist that I was a little bit insane. She would often react to my comments and questions with a sad, almost imperceptible shake of the head.
My real life was undeniably austere. My father taught me the word “monastic” when I was very young, and he used to love to use that word; he believed in a monastic life where your artistic self isn’t cluttered by possessions. Not that our house was physically empty; the walls were bursting with original art; the bookshelves overflowed with books and sculptures; there was great attention to the aesthetics; but very little attention paid to needs.
My father built all of our childhood homes, and they were uniformly rustic; often without many more amenities or luxuries than a cabin. We had no heat; just a stove in the living room, and we were sent to bed with a jar of hot water covered in a sock to help keep us warm. In the mornings, my mother would heat up towels in front of the fire, then run to our rooms and wrap us inside them, and escort us to the breakfast table.
We weren’t allowed real milk; only the powdered stuff, which I detested. We were only allowed to use a half of a toothpick; more than that was wasteful. Paper towels were reused; in fact there was a little drying line above the sink where we were expected to hang the paper towels to dry after rinsing them out. Food was often free; our table was often full of mussels that we would scrape off the rocks at the Marine Reserve only footsteps away; or fruit from a neighbor’s tree. My father would pick dandelion leaves from fields near our house for salads. Nothing would go to waste; he even cooked up a rattlesnake once that he killed for our dinner. We were forced to eat beef tongue, and other innards, which led to my dislike of meat ever since. We never had a birthday party; in fact my sister and I only had one each. The only thing special which happened on our birthday was that we were served Sarah Lee Cheesecake for dessert, and we’d receive, for a gift, something we already needed. Our birthday presents weren’t exciting treats; they were something that should be provided by ones parents.
The year I was diagnosed as being crazy, I was given a pillow for a birthday present.
For months I had complained about my lumpy flat pillow, and begged my parents to replace it. Eventually in a fit of anger, I ripped out the pillow from its pillow case, and filled it with my own clothes; at least it was plumper that way. And when I ripped open my birthday present that night, hoping for a toy or for one of a multitude of things I dreamed about, I was given a pillow. And I resented it.
While my room really didn’t resemble the room I had described in my essay, it did describe my feelings about my room at that time. I felt lonely, cold and poor. And I used images to evoke that; and to express that.
Still, I couldn’t help wonder, if I really might be crazy. I knew I had many obsessive thoughts. I was terrified of black cars, and I believed people who drove black cars were most likely kidnappers. I believed if I didn’t fully read any sign that caught my eye, I would die. Later, I believed I had to read them backwards as well. And there was that pesky belief that my neck wasn’t strong enough to hold up my head.
I had read a quote that “lunatics, lovers, and poets” were really all the same. I never forgot that, and I had always been fascinated by lunacy. I recognized the idea of a sort of exalted poetic frenzy, and I could identify that as being similar to the intense passion of romantic love. And both states, in my mind, were really a sort of madness.
The psychologist that counseled me seemed to believe that lunacy was an escape from reality; a desire to disappear into fantasy; and she felt my need to write that particular essay was proof that I didn’t have a grasp on reality.
But I believed exactly the opposite. I believed that I was unable to escape reality; because I couldn’t live the pretend existence that so many people seemed to live. I was interested in truth, and I was surrounded by a world of denial and fantasy. Writing fiction was the only way I really could escape.
But still, it was just one more lesson that drove me away from my dreams. It seems when I muse on my life, I can find countless examples of why I was taught that expression was bad; and why I became an accountant instead.
Today I don’t mind being called a lunatic. I think lunacy, in some cases, is a prophetic insight; one that is perhaps triggered by an acknowledgement of life’s meaninglessness. I realize it’s trite and common to ponder the meaning of life. But I’ve decided that if life is truly meaningless-- then that in itself-- is really very meaningful indeed. And better yet, we can ascribe and create our own meaning. Today I believe in my dreams again, and I’m going to dream them.
I know. I sound a little crazy, don’t I?