My first impulse was to blame myself. Predictably, I tried to tally up the mistakes I had made, what I had failed to provide her, but they weren't enough to explain what had happened. Nothing was. Briefly, I placed my hope in the doctors, then realized that, beyond the relatively narrow clinical fact of her symptoms, they knew little more about her condition than I did. The underlying mechanisms of psychosis, I would discover, are as shrouded in mystery as they have ever been. And while this left little immediate hope for a cure, it pointed to broader secrets.
It's something of a sacrilege nowadays to speak of insanity as anything but the chemical brain disease that on one level it is. But there were moments with my daughter when I had the distressed sense of being in the presence of a rare force of nature, like a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too.
July 5. I wake up in our apartment on Bank Street, a top-floor tenement on one of the more stately blocks in Greenwich Village. The space next to me in the bed is empty: Pat has gone out early, down to her dance studio on Fulton Street, to balance the books, tie up loose ends. We have been married for two years, and our life together is still emerging from under the weight of the separate worlds each of us brought along.
What I brought, most palpably, was my teenage daughter, Sally, who, I'm a little surprised to discover, isn't home either. It's 8 a.m., and the day is already sticky and hot. Sun bakes through the welted tar roof less than three feet above her loft bed. The air conditioner blew our last spare fuse around midnight; Sally must have felt she had to bail out of here just to be able to breathe.
On the living room floor lie the remains of another one of her relentless nights: a cracked Walkman held together by masking tape, a half cup of cold coffee, and the clothbound volume of Shakespeare's sonnets she has been poring over for weeks with growing intensity. Flipping open the book at random I find a blinding crisscross of arrows, definitions, circled words. Sonnet 13 looks like a page from the Talmud, the margins crowded with so much commentary the original text is little more than a speck at the center.
Then there are the papers with Sally's own poems, composed of lines that come to her (so she informed me a few days ago) like birds flying in a window. I pick up one of these fallen birds:
And when everything should be quiet
your fire fights to burn a river of sleep.
Why should the great breath of hell kiss
what you see, my love?
Last night at around 2 a.m. she was perched on the corduroy couch writing in her notebook to the sound of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in a continuous loop on her Walkman. "Aren't you tired?" I asked. A vigorous shake of her head, a cease-and-desist hand gesture, while the other hand, the one with the pen in it, scuttled faster across the page. Stinging rudeness. I hesitated in the living room doorway, watching her ignore me: her almond-shaped Galician eyes, her hair that doesn't grow from her head so much as shoot out of it in a wild amber burst, her hunger for language, for words. Bach, Shakespeare, the bubbling hieroglyph of her journals…
I leave the apartment and head downstairs, five flights through a series of paint-gobbed halls that haven't been mopped since anyone in the building can remember. Independence Day weekend. The Village feels like a hotel whose most demanding guests have departed. I walk toward the coffee shop on Greenwich Avenue where Sally likes to hang out in the morning, then almost collide with her as she rounds our corner. She seems flushed, annoyed, and when I routinely ask her what her plans are, she turns on me with a strangely violent look that catches me off guard.
"If you knew what was going through my mind, you wouldn't ask that question. But you don't have a clue. You don't know anything about me. Do you, Father?"
She rears back her sandaled foot and kicks a nearby garbage can with such force its metal lid clangs to the ground. A neighbor from across the street raises his eyebrows as if to say, "What have we here?" Sally doesn't seem to notice him or care. There's something oddly kinetic about her presence, though she's standing still, staring at me, her fists clenched at her side. Her heart-shaped face is so vivid it alarms me. When she goes to kick the can again, I place a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
Irritably, she shakes me off.
"Do I frighten you, Father?"
"Why would you frighten me?"
"You look afraid."
She bites her lip so hard the blood goes out of it. Her arms are trembling. Why is she acting this way? And why does she keep calling me Father in this pressured, phony voice as if delivering stage lines she has learned?
I ask her if she's okay.
"Are you sure? Because you seem pretty tense. You haven't been sleeping, and I've hardly seen you eat all week."
"Maybe you should take it easy tonight, lay off the Shakespeare for a while."
She presses her lips together in an explosive clench and gives a shuddering nod.
The next day, Sally has the dazed look of someone who has just crawled out of a car wreck. She is shivering, not as one who is cold might shiver, but with a bristling inner quake of her being. And she is talking, or rather pushing words from her mouth the way a shopkeeper pushes dust out the door of her shop with a broom. People are waiting for her, she says, people who depend on her, at the Sunshine Café, holy place of light, she can't disappoint them, she must go to them now…
She makes a run at the door.
I throw myself in front of her, and she shoves me against the wall. Her strength is startling: 5'4", maybe a hundred pounds, enormous gusts of energy whistling through her like a storm. Wrestling me to the floor, she rips off my glasses, claws my face till it bleeds. Pat lets out a shriek and runs over to help me. Overwhelmed by the two of us, the stretched wire of her body slackens. I break our clinch, still guarding the door, and she scuttles out from under us, retreating to the opposite side of the apartment.
She sits on the floor under a window, and we glare at each other, panting, like animals across a cage.
Recovering her composure, Pat slides down beside her. Who's waiting for you, Sally? What do you want to tell them?
That's all the coaxing she requires. She erupts into language again, a pressured string of words delivered with a false air of calmness this time, as if Pat has put a gun to her head and ordered her to sound "normal." She has had a vision. It came to her a few days ago, in the Bleecker Street playground, while she was watching two little girls play on the wooden footbridge near the slide. In a surge of insight, she saw their genius, their limitless native little-girl genius, and simultaneously realized that we all are geniuses, that the very idea the word stands for has been distorted. Genius is not the fluke they want us to believe it is, no, it's as basic to who we are as our sense of love, of God. Genius is childhood. The Creator gives it to us with life, and society drums it out of us before we have the chance to follow the impulses of our naturally creative souls. Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Shakespeare—not one of them is abnormal. They simply found a way to hold on to the gift every one of us is given, like a door prize, at birth.
Sally related her vision to the little girls in the playground. Then she walked out onto Bleecker Street and discovered her life was changed. The flowers in front of the Korean deli in their green plastic vases, the magazine covers in the news shop window, the buildings, cars—all took on a sharpness beyond anything she had imagined. The sharpness, she said, "of present time." A wavelet of energy swelled through the center of her being. She could see the hidden life in things, their detailed brilliance, the funneled genius that went into making them what they are. Sharpest of all was the misery on the faces of the people she passed. She tried to explain her vision to them, but they just kept rushing by.
Pat and I are dumbstruck, less by what she is saying than how she is saying it. No sooner does one thought come galloping out of her mouth than another overtakes it. Our pulses racing, we strain to absorb the sheer volume of energy pouring from her tiny body. The longer she speaks, the more incoherent she becomes, and the more incoherent she becomes, the more urgent is her need to make us understand her! I feel helpless watching her. And yet I am galvanized by her sheer aliveness.
Trying to make sense of her outburst, I grasp on to what I am certain is the cause of Sally's exaggerated self-regard: drugs. Some havoc-wreaking speedball has invaded her bloodstream, prompting a violent—and, most important, temporary—seizure. "If we can just get her to calm down, all this will pass, I'm sure of it. She'll be back to her old self again."
"We may have to ask ourselves who Sally's 'old self' really is," says Pat.
The blank incredulity of her voice stuns me. "What do you mean?"
"You're not going to like hearing this, but I don't think Sally is stoned. Even if she did take something, it would have to have been at least 10 hours ago. Shouldn't the effects be wearing off?"
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror through the open bathroom door: Two strings of flesh hang from my cheek where Sally scratched me.
"I have to tell you, I called Arnold*," says Pat, referring to the Reichian therapist who treated her after she was hit in the leg by a car and her career as a dancer ended. "He had one piece of advice: 'Take her to the nearest emergency room.'"
The significance of Arnold's advice isn't lost on me, especially in light of his weekly radio show where he voices his skepticism toward psychotropic drugs and the biomedical-minded psychiatric establishment.
"I thought he disapproved of emergency rooms."
"Not in the case of acute psychosis."
Acute psychosis. The phrase shocks me. By comparison, "mental illness" sounds benign.
I splash my face with water; a few pale drops of blood swirl down the drain. Then there's a ruckus as the front door flies open, Pat gives a yell, and the two of us are running down the stairs after Sally.
We catch up to her on Bank Street, speedwalking west with a forward headlong tilt. She is going to the Sunshine Café, she explains in answer to our repeated questions, people are already gathered there, soaking in the light, waiting for her to come back as she promised. Trotting to keep up with her, I have the powerful sense of having veered out of time, into some luridly accurate painting by Bosch or Bruegel: Two Fools Chasing Madness through the streets of some walled medieval town.
A minute later, in front of the Sunshine Café, Sally zeros in on the only customer in the place, a mild-looking man with a crew cut and leather minishorts, quietly working through a plate of chicken Caesar salad. She sits down and projects her face right up to him. "What has brought you today to the Sunshine Café?"
"To meet a friend, I hope."
She grips his naked, tattooed arm. "You've already found a friend. I am your friend."
He squirms away from her, startled, then visibly recoils. She gives him a stretched, strangely distant smile. Before she has the chance to launch into him, the man behind the counter intervenes.
"Get her outta here. I don't want to see her f***ing face again."
I absorb the shock of seeing her through his cold glare: a pariah.
She allows us to lead her out of the café, and we reverse our steps through the hot Village streets, Sally between us now, gesturing imperiously like a captured monarch on a forced march.
When we resume our helpless positions in the apartment, we're shiny with sweat, heat oozing through the ceiling in an almost visible shimmer. Another hour passes. I keep waiting for some kind of spontaneous remission—the hypnotist's snapped finger, as it were.
"People get upset when they feel set up. Do you feel set up, Father?"
Her voice pierces me like a dart. She is flushed, beautiful, unfathomably soulless.
"I'm proud of you, Father. There's so much to cry about. So very much."
Only when I feel the wet sting in the scratched grooves on my cheek do I comprehend what she's referring to: She thinks I am shedding tears of joy at her epiphanies; that I have embraced her vision; that thanks to her I too have been saved.
By late afternoon there is nothing left to do but follow Arnold's advice and take Sally to the hospital. Far from resisting this plan as I expect her to, she greets it with a swell of optimism as if we're about to embark on a long-postponed adventure. She'll be able to "share" her discoveries with people who are versed in such matters, experts who will understand…
At the hospital, we're directed to an examination room and sit tight, Sally curled up on the padded table, her head in Pat's lap, as if trying to endure the fibrillation of her brain without imploding. The psychiatric resident arrives, short, early 30s, her eyeglasses held together with tape. She politely asks us to leave so she can interview Sally in private.
After five minutes, she emerges and leads me to a tiny windowless room, a supply closet really, crammed with IV bags, exam gloves, sterile pads, soap refills. We sit facing each other on fold-out chairs, our knees almost touching.
When did I first notice Sally was acting strangely? she wants to know. And I tell her about Sally's recent insomniac nights, her poem about "the great breath of hell," and the kicked garbage can yesterday morning. "She wasn't incoherent yet, you understand." And then, uncomfortably aware of how unobservant I must sound: "I have a high tolerance for aberrant behavior, I suppose." I immediately regret that statement too. My every utterance, I fear, will incriminate me further. But for what crime exactly?
"It's not unusual," says the resident, "for this kind of illness to break very suddenly into the open like a fever. When it happens, it's shocking; I can imagine how you must feel." I give her a grateful look, but our physical proximity makes eye contact awkward. "Sally's condition has probably been building for a while, gathering strength until it just overwhelmed her."
When I ask her what this "condition" is, she gives a pallid smile. "What we call Sally's disease is not what's important right now. Certainly many of the criteria for Bipolar I are here. But 15 is relatively early for fulminating mania to present itself. What I do know is your daughter is very ill. I strongly recommend she be admitted so she can get the treatment she needs."
"To the psych ward?"
She nods curtly, and I immediately feel myself balking. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I've had my heart set on a last-minute reprieve.
"Since your daughter is under 18, we'll need your consent to admit her."
Accepting the truth, I complete the consent forms. We ride up to the fifth floor, where we're passed through two solid steel doors, each with a tiny rectangular eye slit: a double-locked ward. A skeletal night crew is on duty, all female, a tight cabal. Ignoring Pat and me, they instantly take possession of Sally. I start to follow them into a tiny shoebox of a room, when one of the nurses bars me with an unequivocal gesture and shuts the door.
Sally emerges from her room in a thin hospital gown, snap buttons, no laces or ties. She suddenly looks ageless, as if a great burden has been lifted from her. At the same time, she is more elevated than ever: feral, glitter-eyed. Her sole concern is to get her pen back, which has been confiscated with most of her other belongings. The nurses confer like referees after a disputed call. Then they grant her a felt-tip marker and march her back to her room.
With assurances that we'll be permitted to visit her tomorrow, they give us the bum's rush through the double-locked doors.
We arrive the next morning at 11:50, 10 minutes before visiting hours are to begin. We wait in the lobby: gray linoleum floor, Van Gogh sunflowers on the walls. "We're here to see our daughter," I tell the attendant on duty.
We wait, standing, until the elevator disgorges a sturdily built woman, keys hanging from a leather cord around her neck. "Sally can't have visitors today," she informs us. "She's too agitated. She needs time to calm down."
"But we were promised we'd be able to see her…" I feel myself enter a delayed, almost frozen zone. We've entrusted her to the wrong people, we don't know what they're doing to her, they don't want us to know…
She stands with her legs planted firmly, arms crossed over her keys, the guard right behind her, in family-management mode, ready for a scene.
"Then let us speak with the doctor."
"I'll see what I can do. It's a holiday weekend, a lot of the staff are off."
I sit down, stunned, the guard watching me out of the corner of his eye. Finally, the doctor comes down, late 40s, with the vague air of futility that I would come to recognize in many psychiatrists who have been at it for a while. "She's in isolation. What we call the Quiet Room. Staff looks in on her every 15 minutes. It's for her own good." Appearing to wince at the cliché, he sits down next to us on the edge of a chair, less officious than sad, an old hand at delivering bad news. "As soon as she works through her current phase, she'll be permitted to join the other patients. That may require a few days or only a couple of hours. I wish I could be more exact."
Permitted. Required. The language of punishment. Of custodianship. My heart sinks.
I ask for the chance to see her. "Just to look at her," I explain, "to assure ourselves she's okay."
"I'm sorry, policy won't allow it." He shrugs ambiguously, lowers his eyes. "You may find this hard to believe, but you're doing the right thing. The only thing. Sally's a young girl. People can take advantage of her in her current state. If she were my daughter, I'd be giving her the exact same treatment."
He moves toward the elevator, detaching himself from our despair—clinical, not cruel, an act of self-preservation. "Eventually, the medication will start doing what it's supposed to do," he says.
The days pass. We are a silent force in Sally's room. I tell myself that a kind of stasis has been struck. Sally has not grown worse, she is in abeyance, in a "holding environment" as the psychologist Donald Winnicott called it, safely confined. Watching her in the straitjacket of her medication, I sometimes can't tell if she is awake, and wonder if the two states are indistinguishable to her as well. She is in no-man's-land, I think, what the Buddhists call bardo, the state between the death of one incarnation and the birth of the next, where the "disembodied mind" hovers, neither here nor on the other side.
A rare breeze passes through the room, and Sally says that the air is "tickling" her like "a feather." Her languor lifts, and then returns with its downward tow. She digs her fists in her eyes, smiles apropos of nothing, and then treats me to a fresh vituperative burst. Just when her mania appears to be definitively routed, it mounts a new potent charge. At such moments, she seems to be clinging to it as to her very being. I imagine the mania as a separate living thing within her, a gnome, like Rumpelstiltskin, wily and insistent. It speaks to her in a whisper, promising riches, deviously finding a way to escalate and live on.
I am lulled into the belief that this will be the routine of my life indefinitely: from Bank Street to the hospital on a continuous, hypnotized track. My tense, encouraging smile is a fixture on the ward. "Father, you are farther away than yesterday," remarks Sally. While she sleeps, I sit in my favorite spot in the day room, under the reproduction of a painting by Chagall: a couple on a wooden bench, a picket fence in the foreground, and a shabby angel hovering over them under a full moon. Although I have noticed little change in Sally, I am informed by the attending psychiatrist that "the most acute phase" of her mania has passed. The nurses look in on her less often and in general seem to be less worried about her taking a turn for the worse—the psychiatric equivalent of being removed from intensive care.
Three weeks after her admission, we are informed that in a few days Sally will be discharged. A social worker has been assigned to help "facilitate a smooth transition" to the "less supervised environment" of Bank Street. "I've located an outpatient program that may be just the ticket for Sally," he says. He has the halting speech of one who has overcome a childhood stammer. Knowing that I am a writer, he bashfully tells me that he too is "in the arts"—a cellist—social work is his backup profession, the freelance life was too stressful, the self-abnegation it required, the raw tests of endurance and nerves. "I guess I caved," he says.
I take the sympathy that flows between us as a good omen and permit myself to worry aloud about what lies in store for Sally.
"What is it you want for her?" he asks.
The directness of the question jars me, and I hear myself wishing for the return of what has been demolished in her, if it ever really existed. "A center, I guess is what we normally call it, where she can check on herself, even if she doesn't pay it any heed." I wonder if such a basic and ineffable thing can be built, like a prosthetic, or learned through a series of exercises the way one learns algebra or a second language. "If only I could give this to her," I say.
The outpatient behavioral clinic is located in an austere granite building with carved keystones over the windows in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan. The clinic is a modest suite occupying a narrow sun-drenched corner of the sixth floor.
"Will you be okay, Father, when I'm grown-up and it's time for me to leave you?" asks Sally. And she busses me on the cheek as if she has leapt into an imaginary future in which it is time to bid me goodbye.
After a couple of minutes, a woman comes out to the waiting area to greet us: Dr. Nina Lensing, Sally's new psychiatrist, German-born, in her mid-30s, wearing a wrinkled top with spaghetti straps, small scholarly metal-rim glasses, and a helmet of bright blonde hair.
As soon as Dr. Lensing has introduced herself, Sally blurts out, "Why did this happen to me? Why me?"
Lensing's face opens up into a delighted smile. "I've asked the same question about myself under different circumstances a dozen times. And you know what? We're going to work on finding the answer."
Sally's leg is shaking at lightning speed.
"I bet you feel as if there's a lion inside you," says Lensing.
"How did you know?"
"Have you been pacing a lot?"
"It's all I do. When I'm not sleeping."
Lensing nimbly lowers herself into the waiting area chair next to Sally's and tells her in a tone of woman-to-woman straight talk that mania—and she refers to it as if it is a separate entity, a mutual acquaintance of theirs—mania is a glutton for attention. It craves thrills, action, it wants to keep thriving, it will do anything to live on. "Did you ever have a friend who's so exciting you want to be around her, but she leads you into disaster, and in the end you wish you never met? You know the sort of person I mean: the girl who wants to go faster, who always wants more. The girl who serves herself first and screw the rest. It could be a boy, too, of course, I'm just giving an example of what mania is: a greedy, charismatic person who pretends to be your friend. We may not be able to resist her every time, but one of the things we're going to try to learn is to recognize her for what she is."
"You're talking about me. I'm that girl," says Sally.
"Sally, they don't make them any smarter than you. Now come on, let's get cracking."
To me she says: "We'll spend about 40 minutes alone together, then, if it feels right, I'll ask you to join us. Okay?"
After about half an hour, Lensing reappears, inviting me into the sanctum: a large, shabby south-facing room with a ripped couch on which Sally is stretching herself and yawning, soporific yet restless.
"Your daughter is a pleasure to work with, Mr. Greenberg."
They giggle like girlfriends sharing a private joke, and I marvel at the instant rapport Lensing seems to have struck with her.
"Sally and I have agreed upon a goal: for her to be in shape to return to school in September. We have five, maybe six weeks. Right now, for her to try to go to school would be like running a marathon with a broken leg. So that's our first piece of good fortune: We're lucky it's summer."
August stretches before us like a desert we haven't the stomach to cross. Sally's irate euphoria ignites without warning, in the middle of the night or at 1 in the afternoon. Tearing out of an unreachable stupor, she berates me for my ignorance, my fear, my helplessness, my attempt to control her, to keep her down. "I feel locked up," she says, and she doesn't only mean in the apartment—to Pat, she confesses a powerful desire to rip herself open as if she were zippered inside a fur suit.
By mid-August, Lensing is speaking of Sally's "measurable steps toward real recovery." "Remission" is the word she often uses, to keep us from nursing unreasonable expectations.
"It wouldn't be obvious to you who are with her all the time, but it's happening. I can see it clearly."
When Sally is in the bathroom, she tells me: "I persuaded her to visit the coffee bar on Greenwich Avenue where she had some of her most disturbing moments while manic. The idea is for her to demystify these places, to see that they are ordinary, that the things she believes happened there were all in her mind. When I asked her what it was like to be there, she said, 'What kind of question is that? It's a coffee shop. I had a cup of coffee.' I loved that answer. I'm going to lower her haloperidol, starting today. If all goes well, it will be the beginning of a gradual tapering off."
"We can't be too careful about this. The adjustment will be slow. She's still having psychotic flashes. Short in duration. Sometimes no longer than a minute."
"What kinds of flashes?"
"She thinks a neighbor is watching her or that she's being followed. That sort of thing."
It occurs to me that Sally has been having these sorts of "flashes" all of her life. We just didn't know what they were. I remember her friends teasing her when she claimed that people were talking about her on buses or at restaurants.
Then, one evening in late August, everything changes. Sally and I are standing in the kitchen. I have spent the day at home with her, working on a script.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" I ask.
"That would be nice. Yes. Thank you."
"Please. And honey."
"Right. I'll put the honey in. I like watching it drip off the spoon."
Something about her tone has caught my attention: the modulation of her voice, its unpressured directness—measured, and with a warmth that I have not heard in her in months. Her eyes have softened. I caution myself not to be fooled. Yet the change in her is unmistakable.
I put on the kettle and we stand together by the stove. The opulent townhouse below our kitchen window is lit up for a party. Sumptuously dressed guests spill out into the yard where tuxedoed waiters carry around trays of hors d'oeuvres. A scene from Gatsby.
"I'm glad we weren't invited," says Sally.
The kettle boils. Sally leans toward me, resting her body against mine. "You and Pat saved my life. It must be hard for you."
It's as if a miracle has occurred. The miracle of normalcy, of ordinary existence. Following Sally's lead, I act as if nothing unusual has happened. And by all appearances, to her nothing unusual has happened; she seems unaware of the change.
I think to myself: I'll remember this conversation—this seemingly insignificant exchange—as the moment when Sally returned.
It feels as if we have been living all summer inside a fable. A beautiful girl is turned into a comatose stone or a demon. She is separated from her loved ones, from language, from everything that had been hers to master. Then the spell is broken and she is awake again, "surprised to have eyes."
In June 1999, Sally graduated with honors from high school, and in September she started classes at a small liberal arts college in Manhattan while continuing to live at home. She seemed to have entered a period of intense creativity, catching her teachers' attention with her writing and her original turn of mind. But in the spring she had to withdraw from school, beset with manic psychosis after being free of it for more than three years.
In 2001, Sally became romantically involved with a former high school classmate, Alex. They were each other's "first," as Sally put it. "He told me he loved me," she said, over the moon with him. They were relaxed with each other, considerate and protective, and though Alex was aware of the medication Sally was taking and what it was for, he seemed as mystified by the deeper currents of her illness as I once had been.
In July 2004, they were married on the shore of Seneca Lake in Geneva, New York, with families and friends in attendance. Two years later, for health reasons, Sally was taken off Zyprexa, the powerful neuroleptic that, despite several undesirable side effects, had helped keep her out of the hospital for more than five years. Psychosis jumped to life in her with renewed force, as if it had been lying in wait.
In the summer of 2007, she separated from Alex. Twenty-seven now, she lives in Vermont, where she works at a bakery specializing in the confection of lemon squares and muffins. She also helps out at a nearby farm, tapping maple trees for syrup and tending to the goats and cows. We talk almost every day, Sally wry about herself and courageous even during her periods of retreat and loss. When I told her I was writing about the summer of her first crack-up, she said, "I like the idea that you're thinking so much about me." Then, after pondering it for a while, she added, "I want you to use my real name."
Excerpted from Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg. Copyright © 2008 Michael Greenberg. Published by Other Press LLC.
Excerpted from Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg. Copyright © 2008 Michael Greenberg. Published by Other Press LLC.