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Thursday, May 31, 2012

5-31-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #32


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my personal fears, too. . . .)

As the information from the NIMH website is so useful and straightforward, I’ll add some more for my readers, hoping it’s stuff they’d want to know. . .

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?
The symptoms of schizophrenia fall into three broad categories: positive symptoms, negative symptoms, and cognitive symptoms.

Positive symptoms
Positive symptoms are psychotic behaviors not seen in healthy people. People with positive symptoms often "lose touch" with reality. These symptoms can come and go. Sometimes they are severe and at other times hardly noticeable, depending on whether the individual is receiving treatment. They include the following:

Hallucinations are things a person sees, hears, smells, or feels that no one else can see, hear, smell, or feel. "Voices" are the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. Many people with the disorder hear voices. The voices may talk to the person about his or her behavior, order the person to do things, or warn the person of danger. Sometimes the voices talk to each other. People with schizophrenia may hear voices for a long time before family and friends notice the problem.

Other types of hallucinations include seeing people or objects that are not there, smelling odors that no one else detects, and feeling things like invisible fingers touching their bodies when no one is near.

Delusions are false beliefs that are not part of the person's culture and do not change. The person believes delusions even after other people prove that the beliefs are not true or logical. People with schizophrenia can have delusions that seem bizarre, such as believing that neighbors can control their behavior with magnetic waves. They may also believe that people on television are directing special messages to them, or that radio stations are broadcasting their thoughts aloud to others. Sometimes they believe they are someone else, such as a famous historical figure. They may have paranoid delusions and believe that others are trying to harm them, such as by cheating, harassing, poisoning, spying on, or plotting against them or the people they care about. These beliefs are called "delusions of persecution."

Thought disorders are unusual or dysfunctional ways of thinking. One form of thought disorder is called "disorganized thinking." This is when a person has trouble organizing his or her thoughts or connecting them logically. They may talk in a garbled way that is hard to understand. Another form is called "thought blocking." This is when a person stops speaking abruptly in the middle of a thought. When asked why he or she stopped talking, the person may say that it felt as if the thought had been taken out of his or her head. Finally, a person with a thought disorder might make up meaningless words, or "neologisms."

Movement disorders may appear as agitated body movements. A person with a movement disorder may repeat certain motions over and over. In the other extreme, a person may become catatonic. Catatonia is a state in which a person does not move and does not respond to others. Catatonia is rare today, but it was more common when treatment for schizophrenia was not available.2

"Voices" are the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia.

I’ve just figured out that the title of Randye Kaye’s book, Ben Behind His Voices, makes total sense because of the last statement from the NIMH website on Symptoms of Schizophrenia.  Brilliant!

5-30-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #31


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my personal fears, too. . . .)

The other day, I interviewed Communications Professional, Randye Kaye (she’s an actress, voiceover artist, radio personality -- and author).  Her book, Ben Behind His Voices, is about her schizophrenic son who had gradual onset schizophrenia between the ages of 16 - 19, approx. 

Until a patient has a full blown psychotic episode, it’s impossible for the mental health profession to render a diagnosis. . . and so many of the early diagnoses for Randye’s son were all wrong. . . at least my brother, Tom, was diagnosed early on, I believe.  But forty-odd years ago, the medications weren’t anywhere near as good as they now are. . . and I’m almost certain that the meds Tom took had a profound affect on his physical health, probably shortened his life.  Sad.

At any rate, here’s some useful information from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from www.nimh.nih.gov:

What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder that has affected people throughout history. About 1 percent of Americans have this illness.1

People with the disorder may hear voices other people don't hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated.

People with schizophrenia may not make sense when they talk. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking.

Families and society are affected by schizophrenia too. Many people with schizophrenia have difficulty holding a job or caring for themselves, so they rely on others for help.

Treatment helps relieve many symptoms of schizophrenia, but most people who have the disorder cope with symptoms throughout their lives. However, many people with schizophrenia can lead rewarding and meaningful lives in their communities. Researchers are developing more effective medications and using new research tools to understand the causes of schizophrenia. In the years to come, this work may help prevent and better treat the illness.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

5-29-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #30


But then, it changed -- and food was most definitely NOT my friend.  Being a pudgy kid, I resolved, as a teenager, to never have that problem, again.  I’d sooner starve than gain back the weight I lost when I was fifteen -- over 40 pounds in six months, it was.  I thought I was doing pretty great.  Sure, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t shake the headaches, needed to sleep a lot.  My stomach hurt, too.  I filled myself with diet sodas (like my favorite, TAB), broths, tomato juices, sauerkraut juice, coffee and tea with skim milk and Sweet ‘n’ Low.  I allowed myself 600 calories a day, if that, and no meat at all.  This was my vegetarian period.  Speaking of which, around this time, I stopped getting my period.

I’d go into Richer’s bakery at the Marathon Parkway service road to the Long Island Expressway with my dad on Sunday mornings, when he’d buy a box of bakery treats for mom, Carrie, and me, I came face to face with the enemy: velvety cheesecakes topped with strawberries, blueberries or cherries; sumptuous Charlotte Russe with the little turbaned tops, maraschino cherry-kissed; German chocolate, glazed bundt, banana-maple walnut cakes; inch-thick black and white butter cookie disks, five inches in diameter; pastel-iced petit-fours, seven-layer Viennese tortes ten inches high, twelve inches across.  Displayed there also, in the bakery case, were blueberry muffins done to a moist, tawny, sugar-dusted magnificence, and one-serving strawberry shortcakes so compelling to the eye that the tastebuds of even the most devoted of aesthetes could but groan with desire.

My favorite treat, though, were the Richer’s bran muffins, baked with molasses and extra amounts of plump black raisins.  They were square in shape, about three inches in diameter.  I allowed myself this treat once a week -- and it substituted as a meal.  These muffins could easily be cut into small, bite-sized pieces and slowly eaten, in solitude.  I’d start by cutting the muffin in half.  Then, I’d make three cuts across the top, and another three cuts the other way so that I’d wind up with 18 delicious little bites of the most decadent bran muffins, ever.  Some Sundays, when I was really hungry, I’d make four intersecting cuts across the top, making me a total of 32 little bites. 

Then I’d chew, slowly, washing it down with a large iced coffee with Cremora and Sweet ‘n’ Low.  I’d read sections of The Sunday New York Times, in my basement room, secretly snacking on my prize -- that amazing molasses raisin bran muffin from Richer’s.  I was leery of anybody watching me eat because I thought they were making fun of me, talking about me. . . eating seemed revolting to me while I actually did revel in the occasional guilty pleasure.

It was easy, weighing 85 pounds, having one’s “cake” and eating it, too. . . if only my damned head didn’t hurt so much!


Monday, May 28, 2012

5-28-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #29


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)

The summer I was seeing Jon, I had plans to switch high schools from Bishop Reilly to the big public high school, Cardozo.  I was thrilled to enroll in a place where you didn’t have to wear uniforms, the boys and girls studied together in a class, and my Jewish friends -- Jon’s friends I’d met, and the kids from the Samuel Field Y program -- were all there. 

I only got to go to Cardozo because I figured out how to get kicked out of Bishop Reilly High School: you had to flunk religion class.  That was easy!  After returning to school once I recovered from mono, I’d sit with crossed arms at my desk in religion class and not even touch any of the materials that the nun teaching the class distributed.  I know it was rude, and felt kind of bad, but my “righteous” anger about being kept in a dismal, repressing place like Bishop Reilly got the best of me and I didn’t want to be there, period.

I started going to Cardozo, and fell in with some girls who loved the band Poco.  We’d go over one of their houses after school and sew or embroider patches on our jeans.  It was quite the craze that year: elaborate patches and embroidery.  I liked to sew, so it was a fun thing to do.  I also started sewing some of my own clothes out of old pieces of cloth and used jeans -- like halter tops with old Girl Scout badges (I’d been a Junior and Cadette scout).  Cool.

My sophomore year in high school is when I started my intense dieting regimen. . . and a friend introduced me to “black beauties” too.  Those were diet pills, very strong speed.  I think I started to kind of lose it. . . things started spinning out of control.  I was still pining over that awful boy, Jon.  I couldn’t help it. . . I felt so awful and I couldn’t rely on food to make me feel better. . .

Before I was a teenager, I’d eat piles of pancakes, shoveling ‘em in.  I’d eat three servings of desserts.  Devouring bags of Fritos chips, I’d wash ‘em down with 7-Up, the “uncola.”  I was one big girl who adored brownies, chocolate chip cookies, Milky Way Bars, Big Hunk nougat bars, Three Musketeers, Turkish Taffy. . . I also had quite the candy jones.


(Below: Grandma's Christmas cookies from her recipes.  MMM mmm yumboleenie!)



Before my teen years, I had double chins, thighs that chafed each other when I walked, and had to shop at the Lane Bryant Chubby girl shop.  I hated my body.  I couldn’t stop eating, and until I was fourteen, I didn’t. 

Food was my friend; not too many kids were. But then, and thanks to Jon breaking up with me, it changed. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

5-27-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #28


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)

 For the entire summer I was 15, Jon and I spent every day together.  We never spent a day in our house, in Douglaston.  Mom wasn’t too happy about me going to Bayside every day, but she usually drove me there or picked me up.  Eventually, she and dad decided that Jon was a bad influence.

Good call!  Too bad they didn’t figure that one out sooner.  And once Jon tried to visit me at night and climb up the side of the house to the upstairs bathroom window (probably because of that Beatles song, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.”  We might have made a dare, something silly).  My parents found out and then called his mom and it was a mess. 

Things were getting bad between Jon and me, anyway.  He broke up with me unceremoniously one day -- the darkest day in my young life.  I couldn’t stop crying; so attached to him, the separation was painful.  That kind of hurt is so terrible. . . which is why I am glad that the kids in my family aren’t getting too serious about anybody romantically, yet.


(Family portrait around when I was ten or twelve.  Dad is, of course, behind the camera.  There I am, little pudgy kid on the left, buck teeth, diastoma, and all.  Tommy looks demented -- shape of things to come.  Mom looked thin -- she'd been on a yo-yo diet again and this was in one of her "skinny" years, and Carrie, far right, is just the happiest, lovingest little girl -- she's still remarkably content in life. . .)

Why didn’t he love me any more?  He couldn’t say.  But I thought it was because I was too fat.  All right, I could do something about that.  I could go on a diet.  I’d already shed about 20 pounds before meeting him; couldn’t I do that again, and better?

If I looked like a beautiful, svelte model -- a lovely waif like our friend Kenny Cohen’s sometime girlfriend, Carol, whose Mona Lisa smile and ballerina-thin figure made me cringe with envy -- maybe I could win Jon’s love back. 

So that’s when I decided that strict dieting -- and extra exercise -- was what I needed. 


Saturday, May 26, 2012

5-26-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #27


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)


Here’s an old poem I wrote from that time about Tommy and Northern Boulevard:

ODE TO NORTHERN

Can’t you hear? It’s
Northern Boulevard.
I tell you it gets soothing, like
Whiskey or gin or that stuff
Your shrink told you to take
Because you became
Sometimes violent.
You’d sit in a diner
-- On Northern --
Scornful mockery on your face
As was the fudge from the top of your
Super-deluxe Ho-Jo Ice Cream Soda,
Fudge-rippled.

So you sit in your house
Until you can’t stand it
But there's nowhere else to be
So you listen to
NORTHERN BOULEVARD NOISES
-- and sleep in your dream.

Anyway, it went something like that.  And similar poems, plus my magnum opus, “Quasi-Cinematic Phantasmagoria” won me a poetry award in high school, one I didn’t even know existed.  I was surprised and pleased to win. . . how nice.  The award was a hardback copy of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which I only got around to reading once I was studying to be a certified High School English Teacher in Connecticut.  It’s a bizarre and complex work. . . what a strange choice for the Salmagundi Poetry Award!

Anyway, before Tommy started writing poetry, I’d done it.  Maybe that’s why he got so mad at me when I wouldn’t do comprehensive literary analyses for him of his poems. . .

5-25-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #26


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)


My brother, Tom, wasn’t much for sunbathing, either -- which was good once they put him on thorazine, stellazine, whatever else.  Meds and exposure to sunlight aren’t exactly happy cohabitants.  I also don’t know anything about Tom’s dating life, and whether he had girlfriends when he was a teenager.  In his twenties, I once saw him with a young hippieish looking woman, with long, blonde, wavy locks and wild eyes. . . but that didn’t last.

Although for the most part uncoordinated, Tom tried his hand at tennis.  He’d go across the street, to the parking lot by the St. Anastasia’s rectory, and hit the ball against the wall over and over.  I remember the “thwock!” sound of the ball hitting the racket, and the “pong” sound of the ball hitting the wall.  Every now and then, when nobody else was there, I’d borrow a racket and some balls and try my hand at hitting the tennis ball against the wall. 

It seemed like half the time, a ball would bounce up high and get stuck, up on the roof in a crevice between roof sections of the old rectory building.  That was discouraging; it was hard to come across more tennis balls, us being kids who couldn’t easily get to a sports supply shop.  Dad or Tom would grab a ladder and climb up to retrieve balls from the roof once in a while. . . it seemed dangerous and comical, at once.  I even went up on the ladder, but was scared: I don’t like heights.

We lived in Douglaston, Queens.  About two miles away, in the Douglaston manor section of our town, a young tennis player named John McEnroe was burning up the court, so to speak.  I don’t think brother Tom ever got over there, though: the Douglaston Club was pretty exclusive, and we were solidly middle class, not upper middle.  We were on the wrong side of the boulevard. . . Northern Boulevard.

Actually, our house was within 100 feet of that busy, four-lane road (the only way to get to northern Long Island until the Long Island Expressway was built in the 1930s or so).  At night, we could hear the cars rumble by, almost like a lullabye.

5-24-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #25


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)

At any rate, once Jonathan and I met and became friends, he’d call me on the phone and we’d have these marathon talks, really silly ones, but great: he had a way with words and joked around, and a deep, sexy voice.  But at the same time, he had a silly giggle, and that was endearing, too.  I definitely fell for him, hard.  And, for a while, he was in to me, too.

We couldn’t see each other in person till I got over mono and school was out for the summer.  But once late June rolled around, he’d take the bus down from Bayside, walk a half mile down Douglaston Parkway, and visit me a few times. 

Eventually, I would go and visit him.  His parents divorced, his mom worked during the day and was away from the apartment (I think she was a social worker or therapist), so we could go there and fool around.  We’d play Beatles records (The White Album, Sergeant Pepper’s, Abbey Road) and, well, fool around.  Jon’s mom had muesli cereal in the kitchen cupboard, and once I tried that (stirred in a bowl with a little milk) there was no going back.  I loved it!

We became young lovers, an inseperable twosome.  Jon introduced me to some older friends of his -- like me, he was precocious in body and mind -- who also lived in Bayside.  One of them had a garden apartment and was a rabbinical student.  At any rate, we spent more and more time there, listening to the Beatles, Firesign Theater, and the Mothers of Invention, having bizarre discussions about anything and everything, eating delicious junk food. . .

We also went to the beach one time with one of Jon’s older friends, driving in his car.  We sat out on a beach blanket in the sand, from morning till late afternoon, in the bright early July sun -- no beach umbrella.

 My skin sunburned so lobster-red it blistered and peeled on my back.  When I got home, I cried and cried, in pain.  My grandma was there, and she put a poultice on it, tsk-tsking about kids these days.  For days, I couldn’t move without almost screaming.  Bad, bad sunburn.

THAT is why I shun the sun with a righteous fear.  My whole life, I’ve never sunbathed, and I seek the shade at all times.  You may smile and say, “Oh, how nice, the sun is out!” and I’ll just keep my words to myself with an inner smirk, “Yeah, nice, hot, hurtful, damaging sun.  Stay away from me!”

. . . Turns out a lifetime of sun-shunning was a really good move: I have few complaints about sun-damaged skin now, in my later years.  Very few wrinkles, too. . . . 

5-23-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #24


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- mostly about my psychotic brother and his legacy.  It touches on my fears, too.  Here’s the part that I talk about my experience growing up, and some of the factors contributing to my early teen breakdown. . . This is the painful stuff for me, bad choices, stupid moves. . .)

Growing up Catholic and with a conflicting need to confess and self protect, there are times I’ll blab things that are perhaps too personal.  IN a memoirist or any kind of really intense writer, that’s good.  On the other hand, like that marvelous saying, “When in doubt, don’t.”  That is why I’m gonna hold back now. . . but I’ll hint at stuff; that will have to suffice.

The senior boys at Bishop Reilly thought that I was “interesting” indeed: a chubby/zaftig, spirited, overly friendly young woman with long straight brown hair, big brown eyes, clear skin, precocious vocabulary.  I wore lots of mascara and, of course, had that very adorable plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirt that I hiked up to mid-thigh once I left the girl’s side of Bishop Reilly High School. 

I went on dates with a few of them, and also met an older guy who had a car.  We drove to Jones Beach in March or April of my freshman year at Reilly, made out a lot.  It was very cold, and not comfortable. I just remember him paying me the compliment, “You don’t kiss like a 14-year-old.”

A month later, I got very sick, with “mononucleosis,” the kissing disease.  Catching mono meant I was not only very sick but also highly contagious and so, I was out of school for several months.  Then, when I got back to school, there only a few weeks of school were left.  I was OK catching up with the schoolwork, but I HATED Bishop Reilly and didn’t want to continue.

I’d met a pretty messed up guy who I thought was really cute, named Jonathan,  at a program at the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck.  The program was for kids who were acting wild, and offered counseling and group therapy for wayward youth.  Being very concerned about me, my mom drove me there twice a week, once to see Mel Goldstein for one-on-one talks, and another time for group sessions with other kids.  Mom meant well, but meeting Jonathan sealed my fate and sent me in a direction in life that I’d probably have been better off steering clear of.

It was then I realized my kinship with the Jews; I loved that whole gemutlicheit, everything about Jewish culture.  There’s that warmth, intellectualism, love of books, self-deprecating sense of humor. And best of all -- the guys are generally into “shiksas” -- the non-Jewish girls.  Although not a blue-eyed blonde shiksa, I had a cute nose and boobs.  They dug it.  And I liked being around non-Catholics.  I found my people. . . or so I thought.


Friday, May 25, 2012

5-22-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #23


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )


I heard about Janis Joplin’s death one morning, on the radio, before walking to the bus to school.  My footsteps heavy, I mechanically put one foot in front of the other on the walk up Douglaston Parkway to the city bus, the Q-17.  How could that have happened?  How could my hero, Janis, have died? 

Janis was cool, she sang great, dressed cool, was beautiful in my eyes.  So what if she wasn’t Twiggy?  She had such great power and beauty.  I was only fifteen, but her lifestyle -- being able to take lovers and be free, free of old morals, free onstage, free in every way -- enchanted me.  I loved hippies and “freeks.”  I lived among conservative bourgeois folk, straight-laced Catholics, good Catholic girls and nuns at the school my parents wanted me to attend, Bishop Reilly High School.  I hated Bishop Reilly and all it stood for.  The boys had their own wing on the other side of the school, but we weren’t to mix with them.

So of course, I did.  I snuck to the boys’ side after school and flirted, subtly.  I mean, WWJD? (What Would Janis Do?)

The whole day after the death of Janis Joplin, I dragassed around ol’ Bishop Reilly High School, pondering why.  Why did such an awesome person have to die?  I knew Janis would have understood how I felt, so unwanted, so alone, and so “different,” too.  None of the other girls seemed to care, and that made me feel so, so alienated.  On my walk home from the bus, I sang a Melanie song in memory of Janis, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” putting all my pain and rage into the lyrics.

I had no idea what brother Tom was thinking because there was no communication with him, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t care about a crazy hippie singer like Janis.  He would listen to Buffalo Springfield and Cream, and this young guitar hero, Eric Clapton.  But, even when he was home, we hardly ever talked.  Both of us were wrapped up in private thoughts, dreams, concerns.

And for me, getting high and hanging with boys started to take over my life, pretty quickly, once our home life tore apart. . .

5-21-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #22


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )


I loved music, especially Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.  Oh, and the voice of Linda Ronstadt, so rich and strong.  I always sang in church -- I’d find an “alternate melody” that worked with the hymns, usually in a lower register.  Later on, that was called the alto harmony part.  It just seemed to make sense, and the songs sounded prettier that way.  Before I split from the church, the music was the only reason I went.

My brother Tom, before he went away to hospital treatment more or less permanently, was really into the guitar.  He had a “folk guitar” with nylon strings that he tried to play during a Folk Mass (they tried them in the late ‘60’s at Catholic masses, to try to be more updated and relevant).  I remember being at one of them and cringing: he didn’t play very well, and I knew it, but couldn’t say anything.  I just felt bad for him.

When he went away, I started to play that guitar, spending many hours by myself, cradling that guitar, teaching myself chords, by ear.  When we graduated the 8th grade, a boy in my class who I had a huge crush on wrote in my autograph book, with an unflattering illustration of me in pen: “There sits Laurie Agnelli, in her room, hunched over her guitar.” 

No matter.  I knew I could sing, I knew I could learn how to play better guitar.  Because it didn’t take much rhythmic ability, I took a folk guitar fingerpicking class at a nearby after school Saturday morning program.  We learned to play a few Simon & Garfunkel songs. . . then I went home and figured out other songs I wanted to sing.

By the time I was fourteen, I wanted to join some bands. Not sure how I found it, but the first band was about 30 minutes away, in southern Queens, in a kid named Pete’s basement.  They had a keyboard player (Pete), a bass guitar, and me.  Being a girl, I was not supposed to play an instrument, just sing.  So I sang Janis Joplin songs and banged a tambourine.

The band had no name, but we did play one gig: at another kid’s party. One of the songs we did was “Color My World.”  Ugh.  Another was, “In-a-gadda-da-vida.”  Eh.  I think I sang “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Move Over,” two of my fave Janis songs from Pearl.

 Then, the unthinkable (and inevitable): Janis died.


5-20-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #21


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )


So of course, parents back in the day didn’t question whether Johnny or Mary were feeling good about themselves -- or indeed, whether they were really learning.  I started feeling bad about myself around the second grade.  I went to Catholic school.  In between spelling, penmanship, and learning the “times tables,” we had first Holy Communion classes, where I’d ask the awkward questions about the sixth commandment: What’s adultery?

The priest answered, “Children don’t need to be concerned about that.”

I was the sensitive kid who’d cry often and try to hide it.  I was the pudgy girl who sat in the back, reading, writing, drawing.  My favorite story was about “Sarah and the Adventures of the Ruby Ring,” which I wrote about a fictitious twelve-year-old, a person I’d longed to be: smart, thin, self assured, popular with the ghosts in the graveyard.

And then, my big brother had a psychotic episode, wound up in the hospital, then was transferred to Creedmoor State Hospital -- the official loony bin of Queens County, New York.  My family spoke about it all in angry, hushed tones, leaving my little sister and me in the dark, confused and hurt. 

We saw little of my brother Tom at all from the years I was in junior high and high school.

Then, in high school, I started hanging out with boys and getting high. . . which didn’t help matters at all.

5-19-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #20


This is getting to be the painful part of the memoir. . . where the painful mistakes happen and I can’t be too proud of my difficult past. . . but bear with me, please.  This is probably why it’s taken several days to write these blogs and catch up. . .

(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )

If anybody had told my overachieving, overeducated, hyperintelligent nineteen-fifties mentality parents that they’d be raising two “crazy” kiddies. . .  I shudder.  What a terrible fate. Unless, of course, as the saying goes, “God only gives us the burdens we can handle” or somesuch truism meant to comfort.

(The other one I love: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”)

Mom and dad did what they could. They really tried.  They had no idea that being strict, or having too many rules/strictures/punishments would be a bad thing. 

Nowadays, the experts are saying that kids need to have borders, limits, structure -- and attention.  Back when I was growing up in the sixties, it was all about parents giving a lot of discipline to kids and only a little attention.  We kids knew the rules -- and learned how to sneak around them.  We towed the line, but sometimes got caught -- and were punished, physically as well as by having privileges withheld. 

I don’t recall getting much praise for jobs well done, or for being wonderful.  In school, the programs were scaled back or nonexistent.  We learned by rote, we were bored to apathy in class (I couldn’t pay attention because my brain was racing.  I read all the textbooks the first week or so).  There was no such thing as individual attention or instruction.  The classes were well over 30 kids, sometimes 40.

In Catholic grammar (or elementary) school, ALL children were left behind, emotionally -- and treated as intellectual equals.  No Special Ed or Talented and Gifted kids, nosirree.  I was second from the top in my class, grades-wise, but never had any support.  A good report card was considered sufficient reward. . .



Friday, May 18, 2012

5-18-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #19


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )


MODUS OPERANDI?

There are those who live the unexamined life.  Good ol’ Socrates said it’s not worth living. Obviously he didn’t truck much with the modern age -- he didn’t have Xfinity cable television and the internet to amuse himself with, Hulu and endless re-runs.  Come to think of it, I’d like to see what Socrates would have done with FaceBook.  All right, I take that back -- in the modern age, he could have waxed introspective on his blogs and reached followers that way.  Anyway, for those of us in this modern age who really DO think, and live the examined life, these are good times, with the blogs and all. 

At times, I have done “the examined life” in extremis.  That is why I write songs and articles and anything else possible.  I have a crying need to understand.  What makes things tick?  I have to make sense of so much that seems insensible, illogical, and unfair. I am an introvert at heart, INFJ on the Myers Briggs scale.  I can rise to the occasion and be a social butterfly, but that’s mostly because large gatherings make me nervous and I can’t sit still.  I worry that somebody might feel slighted if I -- by accident -- ignore them.  I could blurt the wrong thing out, so I try to listen twice as much as talk.  I like to stay by myself, in my own little thoughts, a lot.

Why would it be so important to write about a sibling whose brain chemistry’s gone amok?  Of the many good reasons, here’s a very deep motivating factor:  almost every day, I question my sanity.  I question my thoughts, actions, interactions, choices I make.  I wonder if the miracle of clear thought and focus will again be mine, even if just for minutes at a time.  I wonder about my ability to keep going, find work, keep a job, finish a project, keep nose to the ol’ grindstone. 

I never wonder about how to do things I’ve learned and practiced all these years, things that come naturally:  writing (journalism etc.), interviewing others, singing, songwriting, playing music, and on some level, being a photographer/videographer (the latter I need to catch up on more -- but I’m learning and getting pretty good).

I do wonder, every day that I wake up, will I make it today?  Will I hold on to my mental health?  Physical health?  Can I pay the bills and keep the house?  Can I help my family and friends to do that, too?  Will the day come when I have to be locked up. . . again?

Because it did happen, once -- a few years after Tommy started going into hospital after hospital. . . 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

5-16-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #17


(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )

COMMISERANTS/COMMISERATI - part 1

I’m heartened by hearing from others who have mentally ill brothers.  I just met author Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, whose memoir, Girls of Tender Age, was partly about her deceased, autistic brother, Tyler.  Referred to as “Rain Man” in the book by some people in a hospital that cared for him, this guy had a very limited life, socially.  Back then, in the fifties (Tyler was a good 10-15 years older than my brother, Tom), if you were that strange, you were considered “retarded” -- strange because autistic Tyler Tirone was an idiot savant and could read big books about WWII at the age of 8. . .

He was kept out of school, stayed at home, slept all day, and had a lot of quirks, among them the inability to stand noises like dogs barking or people crying.  In so many ways, he was a lot worse off than my brother, Tom.  Of course, they had entirely different issues/devils. . . and medications too, of course. 

Reading M-A Tirone Smith’s book made me relieved that our family’s problems with Tom arose in the late nineteen sixties; at least it didn’t seem like such a benighted time.  Sure, there was still stigma aplenty and my parents suffered a lot because they couldn’t tell others about their wacko son (it just wasn’t done).  Still.  It could have been worse, all right.

Fifteen years or so ago, I was visiting my West Coast Aunt and Uncle (mom’s brother, Jim, and his wife, Kathy).  They lived in Bellevue, Washington -- a suburb for the Boeing families who moved there in the early ‘60’s, like them.  We were sitting up late, in the kitchen, after a nice gathering of the cousins and a sing-along with guitars in the living room.  We’ve always been a musical family.  In fact, one of the Vonderlinns sang with the Trapp Family Singers. . .

Aunt Kathy said how sad it was that my mom couldn’t tell her family about the hard times with Tommy.  She’s a proud woman. . . how could she admit failure?

I remember reading something in mom’s room one time, a letter from a doctor saying something about a “seductive mother” that I didn’t understand.  Her bedroom was a total mess, a jumble of clutter & papers all over the place, not at all a restful place. . . but how my eyes lit on that paper, I’ll never know.  It just chilled me to the bone to read it.  Poor mom, what a double burden, being blamed for her behavior AND for her son’s chemical imbalance. . . poor mom.