Some of my best family memories were going "Down to Connecticut" to visit my grandparents. Video games were always part of the equation. Here is a chapter of my book called Pitfall that commemorates these trips.
When the Dallas Cowboys played on Thanksgiving Day, my brother and I had to be quiet in the living room. My uncle sat in his brown recliner, swearing after every play. Every play. My grandfather – my mother’s dad – sat on the couch. He smiled at us. My grandmother cooked in the kitchen. Dinner would at least give us a break from Dallas.
The second-most prominent location on my map besides my own home was Bridgeport, Connecticut. My brother and I were stuffed into the backseat, and ride was infused with the smell of my pillow. I fell asleep immediately on any car ride, my neck in different contortions against the window through the ride down 95 South. My brother might sleep or play with action figures and cars exploring the terrain. For my parents, the ride was divided into two parts. These were the parts of the drive with traffic (Providence, New Haven), and the parts of the drive without traffic. Also, for some reason, my mom did not like that there were “trucks” on the road. “Trucks” referred to those vehicles that had some sort of trailer. Between the experience of traffic and the reality of trucks, this was the first conversation that occurred when we arrived in Bridgeport:
Grandma: “How was the traffic?”
Mom: “Traffic was terrible. There were so many trucks in New Haven.”
Grandma: “Those trucks shouldn’t be allowed on the road.”
Uncle Richard was ten years younger than my mom. He lived with my grandparents. I have pictures of him as a kid during a visit helping Ken and me stack Pamper boxes when my brother still needed them. Uncle Richard, like my mom, graduated from the local Bridgeport, Connecticut high school called Harding. Afterwards, he went to work in a factory. When my parents, Ken and I visited for Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Richard had to work the day after Thanksgiving. He left before we got up, and arrived back at 5pm, sinking immediately into the brown recliner for the night. He moved only to order fast food for dinner.
We travelled “Down to Connecticut” on holidays, and a couple times during the summer. My parents, Ken and I would start out about 9am and arrive around 12, with my grandma always greeting us outside before we came in, giving us all her hugs and kisses. Once inside, grandpa and Uncle Richard would come forward for a hug as well, and we would bring our bags and pillows into the back room, where we stayed overnight. This room was technically "grandma and grandpa's room," but now grandpa usually slept downstairs, and grandma typically fell asleep on one of the living room couches in front of the TV "watching movies."
We loved to go out to eat together for seafood, or to make hamburgers and salad and sit out on the porch in back. We watched movies and played video games. We spent a lot of time in the basement, which was made into a recreation room. My uncle and grandfather loved cats and took in strays or adopted kittens from friends. Rosebud, my uncles’ favorite cat who was adopted as a kitten from someone he knew, was brown and white, and she became my uncle’s favorite. When she died, he buried her in the backyard, and bought her a gravestone. One stray that my uncle let in to live with them came out of a pizza box, so he was named Pizza. He grew to be the biggest of their cats, and he roamed their home day and night.
When we travelled down to Bridgeport for Thanksgiving, my grandparents had gotten new living room furniture - a blue combination this time. My grandma Beatrice Gaddis always spent her time in the kitchen before our meal, while my grandpa and Uncle Richard sat in front of the TV - grandpa on the couch, Uncle Richard in the recliner. My mom stayed in the kitchen, my brother and father stayed in the living room, and I went back and forth between the two rooms.
My grandfather, Warren Gaddis, had many names - specifically five - not including his last name. Walter Warren John Joseph Erving Gaddis. His last name came from a family who adopted him in Lewiston, Maine from Catholic Charities. He told me that one day, in his late teens, he was driving and saw a woman walking home in the rain without an umbrella. He picked her up to give her a ride home. That woman was my grandmother. My grandmother had worked in a local donut shop, and later for General Electric on an assembly line putting knobs on toasters from 3pm to midnight. My grandfather managed a laundromat. When I knew them, they lived on Granfield Avenue.
"Oh, COME ON! GEEZ!" Uncle Richard yelled. Apparently, the Dallas Cowboys had screwed up. Grandpa slept while the food cooked.
We would eat dinner between one and two. Each year, the table was filled with green beans, yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, my great-grandmother Helen's homemade horseradish, turkey, and various Coca-Cola products. We would arrange ourselves the same way around the table, with me in the back under the window, my brother and grandpa to the right of me, grandma and mom to the left of me near the refrigerator and the door to the back porch, and Uncle Richard closest to the living room. My father sat next to Uncle Richard and grandpa.
Grandma wouldn't sit down until my mom asked her three times to join us. "I forgot the rolls!" she would say as the rest of us had already started eating. "Ma, sit down!" my mom would say. Once seated, my grandma started her yearly litany of everything about the meal that was wrong. "The turkey! Terrible! Dry! And I'm sorry about the lumps in the mashed potatoes!" We always tried to reassure her. After that, grandma and mom would talk about my brother and me, and then grandma would ask us about how school was (or later, what I was still doing in school). Grandpa would nod and smile at us. At some point during the conversation, Uncle Richard would get up, put his plate down on the counter with a bang, and leave. Family chit-chat was not his thing. Rejoining the Dallas Cowboys on TV, he would resume swearing. At this point, my grandma would bite her lip, and start cleaning the table, even if we were still eating. Mom would join her in cleaning. My father, brother and grandfather would finish eating and then chat for a little while in the living room, and I would remain at the table. I would have tea with my mom and grandma.
As night came, things changed. If the game was not over by 7pm or so, my grandma and mom would step in. "Come on, Rich. The kids want to play video games. You have been watching all day. It's their turn."
The first thing that would happen after this request is Uncle Richard would stomp into his room and slam the door. After we waited, he would come out with the Atari (or later Intelevision, or Nintendo). This time, the new Atari game he had was called Pitfall.
It usually took about an hour for my grandfather, father, Uncle Richard and mom to figure out (once again) how to hook up the video game to the TV. This activity was accompanied by muttering, such as "I thought this was what we did last time!" and "No that's not it!" This continued until Channel Three showed a small brownish-green man running across the screen with grass, trees, and a sky with scattered clouds. The character, named Pitfall Harry, shared the screen with alligators and scorpions.
The holiday evening ritual had started. Everyone took turns. We all sat on the floor except grandma, grandpa, and Uncle Richard. Uncle Richard played from his chair while my grandparents watched. On this turn, my brother had one of the controls, my father had another.
Pitfall Harry leaped over the scorpions in a tunnel. He swung across a swamp on a vine. He searched in an underground tunnel. The quality of the entertainment did not depend on how realistic the jungle adventure appeared.
"Look alligators!" Ken said. Little green lines emerged from the blue swamp, opening and closing mouths. On this screen, there were alligators, but no vines. This part of the adventure proved to be the most difficult. Harry tried to balance on the eyes of the green mouths as they opened and closed. Everyone failed as Harry fell straight down into the water as reptile food. No one could maneuver across.
"Wait, try this," my mom offered. She tried to run quickly across the closed mouths. They opened before Harry succeeded in his attempt. The character again fell into the mouth.
Grandma made some coffee and brought out our regular dessert - Italian cookies from the bakery up the street. Pink, yellow and green cookies got gobbled off the plate. Uncle Richard meanwhile reported that he had gotten past the alligators only once. We all laughed as Harry was repeatedly eaten by one of the three mouths opening and closing in unison.
Crocodiles were not the only pixels that united my family. Years before, my father had taken out an Odyssey on a holiday evening in Bridgeport. Odyssey afforded us hours of fun even though it only comprised of one white dot and two white paddles on either side of the screen. To us, it was amazing. To spice up the game, you could adhere different covers with static electricity to the screen. My favorite - a haunted house. I played with the haunted house screen and the white dot repeatedly. I felt thrilled each time without even understanding what constituted "winning" the haunted house game. There was also a tennis court and a racetrack cover.
At 10pm, Ken and I would start kisses around the group, usually ending with my Uncle Richard. That night, no one had figured out how to jump across the alligator, but the next morning, somehow Ken skipped across the gators on their eyes. He showed everyone the achievement the next night before we all watched a movie. My grandma always claimed she had seen the movie, even if it was just released. "No, I fell asleep to that one three weeks ago," she would say. No one argued with her. Logic did not hold a high priority with my family, and this fact did not affect our happiness.
A couple years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with lightning pain in my abdomen. I yelled and my husband awoke. My mind cataloged all the issues that could be causing the pain. Forty-five minutes later, I was admitted to our local hospital. Prescribed pain killers though an IV, I fell asleep.
As I slowly came back into consciousness, a male doctor in a white coat informed me I had appendicitis. My father had had his appendix out as a teenager, and I remembered the scar. "What caused this to happen now?" I asked. He told me the reasons for appendicitis were not well-understood, but that my surgery was scheduled for later that morning.
Something about this hospital stay gnawed at me. I later realized it was my first hospital stay for something other than mental illness since I experienced a break in 2010. At that time, the procedure had been much different. Although I was a graduate student at "liberal" UC Berkeley, and, I was confused but docile, something very different happened when the time came for me to go to the hospital.
The psychologist or psychiatrist at the student counseling center did not step forward. Instead, a policeman did. I was informed he would escort me to the ambulance.
Then, he put handcuffs around my wrists.
The contrast bothered my brain. I felt as if a marble rolled between my ears, its noise persistent and hollow. For a ruptured appendix, a friendly, calm doctor reassured me in a timely way. But under the influence of a mental health condition, I was viewed as a security threat. My husband, who came to see me the next morning after I was hospitalized, ranted, and demanded to know why I looked worse and had not seen a doctor over the course of an entire day and night in the hospital. When the doctor did come, she appeared impatient and annoyed with both of us. It was only her role to pronounce a medication and leave us to our separate but equally harsh worries.
This is why May is Mental Health Month. If Mental Health were viewed as Health, I would not have been viewed as warranting police presence and intervention. Instead, my husband could have accompanied me to the hospital and waited with me for my intake. A doctor would have reassured us. I would have been treated within hours of my hospitalization. Richard would have received helpful information.
And Handcuffs (Handcuffs!) would not be viewed as a necessary anecdote to a scared woman who was only quiet, confused, and sick.
Welcome Readers! I cannot wait to share with you excerpts from my first book Deceptive Cadences! But first, here is a piece that I published in The Mighty! It is the most popular writing I have to date. Enjoy!
"I want to go home," I say to the hospital psychiatrist. I miss my husband, and I do not understand what is happening.
“Subtract 7 from 100, then keep going,” says the psychiatrist.
"But I am a college graduate. I am finishing my PhD" I pleaded.
He looks at me. On the best of days, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill his request. Numbers were never my strength.
I am silent. He shrugs.
“It’s a simple test of concentration,” he states. “Now, can you join the others?”
I had worked in community mental health. I had earned an MSW and PhD in social work. As a first-generation college student coming from a low-income background, I was determined, resilient. But, beginning in 2010, a year before I earned my PhD, I experienced my first psychotic episode. I was involuntarily hospitalized. Over the years, as doctors worked to adjust my medications, I experienced hospitalization seven times. I have been hospital-free since 2015. But, I was both a professional and a "professional" patient. I finished my dissertation and worked full-time even as I lived through this health crisis.
I currently work as a director in a disability organization. I have experienced the challenges of both health concerns and stigma. And now I sit, telling my therapist how psychiatrists - and the mental health system generally - really does not understand psychosis.
Psychiatrists, I felt initially, had cavalierly prescribed medications, then just as cavalierly changed them. Eight years later, I am thankful for the set of medications that allows me to live meaningfully. But initially, my body rebelled against the first prescription and my nervous system reeled. I went to the ER because I was in so much distress, but nothing could remedy the reaction until the medication left my system. My psychiatrist was confused. "Why did you go to the ER, what did you think they could do?" he asked. "I just wanted the sensations in my body to stop," I explained.
It's difficult when the search for a cure also disrupts your body and mind.
Yet, faced with psychosis, I was overwhelmed and scared. I thought I was receiving clues, from lights, TV, music, my computer, my phone. Even if I took a walk outside, signs and orange cones seemed to be clues to a greater puzzle. I thought that if I took a wrong turn, failed a test, failed to understand the meaning of a song lyric, horrible things could happen to my friends and family, or I would be personally punished by God. Most of the scenarios in my head referenced abusive experiences I had endured in the past, now amplified.
The first time I was brought to an ER, I was put in handcuffs, for being sick. I was only confused and quiet. At one point, I screamed in an ER while I was awaiting placement in a hospital because I believed the Devil was taking over the world. Rather than ask why I was distressed, a team of people rushed in, tied me to the gurney, and injected me with Haldol. My husband had been on his way to see me, and I am so sad that he had to witness me in that position.
Psychosis does not end when the medication finally works, if it does. At least, it did not end for me. My mind remained confused. Processing information slowed. My nervous system was hyper-reactive. I did not feel fully recovered for at least a year.
No one knows what caused my break, and initially I was told it was temporary. Eventually, I came to understand my experience as post-traumatic stress disorder with psychotic features. And the condition was not temporary - despite the optimism of some of my doctors, I eventually had to accept my condition as permanent. Also, with each attempt to take me off medications and despite my best efforts, I could not recognize my own return to psychosis. Each time, I lacked this insight. One psychiatrist asked me "You do know the devil is not taking over your soul, right?" He was very kind and concerned. I responded, "I wish I did, but no, that's what I believe."
What do I wish people understood better given these experiences? Here are five main points:
1. Even if the person cannot express it, they are likely terrified, and will probably remember afterwards what happened to them when they were psychotic.
Many times people with psychosis are only depicted as scary, violent or dangerous. However, someone experiencing psychosis is more likely to experience violence than perpetrate it. I was terrified. I remember the beliefs I had when I was psychotic, and how people treated me. The people who were most helpful were not scared of me and recognized it was me who was really afraid.
2. Ask someone what is making them afraid. Do not jump to restraints.
If someone experiencing psychosis screams or yells but is nonviolent, ask them why they are afraid. Reassure them you will help keep them safe. Ask if they would like something to calm them - their phone with music, a pillow to hold, or someone close to them to wait with them.
3. Psychosis does not end when the medications work or other interventions work.
Psychosis is traumatic. It's difficult to feel like you cannot trust your mind. The experience should be treated like a potential trauma in itself, as should involuntarily hospitalization. The mind and nervous system need to recover. I started running. This allowed me to discharge anxiety and feel strong again. One hospital I stayed in had a garden and exercise equipment - which was much better than restraints.
4. Remember the person experiencing the episode is a human being.
My initial story about the doctor who dismissed me shows that too often, professionals treat patients in a dehumanizing way. It probably never occurred to him I was lonely and that I really was finishing my PhD. Also, it may not have occurred to him that I really did not understand what was happening. Take the time to orient the person to the situation. A person is not their symptoms. People receiving treatment want to be recognized as valuable.
5. Psychosis also traumatizes family members.
My husband so often was left baffled about what was happening to me. He called social workers who never returned his calls. He wondered why doctors were in such a rush when he wanted answers. He was scared too. Family members deserve kindness and support.
I am a mental health professional who has been recovering for eight years. And although I have had painful encounters with stigma that have affected my trajectory as much as the illness itself, I believe those of us in the field that have experienced psychosis can contribute an important voice. Those who experience psychosis deserve a holistic and human approach, one that builds upon the person's resilience, rather than further depleting it.