It’s pretty trippy.
First, there was the recognition that I was multiple (though I believe everyone is, to some degree, so this “diagnosis” is relatively benign, though still something interesting to work with, to deepen one’s self-understanding). That came to me the summer of 1994, the evening of the last day of my first year in the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Arizona. I’d only gone back to school because I needed the income that student loans could provide, because I couldn’t work after my son had been diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I agreed to divorce, I’d been designated the one to move – with my teenage children, who became very bitter – my health insurance company had declared bankruptcy, and my daughter had acted hatefully to me for the first time ever, calling me selfish for making them move.
I’d wanted to work. I loved my work, and the business owner (I was his only employee) had just offered me the plum of a lifetime: ownership of his $3-4 million business – 200 birdwatching tours every year to every continent, including Antarctica – for a percentage of profits, no money down. I felt perfectly capable of taking it, though not sure I wanted to be tied down to any business, regardless of how attractive it was. I’d been written up along with three other women a few years previous as a Supermom – I didn’t recommend it – in a major Tucson, Arizona, newspaper. But now I couldn’t work. I went to work, I stayed all day, but noticed my energy was extremely slow, and then I began waking up at my desk, wondering why I was looking at the wall sideways and realized I’d laid my head down on my desk, but didn’t recall it. And this happened day after day.
It never occurred to me to ask for help. A couple months earlier, I’d won a literary prize for a short story I’d written and had been invited by one of the judges into the University of Arizona’s writing program. For the first time, I considered going back to school and realized it would be perfect: Someone would “pay” me to write and read, both of which would be excellent therapy that I might not be able to afford otherwise. I worried about taking my fragile self into the university environment, but didn’t see any choice.
I had my nervous breakdown before a callous young, witty audience. Humbling beyond belief.
I won’t describe the first year. I wrote about it in RattleSnake Fire. But the night after my last class of the year, an evening class that ended at nine, I rode home through the hot Tucson summer air, coasting downhill toward the dry Rio Santa Cruz, my path occasionally sloping down through a wash where the cold air layered, and I enjoyed the exhilaration of the coolness on my sweaty skin and the physicality of pushing on pedals and making myself move!
The semester was done, and it had been damn hard, all that humiliation, but I’d borne it with dignity, I thought, and it was only half my fault, the difficulty of it all; the rest was the other students’ and their age – and even that wasn’t their fault. This was just one of those accidents of nature: culture had created a lifestyle including the pressure of Supermoms (not sustainable), which cripples people like myself, we are hurt, and everyone has been isolated, communities fractured, no one left able to respond, and humor is one way of dealing, sometimes hurting others’ feelings, or worse, and it happens all around us all the time. This had been the clear, stark, in-my-face reality everyday, and I was the one in the net, laughed at. Because my children needed me, I didn’t kill myself.
Two weeks earlier, I’d come home one afternoon, dropped my backpack onto my bed, and saw a vision of myself from inside, as if I were small and standing inside a big, dark human-shaped barn old enough to have gaps of between the boards which let in the only light. I was amazed and thought, “This thing’s not standing much longer.” Then, a support beam hidden in the darkness dropped from its position, and I knew the barn was coming down soon.
“Okay,” I answered, “but let me get through these last two weeks of school.” The crazy instabilities I’d been experiencing in ever quickening cycles suddenly stopped, and I finished the semester in relative peace.
And now it was over. I had the entire summer to myself, essentially: I would take an independent study, meaning I could continue to get student loans while writing whatever I wanted on whatever schedule suited me.
The idea of three whole months with nothing to do but the writing I’d do anyway was astounding, and I realized this was the first time in my life since my childhood that I didn’t have a schedule. Things had been nearly bursting my seams, and now I’d have time to let them out, thoughtfully, and have time to recover from whatever emotion I was sure would flow. What a gift. Time. I’d never had it in my life.
The summer night was beautiful on my skin and in my lungs as I cruised down side streets and wound along bike paths toward our little apartment complex, our new home. Historic, brick, with the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on the wall near the front gate into the courtyard, where I lived in a little one-room efficiency with a fig tree at my front door. I’d long loved fig trees, since I sat in one at my grandmother’s house and felt truly loved in its arms. So this tree was a sign of good things, and they’d had been happening, slowly. For one, my son’s cancer was gone.
My kids, sixteen and seventeen, each had their own un-rehabilitated apartment, illegal and without water, but they loved being on their own, and they could come to my place to use the kitchen and bathroom, and sometimes we’d have meals together.
Exhilarated by all the goodness, the most beautiful evening weather in Tucson, my sweet little apartment, and the promise of an empty summer, I eagerly set up my writing situation: My writing chair and matching ottoman I’d purchased for sixty dollars (an extravagant amount) at a thrift store many years earlier. The cream and gold brocade was frail, just beginning to pull apart in a few places, but still looked nice. Beside the chair, I placed a cup of hot herbal tea and a quart jar of pure, room-temperature water, along with my journal, pens, pipe and smoking mix, and the little lap desk I’d bought for my son, thinking he’d enjoy writing in bed (“Oh, Mom…” he’d said scornfully, either because he thought it was truly a dorky idea or else it was the little blue teddy bears covering the pellet-filled pillow which made the desk comfortable on the lap.) Maybe I also poured a little wine, or got myself a snack. But I remember thinking that everything was perfect. And after all I’d been through in the last year, I was newly happy about living, mostly happy that this was the first free moment of what would be three whole months of nothing to do, an unbelievable, amazing gift, for which I was infinitely grateful.
Just as some might sit down to indulge in a delectable meal, I paused before sitting down and admired the picture: The reading lamp shown on the brocade, everything I might need right beside me. The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot was there – delicious reading, though at times it bent my mind. I’d begin the evening by reading and see what writing was triggered.
My psychotherapist had told me that I really needed to practice making purchases for myself, because I’d never done it. I’d only acquired things that were cheap or free, except for gifts I gave to others. With his urging, I’d bought myself an India print bed spread in blues, purples and greens, very mystical, and the spread in the uneven glow of my reading lamp caused an upwelling of love and gratitude to flow through my body. Life was good.
Sitting down, I faced the front wall, beyond which was my Black Mission fig, and studied up near the ceiling the crumbling brick wall exposed where plaster had fallen away. The colors were beautiful.
Eventually, I read. Fascinated, pages turned for a while until I hit a sentence that confused me – not unusual, as this was material that sometimes needed to be read twice, but this was confusing in a different way. Something was wrong. I had read the sentence a few times, and I had no idea what I’d read. It was as if someone had removed a snippet of my life completely, erased every word and concept that had flowed. I read it again. Again, I could remember nothing. Fully conscious. And boggled. I’m sure I shook my head. And when it happened again, I realized I had to think of some way to trick myself to get around whatever was going on. I read the sentence aloud, and then remembered.
The sentence mentioned that one famous clinician of people with Multiple Personality Disorder believed that many of them looked far younger than their ages. Immediately, I knew why I’d gone blank. I was often mistaken to be twenty years younger than I was. As for being a multiple, that was freakish, abhorrent, and I rejected it, but also recognized that something else inside was speaking up, saying, “Yes, we are….”
In the moment that I yielded, accepted that maybe it could be true, and a reasonable person should look at the evidence and just consider it, it was as if a lifetime dis-ease had shifted, giving promise of relief. I remembered times of amnesia, and a childhood friend who’d screamed at me that I was a “split personality.”
“This would explain a lot of things,” I thought. Suddenly, I felt my body ripple as if made of water with a slight electric charge, then the sensation was gone and I felt normal again, except that it seemed my body had been rewired on the cellular level, and energy flowed through me in the most perfect patterns of harmony and health.
I was also aware of the presence of a woman in me, or rather like a three-dimensional covering over my skin, holding all my parts together; and knew that she was the one who would oversee my reintegration. The words, “the integrating woman” came to mind. I couldn’t see her, though, as I “saw” from my left, while she was looking slightly to the right. Somehow, I felt hopeful.
The next morning, I went to the University Medical Library and spent a few hours reviewing all the literature on MPD. When I walked out the door, I actually felt happy. Rather than insanity and hopeless cases (I was ready to be the famous exception), I read that MPD is often caused by childhood trauma (my experience), is often accompanied by high intelligence (my experience), and is considered by some to be fairly common; some researchers even believe that everyone is multiple to some degree. Finally, I learned that, unlike most mental illnesses, once diagnosed, it is relatively easy to cure.
I strode out of the hospital, buoyant at the promise of new life after I healed my alters.
To be continued….