Mental illness in Manhattan: a story of an acting life and lost faith
Trigger Warning: this true story contains references to suicide that could be triggering for some readers.
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Mental illness in Manhattan: a story of an acting life and lost faith
By the end of the 1980s, I’d been a stage actress in New York City and California, playing leading ladies Off-Off-Broadway and doing stints at regional theatre and in summer stock. I’d taken classes in Shakespeare acting, in speech, in voice and singing, and had read many biographies of other artists who’d been successful in theatre. I thought I had a chance at fame and riches, and had always dreamed of having a home in Malibu someday. But my young ambitions took their toll on me.
My life in Manhattan involved endless worry about income and a desperate feeling that I’d never make my mark. I’d long since moved from Queens to a studio on the Upper West Side, but the tiny size probably didn’t contribute to my mental health. It used to nearly kill me thinking about why some people make it and some don’t. Was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or staying in New York long enough, or was it having connections, or was it a question of sheer ability? I’d had friends, actors and musicians, who were if anything more talented than I, but none of us were getting anywhere – we were doing this and that, caroming around the fringes of the industry, always having to do other things to earn money. And that was not why we were in showbiz.
At the age of 32, I tried to kill myself. I’d had a terrible day job where I was hit on by my boss, and I took a disastrous vacation to Europe with my mother – we didn’t get along, and by the time I returned to Manhattan I’d descended into psychosis. I felt fearful of everyone and imagined the worst. My life seemed like it was turning into one emotional disaster after another. And after a while, I’d begun talking to myself out loud in my studio apartment, a habit maybe others have, and I don’t think it’s unhealthy, but sometimes I was bouncing off the walls with my anger at the homelessness in New York and my frustration over my so-called career. I suppose I was lonely.
I’ve often regretted falling for a talented musician I met who was separated but not divorced from his wife – I thought I’d interfered with him, as perhaps he had with me. I didn’t know if I should give up my entertainment career and do something else or just have a baby, and I was far away from my family. I’d spent much of my youth reading classic romantic novels, and it seemed as if my own life was being patterned after one of them. My mother, despite her usual support of me, said I had pie-in-the-sky dreams. And my Shakespeare teacher told me once, “It’s going to be a long, hard road for you, because you don’t kiss ass.” All of this culminated in a suicide attempt.
Hospitalized with mental illness in Manhattan
I was hospitalized in the ensuing years on psychiatric wards and was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. Some of the staff in the hospitals seemed as disturbed as the patients, with little real understanding of human psychology. They could be dense and selfish, often with less education than I had, and their main objective seemed to be to get some of their distraught patients under their misguided control. But my doctors did give me drugs that helped.
Schizo-affective disorder differs from typical schizophrenia in that you are fine between episodes – you can maintain friendships, hold down a job, have good familial relationships, and live a contented life. It’s the onset of the illness – decompensation – which is so scary and alarming. Mental illness can be living hell. I heard voices telling me to kill myself, thought people on TV and the radio were talking about me, imagined that the colors of the clothes people wore had specific meaning – red meant love, yellow meant Christ, black meant death, white signified purity – as did numbers (I became very interested in numerology), and nothing people said to me made any sense; I heard double meanings everywhere. I talked in rhyme, which bothered my family because it was nonsense.
I was told that possibly the cause was dopamine flooding my brain, owing to stress. Normally dopamine in the brain produces a sense of well-being, but if there’s too much of it, psychosis – a break with reality — can happen. This illness doesn’t run in my family, but I take meds to this day and have been fine for almost 20 years. Going back to school helped my recovery, and I only managed to do that with money my mother left me. Thank God for money! As well as mothers…for, even in death, she never deserted me.
It was explained to me by a doctor that mental disorders can be as serious as cancer, and as life-threatening, and I believe it because I almost died. I could hear, just before I made the attempt, the wind blowing forebodingly through the trees, and saw broken glass on the pavement in front of a strange man’s house, that looked like beautiful crushed diamonds. I was miserable. I had been so ambitious and couldn’t believe my life had come to this.
My life was saved by the very kind Latino man who let me use his bathroom after I followed him down the street, cutting my arteries open with a razor blade I found on the back of his toilet. He was poor – his only vehicle was an old, run-down school bus – and couldn’t even afford a telephone. Somehow, he’d managed, though, to acquire property, probably through sheer hard work. He was probably an immigrant.
Suicide is no selfish act
Life is precious and it’s good to remember that when I think of how dismal I felt back then – lonely, abandoned, distrustful of everyone. Suicide is no selfish act, as ignorant people claim; it actually takes courage to try to end one’s life, not knowing the future one might face, as Hamlet wondered, in a state of mind so twisted that one isn’t even capable of thinking about others. Life seems like one blazing tunnel that never stops burning you and never closes up. But my struggles weren’t over yet.
I walked up Fifth Avenue one day after my suicide attempt, staring up wistfully at the skyscrapers I loved, believing I’d soon leave New York behind. A street vendor called out to me and said, “Did you just arrive in the city?” She’d noticed the impression the tall buildings made on me. “No,” I answered. “I’ve lived here for ten years.” She nodded and returned to her cartful of jewelry and scarves. I felt heartbroken.
From time to time I’d been taking a train back to the Boston area to see a social worker I was introduced to through an acquaintance of one of my brothers. Kyle was a graduate of Harvard and Smith College. She was successful, well-dressed, married with children and older than I, and was kind, perceptive, and gave me lots of feedback. Every time we met, it was a conversation, not, unlike with other therapists I’d tried, just me sitting there jabbering on, with my therapist silent like a bump on a log, offering no insight.
Kyle had maturity and understanding. She shared her values with me, which, as it happens, lined up closely with my own. She said at one point, when we discussed my upbringing, that my parents had infantilized us kids – they never realized we had grown up. In fact, once my father left her a phone message, wanting to discuss my treatment with her. Kyle wisely refused to call him back, because after all what went on behind closed doors was none of his business.
Anxiety in New York – looking for salvation
But I continued to be troubled by paranoia. Phasing in and out of anxiety while still living in New York, one hot summer night when I was out of the hospital I went in search of a church on the Upper West Side near my apartment – though any religious building, even a temple or synagogue, would have done. I found one and entered. I was looking for religion, for God, for any kind of “salvation.” I was surprised the parishioners were having a service in the evening. I sat next to a man who looked like the Devil to me – he had sweat pouring down his face, since it was a hot summer night, and what looked like an evil grin.
After the service, the minister asked if anyone wanted to come forward and speak. I did. I walked towards the altar and they gathered in a circle around me and asked who I was, if I had a family. I said yes, but it looked as if one of them had a gun, because he kept one arm behind his back, and they were getting so personal with me, I thought I was going to be murdered.
I began screaming. They recited a prayer, then asked if I wanted to go out for hamburgers. I said no, that I was a vegetarian, and besides, I didn’t know these people at all. I walked home feeling like an idiot and told a tenant in my building who was coming home about the experience. We went for a walk around the block, but I still felt foolish and frightened. I began to think of moving back to Massachusetts.
In the end, it was the Sun, or more likely some semblance of my forgotten God, that tossed me out. It was Memorial Day, 1990. Tormented by my demons — I tried listening to the radio but thought the announcer could hear my thoughts and was talking to me personally — I left my apartment one morning and walked towards Central Park, feeling pulled there as though by a rope tied to my waist. I came upon kids playing softball in the Sheep Meadow, and stopped to play ball with them for a while. And I tried to ride a bike a man had left resting against a tree, until I was told the bike belonged to him.
I wandered off and came upon a black Jamaican with scars on his face, who was smoking a joint. Sitting down on the bench with him, I asked if I could have a hit. I never smoked pot – it made me paranoid in college – but was looking for a friend. After a few minutes, I asked him if he’d like to come back to my apartment. I was lonely and only wanted companionship. He agreed and began walking down the nearby path with me, but suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“You pay me,” he said. I looked at him, shocked and wondering what he meant.
“What?” I said.
“You pay me.”
He frightened me. He looked bitter and angry. I realized he must think I was a hooker, and I fell onto a nearby bench and collapsed. Suddenly I felt disembodied, like a “mind” only, with no other selfhood, and I was gazing into what seemed like the very personage of God. Feeling as if my head had been split in half by an axe, I heard the message that “God builds things, and the Devil is dumb and hurts people without even realizing it. And they are one and the same.”
Finally, I came to, and the Jamaican man had disappeared. I walked to Central Park West, dazed and weak in the knees, and stumbled against a lamppost, collapsing on the ground. As I tried to stand, a woman passed and said, “Are you all right?” But, suddenly frightened of me, she turned away quickly and walked on.
I managed to stand, then ran back to my apartment, screaming at the top of my lungs the name of a trustworthy and politically committed man I’d loved in college. I had never forgotten him for his radicalism, and his faith in making the world a better place and doing the right thing. And I arrived home in upheaval, peeling off my clothes and curling up in bed.
Returning home to Massachusetts
That was it. I moved. But I was miserable back in Massachusetts. I wasn’t well, and while my parents tried to be kind, they were impatient that I didn’t find work right away and were worried. My encounter with the powerful “Lord,” or whatever that blistering, sun-like force was in Central Park, didn’t serve to strengthen my faith; it had been excruciating.
I locked myself in my bedroom and listened to music. One day my parents picked the locks off my door to gain entrance. I was so angry at this invasion, I picked up a little coal shovel near the Franklin stove in my room and struck my father on the backside. He in turn was so mad, he grabbed my wrists and threw me on my back onto the floor. He was easily twice my size. I was frightened by his ferocious strength and couldn’t believe his rage. My mother tried to stay calm and a few days later they called for an ambulance. I was deranged again, owing largely to my guilt over bad relationships with men and my futile wonderment at “what it’s all about”: peace of mind, God, justice, poverty, the arts, ambition, money, fame, success, broken friendships, of which I’d had a few, and my quest for stardom.
But I was still young, and life holds many surprises. I did recover some years later with the help of medication and a lot of self-reflection, my social worker Kyle’s counseling, and when I enrolled in grad school. The course of my existence changed upon becoming a writer, with my newfound sense of direction and true faith in my brains, imagination, and creativity. Thank goodness my mother left me money when she died, and I could become a student again. She’d always had faith in me and the importance of family…she was a beautiful, feisty, talented woman whose optimism and generosity remain in my consciousness today.
If you’re feeling suicidal and need help right now call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit Befrienders Worldwide.
Martha Patterson writes essays, fiction, poetry, and plays, and her work has been published in more than 20 anthologies and literary journals. She has degrees from Mount Holyoke College and Emerson College, and loves being surrounded by her radio, books, and laptop - she's addicted to National Public Radio! She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.