Thirty-five years is too long to carry a wound that still hurts from time to time. I’m talking about my first experience as a “mental patient“ in 1977.
I’m determined to put that pain behind me this year.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that only one person who treated me at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston was malicious. The rest just didn’t know how to treat me.
I Don’t Hate Well-Meaning People Who Just Don’t Know
The staff was following a treatment plan, and what they knew about people who acted like me in 1977.
They honestly believed they were helping me by telling me my future was hopeless, trying to steal my dream, telling me what was wrong with me, refusing to listen to what happened to me. Sure, they should have known better, but the whole profession was ignorant then, with many sensitive individual exceptins.
The sooner I accepted my hopeless future, and let go of my impossible dream, the sooner I could get used to a new self-awareness, move on with my life as a psychiatric patient, and find whatever joy I could. Resisting them the way I did just kept me agitated, frustrated, and dissatisfied.
Like all mental health providers in those days, they knew people as sick as I was could not recover. I really was sick as hell, with devastating, rapid-cycling mood swings, psychosis, and enough rage to start World War III. No one in psychiatry in 1977 knew trauma alone could cause such symptoms and devastation, without help from a chemical imbalance in the brain. My mother had bipolar, which is genetic, so that clinched the diagnosis.
In two years, I had lost my career, small reputation as a writer, my savings, marriage, and Manhattan apartment. I was a homeless psychotic cab driver. The rage was a symptom of the disease, not a normal reaction to what happened, which they did not allow me to talk about, because. I escalated, and became symptomatic, when I did. And since they were “OK” and I was “sick,” there was no need to listen to anything my sick mind said.
I forgive them. I don’t have to stay angry and hurt in the present over ignorance and stupidity in the past.
Victory and Revenge over the Malicious One
But what about the one doctor who did hate me personally, who made the treatment plan everyone else followed, Donald Meyer, MD, the first-year resident with three months’ experience who was assigned to my case.
Every day for the nine weeks I was there, he said thinking I could be a writer was arrogant, that my losses were my fault, that I was in this sorry state because my parents raised me wrong, and I was just a wrong kind of guy, not worthy of his attention or the hospital’s facilities.
By stubbornly refusing accept his judgment, or give up on my writing, I confirmed his opinion that I was just looking for a free ride from the system because I thought I was too good to drive a cab.
He hurt my parents, not just me, financially, not just emotionally.
I still get upset when I relive his reaction the day I brought up applying for Social Security Disability. “As a taxpayer, I would not be part of something like that.” Then he wrote his opinion on my SSDI application, costing my family a fortune in outpatient care, and free room and board at their house.
I don’t remember that conversation; I relive it. I see his face, hear his voice, and return to that little room, as if it is all happening now. My father, the law professor, would yell at me sometimes out of frustration, and fear that I’d never get a job and stop living off my parents:
“If you’r e not disabled, why aren’t you working, and if you are disabled, why aren’t you collecting benefits?”
I relive that too, sometimes.
How do you forgive, forget, or get over the guy who did something like that, and stop it from hurting?
Celebrate Your Victory and Revenge
My dear friend Megan Wood Heldman said recently, “Embrace your victory and revenge, not the malice, injustice, hurt, damage or anger that happened to you. You won! You became a writer..”
A year after my release, when I’d been unable to work despite several failed attempts (the minimum requirement for SSDI), I wrote the hospital refusing to pay their enormous bill.
The hospital had to admit its mistake and apologize. They forgave the entire bill. It’s almost certain they asked Dr. Meyer, for his side of the story before they blew off all that money. I’m sure his passionate response revealed his hatred and prejudice to the Beth Israel administrators.
I got 37 months of retroactive disability, enough to restore the money my parents spent. The rest of it supported me until I was strong enough to start a successful newspaper career.
I got the only real revenge anyone can ever get against malicious people who hurt them: a long, happy life, doing what I love, surrounded by positive people who love me. Framed that way, I won permanent victory, and revenge, after being screwed temporarily by a rotten doctor in a misguided medical system.
I’m not a victim. Like my best friend Corinna West’s affirmation says, “I’m a winner. I’m a champion. I’m tough.”
Sweet Victory and Revenge at Grand Rounds
One day, the entire psychiatric staff squeezed into a narrow conference room to discuss my case at grand rounds with the head of their department. I sat outside while they presented my case. Someone in the room told me much later that Dr. Meyer did all the presenting, calling me. a loser, arrogant, defiant, non-compliant, and lazy, looking to them for a free ride from the system, unwilling to look for a job.
When I was ushered in, the top doc listened a minute, interrupted, and said I had a grandiose sense of mission, and an unrealistic view of my ability and importance. I would stay sick until I accepted that I’m a cab driver, not a writer, and realized there was nothing wrong with that. Then he opened it up to questions.
“What are your goals when you leave the hospital?“ someone asked.
“I was a writer before I got sick, and I’ll be a writer when I get well,“ I said.
The whole room started shouting at me. That was a grandiose, arrogant fantasy. “What’s wrong with being a cab driver? It’s grunt work, but honorable.“ someone said.
I said “It’s too dangerous.” Instead of seeing that as a firm grip on reality, they saw it as further proof that I thought I was too good for the job. Someone suggested I get a furnished room in Kenmore Square and a part-time job driving a cab. I should take my medication, go to day treatment, and learn to enjoy the person I really am.
“If that’s such a good thing to do, why don’t you do it?“ I said.
Sweet victory and revenge: They tried to invalidate me, shout me down, and steal my dream. I never flinched. I even closed with a spontaneous zinger. I left the hospital soon after that, and started a long, relentless, disciplined march, against great odds, to a job at a daily. Nobody can say I’m crazy when I call myself a writer. I’m happy with myself, my life, my relationships, and community connections. That’s all the victory and revenge I need.
They didn’t make me look bad. I’m made them look terrible. If I saw them today, I would quote what Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean used to say about his famous arrogance: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.“
Like my best friend Corinna West says in my favorite poem, “Because I Can“: “I’m a winner. I’m a champion. I’m tough… I want it. It’s mine. I’m now”
Megan was right: Knowing in my heart that I won a victory and got revenge is the greatest victory and revenge of all. It doesn’t hurt any more.