Tag Archive | Albany Times Union

Paranoid schizophrenics I’ve known

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Esteban Santiago in custody

Esteban Santiago, the lone gunman who killed five innocent strangers and wounded six more at the Fort Lauderdale airport on January 6th, had sought help from the government in November. He walked into an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, claiming that the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State videos. Agents called police and he was taken for a mental health evaluation, but he didn’t appear intent on harming anyone, so he slipped through the cracks in the system. Two months later, he officially became a murderer.

His delusional claims brought back memories of my years working on locked wards with seriously ill patients at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. With my hard-earned master’s degree in art therapy from New York University, I was embarking on my first full-time job in mental health, and I was especially fascinated by the elaborate delusions of those diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. The men on Ward 604 ranged in age from their late teens to early middle age and they were on the maximum-security ward because they were considered a danger to themselves or others. Some were assaultive, others had prison records, and there were a couple of murderers.

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Abandoned Rehab Center at HRPC. I led an evening Creative Arts Club here for those allowed to leave the wards.

This was the 1980’s, and like many state mental hospitals across the country, Hudson River was rapidly being downsized as patients were discharged into the community, presumably to be managed through outpatient services and medication. But some were deemed too dangerous for discharge, and others cycled in and out through the system’s revolving doors.

Some of the paranoid schizophrenics believed they took their orders from God or the government, while a few believed they actually were God or at least Jesus. One young man believed he had turned into a woman and had sex with John Lennon. (This was in early 1980, before John was brutally murdered.) I couldn’t resist replying, in my best nonjudgmental therapeutic manner, “Oh, do you want to tell me about that? What was it like?” Unfortunately I can’t recall his reply.

I encouraged the patients to get their visions down on paper, with pencils or paint, and to talk or write about what the images meant to them. As an art therapist, I’d been trained not to impose my own interpretations aloud, but I’d learned to analyze the pathologies revealed by their artwork, to record them in progress notes and to report disturbing content to their shrinks and treatment teams. Often the imagery was violent, replete with swords, guns, blood and dismemberment. Yet not once did a patient assault me or even verbally threaten me. I was their ally, there to foster their creativity and self-expression, not to impose controls on them.

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Abandoned day room, Cheney Building, HRPC–much like the one where I held art therapy sessions

Hudson River closed years ago, and I’ve often wondered what became of those patients who were incapable of adjusting to life in the community. Like thousands of others, many probably ended up in prison, homeless or dead. Deinstitutionalization hasn’t been the panacea it was touted as being, and there aren’t enough affordable community mental health services to go around.

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Esteban Santiago in Iraq

Esteban Santiago was receiving psychological treatment in Alaska, but his family wasn’t privy to the details. Clearly it wasn’t enough, but maybe nothing could have stopped his deadly rampage. Since he surrendered and survived, maybe he’ll be able to shed some light on his actions.

Two days after the shooting, I began this blog post as a potential op ed piece for the Albany Times Union, but then I realized that my viewpoint wasn’t sufficiently clear, so I put it aside. A day after that, the TU introduced a new, reduced format, with certain features shortened or omitted. The two Perspective pages, with their generous space for columns, both national and local, went on the chopping block. Now they might not have space for my essay in any event, so I decided to post it here. Since I’m no longer limited to 600 words, I can be a bit more freewheeling—if I were aiming for publication in the TU, I wouldn’t have mentioned the patient who believed he’d fucked John Lennon.

I have mixed emotions about hospitalization for the mentally ill, especially those who are truly a danger to themselves or others. Deinstitutionalization was supposed to be a good thing, and those enormous old hospitals were portrayed in the public eye as hideous snake pits. But Hudson River Psychiatric Center was a fairly benign and yes, therapeutic environment. If it weren’t, I could never have worked there for 13 years, enough to get me vested in the New York State retirement system that helps sustain me now.

The patients at Hudson River inspired me to embark on my first novel, then titled The Flip Side. It was good enough to win me some personalized and encouraging rejection letters, and eventually a good agent in Manhattan, but alas, she never sold it. It remains unpublished, but who knows, I may resurrect it one of these days.

Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder what became of those fascinating guys on Ward 604. Did they eventually get discharged and adjust to life in the community? More likely they died young or landed in prison.

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Main building at HRPC burning in May, 2007

Has my prediction come true? Is Trump truly flipping out?

Is Trump on the verge of a bipolar meltdown?

Tonight I’m feeling smug and self-satisfied because my recent prediction may be coming to pass even sooner and more spectacularly than I thought it would: Trump may be spiraling straight into mania right before our eyes. The Albany Times Union printed the following Op Ed on Monday, though I actually wrote it ten days ago. I’m using my original Word document since it will be easier to format for my blog. Just now, for the first time, I compared my version word-by-word to theirs, confirming what I already thought: they didn’t edit or change a single word. (They did change one punctuation mark; see below.)

So much has happened since I wrote this Viewpoint article that I can’t begin to recap it here. But I do want to credit the TU for the caption they ran under Trump’s photo: “Does a suitable diagnosis for Trump exist?” Offhand, I can come up with several. Stay tuned by subscribing to my blog so you won’t miss anything.

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I’ll never forget the full-blown episode of mania that earned me the official diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’d been sleepless for days, and it culminated in a call to the New York Times at three in the morning. Reading about Donald Trump’s recent flurry of ill-considered tweets about the former Miss Universe brought back vivid memories, and I can’t help wondering if he’ll soon earn the same label.

My own diagnosis came when I was in my fifties. The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is around age 25, so I was a late bloomer. But research reveals that the first episode can strike at any age, and it’s more common in middle and even old age than is generally realized. According to Dr. Robert C. Young, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and attending physician in psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, psychiatrists even have a name for it: “Geri-BD.”

I’ve been watching Trump’s performance with growing disbelief. Like many media pundits, I labelled him with narcissistic personality disorder. My well-worn copy of the DSM-IV, the ultimate authority on mental disorders, shows that he’s literally a textbook example. But he could be bipolar as well—the two aren’t mutually exclusive.*

During manic episodes, people typically experience high energy levels. They talk more, interrupt people, make decisions in a flash and feel less need for sleep. Along with confidence and the feeling that they can do anything, there is often irritable, angry and impatient behavior. They may say and do outrageous things and take ever increasing risks.

A first manic episode can be precipitated by an unusually high level of stress. That was certainly true for me. As founder and president of a licensed home care agency in Ulster County, I was on call 24/7, constantly worried about whether we’d meet the payroll, frequently filling in for no-show aides. A shrink prescribed an antidepressant, and soon I was feeling better—miraculously better, in fact.

I grew more and more manic. The climax came when I locked myself in my office, threatening to call the police if anyone tried to get in. At about three, I called the New York Times and managed to reach a reporter working the night shift. I told him I had an urgent story about my father, who had been Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal during the McCarthy era and who had died 20 years before. I demanded that the Times run a front page story about him immediately. The reporter diplomatically suggested that the story didn’t sound quite right for the Times, but that I might want to call the Journal because of the local interest angle.

Eventually my husband coaxed me out of the office and got me to my shrink, who prescribed some heavy-duty sedatives to bring me down. I spent the next few days on the living room couch, watching video movies in a semi-stupor, and since then I’ve been more or less stable with carefully calibrated medication.

No one but my husband and my shrink knew how thoroughly off the wall I was, how close to a devastating crash. As my mania built, I churned out endless pages of prose on my computer, but this was before the advent of the Internet and social media. Had I been able to email and Tweet my crazy thoughts and theories to the world, I know I would have done so with uninhibited glee.

So as much as I detest Trump, I can empathize with his increasingly unhinged behavior. Time—and I’m talking days, weeks at most—will tell if I’m right. Remember, you read it here first.

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*The last sentence in the fifth paragraph contains the only edit the TU made to my article—they changed the em dash to a semicolon. They kept my other dashes, though. As a writer of fiction and poetry, I rarely use semicolons; however, I suppose I could make an occasional exception.

COMING SOON: my memories of sexual assault back in my single days.

Walmart’s Big Bottle Blowup

Walmart Tom Smith rally 11-27-15Bright and early on Black Friday, I was outside the Walmart in East Greenbush soaking up sunshine, but I wasn’t there to shop. No, I was at a rally in support of Thomas Smith, who lost his job for turning in empty soda bottles for refunds. The Times Union’s Paul Grondahl broke the story on November 19th, and the Washington Post ran a follow-up article two days later. Now it’s gone viral—I’ve even found articles in the British and German press.

Walmart Tom Smith rally Alice green & Walmart execs 11-28-15Smith’s take for the empty bottles? A grand total of $2.10, according to the store’s managers, but they later upped the total to—horror of horrors—over $5.00. He had served over 13 years in prison for an attempted bank robbery in 2002 and was on parole when he was hired by Walmart at the end of August. He made $9.00 per hour rounding up shopping carts and picking up trash in the parking lot. On the Sunday of the great bottle heist, he walked two hours from the halfway house in Albany where he lived to get to the store for a shift starting at 8:00am. (The managers had refused to change the start time although he told him no buses were available that time on Sundays.)

Walmart later claimed they could not reinstate Smith because he had failed to disclose his prior felony conviction during the job application process, a fact he denies. “We believe he has told the truth from the beginning,” activist Alice Green was quoted as saying in Saturday’s Times Union. “His story has never changed. Only Walmart’s story keeps changing. In all our discussions with Walmart, they never raised the issue of not disclosing his conviction before. We will continue to support and fight for him.”

About 50 demonstrators showed up on Friday morning, including people from labor and religious groups and the NAACP. I learned of the rally through an e-mail from Emily McNeill, a staff member of the Labor-Religion Coalition, who said the protest was not only about Thomas Smith but about Walmart’s mistreatment of low-wage workers in general. I’ve participated in many demonstrations over the years, but this one struck a particular chord because of Thomas Smith’s personal story.

Although I hung in as a creative arts therapist at a psychiatric center long enough to earn a New York State pension and ran a licensed home care agency for nearly a decade, I’ve been fired from a few jobs, generally because of behavior related to bipolar disorder, both before and after I was diagnosed. (As a clerical temp at Regeneron, the pharmaceutical company in East Greenbush, I went from designing Power Point presentations to deciding I should run the company, which didn’t go over too well.)

So I know how much being fired hurts. Whether there’s justification or not, it wreaks havoc with your self-esteem. Deep down, I always knew I could land another job, and now that I’m on Social Security and Medicare, I’ll never have to again, so I can be as flaky as I please. In cases like Thomas Smith’s, it may not be so easy. Because of all the publicity and the people standing up for him, as well as the personable, articulate personality he displayed on Black Friday morning, he’ll probably find work—I’m sure Target would love to have him. But there are millions of others who won’t be so lucky.

I was one of the more than 2,000 people who signed a petition demanding that Walmart pay Smith’s back wages, rehire him and apologize by Monday, November 30th. Otherwise, local groups are calling for a national boycott of Walmart stores.

I can’t promise to swear off Walmart forever, but at least for this holiday season, I can take my business to Target and other stores that treat their employees with respect and dignity—if I can find out which ones they are.

Where do you stand on this issue? I’d love to hear from you.

Christmas shopping-frenzy checkout