Looking Back At My First Psychotic Break: My Speech At Thresholds' Gala In Chicago

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Roughly twenty years ago, in March 1997, I had no job, no girlfriend, no friends and no more goals.

I had just finished a draft of what would become Strikeout at Hell Gate, a novel that had taken me about a year to write, and I had just run and completed the L.A. Marathon for the second straight year.

I had met those two goals in spite of the fact that I was battling severe depression and was in the early stages of psychosis. I would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Unlike the poet Robert Lowell, who believed that his writing benefited from his mania, I was never manic, and my psychosis and depression presented only obstacles to my prose.

I could barely read. I lost my appetite. I could not sleep even though I lay in bed much of the day.

Finally, as I have written before, I drove down the streets of Marina del Rey early one March morning. I was looking for a hotel that had a sufficient number of floors so that, if I jumped out of a window, there would be a good chance that I would kill myself, like my paternal grandfather and two other relatives.

I can still remember pulling into the driveway of a hotel on Admiralty Way, bustling into the lobby at about 5 a.m. or so, and asking a clerk at the front desk for a room.

He punched a few buttons on his keypad, looked at a screen, then announced that he was sorry, that there were no rooms available.

I left the lobby and trudged to my car. While I did so, a police car drove up to the hotel entrance.

That spooked me. I feared that my plot to commit suicide was doomed.

I then drove back to my Venice apartment and phoned my mother. I told her that I had been thinking about hurting myself.

I ended up spending a week at the USC psych ward, where, at 31, I was the youngest patient. I played Ping-Pong with an octogenarian rabbi, who had probably been born in Eastern Europe. He did not speak much, but when he did, he mumbled with a foreign accent. He led us in services on Friday night, which was very moving.

Yet he seemed deeply mournful in spite of the exuberance that he showed when he played table tennis.

He reminded me of the rabbi in Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, a rabbi who questions whether or not there is a God. The rabbi at the psych ward, like the rabbi in Hamill’s book, had no doubt seen too much. I suspected that he had been devastated by the Holocaust, among other tragedies.

As I was leaving the USC psych ward, Dr. Michael McGrail, my then-psychiatrist, told me that he was 99 percent sure that I would recover.

He recommended that I spend time in a day-hospital. And that is what I did in New Haven, Connecticut, where I was born and had lived much of my life.

I flew back East with my parents, and I enrolled in a day-hospital program at Yale, where I had studied years before.

I did not know how I would handle the program. I was still extremely depressed and psychotic.

I was also still somewhat suicidal.

My mother drove me downtown for my first day at the hospital, but after that I drove myself.

It was an “in-your-face” program, as my primary clinician put it.

The ethos of the day-hospital was such that no one would make lunch for you, no one would hold your hand, and you had to provide frequent feedback to your clinician.

At the beginning and end of each day, we gathered in the front hall of the building and announced our goals and whether we had met them.

I will never forget how one of my colleagues, Tony, an ex-truck driver, slumped in his chair and spoke glumly about how he needed to “take it one day at a time.”

He uttered the cliché with such sincerity and soulfulness that his words rang true.

I did not speak the first week in group therapy because I was too paranoid to reveal that I had been paranoid.

Then, during the second week, I opened up.

I told everyone that I had had trouble a year before at a marketing company in Los Angeles, a firm that I had quit because I felt that some people had undermined me.

It was true that they had undermined me, but it was also true that I had undermined myself by working in a field to which I was not suited, business, as opposed to journalism.

As we sat in the group therapy room, Tony, my colleague, said, “I’ve got just one question for you, Robert. What are you going to do now?”

I said, “I’m going to be a writer.”

I completed my two weeks in the program in late March 1997, and a month or so later, I returned for a third week.

By then, in early May, I was starting to get better. I regained my endurance on walks. I recovered much of my appetite. I forced myself to read. And I slept well with the aid of medication.

My father told me that I had not given L.A. “a fair shot,” that I may have had an apartment in Venice, but that I had not participated in the life of the city.

He pointed out that, when he had gone to my apartment to help me pack my belongings before we headed back East, he had noticed a flier for Golden Boy, a Clifford Odets’ play about boxing, on the floor.

A local repertory theater had been staging that play, whose lead part, that of the star-crossed boxer, had originally been written for John Garfield, one of my favorite actors.

Incredibly, I had not known that the play was being staged at all, not until my father brought it to my attention.

That was a mini metaphor, a microcosm, for my failure to experience and take advantage of the city of angels.

With my dad’s encouragement, I decided to return to L.A. and did so on Memorial Day weekend of 1997, almost exactly 20 years ago.

As I have written before, I got a traffic ticket on my first day back in Venice, but curiously I was not paranoid.

I sent out resumes to a few Hollywood marketing firms as well as a number of daily papers in New York City.

I did not realize it at the time, but in composing my resume and cover letters, meeting with a former employer and phoning companies, I was demonstrating that I was healing, that I was taming my severe depression and psychosis, which previously had stripped me of interest in doing anything.

I received no offers from the companies to which I applied in those early days back.

I knew that I had to get out of the house, but I did not know that my best job prospect would come from my next-door neighbor, Peggy Lake, who worked at L.A. Weekly in the graphics and advertising department.

At the end of June 1997, within a month of my return to Los Angeles, I got a job as a proofreader at L.A. Weekly. Peggy had recommended me to Connie Monaghan, then the proofreading manager, and I had taken a proofreading test and done very well on it.

A month later, I started dating Barbara, my angel and a retired schoolteacher, whom I had met the year before in a UCLA writing class.

Like President Emmanuel Macron of France, I must have seen the wisdom in dating a goddess, a former schoolteacher, who evoked Cleopatra and Rosalind, Shakespeare’s two most sublime heroines, whose age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety.

Twenty years later, Barbara, my ageless beauty, to whom I have been married for 16 years, and my writing career remain the pillars of my life.

Work and love, as Freud said, have obviously played a huge role in my psychic health. So have therapy, medication, a will to survive, dear friends and an appreciation for play.

Play, of course, takes different forms for different people. For me, play can mean listening to Bob Dylan with Barbara, who introduced me to his music about 20 years ago, shortly after my first psychotic break. Play can also mean enjoying what Barbara has termed “tasty meals,” or reading stories to Ava, our 5-year-old granddaughter.

While my life has improved, I have never forgotten what a social worker at the Yale day-hospital told me. She was not my primary clinician, but she had taken an interest in me. She said that she had read or heard that creative people always need to be working on more than one project at any given time.

I took that advice to heart and have written approximately 300 newspaper articles in the years since I got a job at the Weekly. I have also written a good amount of fiction during that time, which I am only now finishing.

Whether I am writing or giving speeches at wonderful organizations like Thresholds, I always emphasize that everyone has free will and that we can subdue deep depression, psychosis and suicidal feelings.

I say this as one, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1990s, who comes from a family with a history of suicide, and who received a 20 on the Global Assessment of Function (GAF) score when I had a relapse in January 1999.

That I have recovered from the deepest depths of psychic despair and dysfunction tells me that just about anyone can recover.

And it is organizations like Thresholds that are leading the way in helping people with mental illness get better.

Thresholds has a beautiful mission. All of you who work here know that your goal everyday is to advocate on behalf of people with mental illness, to aid us in our recovery, to help us find jobs and housing, and to enrich our lives, so that we too can benefit from productive work, love and play.

I recognize that I am lucky in many respects. I live at a time when psychotropic medication is readily available, something that was not the case as recently as a few decades ago.

It is also true that the stigma against people like me, people with mental illness, has lessened in recent times. I would like to think that all of my articles and speeches have contributed to the reduction of this stigma.

I may not be running marathons anymore, but I have a good life now.

I hope Tony, the ex-truck driver at the Yale day-hospital, and the octogenarian rabbi at the USC psych ward have fared well too.

They were good men, struggling to survive on this planet, struggling to make it through each day.

They had endured much trauma, much anguish.

But they were showing signs that they too could recover. They were seeking treatment at psychiatric hospitals, opening up in therapy, playing Ping-Pong.

In so doing, they were sharing their lives with others and making contact with the world.

Through such activity, through such contact, they were giving themselves the chance to succeed, to subdue their illnesses and to function at a relatively high level once again on this planet.

This article is adapted from a speech I gave on Thursday, May 11, at a gala event for Thresholds, a mental-health support organization, based in Chicago.