I’ve mentioned the breakdown in Davis more than once, but never told the whole story. My good friend Kathi moved to Davis to go to Nursing School, and I followed her. The environmental movement was just gearing up — it was 1970 — and I was invited to be part of a team that was exploring computer modeling of biological systems. I could have had a career in the growing environmental movement. I remember Dr. Watt saying of my Wellesley degree, “They taught you how to think.” He also saw that I was admitted to the University of California at Davis.
It was all too much for me. I got overwhelmed, got into another bad relationship in my desperate search for security, and finally had a breakdown that landed me in the University Health Center.
That breakdown actually happened because I was seeing a psychiatrist. He asked me about my childhood. He said “You must have been very frightened.” That blew something wide open.
Journal entry January 25, 1970
work with Dr. Asher: realized that from a very early age i was somehow given the message that I was not to trouble my parents with my problems but was expected to hide them, weep in secret, somehow solve them myself. His questions brought out my own role as mother in the family, as parent to myself and to my brothers and sisters. Then he said a strange thing “You must have been very frightened.”
When I left his office I was exhausted, as though i had spent an hour of hard physical labor. i slept for nearly 24 hours after that — a sign of a breakthrough. strong feelings of confession and absolution. what was it? perhaps for the first time having real pride in my real accomplishments — somehow having been a parent without parental example — and it was real pride instead of inflated-ego-neurotic-martyr-pride. His statement about being frightened:— i had paid the price for my “pride” in daring to assume my parents role; and it was all right to be frightened — it was all right to be frightened! it wasn’t a great sin, it was a perfectly normal childhood reaction to such a responsibility. had always put myself down for being frightened, and let my life be largely controlled by fear because i never learned that it was a normal reaction which could be faced and dealt with.
Reading this now, I’m a little amused at my adolescent language. One thing I notice, though, is that I say “daring to assume my parents’ role” No, I didn’t “dare” or “assume,” the role of parent was dropped on me by their failure to be parents. My astonishment finding out that it was “all right to be frightened” tells me how many times I was made wrong for being afraid. Or else it was just ignored instead of dealt with.
I think up to that point I had been in denial of my fear. The “fear” I said controlled me was fear of making a mistake. It wasn’t anything like the cold terror I experienced the next winter in Maine. Possibly I was in denial of all my feelings. I had been mostly living in my head. The first thing I felt after my fear was validated was anger. Giving expression to the anger opened me wide up. I was scared enough to put myself in the Health Center and take the tranquilizers they offered me to try to close myself down again.
The rest of the story. Dr. Asher said “You must have been very frightened.” I remember feeling absolved. I wrote “It was OK to be frightened!” I slept almost a whole day. Then I decided to put my life back together without David, but I wanted to borrow his truck to get a door to make a desktop. When I got to his apartment, he wouldn’t let me in, and I could see another girl. So I got my car jack and started smashing his windows. Then the cops came. I knew David wouldn’t want them involved. He was dealing drugs, which I carefully stayed in denial of, so he told the cops he wouldn’t press charges. Feeling totally lost, I went to my friend Kathi and told her what I’d done. She said “But Jenny, you can’t do that.” So I went to the student Health Center and turned myself in. I was exploding with rage at being abandoned, but I had no idea and neither did the staff or anyone around me. I must have appeared manic. I know I wrote and wrote in my journal — there was something I called “Notes from the Hospital” and my regular journal which I had named Ondine, following Anaïs Nin, my current role model. They were giving me Mellaril, a powerful tranquilizer, 300mg a day. Later, working on a crisis hot line, I found out that 600mg was the minimum lethal dose. It was a good thing I didn’t know that. I had heard a story about someone who tried to kill himself with tranquilizers and didn’t die, just was very tranquil for a while. I hated the way Mellaril made me feel. Very slow and sort of blurred. When I got out of the hospital, I got off it as quickly as I could. Withdrawal was very uncomfortable. I didn’t see “pink elephants” but I understood what they meant.
After that, I never experienced the rage again. I wish there had been someone at the time who knew something about trauma. But Peter Levine’s book was 30 years in the future. I did, however, start to feel fear which I don’t remember feeling that intensely before. It was as though Dr. Asher had given me permission to feel fear.
UPDATE from 2019: I looked up Mellaril only to find out that it is an anti-psychotic, not a tranquilizer. It was a good thing I didn’t know that. I actually had a lethal amount in my possession for several years after I stopped taking it. But I had heard of someone who took a whole bottle of tranquilizers, and didn’t die, just got very tranquil. I only found out that twice the dose I was taking was the minimum lethal dose when I was working on a suicide hotline in 1974, and I’d gotten rid of it long ago.