Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
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Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Well, the world's still here, thankfully...

Happy New Year's, everyone.

I'm thinking back over the year, and all the changes, and while there were times I didn't think I'd make it, I now realise that I'm in better shape emotionally and socially than I have ever been. This year was one for building (and rebuilding) relationships, which happened as I started to get back my self.

While I was doing some work to reclaim my bed (it's been storing a painting, clothes, and many books for a long time, and I've been sleeping on the sofa) I came across a poor book that was falling apart (and yes, it came and that condition). I very nearly tossed it, thinking to get a better copy later. It was Sybil by Flora Schreiber,a fictionalised account of a woman's struggle to become whole which, with the TV movie that won Sally Field and Emmy as the title character, spawned a generation of diagnoses of Multiple Personality Disorder along with a predictable backlash. I read a copy from the library years ago, and I remember that it made me very, very uncomfortable--like finding some sort of forbidden thing and being titillated by it. Now, as I read it, I find that I mainly have sympathy for her. She was so talented, so strong, so fragile. She was overly dependent, I believe, on the people who did care for her, and there were people (such as the Teddy in the book) who perhaps had their own psychological reasons for protecting her, but it seems they helped her survive. There's a lot of controversy over whether her illness was truly multiple personality and evidence has surfaced to counteract the beliefs presented within the book. While the diagnosis may have been off, I think the essential issues were not--the abuse, the lack of love, the need to be accepted and the continual rejection she felt. This was someone who at the core did not believe that anyone could truly care about her, and in the end, I think it was a story of accepting herself--all of herself. That seems to be the main way road to recovery, from what I can see, for anyone. To love and be love, we must first learn to love ourselves and to be able to rely on ourselves for care, not abuse. I think the hierarchy of personlities depicted in the book may represent a way that the psychiatrist and patient could understand what had happened to her, a framework that helped them reach those core issues. I think dissociative identity disorder, which is what MPD is known as these days, which is seen as a spectrum of presentations, would still apply to Sibyl, though. The rise and fall as MPD as a psychological fad put a lot of confusion into the mix, but in the end, maybe those who are having similar issues will get better treatment as we learn more. I know that as I read, I felt close to Sibyl, for reasons I'll go into. Ironically enough, she lived in my own town until her death in 1998; in fact, we lived only a few blocks away from each other. She lived in a nice, quiet neighbourhood with her pets and with good friends. I hope her life after she came here was a happy one, and that now she is at peace. She seems to have had the life she longed for.

I have to admit, the historian in me is very intrigued by the relationship between Ms. Mason and her doctor. I have to admit I'm curious as to what Dr. Wilbur's papers will reveal when they are unsealed in 2005. According to one website those papers were bequeathed to a friend, Dr. Leah Dickstein, for eventual publication--but that site also contains errors, including the location of the University of Kentucky. The 2005 date I got from the above Newsweek article, and so I'm not sure where that archive is presently located. Because of the death of all three principals of the book (the author, the patient, and the doctor) and the revealing of Ms. Mason as Sibyl elsewhere, the library of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which has archived Flora Schreiber's papers, has unsealed the last of those archives. While on one hand, I think that it's a shame that opportunists chose to "out" Ms. Mason, who was understandably concerned with her privacy, I think the world itself would benefit from a study of her life and those with whom it intertwined. Certainly I think their relationship is not fully understood. It rather reminds me, at least superficially, of how the relationship of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller was perceived by outsiders. People accused Anne Sullivan of "creating" Helen Keller in much the same way they have accused Dr. Wilbur of "creating" Sibyl. Hmm...maybe that's a doctoral thesis in the making.

Anyway, I can sympathise. My own mentor and I have very different personalities, although similar interests, but people assumed that I was some sort wind-up toy he'd created. The truth is we approach life quite differently and disagree on some very basic ideas. [Ironically, a friend of work, whom I am probably closer in terms of approach to life and personality, and I are seen as quite different by our peers because they don't know how similar our experiences have been and have preconceived notions about each of us, like that she's a "good little church girl" and I'm the "liberal pagan who's so academic". It's kind of funny, really. We instantly saw the similarities in each other once we started talking, and no one else can figure out why we bonded so quickly].

As to why I relate to the character of Sibyl as portrayed in the book--while not splitting into full-blown personalities, I spent my entire life dissociating when threatened, often losing time and memory of my life, although of course I didn't realise what I was doing until much later. My actions often came from child-like impulses that attempted to express my frustration over feeling unloved and unwanted. Unfortunately, while they allowed me to express emotions I normally buried away, the behaviour was often self-destructive, typical borderline personality sorts of things.

Everytime I started therapy (and there were several attempts over the years), I would describe how others saw me, or about things in my life--never feelings. Feelings were too raw, too terrifying. Eventually, though, my careful reserve fell totally apart. Reality and fantasy clashed when wanted something so badly to be true that couldn't be. Most terrifying of all was when I would fall into those labile "fits" where I wanted to run, wanted to die, wanted to do anything but deal with being me. Like a seizure, they came and went. After several, I realised that if I could just curl up in a ball--either in a bathroom, if at work, or in my bed, if at home, it would pass. The rare times it happened while I was driving, I'm surprised I didn't wind up a statistic, taking others with me. Those who saw me like that thought I'd gone totally mad. Most people never saw me in my full state of breakdown. They just thought I was moody. They didn't realise that every day was an exercise to see if I would make it to the next. I don't know really what to call that state--it was depression, and anxiety, and a host of other things, but the best way I can describe it is that my self unravelled almost completely. The medication helped stabilise the physical imbalance. The therapy helped me gain control and start rebuilding. I slowly started to live every moment, almost a hyper-reality, after so long. With help I started recognising when I would start to "squirm away" and go onto auto pilot. I started to deal with the consequences of my action. I still have a long way to go, but I feel like there are fewer hiding places inside me, that I can walk through the rooms of my mind without flinching. That's a lot.

So now as I read the story, I understand it in a way I didn't before. I think that's the key. I've connected to several people simply by admitting that I'm dealing with depression and anxiety. Mental illness isn't a thing that just a few have. Mental health is something we all have--and just as some vary from others in terms of physical health, the same holds true for mental health. They shouldn't be treated as separate things--a person dealing with a physical illness is more likely to deal with mental illness, especially depression, as a result of dealing with their disease. By the same token, a person who is mentally ill is less likely to have good physical health. Until we start treating the whole person, and indeed, the whole society/environment, people will suffer in silent agony.

I talked to my psychiatrist the other day. She suggested getting involved in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's programmes as someone who has been there and is doing better--a sort of peer advocate, I guess. I'm lucky. I do have supportive people in my life that help counteract the negative. Maybe I can have a chance to "give back" by helping someone else.

She was also curious about my blogging. I've never been able "to journal" my feelings, my activities, whatever. I was so strange to answer, when asked whether I keep a journal, that yes, I do--online. I think she was surprised that I chose to write in a forum that anyone can read. How people use the Internet fascinates her, she said. I told her that someone could do a search on "OCD", etc. and get this blog. I suppose someone might use it against me. I could see not getting a job I applied for, etc. But really, I think the benefits outweigh it.

For those who do put up with my long ramblings, thank you. On the one hand, it's like I'm writing out in space. But it's sort of reassuring that there are humans out there who bother to click here. :)

Have a great new year. Peace.

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