by Millie Niss
Lots of people had told Mindy Kefler that she was the smartest person they had ever met, a compliment which made her feel deeply and profoundly lonely. When she found out that her ex-boyfriend had said it to one of their few remaining mutual friends, all she could think is "Well, why didn't he stay with me then?" She then reflected that he was handsome, a drinker, "fun," knew all the 70's rock songs, while all she could boast of was the ability to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Galois Theory and how to do a close reading of a passage of Ulysses. Glumly, she realized it was obvious whom you'd rather have at a party. She hated parties. She had no idea how to act at a party.
Her idea of how to find out how to act at a party was to equally flawed: she'd go to a library and research anthropological studies of suburban 20th century America. It wouldn't occur to her to go to an actual party to find out. You know, she'd say, holding her glass of tonic-and-tonic and trying to hold the interest of the man she was facing, those studies they did in the sixties when they realized the we ourselves could be the subject of the study of man and not just the headhunters in New Guinea. It was a revolution in the field, she'd start to say, the first book was about Irish farmers -- no one ever thought modern agricultural family life could be of anthropological interest, and then there was Ganz, with the Italian-Americans in New York, she'd go on, enthusiasm coming into her voice, as it always did when she had an interesting idea on her mind, but then she'd see the guy she was talking to already nodding away as he listened to an airhead blonde talk about nothing at all.
Superior intelligence, she told her shrink, was why she'd become an onanist. And that, she thought, must have something to do with why too much knowledge is a sin. Knowledge defiles the brain just as masturbation defiles the body. She told her psychiatrist that hair on the palms was a sign of self-abuse according to many folkways but as it was also a side-effect of the Risperdal he prescribed for her "overenthusiasms" (the strongest term she ever used for the severe mental illness which reduced to her to talking brilliantly rather than doing anything with her life), she would no longer be partaking of that particular drug. In any case, she wasn't happy and therefore was hardly in any danger of being overly enthusiastic about anything. When told this was shoddy reasoning due to the biological nature of the enthusiasms, her response was (and I quote) "piffle."
For a while, she continued to see her talk therapist, in the hopes that he would help her find a man. "Stop over-intellectualizing," the counselor told her, "you'd have more sex appeal."
She decided to quit therapy instead. And she also quit the management consulting firm where she did, as she put it, "the work of Mammon." Instead, she decided to be a writer. The first three months of her new "career" -- before she discovered that writers have write for actual readers -- were full of manic ebullience. She was finally free to be herself. She wrote sonnets built around Latin puns on verses of the Aeneid. She started an illuminated novel about physicists whose theories were derived from debates on particle symmetries. She translated Shakespeare's sonnets into Japanese and did the calligraphy herself on scrolls of illegally imported alligator skin, then had it displayed in a giant styrofoam alligator with a videotape playing of alligators attacking humans and the sonnets being read in Japanese and English on the audio track.
Then she failed to get an NEA grant, failed to get a Guggenheim, failed to get a MacArthur, failed to get a Fulbright, failed to get on the New York Times bestseller list, failed to get published by Knopf, failed to get in the Paris Review, failed to get in Art News, failed to get in The Kansas Quarterly, failed to get in the Buffalo News, failed to get in the Peoria Messenger, failed to get in the Yonkers Press, failed to get in the Bensonhurst Weekly Reporter. Finally, she failed to get told her work was "very good" in the "Learning to Express Ourselves Through Writing" Group at the Horizon Mental Health Center (true, her work consisted of "Fuck life, I wanna die!" scrawled all over the page in six colors of crayon and the OT counselors couldn't bring themselves to praise that even with their best OT-lying-smiles) she had been attending ever since she tried to crash the Whitney Biennial. (On that occasion, she got hauled off to the local Looney Bin in front of a giant fresco dedicated to Liberty. She thought the stunt was Performance Art, but the paramedics just thought of it as crazy. It did get on all the news channels much to the consternation of her straightlaced Upper East Side family.)
When she got out she was on a very high dose of stupid pills (as she put it) and began to recover her sanity to everyone's relief except her own. She lived in Horizon House in a Supervised Apartment (i.e. a nosy person came in and criticized her housekeeping and the contents of her refrigerator twice a week) and attended the Horizon Center three days a week. At the Center, she participated in groups on Life Skills ("to shop, you first have to make a list of what you plan to eat for the next few day. To do this, think about each meal and what you need for the four food groups..."), Symptom Management ("if a voice tells you to do something, look around in the room to find where the voice is coming from; if there's no one attached to the voice, don't do it and seek help"), and Vocational Readiness ("going to work requires regular hygiene. You have to shower and comb you hair in the morning if you want to be able to work.") Although she found the content of these groups to be somewhat beneath her level of knowledge, it was a challenge to get up each day and get to the Center and then sit up and not fall asleep during the groups. When she was asked questions in group, she had trouble answering because she was still fuzzed by her breakdown and the added fogginess of the stupid pills. But they certainly did prevent enthusiasms.
Mindy stayed away from her old friends, both those she knew from her management consulting days and those friends she had made during her brief successful phase as an artist before all hell had broken loose. She saw everyone exactly once, made a monumental effort not to be stupid, and the friend went away thinking Mindy was in a bad way and rather boring to be with. The friends were always glad she didn't pursue further contact, but none of them had a clue of how bad the damage to her mind really was.
Mindy was a Good Patient. She earned privileges, and was offered a job at the Horizon Center Main Office doing photocopying. This was one of the most trusted positions in the Center because it was actually real work that was needed for the operation of the Center unlike most of the vocational programs, and Mindy accepted the honor. She did, however, remember a terrible time she had photocopying as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Harvard. She had finally hired an undergrad to do it for her and all the politically correct grad students (classism was the big thing in criticism that year) had made fiun of her because she had a "servant"...
So Mindy continued to improve and everyone praised her but little did they know but that praise hurt her more than anything. She wanted to kill the people who complimented her for being able to get up in the morning and go to a sheltered workshop and make copies for her betters and go to groups for the stupid and damaged and sit up in a chair and answer idiotic questions coherently if not correctly and then get home safely and take the right combination of mind-numbing drugs in preparation for another day of the same stultifying sameness, sameness that if it didn't end would end up ending her because she would die if this was to be her life didn't they know she once was someone and now she not only was no one but was forced to be told to be proud of her stupidity, her nullity, her docile, pliant, listless, childish ways? Oh she would die of this, she would!
And so instead of taking stupid pills each morning and night she threw them one by one in the toilet and watched them swirl away and hoped that with each pill's disappearance some of her mind would come back. At first the results were more than disappointing. She was unable to sleep, and had to hide it from the counselors who stalked all parts of her life and asked their prying questions: Did you have a good night's sleep? How are you this morning? And she was nervous. And irritable. And she'd get depressed in spells, and suddenly angry. Not in a big way, thank goodness, just eddies in the stream of her dullness, that she had to hide. She began to have to play stupid as she was slowly becoming wider awake. Soon they had questions more often. Are you feeling better these days? You don't seem so out of it. You seem to be tolerating your medication better. You are so much more alert. Would you like to be moved up to a group for higher functioning patients?
So Mindy moved up through the hierarchy of the Horizon Center but she got scared and rightly so because one day someone said in a staff meeting: "I don't think Miss Kefler is taking her medication." And then all the staff had a sudden realization and they all knew it was true and so the next day someone approached Mindy with a fake smile and Mindy looked around and everyone had a fake smile for her and they said "We're going to do some routine bloodwork on you, just stick out your arm." And Mindy took one look at all the faces and felt like a Jew who had been caught uncircumcised in a Nazi camp. Her eyes filled with terror and she picked up her skirts and ran down the hall and out the door and down the street and down another street for she was sure she'd be followed and then she turned around and there was no one after her but she knew they could come after her later on as a person in need of help under the Mental Hygiene Act or a danger to self and she was terrified.
She knew where to go to evade them entirely. In the Looney Bin she had met people who had come form the Street, and she knew that the Cops and the Docs didn't ever come and get you if you went to the Street. You could die there without them getting you. But she thought about who she used to be and thought about dying on the Street and the tears came and she thought "how maudlin" and remembered a poem in which she had made a pun based on the name Maude and "maudlin"; it had been a reference to William Butler Yeats's lover Maude Gonne and she wondered if anyone on the street would understand that and then she thought how prejudiced she was being perhaps the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls as in the old song, but yea, are they spelled correctly? And then she realized it: I'm thinking the old way! I'm myself again! I don't need to go die on the streets because I'm me, I'm back again to who I was, but am I the me that was the writer, or the me that was the lunatic that landed in Bellevue? I'd say a bit of each.
And so Mindy went and marched herself into her oldest friend's office, the friend who was a social worker. The friend was not ecstatic to see Mindy.
"Aren't you at Horizon House?" she said.
"I've left. I can't live out my life as a soulless mental patient. I used to have a brain and a future, And lest you think that's manic, it is. The desire to have a future is manic, if one is a mental patient. We are supposed to be happy with our lot as children of the system, idiots protected by the state and the agencies, consigned to day care like invalids or idiots. I want better for myself. I want to do something with my education. I want some work, not too stressful. I need medication, but not stupid pills. And I need you to help me. Right now, I need a psychiatrist. Quickly. Because I will go nuts very soon if I do not get some medicine. But I want a solemn promise not to lock me up and give me stupid pills for the next five years like last time!"
"I'm sorry. I can't help you. You need medication and a psychiatrist. Did you call your doctor?"
"Did you even listen to me? I just said I need medication and a doctor. And I can't call my doctor because I have just left Horizon House for good. I have no place to go. I need a private psychiatrist. I am assuming my parents will pay until I get a job. Just help me, please!"
I have been seeing Mindy for a little over a year now. My colleagues joke that I get paid in chickens and potatoes like a country doctor, but I actually get by just fine.
I take an interest in patients like her because her enthusiasms are so verbal that they make the bipolar manic state explicit so an outsider can observe it. At least that's what I say I am interested in. Mindy says I just like her for her life skills, symptom management, and for her way of living it up at parties with other psychiatrists. They love to see her do her manic act, little knowing it's not an act. In nine weeks, we are expecting our first child. Unfortunately, there is a 27% chance it will be bipolar but at least it's likely to be the smartest baby anyone's ever met.