Sunday, November 30, 2014
In 1979, I was seventeen. For more than a few years it had been just my mother and me living in that small apartment above the H & R Block in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. My older sister moved away to college in 1975, leaving me all alone to receive the abuse from whom I then thought of as “The Beast.”
My daily torture consisted of being isolated from other kids, screamed at, called names (lots of names)…
A small sampling of “Ma-isms”:
--Can’t you do anything right?
--I have more sense in my little finger than you have in you whole body!
--You’re as slow as molasses and twice as thick!
--Get out of my sight! You make me sick to my stomach!
--Who the hell do you think you are? The Queen of Farouk?
--You’re nothing but a spoiled, rotten brat!
--You lazy, good-for-nothing kid!
--You little snot!
--You little shit!
--I’ll fix your little red wagon!
--I’ll knock some sense into that hard head of yours!
--I’m gonna straighten your ass out!
--I’ll smack you so hard, you won’t know what hit you! You’ll see stars!
--I’m gonna bust your head wide open!
--I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!
I think the verbal threats did more damage than actually being socked. Her words hit so much harder than her blows.
I was molested by men more than once during my childhood.
When I was of preschool age, there was a family member in my life on a regular basis. He was an alcoholic. At night he liked to climb into my bed and spoon me with his naked body. I was not wearing pajamas. I don't know why that was; I just remember his naked skin and penis rubbing up against my behind. I could feel, hear and smell his vile booze-filled stench as he snorted out his drunken breath next to my ear.
I have memories of being in the bathroom with that same man. We were both naked. I don't recollect all that went on, but I do recall watching him as he sat on the toilet in the nude.
When I was twelve-years-old, my mother took me to the pediatrician for my school-ordered yearly physical. My doctor had always been Dr. P - a jolly, paternal and very kind man. I never cried when Dr. P gave me a shot. But at this visit, I learned Dr. P had retired.
The nurse showed me into the examination room and introduced me to Dr. F. He was in his thirties, thin and wore glasses. The nurse left and my mother went to run an errand. So I was alone with Dr. F.
He told me to lie on my back on the examination table. He pulled my pants off and told me to put my legs up in the air. He crouched down at the end of the table as his gloveless fingers prodded my private parts.
I remember thinking, "Dr. P never did this."
I peeked from around my legs to get a look at him. I can still see the expression on his face as he molested me. Here it is, some forty years later, and I can still see that disgusting face - those leering eyes squinting through the lenses of his aviator glasses. And I can still feel those cold, clammy digits violating my body. It is as clear today as it was then.
When my mother came to pick me up, I felt very angry at her but I didn't know why. I suppose I wondered how she could have left me alone with such a terrible man. I felt confused and extremely dirty.
I didn't say anything to her because I was afraid she would blame me and I would end up getting hit or punished in some other way.
And Ma did love to punish.
For example, she never allowed me to take showers.
“Showers make you bald. Your father took showers and he lost his hair!” So my mother told me which day of the week I could bathe in the tub.
I could not run my own bathwater--she needed to ensure that it was scorching. I would stick my finger in and say, “Mommy, it’s hot. It burns me.”
She screamed, “There’s nothin’ wrong with that water! Now get in before I make you!”
I held my breath. Somehow if I held my breath it would not burn as much (as least that is what I told myself). Then I inched myself into the steaming porcelain cauldron. Once I got in, I could not move--the pain was so excruciating--beyond the surface of my skin, but rather, right down through my muscles and into my very bones.
And I dared not cry. Oh no. If I cried then I would really get it. So I soaked and soaked until my skin pruned. When I lifted myself up, the bottom half of my body was as red as a plum tomato. The terrycloth of the towel felt like Brillo as I tried ever so gently to pat myself dry.
While the weekly scaldings eventually stopped (showers remained forbidden, but the bathwater temperature became more tolerable), the weekly head torture continued throughout high school.
My mother did not allow me to wash my own hair. She shampooed it once a week and afterward gave me a set with gigantic, hot pink, fang-toothed plastic curlers. My hair was very course and curly, so it tangled easily. This made her more furious than her usual level of rage. She cursed at me as she hit me in head with the large and especially thick shampoo comb, yanking hard at the knots. If I moved my head in the slightest, she yelled louder, “Keep your head straight!” Then--WACK! Another firm smack with the comb.
The oversized bobby pins she used were like humungous nails jabbing into my scalp. I could never say, “Ow,” not if I wanted to escape a beating. I trained myself to endure pain in silence.
And when my mother beat my body with her favorite brown leather beating belt, she did so with all her strength--stretching her arm way back over head before whipping my flesh. She stopped only when she became exhausted. For weeks, I was left with swollen black and blue bruises over my back, buttocks and thighs. Oh, she never hit me in the face or anywhere else that was not covered by clothing. After all, she may have been sadistic, but she was not stupid.
I could never show distress at all, or else she would bellow, “Pick that lip up off the floor or I’ll pick it up for you!”
So every week I sat there--for an hour--being comb-smacked and jabbed and shouted at. Then I had to try to sleep with all that hardware jammed into my skull. The enormous bobby pins and hard rollers made head dents, which I still have to this day (maybe the wallops with the shampoo comb contributed too).
My mother expected me to service her. By “service,” I mean massaging her feet, as well as scraping her scalp. My sister preferred the scalp, while I thought the feet were a better deal. Scalp duty consisted of using a fine tooth comb to scrape off the crusty residue left behind from copious inundations of Adorn hairspray. Chunks of scalp scabs would pop in my face as I tried so desperately not to show my disgust. Yes, the feet were definitely smelly, corned and calloused, but at least nothing jumped out and landed into my eyeballs. Once my sister moved out, I was stuck with double-duty: the feet and head combo. My mother demanded manicures as an added bonus.
High school was exceedingly lonely. My sister left just as I was beginning my freshman year. I was not permitted to call girlfriends (although sometimes I was sneaky and asked my friend Hilda to call me when my mother was not home). There were no school dances, Girl Scouts, movies or sleepovers. Well to be perfectly accurate, I was allowed to visit Hilda at her house once. In addition, her mother took us to a movie, Great Adventure and a Broadway musical. I visited my friend Mary Kay once, and another friend, Donna, once. And that was the extent of my high school social life. Dates with boys were not permitted. Heaven forbid!
I immersed myself in books and watching old movies on our little black and white portable TV that we had to turn on and off with a pair of pliers. I escaped into my own special fantasy world. It was how I survived.
I tried to run away, but when I became too cold and hungry, I went back to Ma and the abuse.
She put me in a hospital and while there, I was examined by a doctor. He wore a dark brown suit and black tie, was very overweight and sported a bushy mustache. He closed the curtain around the bed and proceeded to sodomize me with his fingers. I cried. Neither my mother nor a nurse was in the room.
When Ma returned, this time I told her what had happened (unlike with the molestation of Dr. F).
She looked at me with an icy stare and sputtered, "Whatever you got, you deserved!"
I have now come to realize how very ill my mother was all those years. She was clinically paranoid and never sought help. I grew up being told that our apartment and phones were wire-tapped (this delusion only became worse after Watergate). She told us our neighbors were plotting to kill us. All the windows were nailed shut and the shades and shutters remained always closed. The Girl Scouts were going to drug us with LSD. When I was nine, my only fourth grade friend, Linda, asked me to her birthday party. My mother told me the cake would be spiked with LSD. (In the late sixties and early seventies, I suppose LSD was often in the news. My mother had such a fixation on it.)
She required control over every aspect of my life. I was not allowed to paint my toenails or shave my legs. I could not sit in our kitchen or living room. I was ordered to remain in one tiny, 9 x 10 bedroom. I watched TV there, did my homework there and ate there on a folding card table. I was not even allowed to close the bathroom door--ever.
My mother lived a life dominated by fear--a fear that stemmed from her mental illness. I cannot be angry at her for being ill. It was not her fault.
But I digress…
On January 3rd, 1979 I was supposed to return to school after the Christmas break. Despite my being in my last semester of senior year, I just could not stay another day in that apartment. I was tired of being constantly screamed at and told that I was a piece of garbage. I was tired of crying in secret and wanting to die.
I went through my mother’s dresser drawers and old purses and gathered every coin I could find. On that frigid January day, I waited until after she left for work, put the handful of coins in my pocket and headed out the door. I didn not take anything with me--only the not-so-very-warm peacoat on my back.
Instead of walking to Mount Saint Mary Academy, I ran to the bus stop on Front Street. When I say I ran, I mean I really RAN! I ran like I had never run before. In fact, that was another thing my mother never allowed me to do--run. So that morning, I believed I was flying--spreading my wings and heading for lucious liberty. Feeling a hundred pounds lighter, I finally could breathe.
My future was unknown. But what whatever it contained, I knew it would be better than living in that den of hell.
I left my mother and all her paranoid fears behind. For the first time in my life, I felt no fear.
I was free.
Sunday, November 09, 2014
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has published a booklet, SAMHSA’S Working Definition of Recovery. It outlines 10 Guiding Principles of Recovery:
Recovery emerges from hope
The belief that recovery is real provides the essential and motivating message of a better future—that people can and do overcome the internal and external challenges, barriers, and obstacles that confront them. Hope is internalized and can be fostered by peers, families, providers, allies, and others. Hope is the catalyst of the recovery process.
I first learned that mental recovery is possible during a meeting at Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey (CSPNJ). The year was 2003 and I was at my absolute lowest point in life. Just a few months before, I had attempted suicide, and came very close to succeeding. I did not feel comfortable being at home all alone for long periods of time, fearing I would try to kill myself again. So I enrolled in a mental health day program at Mount Carmel Guild and visited CSPNJ’s Self-Help Center on a regular basis. That day when I heard the words, “Mental health recovery is possible,” I felt encouraged that I would have a better future. Even though I did not yet have a full understanding of what mental health recovery entailed, I felt hope for the first time in a long time. What I did not realize then was that I had already started on my journey to healing, wholeness and recovery. For despite the severity of my illness, I was proactive in my own recovery process by attending Mount Carmel Guild and the Self-Help Center. In the past eleven years, I’ve continued this journey of recovery and healing. I want to give others the hope that someone had given me back in 2003.
Recovery is person-driven
Self-determination and self-direction are the foundations for recovery as individuals define their own life goals and design their unique path(s) towards those goals. Individuals optimize their autonomy and independence to the greatest extent possible by leading, controlling, and exercising choice over the services and supports that assist their recovery and resilience. In so doing, they are empowered and provided the resources to make informed decisions, initiate recovery, build on their strengths, and gain or regain control over their lives.
We are not diagnoses, we are human beings. And as individuals, our goals are unique. I decide what my goals are and it is I who determines my path to achieve those goals. I choose the people, resources and support services that will assist in my recovery process.
Recovery occurs via many pathways
Recovery is built on the multiple capacities, strengths, talents, coping abilities, resources, and inherent value of each individual. Recovery pathways are highly personalized. They may include professional clinical treatment; use of medications; support from families and in schools; faith-based approaches; peer support; and other approaches. Recovery is non-linear, characterized by continual growth and improved functioning that may involve setbacks. Because setbacks are a natural, though not inevitable, part of the recovery process, it is essential to foster resilience for all individuals and families. In some cases, recovery pathways can be enabled by creating a supportive environment.
I tailored my personal recovery plan according to my particular strengths, talents and abilities. Therefore, my recovery is unique to me. When setbacks occur (and it is inevitable that they will), I now know that it does not mean I am not in recovery or that I’m headed back to where I was years ago. On the contrary, setbacks are an opportunity for me to strengthen my resilience and determination so I can then continue my recovery process.
Recovery is holistic
Recovery encompasses an individual’s whole life, including mind, body, spirit, and community. This includes addressing: self-care practices, family, housing, employment, transportation, education, clinical treatment for mental disorders and substance use disorders, services and supports, primary healthcare, dental care, complementary and alternative services, faith, spirituality, creativity, social networks, and community participation. The array of services and supports available should be integrated and coordinated.
I am committed to respecting myself and treating my mind, body and spirit with the utmost care. This is accomplished by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet; daily exercise; daily personal grooming and hygiene; keeping my apartment clean and organized; doing my laundry every week; paying my bills on time; keeping my psychiatric, dental and medical appointments; going to Mass; participating in my lay Catholic community; daily prayer, meditation, Lectio Divina and spiritual studies; practicing my singing daily; and working on my motivational presentations.
Recovery is supported by peers and allies
Mutual support and mutual aid groups, including the sharing of experiential knowledge and skills, as well as social learning, play an invaluable role in recovery. Peers encourage and engage other peers and provide each other with a vital sense of belonging, supportive relationships, valued roles, and community. Through helping others and giving back to the community, one helps one’s self. Peer-operated supports and services provide important resources to assist people along their journeys of recovery and wellness. Professionals can also play an important role in the recovery process by providing clinical treatment and other services that support individuals in their chosen recovery paths. While peers and allies play an important role for many in recovery, their role for children and youth may be slightly different. Peer supports for families are very important for children with behavioral health problems and can also play a supportive role for youth in recovery.
Last year, I facilitated a women’s support group in my apartment building. I enjoyed it very much. I ran the group for eight months, then decided to focus on finishing my film. I plan to facilitate groups and present workshops at various mental health organizations, focusing on the topics of goal achievement and mental health recovery. In this way, I will support others along their own individual journeys of healing, wellness and recovery.
Recovery is supported through relationship and social networks
An important factor in the recovery process is the presence and involvement of people who believe in the person’s ability to recover; who offer hope, support, and encouragement. Family members, peers, providers, faith groups, community members, and other allies form vital support networks. Through these relationships, people leave unhealthy and/or unfulfilling life roles behind and engage in new roles (e.g., partner, caregiver, friend, student, employee) that lead to a greater sense of belonging, personhood, empowerment, autonomy, social inclusion, and community participation.
If someone is not supportive of my recovery, then I should not have that person in my life. This is vital, for my mental health recovery means my survival. I cannot afford to have someone in my life who threatens my very existence. Instead, I choose to surround myself with positive individuals, groups, health care providers and mental health professionals who support my recovery plan.
Recovery is culturally-based and influenced
Culture and cultural background in all of its diverse representations—including values, traditions, and beliefs—are keys in determining a person’s journey and unique pathway to recovery. Services should be culturally grounded, attuned, sensitive, congruent, and competent, as well as personalized to meet each individual’s unique needs.
Unfortunately, I have very little cultural identity. I did not grow up with my Italian American father and I did not find out my mother was African American until I was seventeen years old. (My mother was fair-skinned and “passed” for Caucasian her entire adult life.) I grew up not knowing any of my relatives, other than my mother and older half-sister. So culture does not play a major role in my personal recovery process.
Recovery is supported by addressing trauma
The experience of trauma (such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, war, disaster, and others) is often a precursor to or associated with alcohol and drug use, mental health problems, and related issues. Services and supports should be trauma-informed to foster safety (physical and emotional) and trust, as well as promote choice, empowerment, and collaboration.
During the filming of AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MICHELLE MAREN, I was finally able to confront the trauma from my childhood. For so many years, I wasn’t able to talk about it at all, not even with mental health professionals. However, during the making of my documentary, I attended EMDR sessions with a New York therapist. This specialized therapy helped me to process the violent abuse from my past. With a newfound inner strength, I was then able to confront my father; search for and find my missing mother, four half-siblings and cousins; and cope with the deaths of both my mother and father.
Recovery involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility
Individuals, families, and communities have strengths and resources that serve as a foundation for recovery. In addition, individuals have a personal responsibility for their own self-care and journeys of recovery. Individuals should be supported in speaking for themselves. Families and significant others have responsibilities to support their loved ones. Individuals in recovery also have a social responsibility and should have the ability to join with peers to speak collectively about their strengths, needs, wants, desires, and aspirations.
I have spent many hours doing research on the internet searching for mental health providers. I never had family members in my life who were loving and supportive. I have always had to take care of myself. After long hours calling number after number, I found proper mental health services, which include psychiatrists, counselors and support groups.
Recovery is based on respect
Community, systems, and societal acceptance and appreciation for people affected by mental health and substance use problems—including protecting their rights and eliminating discrimination—are crucial in achieving recovery. There is a need to acknowledge that taking steps towards recovery may require great courage. Self-acceptance, developing a positive and meaningful sense of identity, and regaining belief in one’s self are particularly important.
Developing a strong sense of self has been integral to my recovery process. It is this confidence that supports me when setbacks occur. For example, if someone chooses not to acknowledge my recovery, or disrespects me in some other way, I have to remind myself who I know I am--a person of courage, strength and character. What someone else thinks of me, is none of my business!
For more information:
SAMHSA’S WORKING DEFINITION OF RECOVERY BOOKLET
THE NATIONAL COALITION FOR MENTAL HEALTH RECOVERY (NCMHR)
CHOICES IN RECOVERY WEBSITE
Saturday, November 08, 2014
According to mentalhealth.gov, “Recovery is possible. Most people with mental problems can get better. Treatment and recovery are ongoing processes that happen over time.”
I am a living testament that mental health recovery is indeed possible. For me, it was, and still is, an ongoing process.
Years ago, the notion of mental health recovery was difficult for me to grasp. I thought, “But I’ve been diagnosed with serious mental disorders. How will they ever go away?”
This is a popular misunderstanding. “Recovered” doesn’t necessarily mean “cured.”
Recovery from mental disorders is a process of change through which individuals:
--Improve their health and wellness
--Live a self-directed life
--Strive to achieve their full potential
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has devised a working definition of recovery, which outlines Four Dimensions of Recovery:
--Health: Making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional wellbeing.
--Home: Having a stable and safe place to live.
--Purpose: Engaging in meaningful daily activities, such as a job or school, volunteering, caring for your family, or being creative. Work for independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
--Community: Building relationships and social networks that provide support.
"Health" refers to one's holistic health--mind, body and spirit.
Working with my psychiatrist, I’ve found medications that work best for me, with minimal side effects. Also, I’m a big believer in talk therapy, so I attend regular counseling sessions.
I am no longer engaged in disordered eating habits. In the past, I experienced both ends of the eating disorder spectrum. For ten years of my life I was clinically obese, weighing between 175 and 200 pounds (I’m 5’ 3”). Then there were other periods of time when I over-exercised and under-ate, becoming very thin. It was always feast or famine for me. That is, until about two years ago. Witnessing my mother’s intense mental and physical suffering during the last year of her life had a profound effect on me. For as long as I can remember, Ma was a binge eater and compulsive dieter. She would gorge herself on sweets, then go on a starvation diet, such as The Stillman Water Diet or The Watermelon Diet. This yo-yo pattern continued until she became so ill she had to be institutionalized. She was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Unbeknownst to anyone, she had been having a series of mini-strokes for decades. The strokes were cause by atherosclerosis. All those years of binging on junk food clogged her arteries. Eventually, she was completely mentally and physically incapacitated and could no longer care for herself. She could no longer walk or even stand. She became psychotic and then nonverbal. I believe it was her disordered eating habits that destroyed her mind and body, and it was a definite wake-up call for me. With the help of a dietician, I began a well-balanced, properly portioned eating plan and have been on it ever since. Now my goal is not to be my thinnest, but rather my healthiest.
Since I have serious spinal issues, I devised an exercise plan that is gentle and kind to my body. It consists of walking, yoga and light hand weights. One of my future goals is to learn how to swim.
The most important aspect of my health is my spirit. For the past four years, I have been part of a lay Catholic community. These people are very important to me and have become my surrogate family. Attending Mass, scripture study, spiritual reading, meditation and prayer, all have been an important part of my spiritual life. My faith is my foundation and without it, my recovery would not be possible.
I live in a decent apartment with a rent I can afford. I keep my home clean and organized. My kitty cat, Pinky, keeps me company and gives me comfort. I work hard to make my home my haven, and as such, it is a place of calm peace.
Between 2008 and 2014, my purpose was to make an autobiographical documentary with the talented Michel Negroponte. AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MICHELLE MAREN is now finished. I believe it will have a positive effect on others. I want suffering people to know that they are not alone and there really is hope.
My new goals are:
--To perform an autobiographical cabaret act/one-woman show
--To become a motivational speaker, encouraging others to achieve their dreams
--To become a mental health advocate, sharing my personal experience of mental health recovery
--To write an autobiography/motivational book, encouraging others to see the light at the end of the tunnel
My main purpose in life is to help others by sharing my own personal healing journey. In this way, I hope to both grow as a human being and further develop my own mental health recovery.
In recent years, I’ve made a concerted effort to develop supportive relationships and distance myself from those who are negative influences. This has been challenging. My natural tendency is to isolate because I do not trust easily. In the past, sometimes when I confided in people, they would betray me. That deep hurt caused me to build a wall between myself and the world. However, now I am able to open up to others and trust again. What I’ve learned is that I used to trust the wrong people--those who did not possess integrity. I’ve improved my ability to discern who is honest and who is not. Also, my self-esteem is now where it should be, so I no longer attract people of low character. I take responsibility for who I choose to be in my life. And I choose to surround myself with positive, loving and supportive people. I am worth it.
For further information:
SAMHSA’S WORKING DEFINITION OF RECOVERY BOOKLET
THE NATIONAL COALITION FOR MENTAL HEALTH RECOVERY (NCMHR)
CHOICES IN RECOVERY WEBSITE