It was the Fall of 1977 when I returned to my fourth year of an architecture program at a college in northern New York. Despite my nervous enthusiasm, I was extremely disappointed that my boyfriend, Jeff, did not return to the program. Instead, he transferred to an architecture program in Sweden.
Soon I became depressed and isolated as Jeff was my best buddy and I lost touch with my peers because I had dropped the core design studio course in the previous semester.
We would congregate, toiling days and nights on design assignments in the studio space at the architecture building. And, I soon realized the harsh truth: I may never see Jeff again as we were continents apart. We had been two peas in a pod sharing many common values.
So, I befriended an assistant to a visiting professor who taught a seminar “Architectural form influenced by Socialism.” The assistant, Joseph, was twenty-eight years old and a graduate of the architecture program. He was building a house deep in the woods for a client and I would visit daily to observe Joseph’s accomplishments in carpentry.
I was attracted to Joseph as a friend because he was a very quiet mysterious gentleman. The friendship did not quell my psychological demons that resurfaced from the previous semester, having immense difficulty in drafting comprehensive drawings depicting a building I would sculpt in model cardboard.
I was a failure, and my low self-esteem and dire frustration were through the roof. Joseph realized my downtrodden situation but did not come to my rescue.
I became close with Joseph’s roommate, Hans, who was from Holland and a Ph.D. student in physics. We had great conversations. After I returned from my home on Long Island, at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, I attended a small party at Joseph and Hans’ quaint apartment. I conversed with everyone except Joseph and went the entire night without eating any food.
At the end of the party when everyone left, I remained and Joseph offered to make me a succulent “brownie cake” which I devoured.
By the next fleeting moment, I was shaking like a leaf, my head spinning, and holding on by a thin thread while hallucinating a cavernous dark space riddled with a bed of lit candles. The flames were ominous as I held onto Joseph. He held me tight, preventing me from jumping from the apartment window. I desperately wanted to free myself from my daunting relentless burdens. I managed to calm down and rested on his bed.
I had been drug-free since my sophomore year when I smoked marijuana heavily causing me to be depressed and passive in my studies. Recurring low self-esteem, a floundering spirit, and a goalless attitude were the demons that wore me down from that drug.
The combination of ingesting the brownie cake which was laced with PCP (angel dust) and my lingering demons brought me over the edge of a cliff.
After an hour I left Joseph, got in my car, and drove aimlessly until I reached the New York State Thruway. By then extreme paranoid ideation surfaced and I believed that there was a bloody revolution between the Socialists and Capitalists and my people were leaving the earth in spaceships.
I abandoned my car and trudged twelve miles South on the shoulder of the highway feverishly looking for the spaceship launching pads. When the sun rose, reality momentarily surfaced and I hitched a ride back to the college town.
I walked several blocks to my apartment where my bewildered father, devious Joseph, amicable Hans, and my uncaring roommates awaited my possible return.
Except for my father, I disregarded all of them, being in my own bubble where reality and fantasy were conflicted. I left for Long Island with my father aborting my studies and infamous struggle.
I was seen by a psychiatrist who informed my father I experienced a nervous breakdown and that I would heal at home. This episode was the first of many breakdowns recurring every six months to a year.
The doctor practiced a Freudian style of therapy: minimal communication as I was expected to do all of the talking, relating my dreams and free-associative thoughts in order to delve into my past and reveal the seed of my psychosis. The doctor didn’t offer any insight or common sense that would have been very helpful as I led a life riddled with too much stimulus in between episodes which severely challenged my limitations.
For example, when I transferred to another architecture program in Brooklyn, I moved to Manhattan, a complex city to adjust to, with an abrasive friend I met at summer camp in my youth. She was competitive, jealous of me, and would be gleeful if I failed.
I eventually had to abort that living situation. Following severe struggles to complete my studies, I worked all over Manhattan, changing firms often.
I traveled to Europe alone and broke down when I was on an inland bus tour of ancient Greece. I was one of three Americans, stressed and alone in the crowd of tourists. I hadn’t slept for six days. On the seventh day when I returned to Athens, I aimlessly walked around the city at night until dawn, escorted by a Greek soldier who I encountered on my journey of the empty streets when the world was sleeping.
In the morning I returned on the next flight back to New York. During the flight, I had a psychotic episode.
I slapped a male passenger on the side of his face as I delusionally thought he was amused and offensive toward me about my disheveled appearance. I hadn’t washed or changed my clothes for days. I was arrested and handcuffed upon my return to New York.
My father came to the transportation police station in the airport and he took me to my psychiatrist who was mechanical in his verbal communication. Luckily I healed over time, and the medicine, Thorazine, slowly helped me resolve my severe insomnia.
As time progressed, my recurring breakdowns worsened.
Severe insomnia, feelings of being abandoned and waking to an apocalyptic world, compounded low self-esteem, and a belief that everyone in my life was superior to me and advancing in their lives, problem-free. I frantically lost hope in my future.
My employment in the construction field was becoming stale, not advancing but being assigned rudimentary tasks, time after time. Also, being a woman in the male-dominated field, and not having a mentor hindered any success.
Several years passed, burdened with cyclical crises as my demons kept resurfacing when experiencing stressful social situations.
had a severe conscience and would ruminate over conversations when I often became too personal. I thought that my breakdowns, which I was ashamed of, were transparent and everyone could see through me. I believed I was the only person having a mental health issue. Even though I had friends and boyfriends, I felt disengaged, not connecting on any level which was isolating and spurred a lonely existence.
It was the Fall of 1984, when I started a new job, drafting parking lots at an engineering firm whose main agenda was designing highways. I was finally taken seriously, and assigned relevant drafting tasks. I rarely spoke to my co-workers as I often did in the past; divulging my personal life and ruminating about the impropriety and melting barriers.
It had been seven years of living through periodic breakdowns and my health not improving under the care of an ineffective doctor culminating with a tragic break.
After a month of employment at the engineering firm, I was allowed to take three days off in order to participate in a five-day psychological workshop that a co-worker recommended. I was led to believe that the workshop-initiated lectures on how to be assertive in one’s life. Instead, it consisted of confrontational exercises between the participants, challenging my confidence and threatening my frail stability.
I barely made it through day one of the workshop. I returned from the city to my apartment in the suburbs. I hardly ate dinner and couldn’t sleep. I struggled to return to the workshop the following day, feeling distraught and laboring through the day. Again, I returned to my apartment, did not eat any dinner, and found it impossible to sleep.
I called my psychiatrist, and he recommended that I should not continue attending the workshop.
Upon my return home, my neighbors were renovating their apartment and the drilling noise was incessant and piercing my sensitive ears. I was becoming delusional imagining that my neighbors were going to murder me with their drilling tools; I was a pariah, isolated from society to be tossed and trampled upon.
My parents who lived nearby were on vacation and I had no contact with them, only my psychiatrist who was remiss in recognizing the pattern and symptoms leading to my mental decline.
Still no sleep through the weekend. On the sixth day without sleep, I barged into my doctor’s office trying and failing to alert him I wasn’t well. He neglected to ask me if I was sleeping as he adamantly told me he had other patients in crisis and I should return at my designated appointment on Thursday.
Wednesday, the next day, was Halloween — the seventh day without sleep. My mind was racing; I could not dismiss my harsh conscience and dire loss of hope. I had to escape but could not exit through the entrance of my apartment, delusionally fearing that my survival was threatened by my neighbors.
It was one in the morning when I tied together my flannel bed sheets forming a rope. Then I anchored the end to the steel post of the kitchen table. I proceeded to the window, about six feet from the table, and climbed out of it holding on to the rope, planning to rappel down the thirty-foot wall.
The force of gravity was powerful, pulling me down with iron chains. In seconds I planned how I would land on the pavement; feet first and then roll to my side.
I blacked out and woke up in the emergency room of a local hospital with no recollection of falling. I broke my back and both of my ankles.
Twelve hours of surgery, two months in critical care and rehab, six months in a wheelchair, and then I got up and walked.
In January 1985, I found the right “high-risk” psychiatrist — George who was a Quaker and veteran of World War Two. He actively communicated during my therapy sessions and advised me to curb the stimulus in my life, learn my limitations, stop living on the third floor, and quit traveling to Europe alone. He wrote essays on coping with insomnia, establishing healthy relationships, how to invest one’s resources, the proper diet, vitamin regimen, etc.
Over the next two years, I improved in my employment. I designed a lingerie store while working in an interior design firm and I renovated my father’s three-thousand-foot office space. In 1988, George recommended that I turn to painting. In this medium of expression, I was able to focus my manic energy and imagination, creating complex surreal narratives.
My breakdowns became less frequent and spaced further apart.
I learned to be alert to an oncoming episode, aware of my recurring symptoms and patterns, sleep deprivation, irrational thinking, and loss of hope. George instructed me to take a day at a time and not look thirty years ahead, imagining an apocalyptic world.
In 1999, I was prescribed an effective antipsychotic medication and eventually established the correct dosage. I have been clear of any episodes since 2010.
I have been married for thirty-six years, have two children, and continue to paint. I also developed the skill of writing (poetry, published memoir Journey of the Self, and historical fiction.)
I recommend to fellow sufferers to keep a journal as it helps to look at oneself objectively and emotionally detached, discern one’s habits and patterns, and eventually ward off self-destruction in times of tragedy, stress, and a temporary erosion of hope — to view oneself at a distance and succeed in problem-solving ‘one second at a time.’
George always said, “The best therapy is outside of therapy.”
Ruth Poniarski is a painter and author of Journey of the Self.