Story by Anonymous
Artwork by Mary Ruth Coffey
During a bleak and fragmented seven years in my life, it was safer, more comforting and less challenging for me to remain abed or reclining motionless in a Lazyboy chair in my sunless living room for long periods of time. To have only one foot in the ‘unmanageable’ outside world was as much as I could tolerate, barely, and for very short periods of time, before hastily retreating back to my ‘comfort zones.’ I was boxed into a Valium and Librium pill haze, which were supposed to bring me to a better place but instead they propelled me into a catatonic state which was one of many side-effects when taking this kind of medication. Dreading to open my eyes each morning, I would delicately thread with great trepidation through my now constrained inner and outer life, not really having the capability of wanting or even knowing how to put both feet into either of my abysmal worlds. My social behaviors were also at an all-time low, rarely going eye-to-eye with people, which included family members who were at a loss on why I was so reclusive and miserable. I oftentimes eclipsed these family members when their well-meaning advice on how to ‘fix’ me fell on my deaf ears.
I was nevertheless trying to bring some semblance of order to my vacuous life in those years. All throughout my illness, I had an inkling that my recovery might be within myself and I desperately needed to find an outlet to reach that wellness point. As much as I wished, I couldn’t confide in others as it brought me no solace. Since arriving in America in my teens, I had done a small amount of book reading and never with any regularity. Now in my aloneness that sporadic reading habit changed drastically as I fell into my dark chasm of physical and emotional numbness. I mysteriously took to the books and immersed my reclining days in a voracious reading marathon. Because I had a beer pocket life at that particular time, the books I absorbed were obtained for very little money from not too distant second-hand book stores and garage sales. My choice of reading subjects were very narrow in scope and only included high school textbooks, college anthologies, art books and biographies of kings, queens and diverse literary notables. It was these books that may have saved me from the world and my deteriorating self, but they came with a high price as I morphed into a recluse for most of those seven years. Only once in a great while did I put my nose outside the door and on those occasions could not stay as a vital entity in the outside world for very long without causing me great anxiety.
Without going into much more detail in connection with those depressive years, I slowly began to allow myself, and with seemingly great courage, to let the sun peek through a couple of my windows, and in spite of, or in defiance of my fears, I dared to venture outside into what I perceived would be to some ‘safe and non-threatening’ environments. Not wanting or having the ability to go back to corporate America to a salaried, but restrictive, secretarial job which would entail coming face to face with people who might guess that I was stuck in a narrow world, would have been unthinkable. I wasn’t up to being quizzed or accepting well-meaning solutions for my condition. I chose instead to do volunteer work at ‘safer places’ like the Bohemian Nursing Home on Pulaski & Foster and Gross Point Nursing Home in Niles, Illinois. Not being restrained by a time clock, I surmised that working in the Activities Department with the very amenable and non-confrontational elderly was going to be, at best, a band-aid remedy to what ailed me. The simple interactive discourse and activity within these confined nursing home walls gradually seemed to bring some normalcy to my broken and wilderness life.
For a few years these safe harbors became a balm for my bleakness which allowed me to float in the outside spaces without further destruction to my delicate self. The nursing home residents with their sincere ways, made a huge difference in my life, as my softness and tolerance for the outside places daily inched along. The residents made me feel accepted and there was a gradual ‘letting my guard down’ happening to becoming a real flesh and blood person, not only in their eyes, but also to myself. My way of life, such as it was, became more hopeful. I wasn’t cured in any way, shape or form, but in my own peculiar and unique way, I came to see a stronger and longer, and not so thorny, physical and emotional road to travel along. A road that was not now as mystifying and one that I could take into consideration and perhaps come to terms with.
Jumping ahead to the years that followed my Limbo status, I deliberately and without asking any doctor’s permission, made up my mind to loosen the embrace of the netherworld by weaning myself off the Valium and Librium medication. Even after my medication withdrawal decision, I continued to make the choice of only keeping one foot in the inner and outer worlds because to my mind it seemed like sound and safe thinking. From that time on, in spite of some sort of neglect that continued to invade my life, I then tried to make up for lost time. I became dogged in my thinking, refusing to sell myself short and propelling instead into some kind of ‘living in the world’ concessions, in spite of the fact that I had many backward steps along the way. In hindsight, I am now astonished at how much I managed to get finished in one day. I felt proud I could keep a reasonable agenda and tie up a lot of daily loose ends. I became a proper and somewhat useful commodity in the world. Most times I could organize or meet any challenge that came up in any of my volunteer jobs and jobs, I sometimes, got paid to do.
Looking back to my volunteer job on the Wednesday evening bingo at the Irish American Heritage Center, I worked with a few other friendly Irish ladies in the kitchen. When the avid or frenzied bingo players converged at the food bar, I could dish up dozens of hot dogs, gallons of beer, Coca-Cola, coffee, tea and the puzzling Franzia boxed wine for which only women seemed to have a taste. On top of all that dishing up, I managed to throw in a little blarney on the side just for devilment. When it came down to a couple of my paid domestic jobs, I cleaned and re-organized clothes and linen closets, climbed ladders to change light bulbs, dusted off ceiling fans, single handedly turned over queen sized mattresses, and hauled down books from floor to ceiling bookshelves, all in the hopes of finding imaginary or real dust bunnies and woolen mice. I washed and scrubbed, on my hands and knees, kitchen and bathroom floors, dusted and polished furniture. Within a short span of time, I could overhaul and put back together any size room. Again, down on my hands and knees, I could squeeze under, over and around any piece of furniture, all the while dragging a canister vacuum behind me.
With all that limb activity involved in domestic work, it often set my mind to thinking that I should do this type of chore in my own house someday soon and I would make a mental note when I got home I would rearrange and de-clutter and maybe my own house would look just like so-and-so’s house. Then again, I’m forever flirting with the idea that I’m still in the throes of some kind of emotional illness and I will never get my house so thoroughly clean as that so-and-so’s no matter what magic I performed. Then again, wouldn’t it have been a lot less legwork if I had stuck to secretarial work, even if it was a very boring and tedious occupation.
On any one of the domestic jobs, when there was not a sinner around to bother me as I scrubbed a bathtub or toilet, I could dazzle myself in mind with the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Frost, and a kind of peace would settle over me and I became content in my work. But there were also times my thinking took me to another place that there’s no one in the world that’s as crazy as I am and why hadn’t I gotten a good education for myself and then go and apply for a proper job out in the bigger world.
Because of this lack of education, when I did finally apply for a ‘real in the world’ job, I could only get a part-time job at the Sulzer Library on Montrose & Lincoln, which had no tagged benefits or insurance. But, there were so many other benefits. It blew my mind to be among all the books and I took full advantage of my library card by taking out, not only the books, but also all the audio taped stories on every subject I was interested in. When I was elevated to a clerk position, I was in my glory when I pulled from the bookshelves and computerized for disposition as many as 300 books in my daily four hour shift. One other blessing with this library job was I never had to think about signing up at Bally’s Health Club or doing any other kind of exercising. I got it all done while I was employed at the library, when I daily hauled carts and gurneys full of books that needed to be filed back on the shelves. I did so much bending over those dumpster-like gurneys I had a feeling one day I would wind up inside the gurney, getting lost in its mountain of books.
At my Marine Drive high-rise caregiving job, I learned to multi task. I massaged aching shoulders, shopped, cooked and learned after much roaming around in the Jewel store on Montrose & Broadway, in which aisles the lox and Gefeltifish were shelved. When questioned by my elderly, in her dotage lady, I could answer coolly and calmly, for the fiftieth time, what date, month and time of day it was. And, as an aside to this caregiving job, when doing her laundry, I never had to become emotionally involved or leave any vital statistics when I carried on rambling and disconnected conversations with any curmudgeon or angel that happened my way in the high rise elevator on my way down to the laundry room.
Upon finishing my weekend domestic job in a downtown high rise on a given Sunday afternoon, as I exited into the sunlight and walked past the plaza across from the Old Water Tower building on Michigan Avenue, I momentarily envied the people sitting on benches, watching lazily and seemingly idling away their time. I too wished I could get off life’s treadmill and linger on a bench for a precious while. But, on second thought, I knew I already had gone down that idle path years ago when I fell into an unwanted malaise for seven years of my life. As I quickly passed the sedentary people out for their Sunday people watching, I dismissed the idea of lazily idling away my time with thoughts about some unfinished business that needed my unfettered energy, enthusiasm and attention.
It’s now time to wrap up this essay on what I have done with some of my uneven time flow while in the world. I can tell without much ado, besides the fact that I took seven years out to have a nervous breakdown, I could also do as many as eight loads of laundry in any given day and have listened to yards and yards of histories on priceless books, artwork and other household family treasures. Over many of the past years, I have dusted with great agility a boatload of Lladros, Waterford crystal, Hummels, Wedgewoods, Royal Doultons, Tiffanys, Laliques, and lest I forget to mention the hundreds of Parisian, Irish and British porcelain snuff boxes, paper weights and all other delicate objects that have occupied shelf space.
Thinking back on all I have done or needed to do in just one week, could send my mind back into a tizzy. These days, I thank God for not making eight days in the week because at seven days, I fear, with so much I have yet to do, I may not make it all the way through the week, and I wonder why the older I get, that the pace has gotten even more frenetic.
Author Mary Ruth Coffey, Chicago IL
Mary Ruth Coffey, MBA, JD Executive Director of Mental Health America of Illinois (2013-2015), a certified yoga instructor, and a published memoirist and artist. For over 20 years, Mary Ruth has served individuals, families and communities in their journeys toward wellness and recovery from trauma, homelessness, violence and poverty through mindfulness, storytelling and art. She is the designer and curator of MHAI’s current peer-led, anti-stigma project, Manifesting Healthy Futures: 24/7 Voices and Visions of Wellness, in which 24 creative nonfiction stories by writers with lived mental health experience are being interpreted through visual art. The Project is being exhibited at venues across the country in the style of ‘community conversations, engaging community members in the dialogue about mental health and stigma.