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🎧Someone Else Breaks
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🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
The sidewalk is damp. The snow has melted after an abnormally warm week in February, but there are still patches of ice, mainly hidden under puddles. I walk along Fullerton past the Lily Pool, which is closed for winter. Today, I have an appearance on Eric Zimmerman’s wonderful podcast “The One You Feed” to publicize my memoir Pathological. I’ve recorded my main points on my phone and am listening to myself say them, memorizing them, so I’m clear.
Telling people the truth about psychiatric diagnoses—which Pathological does—hasn’t been easy. The goal is to prevent others and their children and teenagers from over-identifying with them the way I did. The mainstream media treats psychiatric diagnoses as gospel. It doesn’t question their validity or reliability. It perpetuates the myths that they’re purely biological, caused by a “chemical imbalance,” and lifelong.
It makes sense. We’re in a global mental health crisis. No one wants to question the only system we have in place.
The problem with this line of thinking is 1) it perpetuates untruths, which denies people agency over their treatment, and 2) it prevents people from recovering. People need to understand that diagnoses are just constructs, designations for clinicians to use to get us the right treatment. They’re the best we have, but getting treatment geared toward healing is the point, not the diagnosis.
My hope is that knowing the truth about psychiatric diagnoses will give them the space to heal the way it did for me. Publicity is the way to make that happen.
My phone rings. I look at the screen. It’s my mom. This is the time when we usually talk, but today I told her I wanted to prepare for the podcast. Something is wrong.
“Sarah, I was walking the dog, and I fell.” She moans. “My wrist. My wrist.”
She’s watching Augie, my sister’s puppy, for two weeks while my sister and brother-in-law are away. The past week of puppy sitting hasn’t gone well; it’s been icy and cold, and walking the dog is unsettling. I’ve lost count of the number of times she’s said she’s scared she’ll fall.
She moans again. “I know I broke it.”
Pressure fills my chest. My pace quickens. “It’s okay,” I say, my voice strong, sturdy. “Where are you?” I start to run.
“I’m at home. Oh, no.” She moans again.
“I’ll be right there.” I run to the docking station of the city’s public bikes and am soon peddling on one of them as fast as I can.
When I arrive at her apartment, my mother opens the door. She looks so much younger than someone in her late seventies—sixty at best. Her brown curly hair falls softly around her face, but her brow is furrowed. She winces as she moves.
Augie bounds toward me. “It’s okay.” I say this to both my mother and the dog “Sit.” They both look at me, unsure which of them I’m speaking to. Augie jumps on my mother and then on me. “Mom, sit on the couch.”
After grabbing two treats from the bag, I take Augie by the collar, cooing to her that it’s okay. I toss the treats into the bathroom. Augie goes in after them, and I close the bathroom door.
My mother moans. I sit next to her and rub her back the way she did for me during the five years I lived there when I was chronically suicidal and unable to live independently. I do something I never could have done then: I take control, tell her it’s okay, and that I’m going to help her.
“I have to get rid of the dog. I can’t have the dog.”
My building doesn’t allow dogs, so I can’t take her. My mother holds up her wrist. The bone hasn’t broken the skin, but it’s jutting out.
I tell her she needs to go to the emergency room and that I’ll call an Uber.
“Will you come with me?” she asks.
My heart fills with love and pride. I’m the strong one she wants by her side. I point to Augie.
She moans. “And you have your podcast. You can’t miss that.”
“Yes, I can.”
“No.” My mother’s tone is firm.
I call the Uber and then my sister, who’s in Mexico. My sister will call a boarder to see if they can take Augie. I bring my mother her boots.
“No,” she says, motherly, “not with laces.”
“Oh,” I say, having missed the obvious. I get her other boots and help her slip into them. I tell her I’ll take care of Augie, do my podcast, and meet her at the hospital.
I let Augie out of the bathroom and fasten the leash to her collar. Augie looks at us, puzzled: What’s happening?
Downstairs, I put my mother in the Uber, telling the driver that she broke her wrist, so he’ll give her a little extra attention and my mom won’t feel alone, and tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can.
Eventually, Augie and I arrive at the boarder. Augie is her usual sweet self, maybe even excited, on her way inside. I tell her she’ll get to play with other dogs and my sister will pick her up later. I don’t say, In a week.
We enter. A collie and a pug are being led around cones in the training area. I fill out the necessary paperwork and give the boarder Augie’s food. We talk about when my sister will pick Augie up. When I look down, Augie is shaking. She’s peed on the floor, terrified.
“Oh, sweet girl.” I bend down, holding her. I don’t want to leave her.
The boarder holds out her hand for Augie’s leash.
“I love you, Augs.” I nuzzle her and kiss the top of her head.
The expression on the boarder’s face says, I’ve been through this a hundred times.
I hand over the leash and leave.
Four hours later, my mother is still in the waiting area when I arrive at the emergency room. People occupy every chair. Some stand. Even those with IVs look as though they’ve been waiting for days. My mother walks toward me, cradling her wrist in her other hand. No doctor has seen her yet. The bone looks as though it’s jutting out farther.
I tell her to wait and go to the main desk. Calmly and without irritation or urgency, I give them my mother’s name and explain that she’s broken her wrist and is in pain, which she is. It’s unclear why what happens next happens, but the attendant goes to the computer, types something, and ushers us through.
The emergency room itself is relatively empty of people. We’re shown to a triage area. Eventually, a very young-looking doctor comes and gently examines my mother’s wrist. She tells him what happened, how she was walking my sister’s dog and was being so careful about the ice because she knows that slipping on ice can be dangerous for someone her age.
“How old are you?” he asks, looking at the screen. She tells him. “Wow. You are very youthful.”
My mother smiles and tells him how she slipped on a patch of ice hidden by a puddle. After she landed in the puddle, Augie came over and sat in it with her. She laughs. “So much for a rescue dog running to get help.”
The doctor smiles. Only my mother could be that charming with a bone so severely broken and no pain medication.
She’s taken for x-rays. The doctor shows us the image and explains that she’ll have to have the bone reset. He says it as though it will be painless.
She asks me how the podcast went.
It went well. I’m just so happy someone is giving me a platform to try to improve the mental health system. “Especially now that I’ve healed.”
I’ve been scared to tell her that I’ve recovered. We were told I’d always be ill, that I’d likely die ten years earlier than my life expectancy, likely from suicide. I’ve worried she wouldn’t believe me or, worse, that I was, somehow, faking it. After all, according to popular belief, recovery from psychiatric conditions—especially serious mental illness, especially after twenty-five years in the mental health system—isn’t possible.
My mother looks at me, knowing, and smiles, confirming.
Several hours later, we’re taken to a room where my mother undergoes the most medieval procedure I’ve ever witnessed to reset the bone. Getting the cast and being discharged take a very long time. We take a cab home, and I get my mother settled. She’s so happy to be out of the emergency room, she says, she just wants to go to bed.
For my mother, healing will be the hardest part. It will be slow and tedious. She’s broken her left hand, and she’s lefthanded. Every day, either my sister or I will go over to unscrew caps on bottles, sign checks, and button shirts most of the way so they’re ready to wear.
But she will heal. As soon as she’s out of the cast and then the splint, and finishes physical therapy, she’ll no longer think of herself as someone with a broken wrist. It will be in the past.
In the same vein, I don’t think of myself as someone with a mental illness. I experienced periods of mental illness. They’re done. They’re in the past.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t honor what I went through. The twenty-five years I spent in the mental health system were the equivalent of breaking most of the bones in my body. I’ve healed but just as someone who’s broken that many bones wouldn’t assume it’s okay to go bungee jumping or skiing, there are certain things I do and don’t do. I don’t drink alcohol or caffeine and don’t smoke or do drugs. Routine is everything. I eat well, exercise, go to bed at the same time, and wake up at the same time. I rarely travel, except for work. My life is boring in the most beautiful way.
Read all available chapters of Cured.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):