In Florida, frogs sing by the rivers. Monsters hiss in the Everglades. And I fell sick and silent.
It started before I ever flew south, at my childhood home in Massachusetts. Three lilac bushes held court behind its garage, robed in lavender come May like the Shogunate of a fantasy kingdom. The lilacs’ scent flowered the paper screens of my family’s imagination. It reaches me even now, decades later, and as it does those screens unfold in my mind, faces and figures flowing across them.
The fragrance leads me inside the house and up the stairs by the glass-chain-links of memory, to the bottle of Opium, perpetually running on fumes, on my mother’s bedroom table. I still smell it: Up and down those stairs and in that house, there was a coldness, a repression of feelings and physical affection, the opposite of what a hyper-sensitive, terrified child required to thrive. My parents seemed to be sealed within airtight cubes, while I was drowning in an overflow that spread to the ends of my world.
I tried to talk once. I was five or six, in church with my mother. I don’t know where my father was—they hadn’t separated yet. I was a good girl, normally a too-quiet girl, but suddenly, I couldn’t stop talking in the middle of mass. My mother was more shocked than angry as I obsessively repeated the story of Rumpelstiltskin to her, threshing the tale in her ear’s whorled room. As trapped by my recitation as the girl in the story, whose fate depends on spinning straw into gold.
My mother urged me to be quiet, but I could tell that she didn’t understand what was happening to me. And she didn’t understand that what was happening to me was not really me. Or was it?
It was the first embodiment of the impossible questions—Is mental illness who I am or what I do? If the latter, who or what is culpable?
They blame some diseases on environmental causes.
When I was seven, my mother and I visited an aunt in Florida. I remember we drove past an orange grove that smelled like a young girl flying higher and higher on a swing. No: the scents of fresh fruit pity simile. It smelled like orange, but orange as it would be if there were no toxins, no orange-killing frosts. It smelled like orange in an unblighted world, so strong that my mother thought I had spilled citrus perfume. But then, she often thought the worst of me.
Three years later, after my parents divorced, she and I moved to Jensen Beach, an amiable, one-hundred-year-old town in the flush of a revival. On what is known, romantically, as Florida’s Treasure Coast, the lost cargo of Spanish galleons fabled to be somewhere just off its shores.
It was a sensuous world. Night walks on the beach in search of giant sea turtles. Mangroves tangled like passionate teenagers. Ghost crabs scrambling across sand, their perfect inhabitation of themselves a reproach to growing girls. Manatees wintering in the warm waters beside the nuclear power plant. The jacaranda like so many purple lips spilling secrets. The sulking orchids, mangos falling from our backyard trees to night ground. Sulfur-spiked thunderstorms followed by frogs’ evensong. Salt-water magic realism—Southern Gothic set in pink strip malls.
My mother’s enthusiasm for it all drove me nuts.
I did like the palm trees, each a scrawny child who’d scared herself so badly her hair stood on end. And I loved the moment when the wind picked up after dark and started to tell the story of a coolness you thought had vanished from the earth.
Years later, I understood that Florida was similar to Japan, and not just because of the humidity. Non-natives moved there to throw off their pasts, to disappear. And soon I began to disappear as well.
Shortly after we landed in Florida, my mother fell in love with a man who lived on a boat. I hated him. I was ten, old enough to know that he had her heart but too young to see the obvious, that he would break it. I pictured her wading into warm blue waters with this voyager. Out to tiny islands whose indigenous flowers could be seen there and nowhere else.
I had started dieting soon after we moved. Now, in part to win my mother back, I slashed my food intake to 800 calories per day and upped my exercise, biking around our block over and over again. The neighbors surely found me mad as I tried, with my endless circles, to cinch the fat of growing up. Everywhere I thought I caught the stench of rotting meat, the base note justifying my starvation. Yet at the same time, I started cooking my first meals and began a lifelong fascination with food. Recently, I peeled every single chickpea before I roasted a large batch, a truly Rumpelstiltskinian task.
Back when we lived in Massachusetts, I pleaded illness whenever I got into trouble and my parents sent me to my room. “I’m sick, I’m sick.” Translation: You can’t force me to leave you. My parents never fell for this ruse, yet my body, starved and stripped through furious denial, was still playing a version of this sick game.
I was first hospitalized for anorexia just after my eleventh birthday. Treatment read as blinding glare.
The dayroom of the psych ward in Delray Beach was braced on one side by the nurses’ station, the padded “quiet” room for patients needing a time-out, and a small dining area for patients too new or too unstable to be allowed down to the cafeteria for meals. On the other side, a wall of glass divided it from the inner courtyard, which boasted a volleyball net and a swimming pool. Four buildings sealed the courtyard into a rectangle of the damned. Our building, housing the adolescent psych unit and cafeteria, was squared by Eval, Addiction, and Adult Psych. You could always tell who was who. The patients from Adult Psych were morose, addled, or near-catatonic. Those in Addiction were often joking or singing. If I were going to end up in one or the other later on in life, there was no doubt in my young mind which I’d choose.
When we weren’t allowed outside and didn’t have to attend group therapy or some other form of public humiliation, I played cards with other patients and read in the dayroom. One day, I spied an article in the newspaper about a famous baseball player. “Where in the world is XXXX?” the headline asked. I knew exactly where he was: Across the courtyard in Addiction. In fact, the day before he’d been stationed behind me in an inter-unit volleyball game. After my first miss—I’ve always been dreadful at team sports—he leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Just duck when the ball comes at you. I’ll take care of it.”
But there was no ducking with my chief psychiatrist there. Dr. Ellsworth reminded me of an undertaker, or Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes. He would sneak up on me. A tall man with a dark beard—and I had always distrusted bearded men—he was surprisingly light on his feet.
Dr. Ellsworth informed my mother that I wielded my self-starvation as manipulation. He said this early on and repeated it often. These days, I imagine no one would assign blame to an eleven-year-old, much less one who had to be fed through a nose tube for a week before she was strong enough to be admitted to the psychiatric unit. But to Dr. Ellsworth in the 1980s, I was a sixty-pound Moriarty jacked up on celery and rice cakes who must be kept in the straitjacket of strictly ordained meals.
Every time I opened my mouth, he sickened my words. My prognosis was a dirge sung by other throats.
To this day, I hate the word “manipulative” above all others.
I may have loathed “manipulative”, but generally speaking, words were a refuge for me as I adjusted to my post-ward existence. Writing had been a part of my life for longer than I could remember. My mother tells me that I penned a libretto for an opera as soon as I learned my letters, and I wrote poems and short stories throughout my compulsory school years. The poems were impressively bad, beaded with words like “orchidaceous” and overwrought emotions. Even their white space was purple.
For the most part, school was a refuge too. My favorite subject was English, although my mother would have preferred it to be something more practical. A physicist, she hoped I would find grounding and employability through numbers and formulas.
One day I echoed her wishes, when I was reminded how badly words can sting. It was my junior year in high school. We were doing practice SATs in my AP English class, using both actual questions and ones that had been discarded as flawed. The antonym prompt was “depressed.” None of the options made sense to me, but according to my sweet, supportive teacher, the answer was “kind.” I felt like she had stabbed a No. 2 pencil into my heart. I pray that was one of the questions that didn’t make the cut.
I learned much later that etymologically, the word for “pain” derives from poena, Latin for “punishment.”
I also learned to speak solely through writing. But even then, there was so much white space.
While I was still in the hospital, I became obsessed with ballet. Out on a day pass, I chanced upon a used book about the Cecchetti method and tried to glean some pointers from its bisque pages. But I quickly discovered that you can’t learn dance from silence. You need a live interlocutor who pushes you to throw the book aside and claim the space. You can theorize endlessly about a fouetté, but until you’re negotiating the walls with your whipping leg and fixating on a point in the mirror as if it were the mouth of God announcing fate, the world will not turn.
Soon I did find teachers off the page, but after a couple of years of fanatical devotion, I had to face facts. My mother told me harshly that because I had started ballet too late, I would always be second-rate. “And the only way you get parts if you’re second-rate is by sleeping around.” I was shocked; I was fourteen. She was right, though. And I can now see that like a cat wrecking order to claim the top shelf of a closet, her love relies on severity for purchase.
She was also concerned—not unreasonably—that ballet’s cult of thinness might cause me to relapse. But ballet provided me with an excuse to keep a close eye on my body for a non-pathological reason. It also gave me my first hint that absorption in art might be key to my sanity. I believe it helped rather than hurt in my struggle to accept my developing body, except maybe when we did pas de deux practice in class. Then I felt gigantic, towering en pointe over the brother of the ballet mistress, the only man in sight.
One day, I was alone in the larger ballet studio at the Center for the Arts, wearing tights sheened like fish scales, my mermaid hair in a too-tight bun. Dancing in toe shoes felt like walking on knives.
The studio’s back door was ajar. I looked up from my relevés to find four grown men leering at me from the second-floor balcony of the cheap motel across the way, beers in hand.
Like all dancers, I was not heard, but seen.
Maybe it’s just because moving there coincided with puberty. But Florida—with its panthers, snakes, and spiders so big you can hear them move across the floor—has always seemed to me a land of depredation. Its sunshine feeds countless wolves.
Once upon a time, I moved to Florida and lost my body. The doctors cured me by declaring me bad. They released me from the hospital, commanding me to grow into a woman. All it cost me was my voice.
Whenever I protested anything, including my stepfather’s abuse, he and my mother brought up my illness. It slayed my words like so many dragons.
I am not alone. Florida’s kingdom decrees many silences. Until a recent reversal, felons in the state were banned from voting, and Florida is flocked with felons: over 10% of voting-age adults, and nearly a quarter of its African Americans, feather its nest. Even now, they can only regain their rights if they pay for their crimes—if they pay and pay.
In Florida, the frogs serenade, the monsters roar, and the people are hushed.
What would have happened elsewhere? I ask the ugly little man. Would it have been different?
You would still have needed to spin straw into gold, he says in that voice I hate.
Release didn’t come from leaving Florida at age eighteen. Release only came, decades later, through acknowledging my guest of an illness. One that does not always stay but terrorizes while immanent.
As in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, I was taught to believe I could only banish the nightmare, and reclaim my mind, by mouthing the right names against myself: anorexic, depressed, suicidal, borderline, neurotic, addicted. This technique is nothing new. Rebecca Solnit reminds us of the trope in folktales in which the villain is defeated when the heroine learns his name: “In the deep past,” she writes, “people knew names had power.”
The problem is that the names of disorders—and perhaps all names—are seductive tricksters. They promise to crystallize a self-knowledge that is in fact scattered everywhere, and changing shape all the time—refusing to be bundled or stilled to gold.
And for just one instant, in its mess, I think I glimpse a map of Florida.