Hurry Down

Michael Greenberg
(Other Press)
    The idea of his sister behaving without a trace of rational intention is unfathomable to him, as it was to me at first. In a single stroke her identity has changed; and by extension, ours, as a family, has changed too. I detect in him the same question I keep asking: Where has she gone?

Fifteen-year-old Sally goes bonkers, stopping strangers in the street to tell them about the meaning of life, hitting at people, incoherent. After no end of soul-searching, her father commits her to a psychiatric ward. Hurry Down Sunshine relates the story of her madness, what they call "fulminating mania," along with the course of the disease.

We learn not only of her time on the wards, but how it sucks in the whole family: her father (the writer), her step-mother (a dance artist), her mother (retreated to the wilds of Vermont), her grandmother.

Even as we spend time with the family on the ward there in Manhattan other family tensions and madnesses start to bobble up. And there is a heavy sense of self-blame: Is it a family trait? Did I cause it? How can we help her?

And the patient's own finger-pointing: Why are you doing this to me? How dare you think I'm crazy? Why are you forcing me to be locked up in this dingy, ugly, hospital? (Are you mad?) (Are all of us mad?)

§     §     §

All this is interwoven with day-long visits to the psycho ward, interactions with the nurses, doctors, attendants, other patients. It is a frightening, scary (and at times, funny) trip. We get to attend to the bipolar behaviors of a host of people, not only Sally and her ward-mates, but Mendelsohn, John Clare ... and James Joyce, struggling to sort out what befell his daughter Lucia. (It turned out to be schizophrenia).

He sought out the experts: "In 1934 Joyce took her to see Carl Jung at his sanitarium near Zurich. To subject Lucia to psychoanalysis, concluded Jung, would be catastrophic."

    Successful analysis required the wounded sanity of the neurotic; it was useless in the face of psychosis.

Joyce believed he should blame his authorship of Finnegan's Wake, for it presumed to plumb the unconscious; he ended up paying for Lucia's treatments through the royalties from Ulysses.

§     §     §

Going psychotic at age fifteen is like being on a collision course with destiny, and lunacy, as we have seen, turns into a blame game. If I am a parent, and my child goes crazy, is it something I did when she was in her first year of life? or when she was six? or twelve? or yesterday? Who's supposed to be taking care of those who are supposed to be taking care of us?

The line between neurosis and psychosis is the line between a lifetime of agony and one of survival. How do we treat this fireball of fulminating battiness that appears out of the blue, destroys our day-to-day contentment, sabotaging our dreams, our hopes, our goodwill?

    Sally is handed her pills in a paper cup with ridges like a chef's hat. She takes them in front of the nurse and moves on.

    "The halls are a maze," she says as we head back to her room. "Isn't that a-mazing."

    At eight o'clock we're politely told to leave; visiting hours are over. We ask Sally if there's anything she wants us to bring tomorrow. "Artichokes," she says. "And chocolate."

    She climbs stiffly into bed, her maniacal wriggling under the surface like a cat in a zippered bag.

If you never before knew it, this book will convince you that the mind has its own mind. We get to watch Sally fall into breakdown, committed to a psych ward there in the middle of Manhattan, living with two hundred other patients, finally recovering enough to go back to her family's apartment. But it is an explosion that devastates all. The family --- like all families --- has touches of craziness here and there. But her madness spawns other lunacies. At one point her father and stepmother lambaste each other with such virulence that the neighbors are forced to call the police.

How can we handle a psychotic who continuously (and artfully) accuses those were responsible for her being locked up?

    "Tell me what I'm doing here," she says...

    "You're here to feel well again."

    "I've never felt better. I'm perfectly fine."

    "You haven't been acting fine."

    "Everyone's acting, Father. You most of all."

    "Sally, you're sick." I hear the flat insistence in my voice.

    "Sick. Mmm. Does it make you feel safer to think of me that way?"

She and the rest of the family heap blame on the father. Her brother says "Are you telling me my sister is insane? Who decides such a thing?" His mother says, "This has to be some kind of mistake. That gorgeous girl. Tell me it's a mistake ... She's just a little overwrought. It's probably hormonal. Hyperthyroid, you know what I mean."

And he tells himself (while he is having a drink on a bar nearby named "The Recovery Room")

    It is as if the crack-up has made me saner than I wish to be, and I am holding on to her sober self, her other self, which she has temporarily misplaced or left behind.

All this should be a tragedy ... no, it is a tragedy, for Sally, her mother, her father, her family. But there are times when it falls into comedy. This is a meeting with the psychiatrist who is caring for Sally. When the time comes to take her home, she asks, "Have you decided whether I'm crazy?"

"'Crazy' is a word we prefer not to use," says Mason.

    I sense the resignation that settles on many clinical psychiatrists after a while, like a dull professional coating: the tacit, almost visible shrug that says, This is all I can do for you, which is the psychiatrist's cross to bear.

"It's easy to imagine how dispiriting it must be to administer a series of unrewarding treatments that have not progressed much since Lady Macbeth's doctor observed: 'This disease is beyond my practice ... More needs she the divine than the physician.'"

It is an ancient story. All of us are liable to fall into the hole of mania. The cure (as always) can be worse than the disease. A hundred years ago it was being dunked into a bath of ice; sixty years ago it was the lobotomy; more recently it was electro-shock and primitive tranquilizers. Now it is (if you are lucky) talk therapy with a potent mix of drugs: lithium, muscle relaxants, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, sleeping pills, antianxiety agents. The pill bill for Sally comes to $724.

§     §     §

When she went psychotic, James Joyce's daughter Lucia had "a penchant for speaking in neologisms and puns that added up to an incomprehensible, almost infantile babble," Greenberg tells us.

    One is reminded of the manic patient in a lie detector test who was asked if he was Napoleon. "No," he replied. The lie detector recorded that he was lying.

--- Anthony Winans, PhD
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