So way back in the summer of 2005, the wife served as the director of a sleepaway camp in New Jersey. We lived there for the summer and, well, to be honest, I sorta didn’t like it. Don’t get me wrong—the camp was terrific, the people wonderful. But the wife worked crazy hours, and we lived in this dumpy log cabin where dirt fell in clumps from the ceiling and the shower worked well every so often.
Anyhow, during our time there I met a camper named Lucy. She was a quirky 14-year old who said she wanted to be a writer. She didn’t quite fit in, in the same way drama kids don’t fit in. She just seemed to think differently. In four dimensions instead of three. That sort of thing.
Earlier this week Lucy sent me an e-mail, asking if I remembered her. I did, of course, and she gave me a biographical update of her life and times. She said she still aspired to write and, well, I do have a blog. Hence, here’s Lucy Shulman, age 19, with her guest blog post. The girl can write …
Last month, having went to some lengths to procure a pair of inexpensive tickets, my grandmother and I attended a matinee performance of Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway.
Sitting in the dark theatre, watching as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart vied for the title of Chicago’s hottest property, the girl was enchanted, as she so often is by what transpires on the stage—any stage—and enthralled by the performance of one actress in particular: Amra-Faye Wright as Velma Kelly. As the curtain went up for the cast to take their bows, her hand clenched excitedly over the marker she carried in her shoulder bag and a broad grin split her face.
Chattering excitedly about the show, the girl and her grandmother made their way down from their mezzanine seats to the lobby, and exited the theater through the front doors, where they’d wait for the Access-A-Ride bus to pick them up. It was perfect: the stage door, right beside the front doors, was where the actors would exit the theater to get food, or whatever actors did between shows. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the stage doors opened and a trio of actresses emerged.
The tableau freezes. The girl, her dark hair curling madly in the damp, her glasses thick with fog, freezes. The platinum-blonde grandmother, seated on the theater steps, adjusting her coat to cover her legs, freezes. The actress does not freeze, but merely continues walking, chatting animatedly to her friends. She is without malice, harbors no ill will. She does not notice the girl. Frustrated by my ineptitude, I kicked the stage door. I hoped that Amra-Faye Wright returned before Access-a-Ride arrived. Amra-Faye Wright obliged.
My hand dove into my bag for my marker. I opened my mouth to speak. Just talk to her. As I did so, a spear of trembling panic soared up from my knees, through my stomach, turning my insides to a slosh of icy water, freezing my throat into a strangled squeak, and lancing through my nostrils and right between my eyes.
This time, the actress noticed me, hunched into myself, and unbeknownst to her, paralyzed by terror. She doesn’t understand my intention, or my odd pose. She buzzes the stage door, and opens it, disappearing into the long grey alley beyond. A strangled cry escapes my throat, but it is too late. She’s gone.
I sobbed all the way home. Not only did I not have a single autograph, I’d made a spectacle of myself on the street, crumpling onto the steps beside my granny and bursting into tears. Another something wonderful had been lost, because I’d been too afraid to open my mouth and speak.
“Don’t cry, precious,” Gran said over and over. “It’s okay. It’s nothing. Don’t cry.”
And why should I cry? We had a perfectly lovely day.
Why shouldn’t I cry? My mouth had been open to speak, my marker and Playbill had been at the ready, and there was an immensely talented actress mere feet away from me. Yet I’d blown it. And the irritating, horrifying, galling reason why, is such a recurring theme in my life that just mentioning it sets my teeth on edge.
I was misdiagnosed at least four times between the ages of six and 16. I knew exactly what I had when I was 10, when a counselor at summer camp postulated exactly what it was that had my mind in its sweaty, silent, vexatious grip. I kept it hidden until I was sixteen. I only told the truth because it was getting worse, so much worse that it was no longer possible to hide. General Anxiety Disorder. G.A.D. “There’s no cure,” my longtime psychiatrist explained to my recently divorced parents. “There’s treatment–breathing techniques, therapy, meditation, medication, but there’s no cure.”
We started with medication. We love medication in my family. Within six months, I was forced to leave high school. Within a year, I had seen the last of a beloved summer job. Within three years, I was sobbing on the steps of the Ambassador Theatre. Within three years, college was out of the question, because I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the house every day.
Anxiety disorder is not received well by the public. No mental illness is. The greatest problem with having anxiety disorder, is that people don’t seem to regard it as particularly noteworthy, or serious.
“You have anxiety? I have anxiety. Everyone has anxiety. Those capable, pick up and deal with it. Those not capable, snivel themselves into reclusion and drain the resources of society.”
“Anxiety? You just have to deal with that. Just believe in yourself, and be strong, and you won’t have a problem.”
“You have anxiety? Do you take medication? You should take yourself off the medication. You should deal with it. If you’re strong, you don’t need medication.”
“Sense of entitlement.”
“Weakness of character.”
“Unable to function.”
Those are the compliments.
The only real insult came as we sat in the psychiatrist’s office three years ago, when my mother turned to me, stone-faced, as my father sat, looking devastated, and my psychiatrist smiled grimly, and spoke, with venom, some of the most devastatingly hurtful words ever formed into a sentence.
“I don’t believe you,” my mother said. “I think you’re lying.
My middle childhood and adolescence were pockmarked with strange incidents—fainting in school, broken objects due to muscle spasms, insomnia, depression, hours of missed classes, strange paralysis, mysterious illness. Reactive psychosis. And yet my mother, who often attempted to blame her oldest daughter’s oddness on various factors such as my father, my literature, and the fact that I am apparently a product of generations of extensive inbreeding, refused to acknowledge the latest, and only correct diagnosis in a long line of failures.
Once she’d ascertained that the whole thing wasn’t a hoax in the name of attention, my mother believed, and still believes, that anxiety disorder is but a flash in the pan of my ‘craziness.’ That the knowledge of the effects of a condition indicates that the symptoms are affected, and that the presence of anxiety disorder denotes weakness of character, and that taking medication for it implies either further weakness or substance abuse. Possibly both.
She’s entitled to her opinion, but her vehement insistence that I was only subject to anxiety attacks because I’d ’sided’ with my father during the divorce, that he’d ‘done this’ to me, as well as her emphasis on the fact that I was too weak to take charge of my life and therefore a victim of anxiety, ultimately cost her a relationship with me, and deprived me of my mother during the latter half of my teenage decade, a time when every girl should have a mother. And it had cost me more than my mother. It cost me my education, most of my social life, my ambitions for the stage, and my self-respect. Not to mention an autograph at the Ambassador Theatre.
Although that particular story doesn’t end there. I acquired one autograph that day, from a sympathetic man at the box office. Three weeks later, I went to see the Phantom of The Opera matinee with a good friend from high school. Waiting outside the stage door, an actress named Cristin Hubbard noticed me, and returned my hesitant smile. When I stammered out a high-pitched hello, she offered to sign our Playbills. We left the stage door with three autographs each that day, one from Hugh Panaro—the Phantom of the Opera himself. That autograph reads ‘To Lucy, best wishes–Hugh.’ What more could I ask for?
Anxiety-2. Lucy-1. It’s not over yet. Nowhere near it.
Lucy Etana Shulman is a 19-year-old aspiring writer from Brooklyn, New York. She received her GED at age 17, after becoming steadily more crippled by anxiety disorder. She aims to return to college next year for a degree in English. She enjoys video games, lemonade, and post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.