The late Patty Duke and I have a lot in common. Remember the scene in "The Miracle Worker" where Annie Sullivan finally teaches young Helen Keller the "sign" for water? Her entire life opens up and she becomes the woman we remember as the extraordinary Helen Keller.
Patty Duke won an Academy Award for her riveting portrayal of Keller.
Duke did remarkably well as a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder - mood swings with "highs" and "lows." Like most of us with the condition, she took medication to stabilize her moods, including lithium. She writes about her life in her book "Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness" in 1992.
She attempted suicide several times, but her death, at 69, was from sepsis from a ruptured intestine.
Bipolar disorder strikes about 3 percent of the population. It caught me in its net a lifetime ago when I was 38, divorced, and the mother of two young children. Overnight, my behavior changed. The children and I lived in an apartment in suburban Philadelphia. After dinner, I began singing at the top of my lungs and dancing as if I were a ballerina. My children were asleep in their beds.
I slept not a wink, making phone calls in the middle of the night. In the morning, I put Sarah, 7, and Dan, 5, on the yellow school bus, waved goodbye to them and off I went on my manic way.
Mom got wind of my behavior. She had my sister Donna pick me up and bring me, for safekeeping to Mom's house. We knew nothing about this strange behavior.
In the kitchen, I sat in the bright sunshine and began making phone calls. Filled with joy, no, let us call it ecstasy, as if I had taken an opioid, I called a few of my friends from the staff of "Art Matters" magazine, where I was assistant editor.
Having written dozens of articles I called a famous art gallery.
"Marion Locks is awaiting my call," I said proudly.
Quickly I hung up. Who had the patience to wait on the phone? In my manic frenzy, time was of the essence and ideas sprang in my head the way Artemis popped from the head of Zeus, the father of the gods.
Looking at the kitchen clock, I realized it was time to pick up the children from the bus stop. Making sure Mom couldn't see me, I put on my red winter parka and began trotting down her street of big houses, heading for the main road.
Before I got there, I saw a small church. Always curious, I walked up, tried the front door and found to my delight, it was open. In my operatic voice, I began to sing "Ode to Joy," by Schiller from the last movement of The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.
Such joy I felt and can remember this 37 years later.
Very carefully I walked, watching out for cars. I certainly did not want to get hit.
This was the beginning of my "manic depressive illness" or the newer name, "bipolar disorder."
Funny how in one day your entire life can change. Some folks are hit by a car and die. Others develop cancer or multiple myeloma or lupus. What a world we live in.
God are you there?
If he was not, my mother certainly was. She pulled up, a widow, 63 years old, in her brown Oldsmobile and demanded I get inside.
When I refused, she marched out of the car.
"Ruth, get in the car," she yelled.
I pushed her down on the wet ground - this was February - stood on top of her and gave the "V" for victory sign.
She hailed a car and asked them to call the police.
Soon a black and white police car with two cops in the front seat opened the back door and I slid inside. I knew there was no use resisting.
On our way to Norristown State Hospital, I leaned forward behind iron grates and kept up a conversation with the police officers.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Do you have to pay tolls?" I asked.
The police radio was filled with static, which was annoying.
Finally we arrived in the inky-black night. I could barely make out the hospital.
Is this a southern mansion? I wondered.
Believe me, this was not "Streetcar Named Desire." The cops roughly removed me from the car and escorted me up the stairs. Neither was I Cinderella going to the ball in my red parka.
Egads! They were going to torture me. Which they did.
Dozens of aides arrived to see the new arrival and handled me. With TLC? Are you kidding me?
In retrospect, I realize they gave me a shot of the antipsychotic medication Haldol. It would not only calm me down but would freeze my brain so I could barely think.
They dragged - yes, dragged me - into a tiny room with iron bars on the window - and lay me on a mattress on my back. My hands were tied with leather straps to the bed and so were my legs. Just like in films about "serial killers."
How long I lay there I do not know but in my terror I began to hallucinate. To see things. I imagined myself in the rhyme "Ding Dong Bell, Pussy is in the Well." I was in an abyss and trying to claw my way out. Next the "Myth of Sisyphus" claimed me. Furiously, I tried to climb my way out of the abyss, but whenever I got to the top, I slid back down again.
All volition had left me. I heard myself yelling, "Untie me, untie me, I'll be good."
An attractive R.N. arrived and removed the leather straps, which left impressions on my body for several days.
The nurse would bring me food and "allowed" me to call my children on a pay phone. Galumph galumph galumph went the change going down the pay phone.
Then I was given my own room with a double-decker bed that you might find in "Leave it to Beaver"and a room mate who said not a word. During the night I heard patients screaming before I fell asleep. Deep in my mind I thought, "What the hell is happening to me. Where am I? Will I ever get out?"
The next day we were ushered into the huge dining room. My mind was swimming with confusion as I beheld something so exciting I could not believe it. It was as if I saw the Virgin Mary ascending from heaven.
It was a milk machine. You placed your glass under a rubber "udder" and sparkling cold milk poured out.
"All is right with the world," I thought.
Hard to believe but there in the ward, which was not unlike Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" people were having sex. When you are manic - or "high" as if you are on drugs - you are like a radiating beam calling others to come and screw you. A black man came over and said, "I want to suck your pussy." I demurred and said, "They'll see us."
I met a white guy named "Rob." He came over and we had a passionate kiss and embrace. Very satisfying. Rob and I kept in touch after I was discharged. He finally succeeded in taking his own life. There is a reason we were all locked up. But our mental health system is rotten to the core and you are lucky if you survive. Patty Duke was a special case. She was a fine actress, though, she reports in her memoirs, her agents fiercely emotionally abused her.
Another Judy Garland.
Money counts. For every 10 psychiatrists, only 3 are any good. I was fortunate as myself and my family could pay for good doctors.
"Psychiatrist" had seemed a strange word. But now it became part of my vocabulary as did all the medications used to treat mental illness. A friend of mind hated the word "mental illness" and invented other words that made no sense.
Not only did I survive with mental illness, but I thrived. I won a prestigious writing award - a Leeway Foundation Grant for $5,000 - and founded the largest support group in the Philadelphia area for bipolar disorder, depression and family members.
I was at the height of my powers.
Bonnet Lane Diner, near my home, was one of my favorite places to eat. Lithium, then the standard medication for bipolar disorder, made you extremely thirsty. When I sat at the table with my boyfriend, "Mitch," I would line up glasses of pure water like cowboys lined up their beers at the bar.
Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Never did anything taste so good. And at home in my bedroom, I kept a 2-quart red thermos from which I drank water.
Every couple of months I became psychotic or out of reality. This is the nature of bipolar disorder. My psychiatrists - first, "Tom" and then "June" - were my wellness partners and took good care of me, never letting me down.
Occasionally I would read them a new poem I had written and told them I was giving inspirational speeches at hospitals like Abington Memorial Hospital or Horsham Clinic, where I actually got paid.
Finally I went to grad school and became a psychotherapist with the credentials MGPGP after my name. Master, Group Psychotherapy and Group Process.
Working at Bristol-Bensalem Human Services I helped hundreds and hundreds of clients. I will never forget a single one of them. Say the letter "B" and I will remember "Brian" or the letter "M" and I will remember "Mary Lou," a lovely schizophrenic woman whose mind, despite the best of meds, would never be "normal."
I ran groups - therapy groups - at Bristol-Bensalem. I loved teaching my clients. Some were so sheltered, due to their conditions, that they didn't know how to cross the street. I taught them how. We walked through the double doors of the agency, all held hands, and walked to an "island" in the center of the road. Then we crossed and made it to the curb.
On the other side, CVS and Blockbuster Video awaited.
"No need to run," I told them. "Just be sure you looked and saw there were no cars." They were not used to doing this, just as pygmys in the rainforest had no depth perception.
Did I tell you I loved my clients? Yes I did. Every single one, including and especially "JoAnn" who was dying of cancer and would never see her first grand child. And "Eleanor" who loved Rod Stewart and whose children were taken away from her by her husband. She did so well she found herself a boyfriend and bought herself a necklace that read "Goddess."
When you take lithium, you must have your kidneys checked every six months.
My doctor told me something was amiss in my blood tests, so he sent me to a nephrologist, a kidney doctor. My kidneys were losing function.
At work, I had a gallon container in which I would urinate for 24 hours. Sure, I'd wet the carpet occasionally, but I'd clean it up with soap and water. I couldn't have my office smelling like a latrine.
Finally, the verdict was in.
Ruth Z. Deming needed a kidney transplant.
And who better to give me a kidney than that little girl, Sarah Lynn, my daughter, who had stayed with my sister Donna when I was first admitted to Norristown State Hospital.
Sarah was a beautiful young woman, with long blonde hair and piercing brown eyes. She was a gifted writer, who wrote stories nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and married the love of her life, Ethan Iverson, pianist, composer, and writer. Later, she would write "Gravity," a highly acclaimed novel, based on her years as a boxer.
The three of us had a deep love for one another.
I had done my research, gone to Einstein Medical Center in the badlands of North Philadelphia, and met my surgeons, and nurses, from all over the globe! El Salvador, India, Nigeria and even New Jersey.
America is not the center of the world, I learned.
Thousands of people die while awaiting a transplant. I have known many of them. One woman from my support group, New Directions, refused the kidney of her son.
"I am not important enough," she told me, "and would rather die."
Ten percent of people with kidney transplants develop insulin - dependent diabetes.
A fair trade, I thought.
I learned how to wield a needle. To inject it in my white belly and my fleshy butt.
In our neighborhood we have a very nice fellow, a convicted rapist on parole, who will cut through my back yard to get to his job demolishing buildings.
My life partner, Scott, assures me the rapist could not see inside my house.
What a lovely yellow house I have, where I will remain until the end of my life.
Did I tell you this amazing fact? People refuse to believe me.
Bipolar disorder got tired of me.
It has been gone for 20 years.
Thank you, God, if you are there.