Pain is an important signal. We feel something hot and pull our hand away. A knee hurts and we ice it. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to pay attention to something and give it some attention. But what if pain also tells us about our emotions? Mad in America recently published my essay entitled “Learning to Speak the Subtle Language of Pain.” My hope is that someone with an experience like mine will find comfort and resonance in my story.
Here’s an excerpt: “It gradually dawned on me that my back pain was another mask that depression wore. Instead of crying and feeling overwhelmed or giving up, my body was sending distress signals to help me realize that I was in a difficult spot.”
Dorothy Wetzler Bracken designed and painted this dress as a student at Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1930s. Although she graduated in 1935 with a degree in costume design, she was never able to pursue her artistic talents. Mom kept her dreams to herself until the late 90s when I discovered a portfolio of her designs and she confessed, “I always wanted to be a fashion designer.”
Dorothy’s story could have been a happy one—she married, had many friends, and eventually had five children. “I was thrilled every time I found out I was pregnant,” she often told me. Yet, postpartum depression plagued Mom following nearly every birth. After her fifth child arrived, Mom was hospitalized, received electroconvulsive therapy treatments, took copious amounts of psychiatric drugs, but sadly, she never recovered.
Because I always managed to recover from my own depressions, I puzzled over Mom remaining trapped in chronic depression for over 40 years. Until I found Dad’s collection of old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors stashed in my sister’s attic.
Those records told the story of my father’s futile attempts to get help from Mom’s doctors, most of whom only saw her twice a year despite a suicide attempt, hospitalizations, accidents (probably due to overmedication), and many electroconvulsive therapy treatments. Most troubling of all were the lists of Mom’s prescriptions that Dad had saved: Thorazine, barbiturates, antidepressants, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines.
Mom’s doctors were practicing polypharmacy: giving a patient more than one drug to treat a condition. The same thing that happened to me with opioids in the late 90s; the same thing—with different drugs—that’s happening now. And oftentimes the chemical load becomes so great that it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on for a patient vs. the interactions of the medications. Now I know at least one reason Mom never got well.
In 2015, my first book, The Altar of Innocence, was published. I remember my excitement when the first shipment of books arrived. My friend Beth was here, and she immediately had me pose with my book. A few days later, along with my wonderful children, Brian and Christella, many of my friends came to the launch reading at Zu Coffee in Annapolis to help me celebrate.
“Why did you write a book?” is one of the first questions people ask when they find out that I’m a writer. The main reason is that I couldn’t keep the story inside any longer. When I was growing up and even when I experienced my own episodes of depression, I felt intense shame. And my mother felt the shame and isolation even more in the 50s and 60s. I’d been haunted by a question nearly my whole life–Why didn’t my mother ever recover from depression? And later on I could add the caveat–when I could.
My mother designed and painted the dress on the cover of my book, but I didn’t find her artwork until the late 1990s when Mom was elderly and in a nursing home. I discovered her paintings one day in the basement of the family home, and then took them to a shop to have them matted and framed. When I showed the framed designs to my mother, she said, “Thank you for appreciating me. I always wanted to be a fashion designer.” Mom had never spoken of her dreams to anyone before that moment, at least not anyone that I asked. Even my siblings had no idea of Mom’s amazing talent until I discovered the paintings.
Years after Mom had died, I sat in my living room and stared at her paintings, remembering how I used to watch her struggle with depression and anxiety and tell myself, I’ll never be like my mother. In that moment, I realized that if I didn’t write poetry, I would be just like Mom, burying my art in the basement of my life.
With Mom’s paintings as an inspiration, I began to conjecture about possible causes for her chronic depression and wondered if the loss of a dream could so profoundly alter the course of one’s life. And if following one’s dream and having the benefit of a societal shift in the roles of women and women’s autonomy could have so profoundly affected my outcome.
One woman spent more than half of her life battling the darkness. One woman overcame the same darkness. Maybe that’s why our story continues to speak to people five years after the book was released. If you decide to read The Altar of Innocence, I hope it will speak to you.
Here’s a link to me reading one of my favorite poems from the collection: “Adultery”.
On January 10, 2020, Morna McNulty exhibited her collection of photos from deserted spots in and around Ellicott City, MD. I read from my three poetry collections, and my son, Brian Potts, accompanied me on a variety of percussion instruments. We had a great turnout! Everyone enjoyed the art, poetry, music, and refreshments. Here are a couple of photos from the event. Enjoy and hope to see you next time!
Mad in Americarecently published one of my poems that deals with mis-diagnosis and a careless rush to judgment. In “The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me,” I tell the story of how I acquired a diagnosis of bipolar II and how that diagnosis resulted in an unnecessary hospitalization in a psychiatric ward.
Back in the 1990s, I had felt depressed for a couple of years and had seen a few doctors for treatment–which consisted of trying numerous psychiatric drugs without any relief. One of my doctors got so frustrated that he threw my file across his office and said, “I’m sending you to Hopkins. They deal with people like you all the time.” The doctor never revealed that antidepressants can often worsen a depression or even cause a state of chronic depression that is pretty much untreatable. (Giovanni Fava wrote about this in 1994, when I was experiencing depression)
Several months later, a doctor at Hopkins finally saw me for about an hour. I’m guessing he’d read my file and seen all of the drugs I’d taken, none of which were helping. He noted that twice before when I’d felt depressed, I’d gotten relief for my symptoms from an older drug called Elavil.
And because I reported that I “felt like a party girl” for a couple of days once the depression lifted, the Hopkins doctor diagnosed me as having bipolar II–a milder form of bipolar disorder. He refused to listen to me when I enumerated the symptoms I didn’t have–insomnia, overspending, and grandiose thoughts among others.
I tried to explain to the Hopkins doctor that I had a higher than average “happiness level” and frequently felt upbeat and energetic. But he put that information down to confirming his diagnosis rather than listening to the truth of my life.
He told me that sometimes antidepressants can “reveal” an underlying bipolar disorder, which sounded like a medication effect to me, not an actual illness. And he never told me that research had shown that some people who take antidepressants for depression alone can begin to experience cycles of depression and mania.
And the problem with his overly simplistic diagnosis is that every other doctor who read my records saw me as someone with bipolar II disorder and dismissed my concerns and explanations. Worst of all, they continued to prescribe me unneeded mood stabilizers.
Later, when I was hospitalized for mania–which was due to taking prednisone for three weeks–the doctors there also dismissed my explanation of having a reaction to prednisone because of my bipolar II diagnosis.
A needless hospitalization could have been avoided if the doctors had done two things: listened to me when I described my upbeat personality and taken into account the very common effect of mania due to prednisone. And the years of taking unnecessary and mind-body altering mood regulators could have been totally avoided.
I’m one of the lucky ones–I got off of antidepressants, mood regulators, anti-anxiety drugs and pain medication in the early 2000s and haven’t had any recurrences of depression. And I’m glad that my negative experience led me to reading and research that I can share with others.
Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker is a good place to begin if you want to know more about psychiatric drugs and their effectiveness. You may be as shocked and surprised as I was by what you find.
In 2018, I participated in a Baltimore storytelling event called Stoop Stories, hosted by Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. At that event, all of us told a story about drugs: addiction, accidents, recreation, and recovery. Here’s a link to my story (at 11:54) where I talk about how a car accident saved my life.
The last ornament I put on my tree is the felt angel with blond hair made of yellow yarn and white wings on her back. Every year I’m amazed at how fresh and new she looks, despite her age of at least 40 years. But like all the ornaments on my tree, the angel has a story.
I was working as a special education kindergarten teacher in a local school, and I was lucky enough to have the help of a wonderful woman named Donna. I was in my mid-twenties and still a young married woman without children. So, while I was a competent teacher who cared deeply for my students and worked hard to help them learn, Donna, who was about ten years older, had the practical wisdom about children that can only come from one experience: being a mother.
Donna’s talents complemented mine beautifully—I planned the lessons and showed her my ideas for classroom materials, then Donna would set about making my bulletin boards or fashioning characters out of felt so that the students could create their own stories in the playhouse that Donna built. I was neat and made sure the kids cleaned up all the time, but at the end of the day, Donna tidied up after me—straightening chairs and sharpening pencils for the next day.
Donna and I worked together for almost three years, and every Christmas we exchanged small gifts. We both loved to sew and were always making clothes, items for the home, or cross-stitching pictures. I don’t remember what I gave Donna that year, but the morning of the last day before Christmas break, Donna handed me a gift bag and simply said, “For your tree.”
I moved the tissue paper aside and smiled as I lifted out an angel made of felt and yarn.
“Donna, she’s beautiful,” I said. “I have this pattern as well and have been making ornaments, but I didn’t make the angel.”
And every year when I put the angel on the top of my tree, I think of Donna and appreciate the care she put into making this lovely ornament. I’m so grateful for her help and for the angel that reminds me of all that we shared.
I planned my recent trip to Paris with the wistful notion that it would be a grand farewell to my favorite city. After all, I reasoned, this trip would mark my third to Paris in four years–and my fourth trip overall if I wanted to count my college visit in 1972. “You’re getting older, Ann,” I told myself, “there are many more places you want to experience while you still can.”
I planned accordingly–making sure to visit the places I absolutely wanted to see one more time–La Musee D’Orsay with lunch in the 5th floor cafe, a couple of hours with Monet’s Waterlillies in L’Orangerie, a last look at Notre Dame, and lunch at L’As du Fallafel in the Marais, per my son’s recommendation. And of course, a visit to La Durree on the Champs Elysees for their fabulous macarons.
I felt excited and vaguely uneasy at the same time. As I visited each place on my itinerary, I grew more and more enamored with Paris. Would this really be my last visit? Riding the Metro home each night to my B & B near the Eiffel Tower, I wanted to freeze the hands of the clock so that I could savor Paris even longer.
And as I visited L’Orangerie and saw Monet’s fabulous Waterlilies again, I was saddened by the buzz in the room and the constant selfie-taking tourists who blocked everyone’s view of the panels.
In contrast, I simply stood in front of a panel, and focused–trying to breathe in its beauty and the rich depth of the colors. I didn’t even try to take a picture-as I had the year before. I knew the colors would be a vague shadow of the beauty before me, and I heard this line from “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney: “Useless to to think you’ll…capture it more thoroughly.”
And on my last day in Paris, where I simply savored every bite of food and every grand view, I knew I was foolish as well. Foolish to limit myself to any idea of not returning to Paris. And foolish to rush through my days, as I so often do. Instead, I want to pause and let the experience “catch my heart off guard and blow me open.” I’m working on it…and imagining another visit to Paris.
Postscript by Seamus Heaney~from The Spirit Level
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-gray lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans,
Their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or crested or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
When I decided to go to a language school in France this year, I had two goals: to become more fluent and to improve my vocabulary. I was excited about attending Coeur de France, a French immersion school tucked away in Sancerre, a tiny town in the middle of the Loire Valley.
The school experience began smoothly when I met Marianne, the woman who ran the school and made decisions about placement in the classes. “You speak much better than your test scores led me to believe,” she told me when I showed up for the first day of class. “I’m placing you in a higher-level class.”
I was thrilled! Yes, confirmation from the “principal” that my French was better than I thought. But after two-and-a-half days of verb tenses that I’d never learned and pronouns I’d never even seen, both my teacher and Marianne moved me to a “more comfortable level” where I could keep up with the grammar. “I haven’t studied French grammar in over 40 years,” I told them,” but still, I felt close to tears and the word FAILURE drummed inside my head.
The new class moved at a slower pace and the other students struggled more with conversation than I did, but at least I could keep up with the grammar. Still, I knew the class was too easy for me and resigned myself to its less than perfect fit. “Just relax,” I told myself, “you’re in France!” Despite my diligent attention to homework and commitment to using French with all of my classmates–in and out of class–I felt my goal of becoming more fluent slipping away every day.
As I rode on the train towards Paris a few days later, I managed to dispel my funk of disappointment. I quickly realized that I needed to adjust my goal of increased fluency. I had learned many new words, and I understood more of the language. Plus, I noticed a great leap in my ability to read in French.
But the biggest lesson for me was how much time, effort, and psychic energy it would require to really become fluent. And I knew more deeply than ever before that I wanted to take that energy and put it into my writing.
My Parisian hosts, Genvieve and Claude, confirmed what I’d suspected about the focus on grammar–I already knew the four main verb tenses that you use in conversation and could use them reasonably well. “Your French is improving,” they both assured me. “You speak much better than last year when you stayed with us, and better than the first visit as well.”
Sitting at cafes, sipping espresso, and musing in my journal nearly every day led me to a solid realization about how I’d managed to re-learn French after 40 years. The program I’d used so successfully–Behind the Wheel French–had two elements that my classes in Sancerre lacked–repetition and practice.
I practiced the verb tenses over and over in different contexts as I listened to the instructor and spoke French during my frequent jaunts in the car. I read the accompanying book every day to refresh myself. And I realized why I’d felt so frustrated at the language school–every day was a new lesson with little to no review or practice of what we’d learned from the day before. And as a teacher, I knew that repletion and practice were essential components for retention.
So, while my classmates may have benefited from the approach used in the school, I knew I needed a different kind of instruction. And as I interacted with my “French family” and the many people I encountered in Paris, I felt batter about my command of basic French. I functioned well in simple conversations, and the rest of the time, I simply said, “Repetez still vous plait, plus lentement.” Can you please repeat that more slowly?
Memories are full of many images, and none are more powerful than the voices of those people in our lives whom we’ve loved and who have challenged us. Ann Bracken and Ann Quinn will read from their collections of poetry dealing with memories whose power has shaped them and influenced their writing journeys. Come for an inspiring evening of poetry and conversation with two local authors.
Ann Bracken, an activist with a pen, who grew up in Catonsville, has authored two poetry collections, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroomand The Altar of Innocence, serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry & Art on Bras & Breasts, Fledgling Rag, and Gargoyle. Ann’s poetry has garnered two Pushcart Prize nominations and her advocacy work centers around arts-based interventions for mental health and prison reform. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com
Church member Ann Quinn, who has led a bi-monthly Writer’s Group at CPC for the past five years, is a poet and essayist, editor, teacher, mentor, mother, and classical clarinetist. In her poetry collection, Final Deployment,published by Finishing Line Press, the child of a Vietnam War naval aviator matures into motherhood and experiences the death of her own mother. These poems remind us of what nature teaches about death’s necessity and its potential for transfiguration. Ann’s award-winning work has been published in Potomac Review, Little Patuxent Review, Vietnam War Poetry, Haibun Today, andSnapdragon, and is included in the anthology Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women. She conducts writing workshops and music camps, volunteers in schools and libraries, and plays in a symphony orchestra. Ann holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Catonsville, Maryland with her family. Visit her at www.annquinn.net
Join us for this inspiring evening of creative listening and conversation. The authors will have copies of their books for sale, and refreshments will be served.