Extract from “At The Crossroads”
Julie Greene (Goddard College, US)
It’s hard enough to have a problem that’s in your head, that nobody can perceive but you, but it’s ten times harder to be told that your problem is “all in your head,” meaning that you’re making it up or imagining it. Mental illness is as real as any other. But this was what I was told, and what people around me that knew or found out about my illness – family, faculty, fellow students – assumed when they heard that I had “head trouble.” Fear of success. Fear of growing up. Fear of death. Of course I was making it all up. Of course.
After art group, lunch. I stole away to my car, avoiding Irene and Tim D; each had separately asked me to lunch. I didn’t want to eat lunch with anyone and I didn’t want to eat lunch. I was fasting that day.
I had two hours to fill. I didn’t want to drive back home, if I could call my parents’ home “home,” for it truly wasn’t. I was homesick for college, for music, for the love of learning. I wanted to banish the thought. But it was strange that I had hardly thought about the academics of school after I dropped out. I hadn’t composed a note of music or practiced trumpet once. I was deep, deep into something horrible, a stench, an enveloping goo, a dark, air-stripped tunnel of hate so intense that music, no matter how beloved, could not penetrate it. But now I had an idea. And I didn’t want it on my parents’ telephone bill.
I gathered together some change. Not enough. So I stopped at a nearby convenience store, bought a Fresca, secured some quarters, and located a reliable pay phone that afforded reasonable privacy.
I knew my advisor’s number by heart. I hadn’t dialed it many times, but the number was an easy one to remember. I didn’t know if I was shaking from hunger or from nerves. “Yes, Jeff?”
“Who is this?”
“Julie. Julie Greene.”
“What do you want?”
“I just thought I’d say ‘Hello.’ To let you know, to let you know I’ll come back to school, I promise, after I work a few things out. Just a few problems, that’s all. Like I explained when I left.”
Jeff Levine, as my advisor and instructor at Bennington College, could be intimidating at times; at other times he was kind; at all times he was an impeccable teacher and ally. But when I told him, back in July, that I was leaving school because of “psychological” problems, his demeanor changed. It was as if his attitude toward me had undergone an eclipse. His whole face sunk in. “You’re my top student,” he had said. “You’re doing so well.”
“I’m not, actually,” I had replied. “There are things – things you don’t know, nobody knows. I can’t tell you. I need to see a doctor. Soon. I need to move in with my parents. I can’t be alone anymore. I can’t bear this. Just believe me.”
“If you leave now, Julie, with only one semester left to go until graduation, don’t you think–”
Jeff shook his head. “Okay.” He sighed, looking out over the fields. “But there’s one thing, Julie. If you leave now, you’ll get involved in something. You’ll get distracted. I don’t think you’ll ever come back.”
The phone line crackled. “Jeff?”
“What do you want from me?”
“I just need to know that you still believe in me, that’s all.”
“Julie, I don’t have all day to talk to you.”
“Is there anything else?”
“I go to a program now.” No response. “A special program. I just started. It’s supposed to help me. Um, Jeff?” I breathed. “A lot of the people smoke there. Cigarettes, I mean.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“I guess I’d better go.” I hung up.
Contemporary Issues group consisted of watching a videotaped portion of the Phil Donahue Show. Donahue and his guests were discussing the blame and shame society placed upon people who received Welfare benefits. Most of the guests were Welfare recipients; one was a social worker. At the end of the segment, Rick, who was running the group, switched off the TV, and said to the seven of us who were in the group, “So, what does everyone think?”
“I think it sucks!” said Tim D from the corner of the room. He began to laugh loudly.
“Shut up, Tim,” said Irene.
There was silence in the room. Then a shy-looking young woman raised her hand. “I’m ashamed that I’m on welfare. Embarrassed.”
“If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em,” someone said.
“Strike three, group’s over!”
“Yeah, shut up!”
“Jenny, can you say that again? About being embarrassed? Can you say more?”
Jenny, the shy girl, shook her head. Her eyes were full of tears.
“How many people here are on Welfare?” Hands went up slowly. Someone burped. More hands went up, except mine.
“It’s a sin,” said a young man sitting up front.
“It’s no sin,” said Tim. “It says in the Bible that God forgives us for–”
“For what, Tim, for being a leach off of other people? Come off it! ‘Bout time you quit that Bible stuff,” said Leslie.
“I want a cigarette.”
“Here, have a fucking cigarette. It’s menthol.”
“I don’t want your fucking cigarette.”
Rick said, “What do you think, Irene?”
“I wish I was working.”
“I’m ashamed I’m not working. My kids are ashamed of me.”
“I–” It was my turn to feel ashamed. I had never been on any kind of government assistance, not even unemployment benefits. Only once had I ever had to worry about where the next dime was coming from, and it came soon enough. I had never lived by the sweat of my brow for any reasonable period of time. I had a bank account, and now that bank account shamed me. Blood rushed to my face. They would catch me in a lie no matter what I said. I wanted so much to be like them, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
“It was a little embarrassing to need government assistance to pay for college,” I said weakly. Then I realized it was the opposite of the truth, a flat-out lie.
“You’re very lucky,” said Leslie, “to go to college. I would have liked to go to college, if I’d had the chance.”
I said, “It’s–it’s–” I couldn’t stop the sweating; my body was on overdrive. I was embarrassed that I’d had it so easy, never having developed the calluses one gets from a hard day’s work, the gasp of relief upon receipt of one’s paycheck, the celebration of the weekend. I was denied that privilege; instead I was handed other privileges, privileges that embarrassed and shamed me, now more than ever.
“What are you doing here, then,” asked Leslie, “if you’re so smart? What’s your problem? Where were you at lunch? Why won’t you talk?”
I looked at Rick, who said, “Julie doesn’t have to tell us anything on her first day. She’ll have plenty of opportunity, though, in the next group, Group Therapy.”
Only certain “high functioning” clients were picked for Group Therapy, and I was one of them. “High functioning” and “low functioning” were dirty words I’d come across many times during my stay at Crossroads, which meant essentially that if you could carry on a conversation and relate to other people in a reasonable manner, you were high functioning. If you couldn’t, you were “low functioning.” It went deeper than that, but on the surface that was how it seemed. The six members of Group Therapy, besides myself, were Irene, June, Leslie, Jackson, and Roy; I knew their names already, so the silly introductions were superfluous.
Jackson appeared very nervous.
Leslie was applying hand lotion.
Irene said, “I don’t think it’s right that Leslie puts on hand lotion during group. It’s distracting and she’s not really participating, she’s putting on lotion and that’s not right. It means she’s not really paying attention.”
June whispered something about a tissue and started fishing for one in her purse.
“Jackson has an issue,” said Irene, “and nobody’s paying attention.”
“I’m listening,” said Roy.
“I know Jackson has an issue,” said Leslie. “He told me so at lunch.”
“Oh Jackson,” said Irene. “Look at Jackson. He’s shaking. He’s got so much anxiety in him. He needs meds real bad. Jackson, take an Ativan, for Gods sakes. Look at you.”
“Oh, Jackson,” murmured June. “Here’s a tissue. There. Let it out. Is it your mother again?” She turned to Leslie. “His mother, you know.”
“Yes, it’s his mother.”
Roy stretched. He was wearing a heavy cable-knit sweater and jeans. “Jackson, you’ve got to tell her to stop arranging dates for you.”
“Is that what she’s doing, Jackson?”
“Did Jackson tell you that?”
“Oh, Jackson. Let it out.”
Irene said, “She’s not your fucking matchmaker–”
Jackson wailed, “Don’t say fucking about my m-m-m-mother….”
June said, “Jackson, can you refuse to go on those dates, just cancel?”
“Tell your mother you won’t. Tell her.”
“Yeah, tell her.”
“Take an Ativan.”
“I c-c-can’t tell her. She’s my mother!”
“Blow your nose. Here. Blow.”
tell her tell her tell her tell her why don’t they-–
“Jackson, sober up.”
“Ask Julie what she thinks. She hasn’t talked.”
“Not a word.”
My eyes were little slits. Paisley patterns thumped behind my eyelids, pissing fuzz in my pupils, tingles in my fingertips, rattles in my toes. The floor rose and fell; the earth itself rose and fell beneath me, and all went gray. I gripped the chair. Martians. I had to get out of there.
“Not a word, Julie.”
“Let her talk. Don’t interrupt.”
“Julie’s going to say something.”
Roy cleared his throat.
I said, “It’s very nice meeting all of you.”
Irene said, “She talked.” Her long, expressive fingernails were painted purple.
Jackson said, “I need another tissue.”
June said, “I only have a napkin from Dunkin Donuts.”
“Yeah, gimme that.”
And so, I settled into the routine at Crossroads. After a few months I had taken up smoking and had put on ten pounds, though I wasn’t taking medication of any sort. My hair became knotted from neglect, and I made a habit of wearing a hat to cover it. I dressed unbecomingly, choosing soiled clothing over cleaner clothes when I dressed each morning, my tattered old jacket over the newer down jacket my mother had given me, “With an adjustable waistband,” my mother had explained, when I opened the package on my birthday. The next semester came without a thought; I was still at Crossroads, and, despite all the warnings I’d given myself, Irene was my best friend.
The subject was finally brought up, in Group Therapy, that I had not once discussed my problems, that I’d kept the focus on everyone else’s problems. I was supportive, the group said, but very secretive. “You’re either angry or scared,” said Irene, boldly. “Today is your day to talk. Do it today. Today is your day.”
The group murmured in assent.
“I fear,” I began, “I fear that I would end up screaming.” Hate. Hate.
Irene said, “That’s okay. That’s allowed, right, guys?”
Roy said, “There are other groups in the building.”
“Screw the other groups,” said Irene. “Let her scream if that’s what she’s going to do. The walls are pretty soundproof, anyway, don’t you think, Roy?”
Roy had been an architect once. “Not really, but–”
“Well, then, scream.”
Jackson began to laugh nervously. “You’ll get me going, Julie. I could use a good hullabaloo myself.”
All in your head.
“There’s such thing as scream therapy, you know.”
Lights on, nobody home.
Rich Jewish college girl, you don’t even need to be here.
They said afterward that the floors heaved and spat up something like lava, shook the foundations of the building and tossed chairs and people helter-skelter, that pipes broke, toilets overflowed with a metallic, steamy liquid, the coffeepot imploded, Jenny broke her arm and Tina’s rubber boot went missing, right off her foot. I don’t know if that was exactly the case. People have a way of turning stories around. But after that, everything was different at Crossroads. I was one of them.
There was no question now; I belonged.
Julie Greene studies creative writing at Goddard College’s low-residency MFA program in Port Townsend, Washington. She lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. When she’s not writing, she enjoys knitting, computers, photography, and hanging out with her dog, a Schnoodle named Puzzle.