I have been here before. I mean, at this juncture. And I have some trepidation about setting all this down. But if I am to be authentic, truly, I must share the story of The Pet Sitter. For she is me, and her story is mine.
Schizoaffective Disorder Bipolar Type ll. That is a mouthful of DSM psychobabble. The American Psychiatric Association must spend a lot of time thinking up these labels to pin on people. I am stuck with this one and it is more than just a mouthful. It is a catalog of symptoms that has guided my psychiatrists in creating a treatment program for me, and given them ideas about what medications they should prescribe. I use the plural “psychiatrists” as I am now on my sixth one, but I wasn’t passed on from one to the other because I was too difficult. On the contrary. I am sure I have always been interesting and delightful, if not challenging. My doctors have moved, gotten promotions and better job opportunities, and in one case, at a psychiatric center, I asked for a new doc because the one they assigned to me didn’t speak English too well, and had no idea what chakras are. I couldn’t have that. So they assigned me to someone else. If you’re in “the system”, you gotta speak up.
Anyway, I have schizoaffective disorder with the addition of some bipolar symptoms. What a blessing. No really. It has been. I wouldn’t change anything that I have gone through. All of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly, has made me who I am today. And that person is pretty awesome. I wasn’t always able to say that but I can now.
This book is about healing from mental illness and childhood abuse, and what events in my journey to wellness really facilitated that healing. I had a lot of help from some family and friends, both financially and emotionally, and to them I am eternally grateful. But it has been the animals in my life who have opened me up, reminded me how to play, made me feel responsibility, shown me how to love and accept love in return, and nurtured my compassion. Without them, I would surely have been dead a long time ago.
I have a unique perspective on reality. When I was in college and after, people always thought I was tripping – on acid or some such. But I was just being me. I see the world through an impressionist’s lens most of the time now – really beautiful -, but when I am “off” I see it through the lenses of Jackson Pollack, Salvatore Dali, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso – a bit chaotic and distorted. Sometimes horrifying, and mostly very scary.
As a result of this view of “reality”, I have become a pretty open and accepting person in my old age. I see now that each of us experiences the world completely subjectively, and nothing looks the same to everyone. We each bring our own emotions, past experiences, attitudes, hopes, and fears to our vision of the Universe, so it never looks the same way twice, is never experienced the same way twice. Pretty cool, really!
Reality has always been a difficult issue for me. There was a period of time when I believed nothing was real and that I was dreaming everything. It was very frightening, feeling that way, because it meant that I was totally alone. No one else existed. Everyone and everything was a figment of my imagination. If you think about it, that is also a very ego-centric belief. I mean essentially I was saying that I had created everything.
Interestingly,in our New Age culture, where metaphysics, spirituality, and science are beginning to find common ground, there are some schools of thought that actually posit that each of us does create his own reality, and that reality is completely subjective. That’s not perception mind you, but reality itself. Carry that position to its logical conclusion and each of us lives in her own reality bubble. The awful truth being that each of us is totally alone. It leaves a lot of questions – at least for me.
It was my BFF Gail, who talked me into getting my first kitten. Being nuts, I never felt as though I had enough love to give another creature, and I was also terrified I would kill it, like I managed to kill every cactus I ever had. But Gail was persistant, and when my downstairs neighbor’s cat had kittens I took one. I called him Hermes, who, in Greek mythology is the god of thieves. And I decided he would have to steal my heart.
To say that the animals that I have shared my life with taught me how to both give love and receive love, is a huge understatement. Up until Hermes, I had never been responsible for the well being of anyone else, for nurturing, sustaining, loving someone in my care. Hermes, being a little kitten, was very needy, or as needy as cats ever are. But he didn’t die like all my cacti. I managed to give him what he needed, and he thrived. He also became my second heart. He did, in fact, steal my love when I wasn’t looking. He slept in my arms from kittenhood until the day he died. And he, as most animals do, gave me a hell of a lot more than I ever gave him. He showed me I had love to give and a deep desire to give it. He showed me that I was capable. He helped me with my very poor self-esteem. Yes, I would grow to be a much better animal mom as I moved towards wellness, but Hermes gave me confidence in my ability to sustain a life other than my own. He also became my second heart, my first Familiar.
Only 9 months into my relationship with Hermes, along came Ariel. Once again my BFF Gail, corralled me into looking at another bunch of abandoned kittens, hoping I would get Hermes a pal. I was reluctant to take in another needy life, but while sitting on the floor with all the kitties trying to decide on one, the kitten that would become Ariel sat down on a rocking chair to my right and looked at me with eyes full of old wisdom and a lot of compassion. I melted. So, then there was Hermes and Ariel.
Hermes, though 9 months, regressed to 2 months when Ariel joined the family. The two of them were mostly airborne all night long, having a fine old time while I didn’t sleep. They fell quickly in love. They slept nose to nose. They groomed each other. They played with a relentless frenzy. Hermes became “mother” to tiny Ariel. They were both male cats, but loved like women. It was gorgeous to watch.
During this time I was seriously ill, and I am afraid my cats suffered because of it. I had terrible periods of paranoia, psychosis, depression, and hypomania. I was unreliable, unreachable(by friends as well)and isolated myself terribly. I kept secrets. I kept my illness a secret. And, unknown to me, my psyche was keeping secrets from me as well. I couldn’t give love where love was needed. But Hermes and Ariel never stopped loving me. I think that was the only thing that kept me from disappearing into madness completely.
The cats were able to keep me somewhat present. I fed them, cleaned the litter box, and Hermes still slept in my arms – when I did sleep. But I also hit them when they were bad – and by “bad” I mean doing something as simple as knocking things off counters and tables, something that cats love to do. Shit. If I’m not honest here I am nothing. I became abusive. And I didn’t know it until years later. Even with all that, Hermes and Ariel saw me as Mom and loved me.
As an actress in NYC, I traveled a lot for work. And I took the cats everywhere I went. I could be seen in bus stations or airport terminals with my suitcases and a cat carrier. Hermes and Ariel stayed in hotels, boarding houses, theatre digs, and B&B’s and were the most adaptable beings I ever knew. As long as they were with me, they felt they were home, and they never seemed to care where it happened to be. For me, having them with me was grounding. It gave me a certain stability that I wouldn’t have had without them. It kept me responsible for someone other than myself, and that was what kept me from going over the edge forever. They kept me alive. I owed them big time.
In the early winter of 1981, I decided that I had to get out of the US. I had visited London the year before to see a Canadian actor I had met in New York who lived in England and I loved the British energy. I also knew there was a stable of American actors there who worked a lot, and many people I met while visiting said I could have a really good working career if I came over. My relationship with the Canadian fizzled, but I was eager to try my luck in the UK. I found someone to sublet my apartment and take care of Hermes and Ariel, and off to England I went.
I thought I was going towards something new, and of course I was. But more than that, I was running away – from a sketchy and painful past, from feeling suicidal, and from my parents. I felt as if I could reinvent myself in new surroundings and leave the Andrea I was behind. I was wrong of course, but I’ll get to that later.
I didn’t bring Hermes and Ariel to begin with as I wanted to know I was going to stay before putting them through 6 months of quarantine. But I had done my research and found a drama college in London, Webber-Douglas, and they hired me to teach yoga and breath control for the speech department. So I knew I could stay. Immigration laws there were very tight at that time and, short of marrying a Brit, it was very difficult to get Residency there. But the head of the college fought to have me and I was granted a work permit.
I loved teaching and the students loved me. I learned as much from my efforts as I taught, and even my own yoga practice improved. Shortly after I got to the UK I looked for an acting agent and, much to my shock, several were interested in me and I had a real choice. That is unheard of in the States. Getting an agent to take you on is extremely hard work in the US, but in England I had them fighting over me. It was fabulous! I eventually went with 2 lovely women – Pauline Morgan and Lindell Goodman – and very quickly I was hired by the BBC to star in a drama-documentary about the artist Mark Rothko, playing his daughter. I took a leave of absence from my teaching, and set off to make my very first film.
By that time I had had Hermes and Ariel shipped over and into quarantine they went. My students, as devoted as they were, took on visiting them every week and sending me photos of them. Film making was a total learning experience and I really enjoyed going on location shoots. Mentally – or rather psychiatrically speaking – I was quite manic, felt absolutely wonderful, like I was invincible, and had no problems functioning as was needed. No paranoia, no voices, no suicidal ideation.
Meanwhile, back at the drama college, a couple of jealous teachers started spreading a rumor about me that I had had an affair with one of my students. It was, of course untrue, but when my filming was over I came back to London to find I had been let go. I was furious. Yes, a few of my male students flirted a lot with me, but nothing happened. So now I was unemployed with little money and 2 cats in quarantine. I was auditioning a lot however, and I knew something would come through. In the interim, I was able to go on the dole and so had a small monthly allowance.
I visited Hermes and Ariel twice a week and had to take 3 buses and travel 2 hours each way to do it. Ariel was pretty messed up, but Hermes was ecstatic every I came. I would sit on the floor of their cage and pet and talk to them about how great it was going to be. Six months felt interminable, but finally they were released and came home with me to the small room I was renting in someone’s tiny flat. It was so fabulous to have my babies with me again, and they adapted quickly to their new environment. I allowed them to go outside for the first time, and they loved it! But never unaccompanied.
It was not my intention to go on a lot about England, but it was there that I really had to come to terms with the fact that I was not okay. When I crashed, I crashed hard and being able to function was exhausting. The next job I got was to play Pitti Sing in a production of THE MIKADO down in Plymouth. There were a few very famous British actors starring in it, and the show did very well. So well, that a London producer decided to pick it up to bring into London’s West End – the English equivalent of Broadway. But first we had to keep the show running after its Plymouth contract, so off we went to Ireland – Belfast to be exact, where there was the most unrest and English tanks could be seen in the streets. We stayed at the most bombed hotel in the city, and it was here that depression and psychotic symptoms returned. I got terribly paranoid and life became very difficult. Crazy Andrea had come to England with me. I could not escape her. I could not tell anyone about my mental state, and even though I had a therapist back in London, I was without a psychiatrist and not on medication. I was a mess. But considering the fact that I was severely mentally ill, I managed to have a good acting career while in England. I worked on stage and in television, and got wonderful reviews at whatever I did. It was nothing less than a miracle and a testament to my survival instincts, despite believing that I wanted to be dead.
Hermes and Ariel kept me alive all the while I lived in the UK. They were my children and I lived for them. Hermes had a stroke one night and I literally willed him back to life. It would be another year before I would lose him. He had survival instincts too. But eventually I couldn’t function at all. I started cutting myself, I became anorexic and bulimic, very suicidal, and started splitting apart into different personalities. I wasn’t a real multiple, but I was becoming more and more unable to live as my self. My sister and brother-in-law wrote to my therapist at that time and they decided to bring me back to the States for an evaluation with a colleague of my sister’s husband, who was a psychologist. My return to the US would prove to be a turning point for me, taking on the most difficult job – fighting to climb out of the hell that was insanity, making a life for myself and rediscovering who I really was. Something I never knew.
So I ended up in Florida where my sister – and as it happened, my parents – lived. I always hated Florida; the heat and humidity, and hurricanes were not my thing. And as time went on I grew to hate it even more for it’s backwards and ultra-conservative politics, and lack of culture. I found it to be a wasteland. I’m sure that that isn’t completely true, but it was for me.
I came back to the US for an evaluation but was put into the hospital immediately, partially because of my anorexia, and partly because the psychiatrist I saw thought I might be suicidal as I was a cutter.My brother flew down from New York immediately to be with me and also to support my sister and brother-in-law who were dealing with all of this. Being in the hospital probably saved my life. It also brought a few things to light. My father had me on his health insurance, but there was no coverage of psychiatric illness and treatment in a private hospital. So Daddy was paying out of pocket. And he and my mother really wanted nothing to do with any of it. My mother even told a room full of mental health professionals that I was just a good actress and none of this was real. Can you imagine any mother saying that about a very sick child? That was my mom. Charming, right?
I was in Lake Hospital for almost 4 months,but this wasn’t my first hospitalization. When in college in Pittsburgh, I took an overdose and was sent to WPIC for evaluation and treatment. The minimum stay was 1 month and, as my father refused to pay for any longer than that, that’s how long I was in there.
I had a kind and gentle psychiatrist who prescribed Thorazine for me, but only as needed. The use of Thorazine in my treatment kind of dates me, but it was 1967 and prescription meds for crazy people were limited. It was an interesting stay there in Pittsburgh – I met a lot of nuts – and when I was released after my month, I was pretty much a mess. My psychiatrist met with my parents and told them to find me a good psychiatrist at home immediately. My mother wanted nothing to do with any of this so decisions were all up to my father who was reluctant to follow through with treatment for me. But he was urged to do so by his own physician, so to save face, he did.
After I got sprung from Lake Hospital in Florida, my sister found me an apartment – my first one-bedroom – in a town called Lake Worth. I was about 30 minutes from my sister, but only about 15 minutes from my parents, who had made it clear they wished to be left out of it. Several friends in England created a trust fund for my treatment, and my friend Gail’s father sent me six thousand dollars – just because. I was truly blessed. My sister and her husband gave me a weekly allowance of $100, and drove me to my psychiatrist and psychologist appointments.
I was insistent on having a cat, and so my sister took me to a local shelter and I chose a black and white cutie I named Singleton. As I had left Ariel in England with a dear friend who loved him until he passed away, and I had had to put Hermes down before I came back to the US, I needed a fur baby terribly. As insane as I was, animals always had the ability to keep me somewhat grounded. So Singleton became my new love.
He slept in my arms the same way Hermes used to, and it was almost as if Cee-Cee, as my sister’s daughter called him, was the spirit of Hermes. It was a very comforting relationship. We played fetch and hide-and-seek – he was perfect! Healing had begun.
I spent most of my time alone inside my apartment, trying to get used to having more than one room. For a long time I never ate in the kitchen, but in my bedroom. I had always lived in one room as an adult, and didn’t know what to do with a separate kitchen and living room. But eventually I spread my life out a bit. All through this adjustment time, Singleton was by my side or on my lap.
My sister came to visit as often as she could and she and her husband had me and Singleton as overnight guests frequently. They treated me to dinners out, and their oldest dog, Sandy, would sleep with me on the times that I left Cee-Cee at home for the night. And whenever I would leave him alone, Singleton would greet my return with a huge exuberance. It was fabulous and I felt very loved.
After a while, my landlords said I could let Singleton outside for a bit every day. He was thrilled to have the freedom, but always came when I called him. He never stayed outside after 7 PM, and I was okay with not seeing him a little while, as he explored the garden and made new friends with other cats.
Meanwhile, I was also getting out more and trying things that terrified me. Like taking the bus to the mall and being around people. And taking the train down to my sister’s. That first train trip was a huge deal for me and my sister was so proud of me. On the train, I sat huddled next to a window and made sure no one sat next to me. At each stop I so badly wanted to run out. I probably rocked back and forth, but now I don’t remember it. When I got to my sister’s station I felt so relieved, and my tense body really hurt from sitting gathered so tight together. But the trip was a huge victory for me, and it gave me a certain independence back. I was thrilled for myself. So were those who loved me.
Right now I am writing about 1989 and 1990, but today is 12/10/16. I just want to say that it is a bit difficult revisiting this time of my life. Animals are still re-defining me and making me a better person. But going through all this shit is painful and makes me very unmotivated. I am going to try to write more – at least a sentence every day. That may sound like small potatoes to you, but it’s a big deal for me.
As my income benefits were terribly limited – SSI at less than $300 a month – I knew I was going to have to start a small business cleaning houses and apartments for cash. My sister printed out some flyers for me and I did get a handful of jobs, which helped my situation some. But, having cleaned houses in England when I was not working as an actor, I was tired of dealing with other people’s shit (quite literally in many cases) and decided to try pet sitting. A neighbor, whose big black lab mix I befriended, asked me if I could take care of him for a weekend. His name was Dino, and he was a love. I told them I would spend the nights with him and visit him 3 times a day for an hour each time, feed him and let him out. I asked for $10 an hour (or per visit), and that was the beginning of something quite extraordinary. A healing so profound, a growth of self awareness and self-acceptance that nobody, least of all me, would have imagined possible. So Dino became my first baby.
Dino and I were BFF’s. I adored him and he did me. We slept together and watched TV, and I sat outside with him. He licked my toes – which is something I absolutely love – ( nothing sexual mind you!) and we had a blast. After that first pet sitting job, my sister printed me the most cute flyers and I went around the neighborhood and put them in people’s doors and mailboxes. I had found my niche – and perhaps my salvation.
People began calling me from my flyer, and pretty soon I had several regular clients and their humans. I walked dogs, cleaned up their poop, fed them, spent hours with them, sometimes slept with them, played with them, and kept myself from getting completely lost in my madness. But I was still mad as the Hatter. But I wasn’t singing.
The Mad Hatter Card – Unemployed Philosophers Guild
I was cutting myself all over, eating little, running between 7-10 miles every day, and writing on the walls of my apartment. I was also seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist at Lake Hospital. I usually walked there. Sometimes I rode my bike.
Running, surprisingly, also helped to save me. Yes, I was anorexic and bulimic and I did not need to keep my weight down. Quite the contrary. But it was another thing to do to get me out of my own head. And when I wasn’t with the dogs, I lived in my head. Singleton helped of course as well, but cats are not as needy as dogs. I needed to be needed, to get out of myself. I had no friends, and my sister, with 2 children, couldn’t be with me all the time. The people I dog sat for became sort of friends, but not the kind who would invite me to dinner. Not that I would have gone if they did.
But running was a God-send for me. Moving my body and sweating helped me get out of my own skull. I didn’t have to think. I could just take in the aromas and greenery of the world around me and float. It was heaven. And I was addicted to it. When I would wake up in the mornings, my legs were itching to get on the move. I couldn’t wait to get moving and breathing heavily. I felt strong and powerful. I felt in control during a time when, mentally and emotionally I was completely out of control. Things made sense when I ran. I needed that.