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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

One Key to Recovery: Letting the Outside In

A young inpatient strips off her armor and learns what it is to be human.

January 26, 2003|Alexandra Cruse | Alexandra Cruse is a high school student in Orange County.

"Do you want to see me make myself bleed?" This question may not have been so disturbing if it had been posed as a sarcastic jest, but as I looked from my sterilized mattress pad to my inmate's eager, pockmarked face, I realized that this young woman expected a genuine response.

I sat silent in nauseated anticipation as she inserted a delicate finger into her nostril, feverishly tearing at the inner membrane until a trickle of crimson slithered down. In a house that catered to the mentally ill, it was the most reserved example of insanity I had ever seen. The painfully stale air, the barred windows, the mildewed carpet -- I laughed bitterly at this tired stereotype. The building and its inhabitants created a perverse atmosphere of professionally controlled madness. My mission was to find the reason I was among them.

Before being institutionalized, I had always believed that "insane" was a synonym for "quirky" or "individual"; it was something to take pride in. After my therapist had explained that I had a chemical imbalance in my brain, none of these friendly euphemisms sprang to mind. Rather, I thought of a swimming pool with too little chlorine, causing algae to fester.

Only when I was coerced into the Peer Group at College Hospital Costa Mesa did I see what other Olympic-sized head cases were festering: homeless teens, runaways, drug addicts, former prostitutes; it was more than a little disheartening. Yet never did I waver from my position as an obstinate observer. My doctor's advice was not to be taken seriously -- it was strictly procedure. The appointments with various social workers were not designed to aid in my recovery -- they were to fill up blocks of time in their schedule books. As I complacently went through the designated routine, I felt crippled by my sense of superiority.

It was too painful to be analytical, because to take an honest look from any perspective was to see a girl who was too immature to allow herself outside help. A frightening thought: If I could see through my own false air of independence and control, then the public surely saw the fallacy long ago. But I needed to feel frightened, shocked. I needed to stoke the white heat of a new thought process to torch my old habits. That said, I did not have an epiphany, nor did I "stop feeling sorry for myself," as was often suggested to me in the past. I simply had a mental growth spurt, realizing that my peers had seen levels of degradation that I had never known; they were not below me.

When my period of inpatient care drew to a close, the outside world ate up the small, nondescript scraps of my "scandal" that I fed it. I never considered the power of taboo, and I naively underestimated the maturity of high school students. Yes, I wince at the odd "Take your pills, psycho," followed by gales of laughter from people who obviously don't believe in karma. But I no longer vainly disguise my shortcomings, mental or otherwise, because I feel to be without them is to be incomplete. In terms of the self, happiness and acceptance are two largely different concepts. But when I practice one, the other usually follows.

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