My nephew, James Camali, is finishing up his movie. It’s called The Mental State. It’s about a teenage boy in the rural South who manifests signs of mental illness and can’t get any help. His mother tries at the school, at the church, with psychologists, and there is no relief, no way to get help. The situation comes to a head and ends tragically. This movie is so relevant and necessary for today. Mental illness among young people is a subject not dealt with in movies and this is a sector of society not seriously shown in films. I thank him and his collaborators with all my heart for doing this film and for being so brave to take on mental health issues for a working class kid, when he could have made some slick movie. I hope it gets a wide hearing/viewing and makes people think.
Watching the film inspired me to recall my own experience in high school in the 1960s, a Catholic girls high school in the Bronx. My close friend at the time had a run-in with these issues and it also ended badly. She and I became friends, I think, because we were attracted to each other and couldn’t put a name to it. It was senior year. I had a lot of problems at home which I felt I could confide in her. We had a lot in common because she came from an Italian family. Mine was Yugoslav.
We talked a lot and hung out. Besides her own family problems, she spoke about the idea of going into the convent. During our senior year we heard about two girls a year or two ahead of us who had joined the convent but got kicked out. Something bad had happened. The scuttlebug was they were lesbians and got caught. This stuck in both of our consciousnesses yet nothing was ever said.
One day my friend told me she was hearing voices. She didn’t know why or what made this happen but it was something that disturbed her and worried her. They were voices telling her what to do or what not to do, or simply keeping her awake. She started thinking about suicide. I kept listening and then talking her out of it. We would be sitting at the lunch table at school and I’d see her cutting on her wrist with the end of a soda fliptop. I said she should stop—she was bleeding. Sometimes she did it when I wasn’t looking and her wrists began to look pretty bad. It was noticeable. She needed help.
I don’t know the actual order of events but she started going to our new guidance counselor who was fresh out of psychology school and didn’t seem to have a lot of experience. The counselor wanted to meet with my friend’s mother. Then it seemed my friend’s voices escalated and they were telling her to jump and end her life.
Once, her mother who was smaller than my friend managed to pull her back from jumping out of the apartment window. The mother, who seemed to be getting hysterical, then proceeded to collude with the guidance counselor to commit my dear precious friend to Bronx State Hospital, a mental institution. And that was it—she was gone, never even graduated. What a shocking end to our friendship! I couldn’t believe she was no longer in my life.
She spent four years or so in the psycho institution. I visited her a couple of times in the beginning with other friends but it was very difficult and eerie to see her in that cold green place. She wasn’t the same. It was incredibly sad.
I went to NYU and then got married to a physics professor. I majored in English and minored in Russian but went on to graduate work in Russian. I never wanted to get married but I took the opportunity because it was a way to escape my violent home life and have some new experiences.
When I was already in graduate school and living in Greenwich Village with my husband in the beautiful downtown faculty housing, I got a surprise call from my friend. She had just gotten out of the mental institution where, among other things, she had to beat a drug problem which was common there. But she had an important question for me: she had come out as a lesbian while in the institution and wondered if we could be in touch. Did I want to see her? She alluded to the “Rose Poem” which I had written in honor of our relationship before she went in. She still had it. I said: no, I didn’t want to see her or be in touch. I was married and had a whole other life.
I regret that I said that to her now, that I rejected her when she reached out to me, after those terrible years. I even called her once many years later, after finding her phone number in the Bronx. She had become a psychiatric nurse, helping those who were in need like she once was. I wondered how she could deal with a system that had treated her so badly. I myself had just spent more than a decade being a full-time political activist after coming out as a lesbian myself, and trying to make the world better.
What strange turns life takes! I asked her forgiveness and she said she understood my reaction then, not to worry. Her voice still flowed the same way, even the way she said my name.