Memoir: The First Breakdown

I’d seen my brother Ian’s bestfriend, Joe, have a nervous breakdown three or four years before, so I knew what it looked like. I mean, Ian’s and Joe’s were different—Joe decompensated over a few hours one Saturday afternoon, and ended up taking off all his clothes and throwing a friend’s furniture through the livingroom window, and Ian’s took a few weeks—but they both came down to the same thing: It seemed like they were on acid.

I was living over a rug store on Main Street in Port Washington, on Long Island, with my boyfriend, Geoff. I was eighteen. Ian, who was two years older, was living in a boardinghouse rumored to have been a whore house at some point. The guy who ran it had shoulder-length hair and a snake named Barbara. This was 1974. I didn’t know it at that exact moment, but it turns out he was a nurse, which would come in handy very soon.

Geoff, Ian, and I were all in school at Queens, and Ian was having a particularly good time taking philosophy classes; there was a girl in one of them whom he had a crush on, and he seemed happy. Then, one by one, the calls started coming in. The long and the short of it is that people—teachers, mainly—were worried about Ian. His philosophy teacher, in particular, called to say that the girl Ian liked didn’t exist. Just after I got that call, Ian called. “Hey, Trish,” he said. “This girl in my class, she’s wearing green pants.” That was the tip-off, the acid line: green pants.

I called the husband of a cousin of mine who was a psychiatrist. I hadn’t seen him in eight years—not since my father had died and everyone had disappeared like mice when you turn the lights on. He didn’t seem happy to hear from me. I got it, what my estranged family thought, in that phone call.

I said, “Hey, Milton”—blah, blah, blah, small talk, small talk—”I think Ian’s having a nervous breakdown.” He said, “What makes you think that?” I said, “It’s like he’s on acid, but he’s not.” He said, derisively, “What makes you think he’s not on acid?” Ah, I thought: They think the Deitch kids are a bunch of freaky drug addicts. Life had not been easy for my mother in the preceding eight years, and we had clearly lost our “normal family” status. This was not going to be easy, getting Ian help.

I finally convinced this cousin’s husband to see Ian, and we drove over to his house in Great Neck. The last time I was there I was a child. Now I was a wild fatherless kid who lived with my boyfriend over a store, putting myself through college by delivering dogs for a groomer prone to smacking his little clients with a brush. On top of that, my brother was hallucinating women.

I remember waiting for Ian in the kitchen. Paul, the psychiatrist’s stepson and my cousin, probably fifteen or sixteen at the time—always an innocent and kind kid—went out to the pharmacy to get Ian some pills. Milton told me to watch Ian take them every six hours, and even wake him up in the middle of the night. He said Ian was going to have to be hospitalized, but he himself couldn’t help, because he was a relative. That was it—that was all he could do.

Did I say I was eighteen? We got back in the car. I was no stranger to crises, but this was going to be a doozy. We started our drive back home, and Ian seemed a little excited. He understood that something was wrong, and that Geoff and I were going to help him. “Am I going to get better?” he asked me in the car. “Absolutely,” I told him. “You have nothing to worry about; we’re going to fix this.”

For the next few days, as I did the research into how someone is committed, Ian kept asking me if he was going to be O.K., and I kept telling him that he’d be better than before. I believed this. I learned a very big lesson from it: Never ever reassure someone that things will get better unless you know they will.

N.B. The photograph above is not Ian.

(Image by gregor_y: CC/A/SA)


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