Going Mad in New York City

This essay has been adapted and expanded upon from a blog post published four years ago on my personal blog, Autowin. Some names, places mentioned outside of New York City, and other identifying details have been changed to protect our present from our past.
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One morning I woke up knowing something was wrong and so I decided very quickly, without thinking too much, that I would go to Rose Hill. I lived in Manhattan on 106th street in a tiny room with one window and no closet in a decently-sized three-bedroom apartment I shared with a recovering-alcoholic stripper and a film student from Philadelphia. They’d recently asked me to move out but I hadn’t found a new place yet because instead of apartment-hunting I was doing things like waking up and deciding without thinking too much that I would take a train to suburban New York.

So I got on the A train at Central Park West towards Grand Central and I got to Grand Central and I got on the Metro-North and all at once I was on my way. That’s the thing about New York — all at once, you are on your way. All at once — one foot before the other, a ticket, a seat — this is how we go on -- we swipe our cards, we board, and we move forward. For three years I’d been an explorer of New York City and all the traveling felt like going places but today I felt like a passenger being lifted from one place and taken swiftly to another. Pure inertia. Today was the very first day I’d ever felt like a passenger, and after this day, nothing was ever the same again.

photograph out the window of the metro-north by carl weese, via workingpictures.blogspot.com

She lived in Rose Hill, but she worked and played and usually slept in the city. Not last night, though, last night she’d gone home and I’d let her.

The train emerged from underground into this impossibly sunny, warmish-spring-perfect April afternoon. When I got out at the stop called “Rose Hill” I was surprised I’d gotten there at all. It had been ten minutes, or maybe thirty.

The town was sleepy, like me. I got into a car and asked the cab driver to take me to City Hall, wherever the jail was, and so he did. I think it cost four dollars, it seemed like a bargain.

I walked up the steps of City Hall and opened its heavy door and went inside, where everyone looked tired and everything smelled like chalk. I was really tired. I’d grown less good at eating and sleeping.

I’m looking for a friend, she might be staying here, or was here last night? Probably for like, um, disturbing the peace, maybe?

Name?

Reyna? She called me last night, or like, I got all these messages sounding like she was yelling at people –

Name again?

Raayy-na — she’s like, tall, Asian, short hair – 

Oh yeah, her, she just left, she says. She was having a ball, just walkin’ all around here talking to everyone.

Fantastic.

So I decided to find her. I didn’t know how to do that because I’d never been to Rose Hill before, so I just started walking. First down the steps of City Hall, where I closed my eyes and asked G-d to lead me to her, because I knew of that for sure — of G-d — and then down some sidewalks. The few stores that were open sold booze and greeting cards, which seemed fitting — one, and then the other. Drinks and apologies.

Then I saw her, waking out of a store with a fresh pack of cigarettes. There she was: my girl, she was right there, her black leather Trinity jacket flapping behind her like a bad guy on his way offstage.

I’d come there and found her, and so I thanked G-d for that. I jogged a little but she was in her own world so she didn’t hear me coming up behind her. She had a million bags, it seemed like, always carried five or six books with her at a time — James Joyce, the Bible, Don Quixote.

I caught up and blocked her in the street. She looked up, saw me, stopped.

She said: “Hey,” as if I’d been planning on meeting her there, as if she’d spent the night in jail simply to be nearby when I made my first visit to Rose Hill. She seemed surprised but not surprised enough, as if strange things like this happened all the time because of her or for her — they did, after all. Of course I would just psychically know where she was. Of course I would just find her with no clues whatsoever and no knowledge of the area.

She hugged me — a quick, tight, glorious flash of real — she held me, said she’d missed me and that she was sorry they hadn’t let her have her phone in jail. She kissed me. Those were still her lips. I thought her arms were still her arms but I looked closer and they were covered in bruises, even more than there’d been on Friday or Saturday, when we’d covered them in liquid Revlon foundation for the magazine photographer who’d come to photograph us for an article I was writing that was supposed to be about dating as “a bisexual” but instead was about me falling in love with Reyna. She was my first girlfriend, the first time I’d felt love like that. The piece would eventually get killed but I didn’t know that yet. Everything was happening so fast.

Then she stopped walking. So I stopped. I turned and took her in: black pants, black shoes, black shirt, black hair, black sunglasses, impatient facial expression — she was a slick black shark that day, something deadly and strong. Sometimes, when she wasn’t around, I had a strange urge to sit on my bed and stare at the wall and move my lips in the shape speaking usually makes.

She’d joke that we looked like Good and Evil together, which was maybe the first time I’d been cast as “good,” or innocent, or anything like that. Maybe I liked it: liked feeling small. Little me, with my blonde highlights and white t-shirts and my jeans from the mall. And then Her.

She commanded: “Walk. And don’t look back.”

She let me take ten steps ahead of her before she started walking behind me. This was easy. I didn’t look back. I started thinking and then I remembered that thinking wasn’t the point. The only point was to obey.

We were on an overpass crossing the thruway. Cars drove beneath us like it was an ordinary day in an ordinary world. It was a beautiful day, brilliant bright beamy sunshine. It was for us.

Then she told me: “Okay Lot’s Wife. You can stop now.” And so I did. “Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?” I receded, she neared me.

“I love you!” She said.

“Knock knock.” She said (that’s her second line in a row).

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Interrupting weirdo!” She said.

“Interrpting we–” I started to say.

“I love you!” She said.

I smiled. I knew those words, I knew that person. Underneath the shark was a heart that loved me. That never changed.

We walked together to the Metro-North station. I knew that’s where we were going but she didn’t tell me, I just knew. I asked her how she got these new bruises and she told me she’d given them to herself in jail to punish herself for being prideful and judging everyone. We sat down on a bench outside the station so she could get her things in order.

I could’ve asked more questions — why was she arrested? Who called the police? What inspired her to stand outside that apartment at three in the morning and yell about G-d? Did she know that she’d called me ten times the night before?

I never asked these questions because I was afraid of the answers.

But I also didn’t talk very much at all, that day, or many of the days that followed. I’ve always been obnoxiously talkative — I interrupt, I’m sometimes hushed on the subway by friends; in a fight, I’m always the one to beg the other to “say something, anything!” and it’s never been begged of me. But around her, when she was sick, I could be so quiet for so long. I can’t believe my mouth is still shut, I would think, wondering how many other body parts I may have lost along the way, or if it was just my tongue.

She gave me her Blackberry and told me to call her work for her and tell her boss she was sick and wouldn’t make it in. She had a nice job proofreading things in like five different languages for a firm in Midtown because she was a genius. I was jealous of her job. She hadn’t approved of my primary job (it involved, in some capacity, sex work) and so I’d quit and although I had some freelance writing and savings, I also desperately needed a new job but hadn’t gotten one yet because instead I was doing things like waking up  and deciding without thinking too much that I would take a train to suburban New York.

I wanted to remind her that calling anybody, let alone strangers, gave me so much anxiety, but what were my neurosis in the face of this madness. I had no choice, you see. I can’t explain it, how it got this way, but I’m trying to.

So I called him. It was awkward but she seemed pleased.

She told me she had no time for work; she had to to learn Proto-Indo-European.

“I feel like yelling at people,” she told me. I didn’t really grasp then that she meant that. This was the very first time. This was the day after Easter.

*

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is on Amsterdam Avenue & 112th street in New York City, about seven blocks from where I lived at the time.

That’s when it started: on the Metro-North, heading back into Manhattan. She started yelling. I was there on the seat with her in this normal train, with normal people, being normal, and I realised I’d just stepped out of the physical world I thought I knew and into some kind of something scary. I remember I was reading The Book of Daniel, which I’d printed out from the online Bible at bartlebys, because the fact that I hadn’t read it was becoming a major issue in our relationship. She’d read everything.

I just kept thinking I could try to go along with things and then maybe I could fix them.

She started in on me then for a minute because I’d said “Be quiet.” She asked me why she needed to be quiet. Did I not want people to know that G-d is coming to condemn them, that Buddha was NOT hallucinating and we can WORSHIP our MIRRORS and we can go worship Angelina JOLIE and the BUSH AdminiSTRATION while in the THIRD WORLD people are HUNGRY they don’t need ANYTHING because my GOD IS GOOD and my GOD IS KIND and my GOD IS WATCHING and MY GOD IS COMING … she was next to me but her cadence was riding up up up up to elevated language, I thought this person was my girlfriend, where has she gone …

I was eager to get off the train so we could start over out there in the station with new people. Maybe we’d have another chance in a new crowd. Maybe I’d feel safer in my city.

We were pushed out into the station. All of me panicked for a second, like I was a mouse that’d just found itself in a brand new city all alone in a big train station. I’d been in and out of Grand Central hundreds of times but today it was different, it felt larger and the strangers seemed stranger. I wanted to scamper for a corner but all I could do was follow, I wasn’t going to leave her. There was no way. I was going to get the Real Her back. I was going to do it.

Why would I leave this woman? I had to wait for Real Her to return so that we could talk, because I missed her. You lose your relationship to reality and the people who exist in it and then you have to re-orient your social group to fit the insanity you’ve gotten accustomed to, and usually there is only one other person in your group. And then you’re toast, then you’re in Stockholm.

Grand Central Station (photo via flickr by dvpfagan)

She apologised for yelling at me and said: “Let me buy you a flower,” and so then she did, from one of the vendors there. It was yellow. I carried it close to me like someone might pluck the bud right off it while I stood waiting for her — “I’m not waiting in that stupid line, whatever, I’m gonna trannie it up,” she said, tucking her necklace beneath her shirt, buttoning her coat, and ducking into the men’s room. I thought she was clever. I held my flower to my face.

She said she wanted to go to Bryant Park, which is a few blocks from Grand Central. I said okay. It must have been rush hour. Even on my feet I felt like a passenger. I don’t think I’d been to Bryant Park since November of the year before, when I went ice skating there with the girl I was seeing at the time. I remembered that I’d worn my grey tights and black legwarmers and that we’d laughed a lot and that everything had felt so light.

Reyna stopped to give money to every homeless person who asked. I did that too. I like giving my money away, which was part of why I never had any. I bought $20 of fruit roll-ups from some kid on the street, Reyna wanted me to buy the whole box. She said she wanted to give the fruit roll-ups to homeless people but later I’d see her eating them, poking out little cartoon figures, sticky on her thumbs. It was somehow emasculating but tender, too.

So, she’d give, and then the next person who walked by wouldn’t, and she’d yell: “Don’t walk by homeless people like ROBOTS!”

I winced. I wanted to walk away and I also wanted to tackle her onto the ground and hold her there til help came, so instead I just walked beside her, my whole body totally evaporated. Tense vacancy. A passenger.

“What about LOVE THY NEIGHBOR??!”

The thing about New York is that nobody cares about you. It’s one of a handful of places in the world where you can go mad in public and nobody will care. They’ve heard it all before.

“I’m not ReTARDED, I believe in LOVE and KINDNESS!”

So we were sitting at a table in Bryant Park and she hadn’t stopped, she started “preaching” to everyone to from her seat. She told me the secret to “poaching/preaching” was to call someone on your cell phone and go like this: Hello? Father? Is that you? What did you say about my gluttonous worship of Angelina JOLIE?

bryant park 2007 (by photographer susan wides, via susanwides.com)

People were staring, whatever.

I leaned across the table and took her hands in mine, to get her attention. Her wrists were bruised, like I said, but also she’d cut open both palms on Easter, and those lines made me sad. I said: I’m very scared. Do you remember when you talked about how you’d kept yourself off meds for so long and done a great job controlling your episodes and hadn’t had one for so many years? Because I feel like you might be having one, right now?

What do you want to do? She asked. Put me in A CAGE? Like JEEE-SUS? Like you killed SOCRATES? For preaching in the MARKETPLACE?

I said: I want you to get help, I think that maybe we should talk about this, I feel like maybe right now it would be a good idea to see a doctor and maybe think about meds or maybe stop drinking or –

She said: I can be alone, you don’t have to be my bride!

My body lifted from the chair and I walked away. It’s important to mention I was still holding my flower.

I knew exactly where she’d be and for how long just how I’d known she’d be in Rose Hill that morning; I just knew because we could communicate on invisible telephones wired to our brains. The world can be so much crazier than it is, if you let it be. I mean it can really surprise you.

I went to the subway station on the other side of the park and then I turned around and came back.

bryant park - 42nd street station

I can’t just walk away, I said.
I need to be alone, she said.
Will you call me later, I said.
I will call you later, she said.
I will see you later, she added.
Okay, I love you, I said.
I love you too. You are my wife, she said. Marie. I will never leave you. You are the last woman I will ever be with. Okay?
Okay.

I went home petrified. I went home a mess. I went home a passenger, silent on the train like I’d been frozen that way — not reading, not listening to music, not doing any of the things I’d always do. My body felt light and hollow, like a puppet with the strings hanging mid-air, waiting for the master’s return. They say you have to be a masochist to live in New York City, but I’d always considered that a joke. Later, when asked, I’d say that this was the day I started falling out of love with New York City, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time, not knowing, of course, what would happen next. All at once, everything changes.

I stayed in various states of mess for some time. My best friend Haviland came over — that had been the plan for the day, even before any of this happened — and we were on speaker phone with my Mother the social worker, who had words about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and I was whining, repeatedly going back into my survival mode where I just curl up and declare my intention to become a starvation artist (not a starving artist, that’s different). It’s the thing I did when I knew what I had to do and knew I couldn’t do it. It was like I’d fallen in love with her and then she’d instantly turned into a monster, which is the opposite of what I’d expected.

I couldn’t get in touch with her but I tried. She called me on accident once and I heard her yelling at strangers. At some point, her phone stopped picking up. Haviland had to go to work — she was in Les Miserables, on Broadway — and again I was alone.

At 2 A.M., I was lying in bed, un-asleep, and she walked through the door to my room. I saw right away that it wasn’t her. Her face changes, she becomes someone else. It was someone else. I saw her eyes flash flint and I knew it, I saw it.

“What happened?” I asked. I was almost crying already, but she’d told me there would be a place where there would be no more tears; and soon.

“Baby, I got mugged,” she said, exhausted but not a trace of surprise, like it was one of many things she could’ve done for entertainment that fine evening.

“How did you get here?’

“I just walked here from the West Village.”

Thank G-d she had keys to my apartment then. She’d walked at least a hundred blocks, probably more. She made herself something awful to eat, something involving eggs and every vegetable we had on hand.

I held her like she’d come back from war. I listened to her and saw the bruises everywhere, absolutely everywhere. On her shoulderblades, where she’d been trying to beat the wings out. I felt like a nurse. I would feel like a nurse for a long time but I didn’t know that yet. I told you I was a weirdo, she said.

She’d had everything lost or stolen, it seemed. Me too, I thought. But I hadn’t, not then.

It would be a few months and a few stints in the hospital until her complete psychotic break, which happened when we broke up. But that day in the park was just the beginning of the mania, and I think part of what made it so difficult for me is that she had such control. She turned it off when she needed to; at work, in restaurants, even for doctors. That was the tricky thing. Why was it just me and the strange public who usually enabled it? Did that make me strange?

When was it that she made me throw a glass of water at her in public? Yes, it had been a few days prior, the night after a day we’d spend with the photographer from the magazine article she’d helped me craft into something kinda special but scary too. We were having dinner at Café Mode and she asked me to throw a carafe of water at her, I said I wouldn’t. That was a lot of breakable weight and water to throw at a person, and I’ve never been one to cause a scene. But — a glass was not too much.

It was actually thrilling. We laughed so hard about that. I’d really done it, thrown a glass of water at her and then she must’ve thrown one back because I remember being drenched.

We dashed into the night all laughter, hightailed outta that restaurant, I thought these are the adventures that are now my life. I thought, Choose Your Own Adventure I Choose —-. I felt very Sancho. We wanted to make Easter Eggs for Haviland. We were wet, it was too cold for April. The air beat us and our skin froze, like something that might stay that way forever.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1679 articles for us.

58 Comments

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    This is why I love this site.

    Whenever I read a story on Autostraddle I expect it to be funny, informative or thought-provoking (usually all three) but sometimes I stumble on a piece and I realize it’s so much more than news-worthy or entertaining.

    Riese, you have a gift. Not just for telling a good story or choosing the right words, but a gift for taking the reader and dropping her into your world for a brief moment in time. Even when I haven’t experienced exactly what you have (though this piece in particular does resonate with me on a personal level) you have a way of finding the universal truth and presenting it wrapped in your own experiences. It is instantly, honestly, almost tragically relatable. As a reader, you make me think. You make me feel. And that’s magic.

    This piece was beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing such deep and personal parts of yourself with us. By doing so, you’ve helped us all know ourselves, the world, and humanity a little bit better.

    “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existance.” — Robert McKee

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    “My body felt light and hollow, like a puppet with the strings hanging mid-air, waiting for the master’s return.” – what a great sentence. so many perfect sentences in this piece. your prose is pure poetry.

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    I really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences being with someone with mental difficulties! It’s nice to see it not dismissed as simply crazy or wacko, you described a real person.

    Yeah, I think that’s what I want to say.

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    I re-read this post on autowin not long ago and it was interesting to see the distance (emotional and physical) between the two. The rawness of the original and the introspection of this version. Can’t wait for when you decide to sit down and write your memoirs – if that is something you would ever intend on doing. Please do. You are wonderful.

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      it was really interesting to write it from that distance, too. like there were some lines from the original that i thought sounded perhaps weird or unnecessary or simply not phrased in the best way but I knew I’d written them that way with a sort of trance-like urgency at the time, and that it was important to leave those in, anyhow, which is something i rarely do when revising. in a way also i think it like, helped me connect this person to that person, like i wrote the first one for me and was so comforted that everybody cared so much and then i revised it into the second one for you (all). i might be talking crazy, i’m not drunk.

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    “I’m not retarded. I believe in love and kindness.”
    Wow, can’t believe that one. My daughter who lives with an Intellectual Disability believes in love and kindness. So do all of her friends. Too bad your friend doesn’t get that. Ignorance is actually the greatest disability of all.

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    I’ve been lurking on Autostraddle for over a year now, and now I can’t NOT respond to this article. (ahh my hands are shaking writing this)
    This story reminds me of things that have happened to me, and sheds light on how loved ones might have felt around my episodes. My girlfriend at the time (now my fiancé:)) witnessed and was involved in a mixed psychotic episode that I had. I know I said things to her that were heartbreaking. I know it was shocking and I wasn’t myself. I had to rely on her and my family because I temporarily lost some basic functions. She stayed with me every day in the hospital and I am so grateful for that. She was really shaken up by it all and I know that she wrote about it while it was happening, but she hasn’t shared what she wrote with me yet. So this article definitely helped with my understanding of experiences of mania/psychosis from another point of view. Thank you Riese!

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      oh, this is so nice! actually, several months later, after she was out of the hospital for, i think, the last time for a while, i did make her sit down and listen to me tell her what she said and did. i didn’t know how to move forward bearing the burden of that information by myself, i think. it wasn’t ‘revenge’ or anything like that — it was just literally too much to carry, and i couldn’t do it alone. But I’m glad to hear you’ve come out happy from all of it. :-)

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    wow.. truly amazing words here.. I know psychosis all too well(art therapy and personal experience).. and you certainly are telling a very true and beautiful story however painful. it’s enough to break everything apart.. it’s exhausting.. it’s haunting and yet it’s also apparently something magical.

    “I just knew because we could communicate on invisible telephones wired to our brains. The world can be so much crazier than it is, if you let it be. I mean it can really surprise you.”

    anyways thanks for sharing..

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    Christ that was good.
    Also This. is strange. I do it too sometimes.
    ‘Sometimes, when she wasn’t around, I had a strange urge to sit on my bed and stare at the wall and move my lips in the shape speaking usually makes.’

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    Fantastic and so well-written. As hard as it is to read (but in a good way), I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for you to write, or re-write, it.
    I read the original on autowin only a little while ago, and I cried, for her and for you and and for everyone who has had to go through this and can’t do anything. I haven’t been in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or anything like that, but some of this reminds me of what it’s like to go out in public with my grandma who has Alzheimer’s, when she will seem completely normal and then suddenly shout horrible things — racist things, sexist, horribly embarrassing things, and I’m just sitting there and pretending everything is normal and ok and knowing everyone is looking at us. It’s funny how so many of my fears used to be about people looking at me and judging me, but when it’s actually happening that barely matters, it’s not the important thing. And it’s horrible when someone is drunk or sick or old and you know it’s not them that is saying awful things, especially the mean things, but in some ways it’s a truer, less mediated version of them and you don’t want that to be true, you know?
    Anyway, I’m not sure I made any sense, and I don’t want to make it seem like my experience is like yours in any way, but I do want to say thanks so much for sharing — it’s important for so many reasons for people to read this. And it’s beautiful.

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      “It’s funny how so many of my fears used to be about people looking at me and judging me, but when it’s actually happening that barely matters, it’s not the important thing.”

      yes, totally.

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    It’s strange how often autostraddle is able to touch me in ways I can’t really explain.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how bad things are and if they warrant talking to someone before my next appointment. This is what I needed to decide to go in on Monday, so thank you Riese.

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    wow. this is amazing. i’m a mental health counselor who is now an educator……… and between this and the news program about kids with psychotic disorders earlier tonight, i feel as though there’s a subtle but urgent need out there. and it is to LISTEN. to those struggling with mental illness, AND to those who love those struggling with mental illness. thank you for honoring us with your story, riese. may we each learn to listen to our fellow human beings as we hear your narrative. namaste!

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    That’s so tough, my brother has schizophrenia and he had his first major breakdown this time last year (up til then we thought he had depression), but I had all my family and he was living at home at the time and the hospital is only 20 minutes from our house, so even though it was really scary at least there was that support. I can’t imagine how much more scary it would be to deal with on your own in a big city.

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    My friend Tori, in the year below me, recently got diagnosed with depression which sometimes causes psychosis and hallucinations. On Monday at school, she went into her first lesson for a month and I came with her.

    I sat beside her in a room full of kids in their school uniform and held her hand while she filled in biology sheets, shaking and so scared that she was going to have an episode. Everyone in their school uniform just looked at me and I wished they couldn’t see me, because I wasn’t there for them – I was there for her. Reading this made me think of that. Thank you, Riese. For everything.

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    Riese, I keep coming back to this, wanting to say something– here you are, facing something incomprehensible, impossible, in someone you love, letting us inside that period of time. It’s a destroying/rebuilt (changed) experience. I’ve reread it several times – will do so again. Just… thank you. <3

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    Writing like this is why Autostraddle is my favorite place on the Internet. The “passenger” motif is beautiful and evocative, being a passenger on the train, letting it whisk you along without your control, and then being a passenger to her madness, following her around, your agency dissolving…

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    Writing-wise, I think one of the hardest things is to simultaneously organize things and put them on display just as they are (without changing their nature by organizing them), but you’ve done exactly that in this piece. And there are some lovely turns of phrase — I’m still in love with NYC, so I really loved this one: “That’s the thing about New York — all at once, you are on your way.”

    Thank you.

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    so my mom is schizophrenic and i’ve experienced a lot of these things–public breakdowns, jail visits, retrieving her from dangerous long ass walks–myself. really hit me in the gut. I’m a writer but its one thing I haven’t been able to write confidently about yet; I either end up crazily understating it or tripping over myself and going straight to the most intense details. I really think you did a great job with this Riese, and thanks so much for posting it.

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