I am sitting here on this rainy day and reflecting about the last blog I wrote, which dealt with how writing is Cathartic with me. I realized that I had more to say on this topic and decided a part two was in order. Part two is called mental illness.
I don’t often use my blog to discuss my personal life. By allowing you to read Letters From England, episode by episode, I have made my past an open book. Ned Livingston is based on me, but he’s an older me and many aspects me. It is more or less a composite of myself. The same can be said of Ned’s family. Some of the stories are me and of my family.
When you write a television series, you write the pilot and hope the pilot moves you through to the next process. I’ve gone about this differently. I had the whole arc in my head early. I could have written the spec script and pushed to sell and let Hollywood come up with the arc. Nope, I needed to write the series on my own. Why? Two reasons. I wanted to delve into the history of my life so I can bring some healing to my family that has been so touched by mental illness. Secondly, I wanted this series to be a way to talk about mental illness. My mom had mental illness. She had five nervous breakdowns in her life. The first one was with electric shock therapy when that was a common treatment for the issue. After years of not understanding it, or not being able cope with the mood swings, I healed myself with therapy. What got me to therapy was a book my mother gave me one Christmas, called the Temple of Gold. The lead character is a young boy named Ray Trevitt. As we watch Ray grow up from a small kid into adolescence and then into a man, we watch him change. Each time there is a tragedy in his life his emotional stability tears little by little until finally he has a nervous breakdown at the end of the book.
The first time I read this book, I absolutely loved this. This book remains my favorite book of all time. William Goldman, the famous Hollywood screenwriter responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, wrote this. I am not sure why it has never been made into a movie. I have been dying to write the script. I think I can do this justice.
The first time I read this book, I had no idea why my mother thought I would like this. She had never given me a book about adolescence. Although my Mom was a voracious reader, she never was prone to buying a book for me for Christmas. That Christmas she did.
I lost the book in high school when I lent it to someone I worked with at the Tamworth Inn. I kept reminding her to she had it and I would like the book back. Imagine my surprise when I found it on sale at the Cook Memorial Library. I was with my mother at the time. The person must have given it to the library to sell. I snapped it up and took it back to Vermont. I had to read it again.
The second time I read Temple of Gold, I found my mother’s hidden message in the book. The message arrives when Ray dates this interesting girl in College. She hums after they make love and doesn’t talk much. She puts demands on Ray that are difficult for him. One is to end a friendship with a girl he met at college. Ray becomes infatuated with her, even though his friends are telling him, he should stay away. This girl ends up cheating on him with a college professor and the breakup is horrible. What happens to this girl and what Ray does is horrible, in the end Ray feels horribly guilty about what he does. When I read this portion of the book my mother was trying to relate what mental illness was like for her. My mother was trying to tell me she related to this girl. She wanted me to see inside her and realize this is the way she was. It wasn’t her fault and that if she acted irrationally towards me, that part of her was not the real woman, who cared about her son so deeply. She was crying for me to understand her. I got the message.
The second read of Temple of Gold, brought me to therapy. I needed to understand her, so I could heal and understand what other family members were going through. It affected them just as badly, particularly my sister. I began to empathize with my mom, who although strong, had to fight to get through every day of her life. Most people don’t understand when someone is mentally ill. They think that if they can’t handle life and have a mental breakdown that person is weak. No not at all. My mother had five nervous breakdowns and each and every time she came back better than she was before. My mother was so strong and both my sister and I received our strength, by watching how she handled her mental illness. She still acted, she still enjoyed her gardening and stamps. She remained involved in the community of Tamworth, whether it be Cook Memorial library, or her Onway club. When others suffered the same affliction she did, my mother gave back in a selfless way.
I have a story in my head about how she helped others with mental illness. The real story has changed in my head. The real story involves an NEC student who lived in the apartment at Nyton Cottage. She was a friendly girl and my sister and I would visit her from time to time. We did not realize what was going on with her. She burned incense in her living room and the lights were always dimly lit. She had a huge picture of Jesus Christ before her and was praying a lot. That seemed normal to us, little did we know that this girl wasn’t dealing with life well. As I became interested in Psychology, I realized she had the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
One night the damn broke for this girl in our house. My Dad called the college who informed her parents. She had to be taken for treatment in Chichester England. I don’t remember how long she was there. My mother had walked in her shoes and reached out almost every day, she was in the sanitarium. She was there to let her know, she was going to be all right.
Another time, we had a good friend of the family. She was in the latter stages of her life and she was going through depression. My mom loved this woman, she reached out to her and was there to be that ear. That was the type of woman my mother was. Another story is a lifelong Barnstormer actor’s brother died during the season. My family and his were very close. When it happened, my mom looked at me and said, we need to be with Dan tonight. I readily agreed. We spent that evening with Dan and we listened to him talk about his brother and what he meant to him. Despite my mother’s frailties of mind, this is who my mother was. I learned many of those skills from watching her.
In Letters from England, my mother’s storyline will reflect this mental illness. I need to write this for myself and to speak out. Sure, medical science has come a long way in this area. We no longer give lobotomies like they did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The drugs have gotten better, but these drugs cost far too much for people to take, leaving many people to suffer and be put out on the street. I won’t get into the political debate over this health issue, but it has been deeply affected by politics.
My purpose for my mother’s story line is to give a voice to the mentally ill, so that people will understand what they go through. I am sure there are many more families like mine, who have kept mental illness in the closet. I no longer am silent about this. It’s time to for this country to understand it and how it affects society. It’s time be much more compassionate and open minded. My mother didn’t have that voice, now I am speaking for her even though she passed away in 2015. I owe that gift to my mother. As I sit here writing this, I feel her presence over my shoulder watching as I tell her story. I feel her pride, her warm touch upon my shoulder. I see that smile(Which for the most part was not there.)
You may think that living with a parent who had mental illness was a living hell. Actually it was not. It became difficult, when a breakdown was imminent. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been better prepared for it. I reflect upon my life with my mother and more often than not, there are more good times than bad.
These are the times I remember. The time when we went to my dentist in Boston. After a good orthodontia checkup she treated me to the King Tut exhibit at the Boston Museum of art. Afterwards we were caught in the rain trying to make the bus, the two of us laughing our heads off. That was my mother at her best. The time when I came to my mother about something pretty deep. We were watching the miniseries the Holocaust with Meryl Streep and James Woods. The series had me asking questions. I brought them to my mother. I wanted to know why Nazi Germany hated the Jews, because it didn’t seem right how one group of people dehumanized another. I thought aren’t we supposed to love everyone in this world. I couldn’t fathom how one man bred hate into an entire country. However, he did, but to understand Hitler you must look inside the mental illness that ravaged him. My mother understood that man’s illness, because she had mental illness. The difference was how the two handled the disease. My mother and I talked for hours about the Holocaust. It was the most fascinating intense conversation I ever had with my mom and one I will never forget, because through her I learned so much. She then provided me with some books to read in our very own library.
I remember the time when my mom and I rented John Hughes Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Steve Martin and John Candy. My mother rarely laughed, but this movie sent her into convulsions of laughter and seeing that from her brought me to laughter and such joy. When I did my top 100 movie list of all time, it made the list, just because it was such an experience to watch that with my mother.
Those are the moments I remember and reflect upon with my mom that I treasure. In life, you have to take the bad with the good. In my case with my mother, there was a lot more good than bad. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and scared of. I want to reflect that with my mom’s story arc. Was my mom frightened when it happened, hell yes, but she was strong and faced it head-on. She dealt with it, took the blows, and got back up to her feet like a prizefighter would. As I continue to write my mother’s story arc, I don’t seek pity upon Eileen Livingston, god knows my mother would never ask for it. All I want you to do is understand that mental illness is a disease like any other and it needs to be understood and society needs to open their mind, reach out, and show some compassion. That’s all my mother was asking.