Antioch-Part III. Breakdown

With the marriage to Jeff, I gave up my family name, Merriam, and switched to Elliott. I practiced saying my new name over and over. “My name is Erica Elliott.” I liked the way it sounded. The new name symbolized a new life and gave me some psychological distance from my family as I struggled to find my own way in the world as an adult.

Jeff came from a wealthy background and could have whatever material possessions he wanted. His parents, Edith and Oz, had an elegant home south of Chicago in an upscale neighborhood. Oz was president of a thriving local bank. The family had countless possessions that they shared at every opportunity with Jeff and me. Oz even paid for my college tuition after Jeff and I were married. Such incredible generosity was a bit disorienting, coming from my background.

My Swiss mother raised her six children in her culture’s tradition of frugality. Even though she came from an upper class doctor’s family, and even though my father was a high ranking officer, my mother taught us not to waste anything, to eat everything on our plates, and to save practically everything−even things we didn’t need. She made soup out of the leftover table scraps; she recycled the dishwater on the houseplants; and she saved paper, scraps of fabric, and strings and used them over and over until they disintegrated. We wore hand-me-down clothes. Mummy patched our old clothes and darned our socks so artfully that we still looked presentable and lived up to her high standards of propriety and cleanliness.

My three sisters and I learned how to sew because, if we wanted some special piece of clothing, we had to make it ourselves. I still remember the silk brocade A-line dresses we sewed ourselves for the opening of the Bolshoi Ballet in Washington, DC when I was in the tenth grade.

As young college kids, Jeff and I lived a lifestyle that flaunted those values. We owned a brand new Ford Mustang convertible, and we each had our own motorcycle. Jeff had a Triumph and I had a Kawasaki. Edith and Oz took us as their guests to various resorts in Mexico to lounge on the beach and sip margaritas, and to a dude ranch in Colorado to ride horses in the mountains over our Christmas and spring breaks.

By today’s standards, what we had would not be considered exceptional for a college kid, but in those days it was like living in a fantasy world. In fact, at times I felt embarrassed to be living in such luxury while my fellow Antioch classmates struggled to make ends meet. Many students came from wealthy families but chose a life of poverty—or pretended that they were poor. It wasn’t cool in the 1960s to be rich or too interested in money, at least not at Antioch.

Having anything I wanted in the material realm initially had an intoxicating and addicting effect, but the thrill wore off over time. Ultimately I came to lose interest in having lots of things and missed the feelings of excitement and appreciation for small things, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working hard for what one has.

The material wealth eventually contributed to my feelings that my life had no purpose. The more material objects that I owned, the more impoverished I felt in my inner world.

Being married while we were students was somewhat of an anomaly at Antioch, like practicing a custom from a different era. While I was making every effort to be a good wife according to some outdated cultural script, the sexual revolution was happening all around me. It was the time of free love, birth control, and no strings attached. I felt out of sync with the times, just as I had so often since coming to Antioch.

Jeff and I landed co-op jobs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where my sister Vreni lived while she attended graduate school at Harvard. Jeff studied photography with his mentor, Minor White, while I worked at a mental hospital just outside of Boston. The previous quarter on campus I had developed an intense interest in psychology—probably an attempt to understand myself—and wanted to expand what I learned in the classroom into hands-on learning.

My job as a psychiatric nursing assistant required me to spend time with the patients and report back to the nurses my findings from the day, a kind of tattling clothed in the guise of treatment.

Instead of merely gathering data, as though I were studying the behavior of strange animals, I developed friendships with the patients. They didn’t seem that different from me, except that most of them were visibly unhappy, sometimes moaning and crying.

“I’m not crazy. I don’t belong here,” a woman yelled. Another woman said in a loud voice, “Get me out of here. Someone help me get out of here. I want to go home.” She confessed to me earlier that she had spit out her Thorazine because the medication left her feeling like a zombie.

I brought the patients little snacks and other treats, listened to their stories, rubbed their feet, and naively appointed myself as their advocate, speaking to the staff on their behalf in order to improve conditions.

To my surprise, the staff did not appreciate my self-appointed role as patient advocate. A few weeks into the job, the supervisor called me into his office. “Your advocacy for the patients suggests an over-identification with them. To help you with this over-identification problem, I recommend that you have some sessions with a psychotherapist.” When I tried to justify my behavior, he said that it would probably be best if I resigned. I asked what would happen if I didn’t want to resign. “You will be fired,” he said matter-of-factly.

A few minutes later, in a daze of disbelief, I gathered my things from the locker and left the big brick building for the last time. I could barely breathe from the crushing feelings of shame and bewilderment.

When I tearfully told Jeff that I had been fired, he burst out laughing. He put his arm around me and said that being fired from “Mt. Misery Mental Hospital” was something to be proud of. Nonetheless, I made him swear never to tell anyone, especially not our parents.

Back on campus there was turmoil and upheaval. It was 1968. NASA had just launched the Apollo 7 program to reach the moon. Anti-war demonstrations were reaching a high pitch.

Antioch had recently introduced a well-meaning affirmative action program that recruited impoverished black high school graduates from inner city schools. The program was paid for by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Antioch has prided itself for its history of having been actively involved in the Abolitionist movement. Right from its inception, Antioch opened its doors to black students. The philosophy was that everyone should be offered a chance to succeed.

But the many inner-city students who were brought to the campus under the grant were not prepared for life in rural southwestern Ohio, let alone college life—unlike the middle-class, high-achieving black students who had sat beside their fellow white students for over a century in the classrooms at Antioch.

The black kids on the grant were older than the traditional college age and, coming from the inner city, there was a certain lawlessness they brought to the campus, along with their street-fighting skills and use of guns. This level of violence was alien to most of the other students. Serious cultural misunderstandings ensued between the new black students and the administration. It wasn’t long before clashes and major disruptions broke out.

After Martin Luther King’s assassination, many of the black students advocated for separation from their white classmates. The Black Panther influence was strong on campus. The militant blacks were able to obtain an all-black, no-whites dormitory, along with all-black classes taught by Antioch professors.

One of the girls in my pottery class came from the inner city. She acted tough and angry. I was scared of her. Fortunately, she went easy on me after we shared stories about our lives. But for the most part I was too busy struggling with my personal life to get much involved with the militant black students. I made it a point to detour around them, especially when they were having their Black Panther meetings.

Being married and living off campus, I found myself looking on as a bystander, trying to make sense out of the explosive times we were living in.

We spent our co-op job together in San Francisco in the summer of ’68, the year after the Summer of Love. I did clerical work in a bank where Jeff’s father had found me a position, while Jeff studied art and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.

It was a heady time, with love in the air and rainbows everywhere. The hippies of Haight-Ashbury were still going strong. Although my little world orbited on the periphery of the psychedelic part of San Francisco, I inadvertently bumped into that scene on several occasions. One of those occasions took place while I sat on a bench in the Golden Gate Park eating my lunch.

A man in his late twenties with blonde dreadlocks, a brightly colored tie-dyed T-shirt and torn jeans sauntered toward the bench. He reeked of pot, cigarettes and old sweat.

“Hey, sister. How you be? Can I sit and rap with you?”

“Sure.”

“Watcha doing out here all by yourself? You waiting on somebody?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just sitting here eating my lunch.”

“You wanna get high with me?”

“No thanks. I have to go back to work soon.”

“You’re a groovy chick.” He reached out and ran his hand through my hair and gave it a little tug. “I’d like to get it on with you, Girl. Mmmm. Could you dig that? I have a crash pad near here.”

I carefully moved his hand away from my head and gently moved it back into his lap and said, “No thanks. I’m married.”

“You’re married? Now, what does that have to do with anything? Your old man doesn’t own your body.”

“Well, actually I’m on my lunch break. It just ended and it’s time for me to go back to work.” I tried my best to sound casual as I got up and walked away.

During the prior winter of 1968, thoughts of the rainbow children from the Summer of Love couldn’t have been farther from our minds when we spent a semester in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We lived in a beautiful villa we rented, complete with spacious grounds and a cleaning lady who also cooked for us. I felt more like a traveler on a prolonged five-star vacation rather than a student in college during such tumultuous times.

Jeff studied photography while I studied Spanish, weaving, and silver jewelry making at the Instituto Allende.

Every day we shopped at the outdoor food market and every few days we explored the surrounding countryside. In those days, San Miguel was a quaint and colorful little village, just beginning to attract a stream of ex-pats from the States.

While on some level I was thoroughly enjoying the luxury that came from living with Jeff, there were uncomfortable rumblings deep within me, portending that something was very wrong. Doubts began percolating to the surface about the path I was on. That all too familiar feeling of having lost my way became more and more pervasive.

Although I didn’t know the meaning of my life, I sensed that it had a distinct purpose, but I had no access to the key that would reveal the information that I needed. The complete freedom and lack of structure in college left me feeling lost, without a map and compass, without a guide.

I felt as if I had stepped into someone else’s life, cast in a role that I wasn’t suited for. I was confused and unable to articulate these vague feelings of discontent in the midst of a seemingly enviable lifestyle.

I fell into a state of despair and angst that I now understand in retrospect was depression.

Once Jeff and I returned to the Antioch campus to resume our studies, I began to unravel. Life seemed simply meaningless. The chaos and disintegration of old ways all around me in our culture mirrored the chaos and disintegration of the person I used to be. I became aimless and despondent. Jeff and I began to argue and say hurtful things to each other. My unrealistic fantasies of how a marriage was supposed to be crumbled. I blamed myself and concluded that I was a bad person.

In psychology class I learned about anorexia and bulimia. In an attempt to gain some control over my feelings, I became bulimic for a short stretch of time. Induced vomiting in the bathroom did not help eliminate the feelings of discontent and self-blame so I dropped the bulimic behavior and tried other approaches.

During this time of inner turbulence, my older sister Jackie, with whom I had been close as a young girl, and her husband Alan, came to live on campus. Both college professors, they had been given fellowships to teach one year at Antioch as visiting scholars. It’s hard to acknowledge this, but I made almost no contact with them while they were at Antioch, even though they were important people in my life. On my spiral downward into depression, I tried to separate myself from my family. I could no longer play the old roles and yet I hadn’t found a new role for myself. I didn’t want them to see me in this state of disintegration. The structure of my being had collapsed and was in ruins and there was nothing yet to take its place.

One day, as I sailed down a hill on my bicycle in the countryside a few miles outside of Yellow Springs, pedaling as fast as I could to release pent up tension, I hit a patch of gravel and swerved off the road. My body flew like a projectile down into a gulch and landed in a tree. A man who saw the accident extracted me from the tree and took me to the hospital where the ER doctor patched up my scrapes and x-rayed my cracked ribs.

After the bicycle accident, I could no longer avoid facing how unhappy I was with my life and with myself. While lost in my ruminations, I got the idea that it would be better if I were not around anymore. Having read French and German literature of the Romantic era in which suicide was considered noble, usually related to unrequited love, I considered this possibility for myself—although in my case, suicide would be for an unrequited search for my soul.

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One overcast day, while Jeff was in class on campus, I went into the tiny kitchen in our apartment, opened the white oven door, pulled up a chair next to the open oven, and then turned on the gas, recreating what I had read in the literature. I waited. Nothing happened. I couldn’t smell any gas. Assuming the pilot light had gone out, I leaned over to get a closer look into the oven and struck a match. The instant the match lit, an explosion shook the building and blasted me backwards, still in my wooden chair, smashing me against the back wall of the kitchen.

A burnt smell filled my nose and sinuses. The explosion singed my eyebrows and the hair above my forehead. One of the neighbors heard the explosion and rushed into our apartment to see what had happened. He grabbed me, threw me into the cold shower to put out the smoldering fire in my hair, and then ran back into the kitchen and threw water on areas that were still burning. Miraculously, no major damage was done—except that my attempt had failed and I was still alive.

What now?

The neighbor figured out that this was not an accident and told the dean of students what had happened. The dean called me into her office. She was a kind, matronly woman, well known to me, whom I held in high regard. During this encounter, her voice sounded stern. She said that she had no alternative but to notify my parents. I begged her not to tell them what happened. I said that I would do anything she wanted me to do if she would just not tell my parents. I would have to see the school psychiatrist, she said, and have regular sessions with him.

When I looked hesitant about seeing a psychiatrist, the dean said that if I didn’t see the psychiatrist, she would have to tell my parents and I would be dismissed from college. I reluctantly agreed.

The dean picked up the phone and made an appointment for me the very next day, not giving me much time to back out.

I rode my motorcycle to downtown Yellow Springs and found the 19th century red brick office building where the psychiatrist worked. I took a deep breath, heaved open the clear, glass door and walked in, barely breathing. A woman in a red dress with vintage jeweled cat eyeglasses sat behind her desk smoking a cigarette. She smiled at me with a look of pity and handed me a form to fill out. Fortunately, she didn’t ask me why I was there. Her potent patchouli perfume helped disguise the strong smell of cigarette smoke that filled the waiting room. Soft rock, elevator-type music, played in the background. Ashtrays scattered on little tables throughout the room were full to the brim. Obviously lots of nervous people had waited here.

After chewing on my nails for about a half an hour, a tall black man in a tailored suit walked into the waiting room with hand extended. “Hello. My name is Dr. Leonard. I am the college psychiatrist.” He stood erect with good posture, like he was proud of himself—in contrast to my contracted state. We shook hands. I made an attempt to look him in the eyes, but was overcome with shame and merely looked fleetingly in the direction of his face, long enough to see that Dr. Leonard was a handsome man with dark brown skin, high cheekbones and intense greenish brown eyes.

I followed him into his office. He sat down in his big swivel chair behind a large, cherry wood desk, and puffed on his pipe. His desk had several piles of paper and a few framed pictures of children. There were prints on the wall by Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Cezanne and a few others I didn’t recognize. In one corner several large potted plants added some life to the serious atmosphere, along with soothing sounds of running water in a fountain that came from somewhere in the room.

Dr. Leonard motioned me to sit in the chair in front of his desk. I felt mortally embarrassed, ashamed to be in the room with a psychiatrist, especially a handsome one. In those days, it wasn’t common to get therapy. It was reserved mostly for people in mental hospitals with serious conditions, like schizophrenia and psychosis.

Dr. Leonard began our session by telling me his long list of outstanding credentials, including his degree in psychiatry from Zurich, Switzerland. From there he launched into our first counseling session. He said that I had made a “suicide gesture” which was essentially a call for help.

He spoke in a deep, clear voice with no discernable accent from any specific geographical area. After talking a bit in generalities, he began asking me highly personal questions about myself. I looked at the floor and cried quietly, without speaking. Dr. Leonard handed me a box of Kleenex and kept asking questions. I kept my silence, too mortified to speak. The hour passed. He gave me a slip of paper with the time and date of our next appointment. I managed to mumble, “thank you,” while still looking at the floor. It was a relief to get out of there.

The following week I returned to Dr. Leonard’s office with dread. We began the session the same way as before. He asked questions and I responded with silence, eyes glued to the floor. After a long pause, Dr. Leonard said, crisply enunciating each word, “I want you to leave now. You don’t need to return. We are done.” He walked to the door and held it open.

I shifted my gaze from the floor and looked up at him with utter surprise. “You don’t want me to come back?” I said, incredulous.

He answered, “No. Don’t come back.”

I pleaded, “But I have to come back or else the dean will tell my parents about what happened and I’ll be asked to leave Antioch College.”

He conceded, “You can come back when you’re ready to talk and participate in your treatment.”

My response was immediate, “Okay, I’ll talk.”

Erica from 50 years ago, wondering about the meaning of life.

Comments

Antioch-Part III. Breakdown — 38 Comments

  1. When I look at your photograph, I don’t just see an attractive young woman. I see a young woman stubbornly refusing to work with her psychiatrist–or see her family or….so many things. It is not a criticism, as that kind of stubbornness is what eventually saw you through!

    When I was about 19, my wonderful psychiatrist (he later founded the San Francisco Methadone Center) had me “assist” him in his group therapy explorations of Transactional Analysis and Gestalt. After awhile, he referred me to HIS psychiatrist, who I called “young man” to his face. As a teen, most of my friends had been in their 40s and 50s. He realized some of what I was going through was being a real intuitive and said I really had nothing wrong with me–just handling a lot. Good times.

  2. Beautifully expressed and so many overlaps with my own life at that time…. even the pastel silk brocade dresses I sewed for myself… the deep depression and meaninglessness, the sensing that I had a deep purpose that I might never find.

    • No wonder we’re soul sisters. I recognized immediately that you were part of my tribe—even without knowing any of the details of your life at the time. We both felt we had a deep purpose and didn’t know if we’d ever find it. I love you, Heidi. Rickie.

  3. Amazing account, Erica. I love the way you must have plunged right back into it to recall some of the telling details. And what BEAUTIFUL photo! Looking forward to Part IV xxoo

    • You’re right, Vreni. I plunged deep into my memories and was able to vividly relive those life-changing times. It was like Dr. Leonard was right there with me in real life. Those memories are vividly etched into my mind. Thank you so much for your feedback. Love, E

  4. Erica, I’m so touched by your story. Those soul searching, heart breaking, desparate times in our lives are so deeply meaningful. You tell it with such love toward yourself! And your photo is absolutely stunning! I see your depth then and now.
    Thank you for being you!!

    • Oh, that’s such a lovely message, Lin. I know that you’ve done your own share of soul searching. I guess it’s a universal theme I have touched on. The difference is in the details. I always appreciate what you have to say, Lin. With much love, Erica

  5. Amazing story- so touching in its honesty and details- thank you so much, dear Erica, for sharing your life story! With love, Traude

    • Thank you so much for your comments, Traude. I always appreciate what you have to say.I hope someday we can go on an adventure together. With love and hugs, Erica

  6. Can’t wait to read what comes next! Glad you’re still alive thus far! Some things are familiar — some I never knew. Thank you so much!

  7. Hi Erica! It’s such a beautiful photo. I never knew all these things about you. I was coming of age a little bit behind you — watched the moon landing from Cuernavaca, Mexico a few months before starting college at Univ. of Texas in 1969. They were wild times!
    Can’t wait to see what comes next …. So glad the oven didn’t do you in.

    • We shared a lot with in each other in the Peace Corps, but I probably didn’t speak much about this episode. I felt too ashamed to talk about it in those days. Love you Monika, Erica

  8. Oh Erica… I couldn’t stop reading this… you put together the many scraps of memory I have carried around like family possessions, into a beautiful quilt of revelations,, wisdom, and your intact spirit of persevering in spite of it all.
    I’m so glad that neighbor found you… and the photo shows your inner and outer beauty, still intact after 50 years!

    PS Darn good writing.

    • Thank you so much for your heartfelt response, Veet. I don’t know if you remembered, but you were the one who said that Jeff and I looked like “two children lost in the woods,” as we clung together, hand-in-hand, arm-in arm.” That was an astute observation you made. Love you, E

    • Thank you, Dominique. I am touched that you are reading these stories. Love, Erica

  9. Erica, you are such a magnificent storyteller. This one touched me so deeply and gave me hope. Susan

    • That’s a big complement coming from such an accomplished writer as you, Susan. Hugs, Erica

  10. this chapter has been breathtaking and filled with anxiety, even though i know you will become the MD with native americans in our care in the NM desert.

    i was raised and educated in Europe when at age 20 i’m back in the US and it was a cultural shock, eased by my
    attending the Art Students League. but newly married on the west coast was painful. in a way it’s fortunate your transition was a disaster, since i assume the psychiatrist will have helped you out of it. thrilling reading.

    • That’s amazing that you and I both spent time studying at the Art Students League in New York. Yes, you’re right Simone. The disaster that I had was the best thing that could have happened to me because I was forced into getting the help that I needed. I was so fortunate. Love, Erica

  11. Dear Erica,

    Very touching, and excellent writing. Your willingness to look honestly at yourself, the world around you, and everything you’ve experienced is what makes you the person you are now, able to meet your patients with such kindness & compassion.

    Looking forward to the next installment…

    Love,
    Linda

    • I love reading what you have to say, Linda. I know that your words come from your heart. Thank you. Love, Erica

  12. Erica, you share the lows as well as the highs. I think of you climbing previously unscaled mountains, and now and after the snowboarding injury, plunging downward as a bathyscope explorer. And always following (when you can find it) your heart. Thanks for being a true exemplar of honesty and courage.

    • You comment means a lot to me, Bob. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughtful words. Love, Erica

  13. oh, erica, the more you unpeel your layers, the more honest and probing and shimmeringly intimate your writing is, the more it explodes into universality. thank you.

    • I so appreciate your beautiful and encouraging words, Judie. With Love, Erica

  14. What courage it must have taken to strip yourself bare and and share this difficult period in your life.No wonder you have such a understanding of depression.While reading this account, I could actually feel your pain. You are an incredibly gifted writer. You captured the 60’s perfectly.

    • Thank you, Willa, for recognizing the courage it took to write with unblinking transparency. The depression, the anxiety, the struggles—everything that I’ve experienced in my life has helped me to be a better doctor. Love you, Erica

  15. What an incredible time in your life–so glad you made it through. I am glad you are sharing it.

    • Thanks, Margaret. It turns out that the breakdown was a godsend that led me onto a life-changing path, for which I am terribly grateful. I have become an expert at not “wasting a bad experience.” Love, E

    • Thank you, Eileen. I only married one man named Elliott. Even after we parted ways, I kept Jeff’s name because I had come to like that name and I remained fond of Jeff even though the marriage didn’t last.

    • I appreciate your comment. Being completely transparent can make one feel quite vulnerable.