I was now a full-fledged teacher in an elementary school.
I was well into my second full year in the classroom. About mid-year, still living in that little cottage in Brewster miles from The City, when I decided to take a drive to Woodstock, New York. It was just over the Hudson River and just slightly north of where I was living. I was born in August of 1969, the same month and year of the famed Woodstock Concert on Max Yazgur’s Farm named for the sleepy farm town where it took place. I had grown up with my older brother playing all kinds of music but I was mostly drawn to the sounds of the hippie era. I was now in the position of having a car and plenty of extra time on my hands. So, one beautiful fall Sunday, I studied a map, and began on the ninety minute drive to the hippie town I’d always wanted to visit.
I remember the drive was simple enough. I drove with very little traffic, the sun beaming through the dash window warming my face and skin. I was feeling good. Alive. I remember thinking as I drove, that I might buy some vegetables from a farm stand, get an ice cream and walk around the town I’d heard so much about. I arrived. It was quaint – filled with jewelry shops, cafes and art shops. Not as hippie as I thought it might be, but cute and worth exploring. I pulled my little black Nissan over into a parking space just off the main road of the town’s center, turned the ignition off and opened the door. It was as though my foot were stuck in cement. I couldn’t move. My skin became ice cold and I began sweating. My heart was pounding. I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of fear and paranoia. I felt as though passers by were staring at me. Tommy might somehow know where I was and kill me. I was in full throttle panic mode. Heart pounding so rapidly now, I could hear it in my burning ears. Barely able to breathe, I slammed the door shut, buckled my safety belt, and turned the engine on. I began driving back down the road which led me to this town, back onto the highway and back to my cottage. Back to safety. When I was home again, lying on my bed, I could not relax. Could not keep still. I bounced up off the bed and paced the floor furiously, mad at myself for ruining what could have been a much needed afternoon retreat. I pounded my thighs as I paced, walking from the bedroom to the kitchen and back again. The sun was setting outside. The dogs on the lawn were barking and I could hear the distant sounds of wild turkeys gobbling in the woods beyond the stone fence. My loneliness and seclusion had overwhelmed me and life was continuing just outside my door. I felt like a failure. Defeated.
The next day was work and routine again. I smiled and laughed and worked with kids. I ate lunch with my teacher friends Helen, Tricia, Taly, Patty, Eva and Evelinda. We laughed complained, planned and got on with our day. As the end of the day grew closer, when everyone was looking forward to punching out at the time clock and getting home, I felt that pounding feeling in my chest again. My days went on like this for a few weeks. I had suffered from insomnia since leaving my husband, and it was finally beginning to take its toll. Still unable to write, I would paint well into the wee hours of the morning and chain smoke cigarettes – my new vice – and wait for the sun to rise so I could get ready for work. Oddly, the paintings I made during this time were of calm blue skies, stately homes and white picket fences. Perhaps my subconscious was recording what I wanted – safety, security and calm. My body was a mess, my mid flooded with fear, thoughts of paranoia that Tommy would somehow find me and kill me finally. The only place I felt safe was at work. I was smart enough to know that suicide was not the way out of this – that there might be a way to deal with my confusion – but thoughts of suicide were constant and tempting. On the last night my husband beat me, he kept repeating No one loves you, no one cares about you – you are nothing and no one…I believed him when the words spilled from his lips that night and now felt his words were truer than I was able to admit. Way down deep in my core I believed his words to be true.
Two months after that horrible Sunday in Woodstock I finally looked into the book of providers sent to me by my health insurance company. I searched for psychiatrists and found one in Riverdale, not far from where I was working in The Bronx. I began sessions with a doctor whose name I can no longer remember. He asked me why I was there and I told him I wasn’t sure. He began asking me about work and my living situation… eventually I began telling him about Woodstock and what I had experienced recently, which led him to ask about my husband and my marriage. That’s when I started crying. For the first time in two years I cried. The tears came and could not stop. He told me what happened in Woodstock was a panic attack and introduced the idea of taking medication to balance me and keep me calm so I could get through my days and weekends relatively peacefully. I was prescribed a low dose of Paxil to take daily and Klonopin to take if I felt an attack coming on. I was against taking the pills but he assured me that it would only be temporary and that I would need to continue therapy while I was taking the meds. And so it went.
It took a few weeks for the medication to really have an effect on me. In fact, I noticed some weight gain before I noticed a feeling of calm that the Dr. had promised. I had a few more panic attacks – all on the weekends – when I first began taking the medication. After a few months I wasn’t having them as frequently and was now looking forward to my therapy sessions. I was beginning to trust this doctor and certainly became more reflective about why I behaved in certain ways, why I was attracting the wrong male figures in my life and how I could begin to overcome my insecurities. I continued to see him mostly once a week, then twice a week for a time, then every other week as I felt there was some improvement. It was through therapy that I realized what I was calling “autopilot” was actually a defense mechanism manifestation due to the major trauma I suffered as a result of my being the victim of abuse by my now estranged husband. The physical abuse had occurred on isolated occasions, but it was the repeated, daily mental and emotional abuse that I was fighting. Although my professional life was taking off and I felt I was making progress with therapy, I was completely insecure and unable to complete simple tasks without feeling nervous and paranoid.
No one knew how much I suffered when I closed the cottage door. To the outside world I was a normal, happy person. But his words, like an endless loop tape in my head played on you’re nobody, nothing, no one cares about you…