This excerpt is continued from the first part of chapter one of "A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder," by Robert B. Oxnam. To read the first part of the excerpt, click here.
Inevitably, the cluster of bizarre behaviors started to affect my work. By the late 1980s, I was calling in sick when I felt compelled to stay at the yacht yard. And in the winter months, I started figure skating for exercise and it quickly became a new obsession. One day, I apparently fainted in the men's room and hit my head. At the hospital, I was immediately assigned to intensive care and began a series of tests for three days (including an MRI and a spinal tap). My hospitalization coincided with the famous stock market crash of 1987 and, perhaps not coincidentally, with an Asia Society board meeting.
When they released me from the hospital, the doctor remarked: "We can't find anything wrong with you, nothing at all. It's not blood, not heart. You passed the stress test with flying colors. I think you had best see a psychiatrist." She must have seen the shock in my eyes. Luckily, she knew how to use humor to ease the tension. "Heard the one about the stock market crash? Who's better off — a yuppie or a pigeon? Answer: a pigeon — because a pigeon can still drop a deposit on a BMW."
Good joke, but the situation wasn't funny at all. Clearly, my skating episode was not just a fainting spell, but another of those strange blank spots. What the hell had really happened? Life was spinning totally out of control. I hated myself. I hated what I was doing. I hated life itself. Twice I tried to commit suicide; on both occasions, I was prevented by family or friends. Once I was stopped after I was overheard slamming the action shut on a Luger I had inherited from my father. Another time I was pulled from a car after I had returned, depressed and drunk, and left the engine running in a closed garage. To those who saved me, and who have suffered from witnessing almost-suicides, I owe not only my life, but also lifelong apologies.
In late 1989, a family member, shocked and hurt by my out-of-control behaviors, finally summoned the strength to confront me and perform an "intervention." "I've talked to a doctor. He says it sounds like serious alcoholism. He says you must see a Dr. Jeffery Smith. And he says that your life depends on it. No questions. You've just got to do it."
Dr. Smith, a balding fortyish fellow in a casual sport jacket, offered comforting, professional warmth behind his unruly desk. Initially, his soft voice relaxed me, but soon I was squirming before Dr. Smith's demanding litany of questions and his unblinking better-tell-the-truth look.
"I only drink at night. Well, just a few drinks, mainly to sleep. How much exactly? I suppose I go through a bottle in about a week. Well, more like three days. I drink until I crash. I drink coffee all day long to keep me sharp. I'm real careful with the alcohol — never at the office, not even social events. I can quit the alcohol — I've done it for several periods before, once for over six months.
"Inside I feel terrible. I feel like I'm a bad person. That's what I find myself muttering a lot—'I'm bad.' Then there are the weird times when I can't remember what happened for several hours in a day. Total blank spots. Or when I'm on the boat and someone asks about China and I can't think of anything about China, nothing at all.
"Oh yes, there are the angry explosions. Someone or something sets me off, always someone very close to me, and I just fly off. I often break things—it's usually a watch or a clock or my glasses. I don't hit people, but I scream and yell. It scares the hell out of everybody. Then I feel awful and try to apologize."
Dr. Smith never gave much of a reaction, neither a smile nor a frown, just his undivided attention, eyes occasionally tightening. When he was done with his questions, he took a long moment to scan the form on his clipboard and looked sharply at me. "I can't believe you're not in therapy. First off, you don't have a drinking problem. It's much worse: you're a class-A alcoholic. You've got every symptom of a really serious drinker—uncontrolled emotions, frequent blackouts, drinking only to get drunk, periods of proud abstinence before another fall."
I was dumbfounded. I tried to keep the inner trembling from showing. "It's really that serious?"
"So serious that I'm going to tell you what you have to do. You need to go to a rehabilitation center. I mean right now. You must stay there for a month, not just to dry out and begin to get healthy, but also to get a grip on your life. And then you are going to have to join an AA program to stay straight."
I rubbed my forehead in disbelief. "But I'm running a major institution. I've got a board meeting in two weeks. We're barely balancing the budget. Then I've got to go to Hong Kong, where we're opening a new center that I've been working on for years. I can't just take off for a month. What could I possibly say to the trustees?"
Smith stood up and looked down with a gentle firmness that tended to close options. "You can pretend it's just a little problem and continue for a while. But what you have is deadly. It will surely kill you, probably sooner than you think. It's also devastating to others—maybe you'll avoid killing someone with an automobile, but you're doing terrible psychological damage to those around you. You're not alone, you know. There are lots of so-called successful people who are classic alcoholics and no one really knows. Most of them don't have the guts to deal with their disease."
After Dr. Smith waited for it to settle in, he made it concrete. "I can make a call right now to a good friend, former alcoholic himself, now runs the famous Edgehill Center in Newport, Rhode Island. Maybe he can make room for you. What do you say?" I closed my eyes, trembling inside as I pondered the consequences, then looked back at Dr. Smith, who hadn't moved an inch. "Okay"—I sighed—"make the call." Twenty minutes later, he called me back into the office. "It's all arranged. You are to arrive tonight before midnight."
I nodded with resignation. "One more thing," Dr. Smith added. "I want to see you when you get back. Not just for the alcoholism. You're a rather rare bird psychologically, you know. You're a male hysteric. You need treatment."
My mind was spinning as I drove back home. Had I done the right thing? Can I get out of it? No, I'd made the decision, now let's be organized. Got to call my office and my board chairman. No alternative but to be honest. What the hell is a male hysteric anyway? Oh damn, why me, why am I so bad?
Twelve hours later, I arrived at the rehabilitation clinic, totally drunk after consuming a third of a bottle of bourbon while putting away my sailboat for the winter. Edgehill Center was a complex of new brick buildings on a lovely estate overlooking dramatic Newport Harbor, which I knew so well from years of sailing into it. It never occurred to me that I'd see it this way: dressed in a hospital gown, stripped of all clothing, my belongings searched for alcohol, drugs, and weapons. I acknowledged what I had drunk that evening to the admitting nurse; she just nodded and muttered "typical." I walked out into the starry night, looked down at the twinkling lights of Newport, and began to cry until there were no more tears, just aching gasps.
I was assigned to a floor housing some twenty alcohol addicts, and the rugged process of rehabilitation began. Two professional therapists were attached to each unit, supplemented by other trained personnel who watched over us all at night. The group consisted of a crosscut of society: a teacher, a dentist, an investment banker, a few older students, a housewife, a retired man, a construction worker, an environmental code specialist, a carpenter. At age forty-seven, I was in the middle of the group ranging from late teens to late sixties.
The initial briefing was clear-cut—we would be kicked out of Edgehill for infractions such as drinking or drugs, leaving the walled property, acting in violent ways. We had a "serious disease" and we were to undergo the only process that would make us "recovering alcoholics" (one never says "recovered"). We learned the twelve-step program in elaborate detail and I began my sessions by saying "Hi, I'm Bob. I'm an alcoholic." The day consisted of rigorous group- and individual-therapy sessions from morning to night, interspersed with times for art therapy and physical exercise. Everything was controlled; one couldn't even get aspirin without going to the medical office, and caffeinated drinks were prohibited. Only smoking was allowed, but I decided to use the occasion to quit smoking as well as drinking.
At first, I was aloof from the group. I felt I didn't belong at Edgehill. I wasn't a regular drunk; I was a special drunk, a high-achiever drunk. I was like the famous people who came to Edgehill: the wife of a major politician, a world-renowned movie actor. When it came time for me to tell my history to the group, I decided to be honest and let it all hang out. It was the kiss of death. My various accomplishments didn't impress most colleagues at all; it just made me look like I was some elitist braggart. And my admissions of other disorders, especially bulimia, made me the source of special mockery. To some, I was seen as the most sick of all—I was called "Barfing Bob," in the words of one detractor. There was little way to express my frustration. One day, in art-therapy class, I made a clay sculpture of a seagull with outstretched wings that looked a bit like Christ's arms on the cross. The art teacher said, "Hey, that's beautiful." I looked at the seagull, smashed it flat with my hand, and ran from the room.
I felt very alone and scared for the first two weeks, and then a change started to come over me. Okay, I thought, I've done what I have done. At least now I know my problem. I will be the best damned "recovering alcoholic" imaginable. I will put my life back on track. I will go back and honestly explain my problem. I've made a mess out of success. Now I'll make a success out of this mess.
So after a month in rehabilitation, I returned home with all the fervor and contrition of a true convert. It would be a new life, filled with honesty and purity. Yes, the problems were serious, but I was facing them directly. No, I wasn't "cured," but I knew that I had hit bottom. Surely, the worst was over.
I was totally wrong—much worse times lay ahead. The next year, 1990, would hold the greatest shock of all. It would hit me like a sledgehammer. But before that giant earthquake, I confronted a series of significant tremors. I was being warned, it seems, that the apparent afflictions—alcoholism, bulimia, rage, blank spots, suicidal tendencies—were not the "real problems." The real problems were deeper, so much deeper, than I could have ever imagined.
At an all-staff meeting, I informed the Asia Society of my alcohol addiction and treatment, summoning as much calm directness as I could. I will always remember the warmth of some of the longer-term staff members, especially building operations director George Papamichael and switchboard operator Elaine Hutchison, who gathered around and gave me hugs afterward. Then, with the full support of my board chairman, John Whitehead, I decided not to fly to Hong Kong; instead, he presided at the opening of the Hong Kong center, introduced Henry Kissinger and the other dignitaries, and fully represented the Asia Society. On the very night that the Hong Kong center was inaugurated, a dream I had worked so hard to realize, I was attending my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in White Plains. And for the next several months, I attended those AA meetings every night, "sharing" my story and concerns, receiving encouragement from other "recovering alcoholics," including my very caring "sponsor."
In spite of my efforts to show a resilient spirit, I could not escape a rising sense of inner foreboding. That dark mood was captured by the rise and fall of my first novel, Cinnabar, published in the same eventful year of 1989. Cinnabar was a mystery thriller featuring an unsuspecting Columbia University professor who inherits a mysterious red lacquer box from his dead wife that lures him into the swirling world of modern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
It seemed like a good idea—a mental break from my rigorous professional life and yet another way to bring China alive in unconventional fashion—but, in retrospect, I have almost no memory of how the book emerged. All I remember is sitting down at the computer, over a few vacation periods and some long weekends, and transcribing what already seemed to be written. So Cinnabar was composed in a strange stupor, perhaps a prolonged series of my mysterious blank periods. At the time, it seemed odd, but not alarming.
Nothing prepared me for the bombshells when the book reached the market. The reviews were lukewarm to outright hostile. Cinnabar was an embarrassing bomb in spite of my best intentions. Shortly after enduring the difficult return from alcoholism rehabilitation, I was coping with a short-lived career as a thriller author. I stayed off the booze, but my depression was just like my pre-Edgehill days. I began smoking again. I began getting sick after meals again. I began experiencing the blank spots again. And the voices started crying out again: "You're stupid! You're bad! You're very bad!"
Deeply despondent, I started a new ritual, hiding in a remote corner of Grand Central Station at the beginning of my daily round-trip, watching the wriggling flood of salmonlike commuters, trying to make sense of my life. No, I'm not bad, I screamed silently, again and again. There's got to be a purpose, but what the hell is it? I breathed hard at first, and then more quietly and easily; my eyes fluttered in a dreamy state and my mind floated above the bustle and noise. I felt like a French medieval monk, properly punished for his sins, awaiting a sign of divine guidance. I wanted to be free of all these painful memories; I wanted release; I wanted rebirth. "Rebirth"? Ah, thought the monk, renaissance!
Renaissance was the very name I had selected for the thirty-eight-foot Sabre sloop that I purchased in 1989 to symbolize hopes for a new beginning. What about a long ocean voyage to let my soul rebuild itself? Together with a wonderful sailing friend, I mapped out an itinerary. We would sail the boat together to Newfoundland, spend some time exploring its southern coast, and I would bring it back to western Long Island Sound single-handed, a total trip of over two thousand miles. For me, it seemed the perfect project, fulfilling a lifetime dream at the time of nightmarish life changes. And so we threw ourselves into two months of preparations for a blue-water trip, marking our progress with endless checklists revised every few days.
As we set off at daybreak, Renaissance felt heavy with the couple of tons of additional weight, but she moved smoothly into the bright morning sun. Her blue hull cut gently into the tranquil waters of Long Island Sound; her shapely bow pointed due east toward the open Atlantic with the Canadian maritime provinces hundreds of miles over the horizon. We chatted for a bit and then settled into our separate thoughts, he looking ahead where we were going and I looking back where we had been. I huddled against the early-morning chill, zipped my fleece pullover up the neck, and tried to shake off the fatigue of many sleep-shortened nights in the final week of preparation. I was genuinely excited about the voyage and delighted that Dr. Smith had endorsed the trip in spite of initial worries about a hiatus from the ongoing alcohol rehabilitation program. But, as I watched my eight-ton boat leave a rolling blue-black stern wake, a cold cloud enveloped me, tempering the joyful departure with memories I desperately wanted to suppress.
For me, the Newfoundland venture was as much an escape as it was a glorious fulfillment. I was escaping a professional life that had become frustrating and running away from awful recollections of a novel I wished I had never published. Deeper down, I felt the harsh embrace of old and menacing patterns. The "great Newfoundland voyage" was possibly my most classic effort at seeking perfection. The boat had to be absolutely flawless in its preparation and in its sailing. And, come to think of it, I wonder whether I subconsciously picked "newfoundland" with discovery of a perfect new world in mind. More ominously, even in the long hours of readying Renaissance for the trip, there were big blank spots in my memory. In the frenzy of predeparture list fulfillment, I made frequent trips to the local marine supplier with an excellent staff whom I'd known for years on a first-name basis. The whole process became routine—make a list, buy the supplies, charge it to my account, return to the boat—and it put me into a sort of robotic state of doing chores as fast as I could. Suddenly one day, two of the staff suddenly came downstairs, and one said, "We were watching you on an antitheft video. We saw you stuffing all those items in your sailing bag. I suppose you really meant to buy them." I was truly shocked: "Of course I'm going to buy them just as I always do," I protested as they escorted me quickly to the cashier's counter, where I gave them everything that I had in the bag and they tallied it up, just as I always had done.
But curiously, rather than being outraged at their treatment, I left the store feeling terribly guilty, cowering like a true criminal caught in the act. When I got home, I tried to tally what I had bought from the store over the past two months versus what I had actually paid in the monthly bills. Oh, my God, I had paid several hundred dollars less than what I estimated. Could it be? Was I stuffing everything in my large canvas bag and then only removing some items when it came time to pay? Was I stealing from a store which had treated me so well for so long? Why would I do such a thing?
Filled with visions of the police coming to my door, I called Dr. Smith for an emergency meeting. His calm voice quieted me immediately: "No, it's very unlikely that they will press charges. Yes, it does sound like you have been stealing from them, covering it by buying part of the items. Yes, severe stress together with a recent history of alcoholism is one explanation for such behavior with no recollection. But there are other possibilities that I want to explore later. No, don't try to explain it to the store now—what would you say anyway? Pay them later when it's a past issue.
"You know," Smith continued, "when I've asked you about dreams, you remember nothing, except dreams in which you feel suddenly 'caught' and 'very guilty.' I think we have a clue today."
I left Smith with some confidence I wasn't about to be arrested, but scared to death about what was actually happening during the blank memory periods. A few months later, I sent the store an envelope with cash, more than sufficient to cover their losses, and an unsigned note saying to cover an overdue account.
Now we were on the way to Newfoundland, a chance to forget the past and revel in the present. I rubbed my face to clear my head, bolted down a second Danish, darted below to the head, and immediately became sick, purging both my breakfast and an awful memory. It was not exactly an auspicious start for what I had called "the voyage to get my life back together." The pattern for the next seven weeks was already established in the first hour. It would be an incredible maritime experience, interspersed with ghostly recollections about the past and anxious ruminations about the future.
On one level, it was the trip of a lifetime. We managed to sail through a severe storm and navigate our way through Cape Breton and onward to Newfoundland. Dolphins followed us all the way, so close we could recognize them individually and see them almost as household pets. We sailed up the back of a sleeping humpback whale, twice the size of our boat, which just snorted, shot a spray of foul-smelling water, and sounded gently into the deep. We became friends with a family of "Newfies" (as Newfoundlanders call themselves), marveling at their hospitality and their strange dialect (I later learned that it is very close to what was spoken among the working class in England three centuries ago). We anchored in the long fjords of southern Newfoundland, with thousand-foot cliffs and cascading waterfalls, spotting only one other sailboat in six weeks. After my friend left, I single-handed the vessel back from Nova Scotia to New York, stopping in Halifax long enough to visit the cemetery containing bodies of many Titanic victims (I was a Titanic buff long before the famous, and often inaccurate, film was produced). And, with a little divine help, I was whisked back to Long Island Sound by a persistent easterly breeze (as opposed to the usual southwesterly air that would have made the trip take twice as long).
Sailing solo is a demanding experience, requiring enormous labor to keep the boat on course and out of danger. Essentially, you are the captain and the crew, working almost constantly, sleeping short two-hour naps, awakened by an alarm clock to make sure all is okay. At night, the radar was set with an alarm to indicate if any vessel or other object came within a sixteen-mile radius. Like most single-handed sailors, I heard strange noises at sea. At night, I would listen to the cries of whales, the whistle of the wind in the rigging, and even imaginary voices. I really thought I was being approached one night by a bunch of kids drinking beer in a small outboard, but that seems unlikely a hundred miles at sea. Odd happenings aside, I proved that I could single-hand happily and safely, and that was an accomplishment. Like the climbers of Everest, my only real justification is that I did it "because it's there."
Sailing at night, alone in the eerie cockpit red glow, I could keep the boat moving easily on course, but I fretted about what was "out there." The radar would spot vessels, but what about floating objects like the dangerous containers dropped from freighters? What about the dead whale reported over the coast-guard radio? (It would surely do huge damage to a sailboat surging along at over eight knots.) What else was out there? Every few minutes the sea around the boat lit up with long green flashes, frightening even after I realized they were my sweet dolphins streaking through the phosphors suspended in the seawater. I remembered a terrible scare a few years earlier when an idyllic sail from Montauk to Block Island was interrupted with an ear-piercing explosion of air and water behind the boat as a nuclear submarine surfaced barely a quarter mile off the stern. Could monsters of the deep, natural or man-made, suddenly consume Renaissance?
It dawned on me that what I really feared was not "out there" but rather "in here," deep inside myself. At night, the total darkness of the ocean and the inescapable quiet sitting forced me to confront feelings and memories. I no longer had my alcoholic anesthesia to block nighttime thoughts. I pondered stern phrases from my family: "be strong, boy . . . where there's a will, there's a way . . . take stock . . . honesty's the best policy . . . God helps those that help themselves . . . if not to your family, you owe it to yourself." It's true: we were solid WASPs long before the term was invented.
"What the hell's your problem?" I shouted into the darkness of the North Atlantic. "What's your real problem?" A few months back I was certain I'd found the explanation for why my successful cultivated self-image had been wrecked on the shoals. It was alcoholism, of course. I had learned through bitter experience that for addictive souls like me, alcohol destroys everything in its path.
I was living proof of the devastating impact of white-collar alcoholism. I had totally lost the sense of professional purpose, and had even screwed up my quest for an alternative career path. My anger and rages had done untold damage to friends and family. Now I was struggling successfully to refrain from drinking again, and knew that should be seen as a significant accomplishment. I recognized, from my rehabilitation experience and from a lot of reading, that the recovery process takes a lifetime and does not promise instant happiness. But the initial surge of feeling like a perfect recovering alcoholic had worn off months before. The glorious escape of Newfoundland was receding quickly in my stern wake; the dark reality of New York City loomed just over the bow.
I wanted everything to be just fine, all under control, but I had to acknowledge that I was still very sick, more sick than any other recovering alcholic I knew. The bulimia continued throughout the trip; I purposely got sick to my stomach at least once a day. The anger sometimes raged forth. Once, in port, I almost had a fistfight with a trawler captain who came so close to swiping the side of Renaissance that I pushed his boat off with all my might. I think I called him a "fucking drunken idiot" and had to leave the wharf that night for fear of retaliation. No, I wasn't refreshed by the Newfoundland journey, but rather I was totally drained by what I now knew was a classic escape. Coming ashore after almost two months at sea had its moments. The first night I awoke at two in the morning, the usual time to check my navigation, and when I looked out the window through sleepy eyes, I saw rocks and trees. I screamed out, "Oh, my God, we're going aground." For a few days, solid ground felt strange, my legs still poised for the rolling of the sea. Curiously, the unpredictable lurching of the subway train seemed more normal.
But the realities of returning to life as usual were much more chastening. As I walked from the Sixty-eighth Street subway stop to the Asia Society, my legs suddenly stopped working, as if held by some invisible giant, and I had to sit down for fifteen minutes before forcing myself to go on. As the weeks went on, it became a pattern, sitting down and mumbling to myself—"You've got to do it, keep moving." "No, I'm too tired. I'm just plain exhausted."—finally summoning enough willpower to make it to work. After a while, a ritual emerged as I would sit in a corner under some steps, staring blankly, muttering about myself in the third person: "Bob's too tired. He's exhausted. Bob's dying." Only once did someone notice me, a female student wearing a Hunter College sweatshirt, who must have thought I was a curiously overdressed homeless person: "Are you sick, sir? Anything I can do?" I quickly ran off, saying, "Oh, it's nothing, just a little tired."
Tired or not, I wasn't going to let it show in my work. The Asia Society Bob was like a tire, inflated and on a roll by day, deflated and immobile at night. There were meetings to chair, money to raise, events to attend, letters to write, calls to make. These I kept doing with some of the same zeal, and trying to feign the same energy, as when I had assumed the presidency a decade earlier.
But most nights were different. I returned to my recovery process without enthusiasm—daily AA meetings and twice-a-week sessions with Dr. Smith. The whole thing seemed a predictable, boring routine. Smith tried to keep my spirits up with comments like "Look, recovery is no fun and yet you are sticking with it. Right now recovery is the most important thing in your life." He refused to prescribe drugs in spite of my insistence that I needed antidepressants and sleeping pills. He argued that my history of addictions made many drugs too dangerous, and besides, he contended, "I think there's a lot more going on that you are resisting telling me."
I became prickly and defensive—"Resisting? What do you mean? I've told you everything. Alcohol, cigarettes, bulimia, rages, terrible fatigue, blank spots in my memory, inability to go to work, a sense of hopelessness." In the back of my head, as I listened to Dr. Smith's calm response—"I know it gets rough sometimes, just give it time"—I resolved to break with my psychiatrist at the next session.
A week later, I staggered out of Dr. Smith's office trying to comprehend his crazy assertion that he had just met with a very angry "Tommy" inside of me. "Don't worry about it." he had said, obviously trying to comfort me.
"Don't worry about it." I kept repeating his phrase incredulously to myself as I sat in the car. "Are you kidding!?" I checked my watch—he was right—a full hour had lapsed since the appointment began. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard—it indicated precisely the same time as my watch.
What the hell happened in that hour? Oh come on, there's got to be a better explanation. This is just plain nuts! After years of peeling back my insides, finding problem after problem, now I'm told that there's someone else inside me? What's this, some kind of silly sci-fi movie? Was Smith out of his mind, a shrink gone bonkers? I'd had blank spots in my memory before, but never with anyone else present. Would Smith toy with me, maybe make up a story to keep a disgruntled patient coming back? Yes, that's it. Dr. Smith had to be an utter quack, inventing stories to keep pathetic souls writing checks.
Late the evening Dr. Smith called: "Are you okay? Just don't worry. I have an explanation. You're coming tomorrow night. Right?" I didn't know what to say, but agreed to show up. He sounded both professional and comforting, not at all like someone pulling a scam.
Tommy, who was Tommy? Let me think, maybe someone at work? No, I didn't know anybody professionally by the name "Tommy." How about outside, maybe in the sailing community? No, not a soul named "Tommy."
Excerpted by permission from "Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder," by Robert B. Oxnam. Published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2005 Oxnam.