Parenting Changed My Perspective on “ADHD”

I wrote this essay after seeing the film Luna, about a brother and sister who were both medicated for ADHD and now struggle with self image, motivation, and the negative effects of stimulant drugs.

When I graduated from college in 1974, I felt well-prepared to work as a speech and language pathologist in the public schools. I knew how to use an articulation test to screen for speech delays and pronunciation problems. Using a variety of standardized and informal assessments, as well as teacher input, I could determine areas where a child was struggling with language comprehension and expression. I easily performed routine hearing screenings to determine whether a child needed a full audiological workup. But what I wasn’t prepared for was making recommendations to parents for children who were labeled as  “hyperactive.”

Grab-bag of prescription drugs

During my second year of working in the schools, one of my duties was working on a screening committee. The screening committee in my school consisted of the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the reading specialist, the classroom teacher making the referral, and the speech pathologist (me). Children were referred to the committee for a variety of concerns—struggles with reading or math; speech, language, or hearing problems; and “hyperactivity,” which was later renamed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Three aspects of the screening committee’s discussions regarding the children, almost always boys, that either teachers or parents considered to be hyperactive stand out for me. When we surveyed the child’s records, we almost always discovered he had what we euphemistically called a “late birthday” because he was born near the end of the year. That meant that he was usually one of the youngest children in the class. Additionally, when we checked into the child’s home life, we often discovered that his parents had recently divorced or there’d been a death in the family. And lastly, there was always someone on the committee, often the assistant principal or the school psychologist, who recommended that the parent seek a medication consultation for the child.

To read the full essay, continue to the Mad in America Blog.

Interview with Patricia VanAmburg

I met Patricia in the early 2000s when we were both teaching at Howard Community College. We’ve since shared many lovely days together and often share our poems with each other. Hope you enjoy this interview with my dear friend. Contact Patricia through her blog if you’d like to purchase one of her books. https://wrenhousepress.online/books/

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your lovely new poetry collection, Refuge Heart: A Verse Memoir. I love the way you’ve woven stories together around the themes of loss and family. Tell me how the book came together for you.

Patricia VanAmburg

Patricia VanAmburg (PVA): Thank you Ann. The book actually came together in a number of ways. One of those was a mention by two of my friends of the Trebus Project—a study of elderly dementia patients in Great Britain. One surprise outcome of this study was that so many patients with short term memory loss retained vivid memories of earlier life on poor farms. This information certainly caught my attention because my mother so often mentioned the American poor house circa 1830-1930.

AB: Those of us who had parents of a certain age will remember them referring to the poor house, but many readers may not be familiar with the history and purpose of poor houses. Tell me about where the idea for your poem, “My Mother Goes to The Poor House”, came from and give a bit of background on the poor house you researched. 

PVA: In the last decade of her life, my mother refused to discuss her dwindling finances. She would reply to any of my attempts at such a conversation with an angry “Just send me to the poor house.” Usually, I remained silent in order to avoid further confrontation, but one day I said to her “You know there isn’t any poor house.” She responded “Oh really” in a voice I knew she saved for lunatics and liars. More frustrated than usual, I soon typed “poor house” into a Google search—adding “Berrien County Michigan” because that is where my mother grew up. To my great surprise, I uncovered a treasure trove of information including a roster of poor house residents; several poor house census reports listing nationality/race and occupation; notes from the poor house infirmary; and several local newspaper articles written about the poor house residents who were called “inmates.” How could I ignore such a treasure? I began to write poems—beginning with my mother’s poor house obsession.

AB: “Peaches in Poor Weather” is as much a lament for crop loss as it is a bit of significant history. What was your process in writing that poem? 

PVA: Along with all the specific poor house information, I uncovered an early history of Berrien County chronicling European colonization, native American conflict, and agricultural development. I wanted to know more about why the poor house was built because, to this day, Berrien County remains a Michigan fruit basket. I remember well the delicious peaches of my own childhood. I let peaches become emblematic for the agricultural economy of southwestern Michigan and found a helpful article from 1993 by William John Armstrong titled “Berrien County’s Great Peach Boom.” Armstrong’s work helped me understand how Michigan’s fluctuating temperatures combined with peach production in warmer climates, and the rail age, to cause problems for the Michigan peach industry which had previously enjoyed a kind of privileged position in midwestern fruit production. I also understood how a competitive fruit market combined with an influx of European farm labor—caused loss of farm ownership and the necessity for county poor houses throughout Michigan and the rural United States. 

AB: “James Hewitt’s Nose” tells the story of cancer that used to be commonplace, but due to modern treatments, rarely happens in our country now. How did you come upon this story?

PVA: “James Hewitt’s Nose” came from two sources— one was my possession of the poor house infirmary notes which gave me a broad perspective on all of the resident health problems and diseases. The second was the trove of period newspaper articles I mentioned earlier. One of them told the story of resident James Hewitt age 63 who had a form of cancer that had eaten away his nose. The story went on to mention that a worker at the poor farm had met a Miss Hewitt who remembered that her father had a spot on his nose years earlier when he disappeared. At the end of the article father and daughter are reunited—my poem takes a bit of poetic license with that reunion. 

AB: The second part of your book deals with your family members who came to the United States from Croatia. How were you able to reconstruct their stories in such detail?

PVA: Yes, the second half of my book goes in a new direction at the suggestion of Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri who thought I might want to write about “something a little different than but related to” the poor house and its refugees. About that time through DNA testing, I became aware of and met several new cousins from my father’s side of the family. Eventually, two of my cousins invited me to go to Croatia with them. Their grandmother was a sister to my grandfather, and we were all searching for our grandparents’ journey to the United States during the Croatian diaspora which straddled two World Wars. So, the second half of the book retells my grandparent’s life as refugees and my search to uncover it.  

AB: I love the playfulness in the poem “Departure 1950.”  You capture so much of the innocence and charm of the two cousins getting into mischief. Say more about the poem and your cousin.

PVA: As refugees, my paternal grandparents had a pretty hard life including my grandpa’s first job as a copper miner in upper Michigan and my grandma’s loss of several children before they reached adulthood. Eventually they had to leave their grape farm in southern Michigan when neither of their adult sons wanted to stay and work. Still, I enjoyed visiting the house they moved to in a small town—especially when my two cousins were there. Departure 1950 recalls one of my earliest memories of my six-year-old cousin and I “driving” my grandpa’s antiquated Chrysler through the wall of my grandma’s chicken coop. We actually popped it into gear and drifted through the wall. Though the memory might have some tragic elements, I remember it as being quite wondrous with light streaming through the gapped wall alive with chicken feathers and dust motes. Even at age three and a half, I knew as soon as we crawled unharmed out of the car through broken glass and timber that we probably weren’t going to get in trouble for our little trip.

AB: Patricia, I really enjoyed reading “Refugee Heart.” Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? What do you hope readers take away from this book?  

PVA: 

I think I have a favorite poem from each of the halves. 

From the poor house poems, I would have to choose the very simple little poem, “Samuel Ray Steps Out”, which tells the story of an 80-year-old resident who wanders away for a few precious hours. I took most of the poem’s visuals from my own childhood memories of the small southern Michigan town of my mother’s youth, but the voice is purely Samuel Ray. In this poem and the others that I wrote from the articles, I often thought I could hear the featured subjects telling stories in their own words.

From part two, I would have to choose my cousins’ unanimous favorite, “Two Mladens Walk in Lokve”,  which describes all that my grandparents left behind: lichen covered rocks in the virgin forests; fish with mottled skin swimming in a river that flows through the bottom of a deep cave; smokey mist rising against dark green mountains; and the beautiful hilltop cemetery full of vigil candles and pine cones.

And thank you for your mention of the title poem, “Refugee Heart”, Ann. Even before I finished it, I knew it had less to do with either poor house refugees or my grandparents than it does with worldwide refugees today. May they find new lives and peace. May we all help. That is the message.

Bio: Patricia Vanamburg retired emerta from Howard Community College where she taught literature and creative writing. She was also affiliated with the Little Patuxent Review literary journal. 

Artist Profiles: April Rimpo and Elaine Weiner-Reed

I had the pleasure of working with April Rimpo and Elaine Weiner-Reed in 2019 when they put on an ekphrastic art event at Slayton House Gallery in Columbia, Maryland. This year, they sponsored a similar event with the poet and activist Patti Ross of The Baltimore County Arts Guild. I hope you enjoy getting to know them and discovering more about their work. 

Ann Bracken (AB): I’d love to know a bit about your journey as an artist. How long have you been painting and sculpting and what most sparked your interest in visual art?

April Rimpo (AR): I started drawing as a child. I was aware my father and grandfather both painted, so drawing came naturally. The first external motivation came in third grade when my teacher displayed my drawings in class. My first painting experience came in either late elementary school or junior high when I received oil paints as a gift. In junior high school, I brought a painting to class and my English teacher asked to display it. The painting remained on display for the balance of the year. I really got the bug at that point, but didn’t take painting classes until my early twenties.

Elaine Weiner-Reed (EWR)

I entered the world in a crowded womb. My almost fierce, independent, and creative streak was hard-wired into me from birth, and my path as an artist soon became irreversible and undeniable as I sought an identity of my own. I soon became the “twin who could draw.” Art was my first love. I have no memory that does not have art in it… I drew constantly and seemed to know that I was an artist from the time I was about 4 years old.  

Because money was in short supply and paper was scarce, I quickly mastered the Etch-a-Sketch (my first sketchbook), drawing landscapes, people, and interiors. Every chance I got, I took art and creative writing classes in high school. In college, I majored in French, but took enough art and 3D classes to equate to an unofficial minor in sculpture and never looked back. My first foray into painting had me painting representationally in oils in the 1980’s. Wanting to be more expressive or “loose,” I studied and painted in watercolor during the 1990’s. I branched into acrylics in the late 1990’s out of a desire to paint on canvas, staying with that and latex or mixed media creations to date. I returned to my sculpture roots in 2014 when I was selected by-name for the first of two International Artist Residencies in Poland, and in 2018, my path led me to plaster and metal figurative sculptures and welded metal music-inspired assemblages. 

AB: How would you characterize the style of your painting and who are your influences? 

AR: My style has evolved a lot over the years. Originally it was quite tight, as in rendering a copy of the photograph that I worked from.  But once I found watercolor in 1997, my painting began to loosen up, becoming more interpretive. Only in the last 15 years do I think my goal in painting, although still representational, is to communicate emotions about a place or culture that helps tell the story of the scene. 

I love the Impressionists’ use of texture, color, light, and the dynamic flow in their paintings. Van Gogh and Monet are among my favorites starting when I was a young artist. On the U.S. front, I admire Winslow Homer for the sense of story in his paintings and Ed Hopper for his way of simplifying a subject to capture its essence.  Current influencers are contemporary water-media artists Chen-kee Chee, John Salminen, Keiko Tanabe, and Joseph Zbukvis plus Nicholas Simmons who taught me what could be achieved in fluid acrylic, but sadly is no longer with us.

EWR: I am an action painter. My painting style can best be described as abstract expressionism. I love the physicality of painting and sculpting. I enter my studio and turn on the music, losing myself in the dance that is my creative process. I usually paint on the floor, literally walking around my work as I focus on the entirety of a piece, even while zooming in on one area at a time. Sculptures require a 360-degree awareness, so I am continually bending, turning, and interacting with my work – intellectually as well as physically. As for my sculptures, I would have to ask an historian how they might categorize my plaster or welded metal assemblages in a global context.

Elaine Weiner-Reed

Life is complicated, and I sometimes experience the full spectrum of emotions in one day or week or month. In order to channel the emotions and experiences into my work when they are fresh (or “live”), I begin and sometimes work on multiple pieces simultaneously.

At the university, I discovered and fell in love with the works of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth, among others. When I began painting in oils, I learned more about Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Van Gogh; later, I fell in love with the works of DeKooning (wife and husband), Diebenkorn, and DeNiro

AB: I’ve been lucky enough to participate in two of your Ekphrastic events and have written poems for each of your paintings.  What sparked your interest in such a collaboration and what was most surprising for you?

AR: Elaine can explain her initial spark, since she started her initiative “Every Painting is a Song (EPIAS).“ I joined Elaine in her initiative in 2019 and suggest we expand her initiative for just musical collaborations to include poetry.  Since I tell stories in my art and am overjoyed when others tell me the story they see in my painting, I thought including Ekphrastic Poetry in our events would be ideal. Elaine agreed and had always wanted to expand the concept to more than music.

EWR: The spark… Thank you, April. This is the 6th year of EPIAS and I am thrilled at the direction in which it is going. 

The spark began an internal one that grew out of a need and an idea…. Sometime in about 2014 I grew tired of the fact that art exhibitions typically served as a venue focused solely on the artist’s individual achievements. It is nice to be recognized or receive rare accolades, but I wanted more from my events and myself. I wanted to turn the soliloquy into a dialogue. I wanted to know what others thought or felt that was rooted in or triggered by my work. How did my paintings and sculptures make people FEEL? What did it make individuals remember? How would someone write the beginning, middle, or end of the scenes I painted? I was determined to figure out how to do it… I envisioned pairing audio and more to my artwork, so I chose a musician’s template for my website because it allowed audio tracks. I began recording my own reflections to better relate to and connect with others, using the sense of hearing. Even before I began writing poetry again, I began writing what I call “reflections” associated with my work.

You (Ann Bracken) and Patti Ross are two of our most treasured discoveries and friendships resulting from that collaboration. I am humbled and truly honored with each creation written to one of my works.

What I found most surprising and delightful are the connections that happen between not only the creatives (artist, musician, poet, etc.), but with the guests at each of the events. Attendees and participants learn and bond in new ways – people who only minutes before were strangers are now connected…a community. We become part of each other’s stories! Each Ekphrastic event impacts me and pushes my evolution and my work in new directions. Each is an awakening.

Contrary to the philosophy in which I was raised, namely that art was superfluous, I believe art is necessary to man’s survival and a critical extension of our identity, culture, and humanity. 

AB: You’ve each included a painting in this blog. What would you like to share about your work? 

“Heritage”

AR: As I mentioned earlier, I love to incorporate my emotions into my art by adding life to my reference photo and trying to communicate what I felt when I saw and photographed it. The image shared here is from a new series of paintings that I call “Inner Portraits” where my goal is to tell something about the person depicted. In this case, I wanted to tell some of the story of the subject’s Vietnamese heritage. The images around the edges include two sisters from 40 AD who led the army into war against the invading Chinese and won. They are celebrated in Vietnam to this day. The power of these women also symbolizes the subject’s strength. Since the border was derived from a piece she owed created with mother-of-pearl inlays. I also segmented her face and used similar colors for her portrait.

EWR: My painting “Stop Injustice” is the largest painting I have done to date – both in content and scale. It is, in fact, an Ekphrastic creation – at least in part. To explain: While I painted it in my studio at MD Hall, I listened to the music of singer/songwriter/musician Vanessa Collier, whose lyrics inspired and influenced my improvisational dance through the painting. Lines like “cry out against injustice” wove around and through me as I painted… I ached and cried over current events (2019-2021) and atrocities committed against humanity, notably the murder of George Floyd. My painting of an interior scene peopled by many figures in varying amounts of detail is my way of crying out… speaking out the only way I know how – in and through my art. It is my call-to-action to each and every one of us to be mindful and caring, to respect each other, and to stand up for what is right and good. Change begins with each of us in every situation and exchange. You, we, I, they, he, and she can make a positive difference in our world. It begins and end with each of us. It is my hope that the calligraphy and words (respect, harmony, il faut changer le monde pour le bien de tous [We must change the world for the good of all] ) will resonate. Should the painting sell, I will donate a percentage of the proceeds to charities benefiting women’s and children’s causes.

“Stop Injustice”

AB: Tell me about your upcoming projects and what you’re looking forward to in 2022. 

AR: In Februrary, Elaine and I will be giving an Art Innovation Talk for the International Society of Experimental Artists (ISEA) about our joint collaborations. We’re eager to share what we’ve learned so that others can consider leveraging our knowledge. Our hope is that the attendees will also experience the overwhelming joy of hearing about our paintings from the perspective of others. 

Last year I started teaching a Zoom-based Mentorship with the goal of helping other artists identify and explore their own unique voice. I found out how much I enjoy teaching. Not only am I able to help others move along their own path, but their questions cause me to research other concepts, which often brings a new idea into my own work. This year I also started to teach a Watercolor Studio class at HorseSpirit Arts Gallery where students can work on their own projects in watercolor and get my assistance along with demonstrations designed to help them further their work. This is a cross between a typical art class and my mentorship concept.

EWR: I am thrilled to share this news, so thank you for asking. In June and July of 2022, I will be having a solo show at the Montpelier Cultural Art Center in Prince Georges County, Laurel, MD. I have been applying to this juried competition on and off for the last 20 years or more, and I could not believe that I won, and I’m very honored. My exhibition, “Masks and Mirrors: Beautiful Reflections,” will include Ekphrastic and audio elements (if not more). The work honors the human spirit and its resiliency. One goal of mine is to try to challenge society’s preconceptions and definitions of beauty. It is time we remove our rose- colored glasses and ditch the search for perfection in order to really see the many perfectly imperfect beautiful souls we meet every day. If we listen, their personal struggles and stories of survival would bring us to our knees. In fact, perhaps our own messy story would in turn make others rock with pain…even as they would reach out to console us. Moving forward with our personal histories in perspective empowers us to become part of the positive change so needed in our world. Please join me for the opening reception on June 4th, 2022 and stay tuned for more news.

For more about Elaine Weiner-Reed’s work, visit her website and social media posts here:

Website: http://www.elaineweinerreed.com
Email: ewr.artist@gmail.comTelephone: 410-551-5563FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/WeinerReed/
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCCOWgiFVseJGV0DZja5V-w?

If you want to find out more about April Rimpo’s work, check out her newsletter and website here:

Join my newsletter – I publish it about twice a month

Website: www.AMRart.org

Blog: http://aprilrimpoblog.AMRart.org

Poetry in the Classroom

In honor of April, which is National Poetry Month, I’m exploring a variety of ways that people can use poetry to enrich their lives. This week I’m looking at poetry and it’s close cousin, music, as ways to add depth and texture to teaching history and exploring social justice.

This line from poet William Carols Williams about where to find news has always intrigued me:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems test men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

I think the same could be said for getting our history from poems and songs, or at least using those arts to give us an alternate lens of past events that are often rendered in a  sterile listing of facts.  I’m not saying that you could actually teach history by using only poetry and songs, but you can add depth to events that are often given just a few paragraphs of explanation, if they are mentioned at all

Poems offer us personal glimpses into the people who lived through events, such as wars, labor movements,  and fights for justice. By reading and reciting an author’s poems, we may begin to realize the felt-sense of that person’s experiences and begin to see more clearly how our lives and struggles are related to the author’s.

I think the other benefit of using poetry is that the abstract is made concrete by telling the story of a personal experience. When history teachers want to talk about segregation and the impact that the Jim Crow system had on ordinary Black Americans, perhaps they could turn to Langston Hughes’s poem “Merry-Go-Round” for a compelling entry point that will engage students in a visceral experience.

Merry-Go-Round

Colored child at carnival

Where is the Jim Crow section

On this merry-go-round,

Mister, cause I want to ride?

Down South where I come from

White and colored

Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train

There’s a Jim Crow car.

On the bus, we’re put in the back–

But there ain’t no back

To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse

For a kid that’s black?

For more recent history of the senseless violence and continuing racism that Black Americans face, teachers could look to the Poets.org and select a few poems from the Black Lives Matter page, which has some profoundly moving poetry. And to look at some history from the recent past, read Lucille Clifton’s poem,  “jasper    texas   1998,” about James Byrd in Texas in 1998. You can find this poem in Blessing the Boats.

And what about the role of songs in getting students engaged with history? One song that taught me something I had never heard of is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. McCutcheon recounts the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce that happened during Christmas Eve in 1914 as German and British troops huddled in frozen trenches to celebrate Christmas in the midst of carnage.

The song raises a series of questions about why we fight wars and about the power of getting to know the “enemy” as a person. So often, once people on opposite sides of a battle begin to share their personal stories, they find they have much in common. And when they begin to think that both sides have families and friends who love them, they begin to lose the will to fight.

Here’s the song and a link to Joyeux Noel, the movie that was made a few years ago that explores the Christmas Truce of 1914 in greater detail. Imagine the questions that students might raise if they heard this song and watched the film.

Using Poetry to Explore the Prison Experience

This essay originally appeared in the Currere Exchange, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2020.

While I’m no longer able to volunteer inside of a prison, I’m continuing my advocacy work by mentoring a writer who is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. If you’re interested, check out the Justice Arts Coalition’s pARTner Project for more details.

In 2015, my editor at Little Patuxent Review gave me an assignment I wanted to refuse; she asked me to interview a professor who ran a writing group—in a prison—and then to visit the prison and interview the men. The woman who ran the group—Professor M., a sociology professor at a major research institution who’d volunteered in the prison for seven years—spoke very positively about the men who participated in her group. Near the end of our interview, she shared a program with me for a literary day of the arts where the men had performed their original poems, stories, and songs. Their faces looked young and happy, which was a complete surprise to me. Professor M. assured me that I’d like the men, and her parting words were especially compelling: “There’s no one else that I’d rather spend a few hours with in a discussion.” I was intrigued, but frightened to go into a prison. My mind buzzed with all of the common middle-class stereotypes about “those people” behind bars and how they might act. “Those people”: school drop outs, drug dealers, hustlers, maybe even murderers. At that time, I had driven by the prison only once and never had the slightest desire to volunteer there. Several of my writer colleagues worked in prisons, and while I admired them, I had kept my distance, partly out of fear and partly because my protective shell had begun to crack as I learned about the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many of my former high school students had brushes with the juvenile justice system, but none of them were especially “bad” kids. Instead, they were kids who had tough home lives or who had made really poor, impulsive decisions or who’d been unfairly targeted by a biased system that landed them in the lap of the law. Deep down, my spirit realized that, if I were to go into a prison and meet the men, I’d probably form a bond with them. Up to that moment, I’d walled myself off from that possibility, but my interview with Professor M. had piqued my curiosity.

Once my security clearance came through, I accompanied Professor M. to meet her writing group. Along with a lone pad of paper and a single pen, I’d brought a copy of my first poetry book, The Altar of Innocence, for the men to read and share. I thought they could relate to my story about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce. Ninety minutes were allotted to interview five men, so I’d prepared questions about something that I wanted to know and understand better: Who were you when you came here? and Who are you now? I wasn’t allowed to have a recording device and couldn’t take any pictures, so I wrote notes on everything I experienced in order to capture the look and feel of the prison. My hastily scribbled sentences contained every detail that I could observe—the yellow X on the elevator floor designating the spot where no one could stand for fear of stalling the elevator, the insulation peeling off of the pipes in the hallway, the black metal peeking through chipped paint on the bars, the smell of bleach in the hallway outside the school, the song-like Baltimore and foreign dialects of the guards—and most of all, the men in the writing group.

Each one of them greeted me with a smile and shook my hand to welcome me to the group. Professor M. had told them why I was coming and then gave them a bit of my background—college lecturer, writer, and former high school teacher.

After about 15 minutes of introductions and chatting, we got started with the business of the interviews. The men sat around a large, rectangular table, each with a black and white composition book that held his writing. I didn’t think we’d have time for sharing, but it was good to see that they’d come prepared. I made notes about the physical condition of the room and copied down the quote written in neat cursive on wide yellow bulletin board paper that served as the backdrop on the stage. “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.”

I was impressed by the men’s good manners and calm demeanors. They laughed and joked with one another and shared stories with Professor M. and me. I felt much more relaxed than I’d imagined, and I was totally enthralled with all that the men had to share about their lives.

Here is a sample of what they told me. All of the men’s names throughout the manuscript have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

“I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I was only reading at about the 7th grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15, and now I’m 28. Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”~ Ryan, from East Baltimore

Read the rest of the story on the Currere Exchange website.

Revisiting: The Answers in the Attic: A Mother-daughter Story of Overmedication and Recovery

Author’s note: This essay forms the foundation for my memoir-in-search-of-a-publisher, Putting the Pieces Together: A Story of Overmedication and Recovery.

In 1959, my mother suffered what people commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown after my youngest sister’s birth. Mom spent six months in a local, Catholic psychiatric hospital while Dad and Grandma assumed command of the household. I was seven years old, the second-oldest of five children. Eventually, Mom visited us a few times on Sundays, and then returned home in November, presumably ready to assume her duties as a wife and mother. Sadly, Mom remained gripped by depression for the rest of her life.

Because my memories of that time are wrapped in thick layers of gauze, I’ve had to rely on others to fill in the gaps. My father, grandmother, and Mom’s close friends believed that Mom experienced postpartum depression, starting after my birth, and worsening with each successive child. My older brother shared this memory about a year ago when I asked what he remembered about Mom’s 1959 illness: “I came home from college and found her in the basement, banging her head against the wall, moaning, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”

My heart ached when I heard that story, but I still puzzled over why Mom never recovered. Until I found Dad’s collection of records in a dusty box stashed in my sister’s attic. Old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors were neatly organized in an unassuming manila folder. As I leafed through the contents, intuition whispered that I’d finally have the missing puzzle pieces I’d searched for all my life.

Some of the most valuable clues were in a letter, typed on onion skin paper, that sat on top of the file. It was dated 1-17-83 and addressed to Dr. L., one of Mom’s many doctors. Dad wrote the following notes:

5th child born Feb.59. Normal birth and she carried baby in good spirits. About mid-April started having problems and had first visit with psychiatrist of May 8, 1959. Between then and June 22nd, ’59, he treated her with Amytal, Ritalin, Nardil, Trilafen, NaBu-4, Dexamyl tabs and spansules, and Tofranil. By the end of May ‘59 she was so bad, that even to my nonprofessional eye, I didn’t see how she could avoid hospitalization… She remained there to late Nov. 59. During this time, she received medicine and numerous EST [electroshock therapy] treatments.

The only drug I recognized in that long list was Ritalin, an amphetamine that had been widely prescribed for depression in the 1950s and ’60s. I quickly set to work looking up the rest, all the while screaming inside, How could anyone give a nursing mother with three small children and a newborn so many drugs in such a short period of time? A quick search on the website drugs.com helped me to understand the other drugs my mother took when she first got depressed. Amytal is a long-acting barbiturate; Nardil is an MAO-inhibitor (a type of antidepressant); Trilafon is an antipsychotic; Nembutal is a barbiturate used as a sedative; Tofranil is a tricyclic antidepressant; and Dexamyl is a combination of an amphetamine and a barbiturate.

Grab-bag of antidepressants and pain meds

It was easy enough for me to find the commonly listed effects of all of those drugs, and I wondered how Mom’s doctor could have prescribed all of them in such a short time. Dad’s records don’t indicate if she took all of them together, but even if she took a few, discontinued them, and started a few others, the chemical load must have overwhelmed her system. What struck me in looking at the effects of all the medications was that many of them could cause anxiety, sleeplessness, and agitation—three things I clearly remember my mother struggling with.

Now my brother’s story made more sense—I think Mom was banging her head on the wall because she couldn’t tolerate what the drugs did to her. Her doctor told a different story in the diagnosis that my father noted: “This psychiatrist [Dr. S.] diagnosed it [Mom’s illness] as severe depression with agitation and not due to childbirth.” The doctor’s assessment rang true in one sense—it seemed pretty clear to me that Mom’s severe depression with agitation was due to the massive amounts of drugs she was taking and was, indeed, not related to childbirth. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what the doctor meant. While I have no doubt that my mother struggled against overwhelming feelings of sadness and fatigue, which led to the initial appointment with Dr. S., I believe Mom’s breakdown was probably chemically-induced due to overprescription of drugs.

Dad had also kept some of the original prescription bills related to Mom’s 1959 hospitalization, and between August and October, she took Thorazine, Nembutal, and Tofranil on a regular basis, in addition to receiving an undisclosed number of electroshock therapy treatments. When she came home, the doctor had her on a regimen of PhenobarbitalMiltown (an antianxiety drug), and the tricyclic Tofranil. Dad supplemented that regimen with carefully measured decanters of white wine that I once caught him cutting with water. When he saw me watching, he cautioned, “Don’t ever tell your mother what you saw.” Nowhere in the thirty years of records is there any indication of Mom’s drinking, which all of us tacitly accepted as a significant part of her daily routine.

I also found homemade spreadsheets where Dad listed the dates and medication amounts for Mom’s drugs, often annotated with notes about her responses. The information in those charts prompted me to investigate possible medication effects that may have influenced Mom’s internal state which led her to attempt suicide in 1967. At the time, she was taking a combination of Aventyl (a tricyclic which can cause restlessness, agitation, and anxiety), Dexamyl (amphetamine and barbiturate combination), and Phenobarbital (a barbiturate which is linked to nightmares, nervousness, depression, and anxiety). The effects of all of these medications, combined with Mom’s continued daily drinking, probably led to the intense feelings of despair that drove her to slit her wrists in December. Dad found her in the bathroom that night. I accompanied my parents to the hospital, while my two siblings, ages twelve and thirteen, stayed home and cleaned up the bathroom. None of us ever spoke of that night again.

What about therapy, I wondered, and how did Mom’s psychiatrist treat her after that tragic night? One would think the doctor should have increased Mom’s routine visits to keep a closer watch on her. But according to Dad’s records, that’s not what happened. In fact, Mom’s doctor saw her twice a month, beginning in January of 1960, only about two months after she was released from the hospital, and continuing through June of 1968. However, in the weeks immediately following her suicide attempt in 1967, he did not see her more frequently, a fact which seems to indicate a lack of support and concern. By August of 1968, Dad’s notes indicate that Dr. S. wanted to hospitalize my mother. Dad’s notes and the conversations I can remember ring with the angry charge that “Dr. S. just threw up his hands and gave up on her.”

Because Dad was adamant about keeping Mom out of the hospital, he sought out Dr. M., a well-known psychiatrist who performed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments in his office. Between August of 1968 and June of 1970, Dr. M. administered thirty-nine ECT treatments to my mother, sometimes giving her as many as five treatments in a month. The one time I remember accompanying my father to help him bring Mom home, I was shocked by her dazed look and unsteady walk. I remember her sleeping through the next day and experiencing memory loss from that time forward. Dad told me that Dr. M. did the procedure without anesthesia, but from some of the reading I’ve done on earlier ECT administration, it seems likely that Dr. M. probably used a short-acting barbiturate to sedate Mom. Otherwise, how could she submit to so many treatments? And how could Dad willingly put her through that pain? I think both of them must have been more desperate for relief than any of us kids could have guessed.

I wish I could say that Mom got better after all of that ECT, but she never attained such a reward for all of her efforts and suffering. In 1973, after suffering from mysterious dental pain for several months and finding no relief, a neurologist helped Mom and Dad to see that she was suffering from depression. Mom was hospitalized for at least a month and endured detox for both barbiturates and alcohol, but she was unable to maintain her sobriety once she came home. I was sickened to learn that Mom’s doctors routinely prescribed Thorazine for her from 1969 to 1983, a practice which would explain why she suffered from tardive dyskinesia and later from severe full-body trembling, possibly akathisia. Mom was hospitalized again for several weeks in 1993, and for the first time, her psychiatrist confronted the family about her alcohol dependence and informed all of us that her MRIs showed evidence of small strokes and blood in the brain. He asked all of us to pledge to refrain from serving alcohol at family gatherings, but we were split on the issue of whether Mom had a problem or not, so she continued to drink along with all of her medications until her death in 2002.

I remember my mother suffering from horrible, visceral anxiety where she would take deep, fast breaths and then wring her hands as if she were Lady Macbeth. Now that I understand more about her medications, I realize how impossible it is to determine if my mother was actuallyvery depressed and anxious or if she was one of the early victims of polypharmacy, trapped in physical and emotional pain due to overmedication and a lack of supportive therapy. It seems clear from the records that Mom’s doctors saw her condition as biochemical and treated her accordingly, tweaking the pills as they went along, and in a sense, resigning themselves to maintaining her “treatment resistant” condition with the only tools they believed in.

Despite all of her sedating and numbing medications, Mom lived a rich and meaningful life. She cared for us, made sure we had regular, nutritious meals and provided a supportive presence when we needed help. Mom hosted her bridge group, participated in a book club, and made weekly trips to talks at the local art museum with one of my aunts. She was also a gifted artist with a degree in costume design from Maryland Institute College of Art, but her talent never matured once all of us were born. Sadly, she never picked up a paint brush in all the years I knew her.

As a child, I made two vows: to help my mother get well and to never be like her.

Want to read the rest of the story? Please hop on over to the Mad in America blog where this essay was originally published in May of 2019.

A Conversation About Poetry

Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s Poet Laureate, interviewed me for her long-running radio podcast called The Poet and the Poem. Sharing the voices of Maryland’s poets is one of Grace’s goals for her work as our state’s laureate. I’ve known Grace for over ten years and feel blessed to call her a friend. Her generosity of spirit shies through in this broadcast where she kindly invited me to share my work.

The endless procession of time

The Altar of Innocence: Happy 5th Anniversary!

In 2015, my first book, The Altar of Innocence, was published. I remember my excitement when the first shipment of books arrived. My friend Beth was here, and she immediately had me pose with my book. A few days later, along with my wonderful children, Brian and Christella, many of my friends came to the launch reading at Zu Coffee in Annapolis to help me celebrate.

The day my books arrived

“Why did you write a book?” is one of the first questions people ask when they find out that I’m a writer. The main reason is that I couldn’t keep the story inside any longer. When I was growing up and even when I experienced my own episodes of depression, I felt intense shame. And my mother felt the shame and isolation even more in the 50s and 60s. I’d been haunted by a question nearly my whole life–Why didn’t my mother ever recover from depression? And later on I could add the caveat–when I could.

My mother designed and painted the dress on the cover of my book, but I didn’t find her artwork until the late 1990s when Mom was elderly and in a nursing home. I discovered her paintings one day in the basement of the family home, and then took them to a shop to have them matted and framed. When I showed the framed designs to my mother, she said, “Thank you for appreciating me. I always wanted to be a fashion designer.” Mom had never spoken of her dreams to anyone before that moment, at least not anyone that I asked. Even my siblings had no idea of Mom’s amazing talent until I discovered the paintings.

Years after Mom had died, I sat in my living room and stared at her paintings, remembering how I used to watch her struggle with depression and anxiety and tell myself, I’ll never be like my mother. In that moment, I realized that if I didn’t write poetry, I would be just like Mom, burying my art in the basement of my life.

With Mom’s paintings as an inspiration, I began to conjecture about possible causes for her chronic depression and wondered if the loss of a dream could so profoundly alter the course of one’s life. And if following one’s dream and having the benefit of a societal shift in the roles of women and women’s autonomy could have so profoundly affected my outcome.

One woman spent more than half of her life battling the darkness. One woman overcame the same darkness. Maybe that’s why our story continues to speak to people five years after the book was released. If you decide to read The Altar of Innocence, I hope it will speak to you.

Here’s a link to me reading one of my favorite poems from the collection: “Adultery”.

Altar of Innocence cover art

An Evening of the Arts

before reading
Ann, Morna, and Brian chatting before the show

On January 10, 2020, Morna McNulty exhibited her collection of photos from deserted spots in and around Ellicott City, MD. I read from my three poetry collections, and my son, Brian Potts, accompanied me on a variety of percussion instruments. We had a great turnout! Everyone enjoyed the art, poetry, music, and refreshments. Here are a couple of photos from the event. Enjoy and hope to see you next time!

drummer
Brian Potts on the drums

The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me: A Cautionary Tale

Mad in America recently published one of my poems that deals with mis-diagnosis and a careless rush to judgment. In “The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me,” I tell the story of how I acquired a diagnosis of bipolar II and how that diagnosis resulted in an unnecessary hospitalization in a psychiatric ward.

Back in the 1990s, I had felt depressed for a couple of years and had seen a few doctors for treatment–which consisted of trying numerous psychiatric drugs without any relief. One of my doctors got so frustrated that he threw my file across his office and said, “I’m sending you to Hopkins. They deal with people like you all the time.” The doctor never revealed that antidepressants can often worsen a depression or even cause a state of chronic depression that is pretty much untreatable. (Giovanni Fava wrote about this in 1994, when I was experiencing depression)

Several months later, a doctor at Hopkins finally saw me for about an hour. I’m guessing he’d read my file and seen all of the drugs I’d taken, none of which were helping. He noted that twice before when I’d felt depressed, I’d gotten relief for my symptoms from an older drug called Elavil.

And because I reported that I “felt like a party girl” for a couple of days once the depression lifted, the Hopkins doctor diagnosed me as having bipolar II–a milder form of bipolar disorder. He refused to listen to me when I enumerated the symptoms I didn’t have–insomnia, overspending, and grandiose thoughts among others.

I tried to explain to the Hopkins doctor that I had a higher than average “happiness level” and frequently felt upbeat and energetic. But he put that information down to confirming his diagnosis rather than listening to the truth of my life.

He told me that sometimes antidepressants can “reveal” an underlying bipolar disorder, which sounded like a medication effect to me, not an actual illness. And he never told me that research had shown that some people who take antidepressants for depression alone can begin to experience cycles of depression and mania.

Grab-bag of antidepressants and pain meds

And the problem with his overly simplistic diagnosis is that every other doctor who read my records saw me as someone with bipolar II disorder and dismissed my concerns and explanations. Worst of all, they continued to prescribe me unneeded mood stabilizers.

Later, when I was hospitalized for mania–which was due to taking prednisone for three weeks–the doctors there also dismissed my explanation of having a reaction to prednisone because of my bipolar II diagnosis.

A needless hospitalization could have been avoided if the doctors had done two things: listened to me when I described my upbeat personality and taken into account the very common effect of mania due to prednisone. And the years of taking unnecessary and mind-body altering mood regulators could have been totally avoided.

I’m one of the lucky ones–I got off of antidepressants, mood regulators, anti-anxiety drugs and pain medication in the early 2000s and haven’t had any recurrences of depression. And I’m glad that my negative experience led me to reading and research that I can share with others.

Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker is a good place to begin if you want to know more about psychiatric drugs and their effectiveness. You may be as shocked and surprised as I was by what you find.