DR NI: The True Error of Misdiagnosis
- By Dr. Niama Williams
- | Tuesday, 11 September 2012 07:06
for john of south campus
& for mr. rene
Physicians, God bless them, are unused to being accused of error, and psychiatrists and psychologists are even more sensitive to such accusation as their field of specialty involves perhaps the most inexact and is fraught with the greatest potential for error of all the medical sciences.
Yet, oddly enough, it is my mother, devotee of Western medicine, devoted to such as result of a particularly cruel upbringing among biased and judgmental Southerners whom, like many who torture children, tell themselves they are "doing this for the child's own good." Should the child be a raving beauty, so much more visceral the punishment and torture.
Such survived my mother, one of the first African-American female graduates of "Big County General's" (now LAC-USC Medical Center) registered nursing diploma program. I believe she took the route of nursing as opposed to social work or teaching, two of the only three fields open to a Black female teenager in the late forties/early fifties in America, because her life from age six to eleven had been so horrible.
I became convinced, once my vision returned at 48, that the entire town of Omaha, Texas, at least its Black citizens, welcomed me so warmly the summers of my ninth and eleventh years due to guilt from how they had treated Lessie B.
My mother was born with the beauty and coloring of a goddess, and was made to suffer horribly for each gift.
As an adult, I knew only that she lived, quite happily and quite safe, she often told me, with her great-grandmother, "Granma Rachel," and her great aunt, whose name, dangit to hell, I have forgotten. I believed her about the safety of that first home because I remember still the quiet smile and special glow, including a happy glint of light in her eyes, whenever she said the name "Granma Rachel."
All ended at six years of age, however, when her teenage mother requested that she come "help out." Nana was struggling with an abusive husband who raped and beat her upon the slightest provocation. Though I loved and adored my grandmother, and she me, I hesitate to think what she might actually have meant by "help out."
That my mother was gorgeous at even six years old I do not doubt. High school senior year photos of her reveal a raving beauty who quite well deserved the attentions of Jefferson High School's football star. The magic of her life began at 11, however, when a white woman known to me only as "Ms. Ann" (whose name, when spoken, called up the same reverent glint of awe in my mother's eyes) found out what was going on in Leroy Lovelace's household and bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles, California, first for my mother and then for my Nana.
When my mother spoke of that train trip, I watched her cast her eyes back and tell me of the Black soldiers who watched out for her as she traveled alone on a segregated train from Texas to California. They were fresh home from WWII, and much like the Tuskegee Airmen, well acquainted with honor, much to the ire of many of their Caucasian countrymen of the time.
These men considered it an honor to watch out for the 11-year-old beauty queen from the tiny town in Texas; I doubt there was a pedophile among them though I will not say that some did indeed look at my mother with a degree of lust.
Yet Mama arrived safely to her only aunt in L.A., Aunty Louise, a light, bright and damn near straight-haired had-to-be-mulatto beauty who bore the shame of her mother dying in a far-away town refusing to tell her who her father had been. Mama was safe with Aunty Louise I hope, who stood by her half-sister, my dark-skinned Nana, despite marriage to a Scrivens who beat her and their children as well.
It was to be my mother's first love and first husband, the football star, my stepfather, who freed my great aunt from her self-constructed prison.
It is my mother's history, my great aunt's and my grandmother's that make me such a devoted and committed advocate for the homeless and for survivors of childhood trauma. Too often it is the latter that leads to the former and I intend to be one of those parents, when God keeps His promise, who says and means "the generational curse of abuse ends with me."
The only indignity my children shall have to endure is the permanent indictment against all video games in any form entering our house, except for a replica of the ancient BattleZone arcade game I fell hard for at Occidental College.
For I had dropped my mother's obsession with Western medicine by the time I reached Oxy, having been seduced by a UCI faculty member's comment that "a literary analyst is in our midst" when I responded astutely to her question about Madame Bovary, to my mind the most boring novel I'd ever read in all of literature.
Something about a dress, I remember the question was, as well as my doubt concerning whether the professor was actually looking at me when I'd raised my hand, for she had an eye slightly off center and it was difficult to discern, at times, in which direction she cast her glance.
I had no idea what a literary analyst did in those squeakingly early days of my collegiate career, yet that professor's face is a permanent file in my memory bank, and I think upon reading my dissertation, a book-length analysis of her four books of poetry, Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricotte will confirm that a literary analyst I did become.
Why, though, so long to pursue my 12-year-old's urge to be a psychiatrist? Family dysfunction caused me to doubt my intellectual ability at 12 and tell myself, as I contemplated another criminal's motivation revealed by Sherlock Holmes or Marilla's deeply hidden affection in Anne of Green Gables, that I was not smart enough to be a psychiatrist. We lie to ourselves well when we are trained by an abuser to lie to the world.
The scars of abuse are long and lasting, thus my commitment to stopping the trend within my own family. My mother thought she was doing so by forcing the very Western-medicine-trained Dr. Waldrop to dispense with my caul at birth as though it was merely a piece of useless extra tissue. Only my Nana wept and protested, for she asked the spirits and knew that if my caul was not saved properly then buried under an oak tree facing north, I would be without the full and life-saving power of my God-endowed spiritual gifts until I turned 48 years of age.
And thus my years of blindness and belief that the voices I heard signs of schizophrenia, my periods of 24 to 72 hours of writing mania, and my situational, sometimes suicidal depressions the masking of major depression.
Western medicine has termed me by turns schizophrenic, schizo-affective, and bipolar. It was my beloved Dr. Kravitz who could not figure out why I came to see him each week at Temple University's Student Counseling Center; "there's nothing wrong with you," he'd insist, shoving a new article on serotonin in front of my face.
I protest that I am a mere literature major, not a physician or psychiatrist, and in the way of a Polish Jewish fussing father, he declares, "Read it anyway and tell me what you think." I obey because he was all to me: good Polish Jew, stand-in father.
For my stepfather and I never set horses though it is not yet time to tell his story; that is forthcoming. I will only say that there were reasons for the abuse he perpetrated against me and my two siblings, and a big one, I suspect, was my mother's refusal to be a victim. She turned a blind eye to what was happening to us, yet when it came to standing up to him herself, she had no qualms about bouncing a toaster off the side of his head.
No, it was my Dr. Cohen, whom I suspected, in later years, to have been Dr. Kravitz's wife, who informed me that mothers who've been abused have one of two responses when faced with the knowledge that it is happening to their children: either "Touch my children and I'll kill you" or "I don't want to know."
My mother chose the latter though she defended herself; what a pickle that must have presented for my much older brothers. I understand now why they loved and hated her.
Once she was directly confronted with the truth, she put my stepfather out and began the ugliest divorce battle I was not witness to in my five-year-old life. Said divorce was final when I was 7, and it took gentle, refined, overly qualified Dr. Cohen to begin to repair the damage of a mis-handled and angrily destroyed caul.
"You don't act like my schizophrenics and you don't act like my bipolars," she said, bemused and trying to convince herself while throwing her hands up in the air metaphorically. "The best I can come up with is PTSD due to childhood trauma."
It was wise Dr. Shah who added depression to my diagnosis in 2011, but I gave Dr. Cohen all of my faith and trust upon first sizing her up during our initial meeting in February or March, maybe April of 2004.
My mother had passed away October 2003, and numb, with $64,000 to write my dissertation and finish the doctorate, I confessed all that I could then unearth to Dr. Cohen. She'd won my trust that first day as I walked in and saw her, quietly breathless, standing at attention with her iron-grey hair, really white, in a bun gathered at the nape of her neck and her stylish, professional psychiatrist clothing.
That trust solidified when she told me she'd attended med school in the fifties and did I have any idea what that must have been to endure. I nodded. She continued, telling me that she'd turned to psychiatry when the internship for general practice proved so physically demanding that she could not get pregnant, resulting in training for child psychiatry, then adult psychiatry, and finally psycho-analytical specialization.
A white woman, ostensibly Jewish, in medical school in the fifties. I knew immediately that she knew suffering. It was she who freed me from the emotional prison of the terms schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder/manic depression (I do seem to remember her saying there were some psychotic features to my PTSD)--though I did not confess much about my spiritual gifts even after two and a half years of 50 minutes once per week except when she was on vacation. Those two years earned me the truth about my parents and the first time ever, in 16 years of psychotherapy, someone was with me in my profoundest darkness.
"I shouldn't say this," she confessed one afternoon, "but I have no great love for your parents. They were not doing their job. Someone should have been instructing your brothers that this was not the way to treat their sister."
"And don't think your brothers got the easy end of the stick; no one was raising them either. All three of you raised yourselves; that is why you have so much trouble disciplining yourself; you learned only all or nothing. Either give yourself everything you want or deny yourself everything. It's all or nothing always for children who raise themselves."
All these years later I look back on her comment and think that is why after almost two years as a homeless person here in Long Beach, against even my own strongest internal wisdom, I receive my first ever disability disbursement on a Wednesday and am flat broke by the following Monday.
My parents' fault? Not completely. I simply have not yet finished growing up and learning how to sanely handle money. Feats I hope to accomplish as I teach, learn, and grow with my POST readers. Thank you for your loyalty while I was in hospital.
Why? Because joy is our birthright, homeless or no.