Testimony, by Margery Wakefield - Next - Previous

Chapter 3


London! We had finally arrived. Two seventeen year olds looking for adventure in a faraway city.

For the first few days Erica and I just wandered about the city with our street map, getting to know the streets and sights, staying at night in cheap student hostels.

We finally located a small "flat" in Earl's Court and rented a piano to practice on. We showed up at Mr. Vazsonyi's apartment unanounced one day to tell him we had come to study with him. He, however, had other plans. He was soon leaving for Hungary to write a book and was far from pleased by our unexpected arrival. But he did promise to give us a few lessons before he left.

I soon ran out of funds, but my father was willing to send me enough money each month to pay the rent and buy food. I soon discovered that I would not be able to work legally in England as I was registered as an alien.

Erica and I spent the days exploring London and alternating practice times on the piano we had rented. In the evenings we went to free concerts or visited the Vazsonyi's and played with their small son Mikki.

I had no plans for the future. I thought of myself as a "hippie" and at the moment was living an appropriately hippie lifestyle as a bohemian artist and student far from home.

I especially liked wandering in Hyde Park. Erica and I would watch soccer games, meet other wandering students, watch nannies wheeling their prams through the park and businessmen in black derbies taking their noontime stroll. Or we would hang out at Speaker's Corner where someone was always on the soapbox preaching to a heckling crowd.

Erica had met an acting student named Mark and brought him home, and before long Mark and I were involved in an intense affair. I thought I was in love. Mark and I spent days exploring together, going to plays, seeking out cheap restaurants in Soho, and going to museums and bookstores. As on the boat, Erica was shocked by my sexual behavior but there was not much she could do about it.

We had made the trip to London in September, and soon it began to get colder and the days shorter. The only heat we had in the apartment was a small shilling heater in the corner of the living room, and we spent increasing amounts of time each day begging local merchants for change in shillings for our heater.

Our bathtub was located in a poorly insulated back porch. We would heat the bathwater in a kettle on the stove but by the time the tub was filled it had iced over.

Strangely, as it got colder, my symptoms began to return in full force. One night I woke up screaming in terror and Erica had to take me in the middle of the night to a local hospital. I was treated and released without a diagnosis after an examination by a very unsympathetic nurse.

The panic attacks resumed and I would be hit with them in the most innocuous places -- on a city bus or just walking along the street. The terror was intense, and it would be all I could do to get home to a place of safety and sit it out.

Although I didn't understand it at the time, I was also starting to have hallucinations. At first everything just began to look very unreal. The colors of things were very vivid and unnatural looking. If you have ever looked through an old fashioned Viewmaster, you will have some idea of what I was experiencing.

At the same time that I was experiencing these visual distortions, I would also experience periods of intense ecstasy. Everything I looked at was just so beautiful. I began to go daily to the National Gallery of Art, and I would stare for hours at a painting, caught up in the unearthly beauty of the texture of the clothing, the shading of trees or the light and darkness in a picture. I would see an unfathomable beauty in each painting.

By the time December came, I was getting sicker and sicker. Reality to me was becoming a wavy, watery world where nothing was solid or real. One day I came home and the whole living room just disappeared and I was lost in a sea of wavy white energy.

I told Erica what was happening and she went to Vazsonyi, who had just returned from Hungary. Erica took me to see our teacher and he could tell by talking to me that something was wrong. I was lost in another reality and I kept blacking in and out during our conversation.

Erica probably didn't know how to contact my parents, and I was in no shape to tell her. The next thing I knew I was taken by Erica and Vazsonyi to Heathrow Airport and they bought me a ticket back to New York. I tearfully said goodbye to them, not fully understanding what was happening.

All I remember of the flight was sitting next to a little boy with a teddy bear.

I never saw or heard from Erica again. I have no idea what happened to her. I did occasionally write to Mr. Vazsonyi in later years and saw him briefly several years later when he came to the U.S. for a concert tour.

Arriving in New York, I knew I had to get back to Philadelphia, where I knew someone. I managed to get on the right train. In Philadelphia I called Lorenzo, my old boyfriend, and he came to the train station and took me back to his apartment.

The next morning I woke up and went into the living room and looked out the window and saw London. I saw the red buses, the streets busy with people and the autumn leaves on the trees. Confused, I went outside the front door and it was cold and snowy and it was Philadelphia. But when I went back inside and looked out the window I still saw London.

When I told Lorenzo what was happening, he took me down to the Philadelphia City Hospital where I was examined by an emergency room physician. I was not able to answer any questions correctly. I didn't know who I was, where I was or what day it was. I was promptly admitted to the hospital's psychiatric unit.

By this time, my anxiety had become constant and was unendurable. I was in screaming pain every moment of the day. I wanted to commit suicide. I could not stand the pain. When Lorenzo would come to visit, the pain would go away temporarily, but it would return when he left. I would beg him not to go, and soon he just stopped coming altogether.

One day I happened to see my chart on the desk in the nurses station, and marked on the top corner was the word: Schizophrenic. That was the first I knew of my diagnosis.

Somehow my parents were contacted. My father came to the hospital and made arrangements to transfer me to a private hospital in the country under the care of a psychiatrist named Dr. Grofe. My father took me to the new hospital. I sat in a waiting room with orange chairs while my father filled out the paperwork. I remember feeling that I had to go into the room where my father was and tell him not to sign some papers. The papers were for shock treatments. He didn't sign them.

I blacked out after that. The next morning I woke up and there was a vase of flowers on the dresser in my room. The nurse told me the flowers were from my father. He had gone back to Michigan.

The excruciating pain continued. I lay in the seclusion room on a bare mattress and felt the blackness closing in on me. The terror was unremitting.

I started to have more hallucinations. As I lay in my room, I saw people I knew walk into the room from behind the dresser. Then they would disappear. I heard voices coming from the ceiling saying words that were unintelligible to me.

A lady came into our unit to teach us how to make potholders, but I was unable to comprehend what she was saying.

It was at this time that I had a most extraordinary experience.

I was lying on a couch in the dayroom after breakfast one day. The walls of the room were painted a nauseating shade of green. As I lay there, I suddenly felt myself float up toward the ceiling.

"This can't be happening," I thought. But it did.

After that I don't remember much. I remember going through the wall, but then I was in a different world. It was a world that words could never describe. Once I was there, I realized how limited and small the world we live in really is. I was in a new expanded world.

The feeling I experienced was one of expansion. I was outside of normal reality and it was beautiful. After all the pain, I was finally at peace. The feeling was so wonderful that I never wanted to go back to the "real" world. I wanted to stay in that blissful state forever.

In this other world there were colors. Mostly pastel colors and misty. While in this other state of consciousness, I knew that when I "returned" I would not be able to really remember what I had experienced, because the experience itself would be incomprehensible once I returned. But I also knew that what I would carry back with me would be the thought of it, the memory of what had happened. I would not be able to re-experience it in my memory, but I would have the memory.

I don't know how long I was "gone." The experience itself was timeless. I know that when I was back and aware of time again a couple of weeks had elapsed.

I didn't return all at once. It was a gradual return, like slowly, very slowly coming out of a fog. Similar to being born again. A gradual coming to consciousness from nothingness.

Strangely, after this experience I began to get better. For a few weeks, I still had the feelings of painful and intense terror, but gradually I began to have longer and longer periods of time each day that were free of pain.

Eventually, I was transferred to a more open unit in the hospital. I began to make friends with some of the other patients. I also started attending occupational therapy. It was there, in occupational therapy, that I met two women who had recently undergone lobotomies. They were like robots.

I made friends on the unit with another teenager named Matthew. Matthew was scheduled for a series of twenty eight shock treatments.

Every morning, it would take about six aides to strap Matthew to a gurney, as he was kicking and screaming all the way. He was being given the shock treatments against his will. An hour or so later he would come back, and he wouldn't know who he was. We would spend the rest of the day walking around the unit and I would tell him over and over who and where he was and what had just happened to him.

We went through this every day for the rest of his twenty eight days. Matthew told me that he was also diagnosed as schizophrenic.

One weekend, Matthew and I had a pass together and we went to his house to visit his mother. It was an awkward visit.

While I was in the hospital, I was under the care of Dr. Grofe, and he was very kind to me, which I appreciated very much. It's funny -- when you're sick, you really appreciate small acts of kindness, while small acts of cruelty, for example by the nurses or aides, can be remembered forever.

But Dr. Grofe was kind. Sometimes when I would be sitting and talking with him, I would black out for awhile and not be aware of what I was talking about. But he would just patiently wait until I came "back" and then we would resume the conversation. When that happened, I would always know afterward that I had blacked out, and I would ask him what I had been talking about, but he never told me.

Eventually, I was released from the hospital to a halfway house, but I didn't stay there long. I rented an attic room from an elderly lady. The room was pink. But the hallucinations soon returned.

I remember one particularly awful night. First I heard choruses of voices coming from the upper right corner of the ceiling. Then I turned over and saw that someone was in bed with me, someone with dark hair. As soon as I saw her, she disappeared. After that I was listening to a symphony on the radio. It sounded like Schumann, but it was a symphony I was unfamiliar with. The next morning I discovered that the radio was unplugged.

I kept trying to get to the bathroom to take my medication. But then I got confused and I couldn't remember if I had already gone to the bathroom or not and this sequence kept repeating itself.

The next day I went back to the hospital. I couldn't make it on my own.

Dr. Grofe decided I might have a better chance if I were in a hospital closer to my parents. So he made arrangements for me to be transferred to the hospital at the University of Michigan, near my parents' home in Lansing, Michigan.

I don't remember anything about the flight.

I stayed in the new hospital for a few weeks. It was at some point during these hospitalizations that my father, as he later told me, was told that I would never live outside an institution.

I was determined that this would not be so.

I was getting tired of being in the hospital. I asked to be discharged, but the doctor refused. So one day, during a volleyball game in the back yard of the hospital, I slipped away unnoticed and ran down the hill to the street where I thumbed a ride into town.

I was free.

During the next few months, I made a semi-recovery. I got a job working as a sandwich maker in a small student restaurant. I started to take classes again at the music school. I met a new friend, Jeffrey, and we were soon living together.

Jeffrey was a teacher at an inner city school and a graduate student at the University. The relationship didn't last however, as Jeffrey soon became interested in another girl who lived up the street.

I was certain that his lack of interest in me was because of my weight, which at the time was about 150 pounds.

One day, after a heavy meal from McDonalds which included a sandwich and a milk shake, I went into the bathroom and made myself throw up the food by putting my fingers down my throat. I had heard about this in high school from a girl who did it.

I was surprised at how easy it was and how good I felt afterwards. Purged and clean. I thought it was my only way to keep Jeffrey. From that point, I was bulimic, and it became a terrible trap because once I started to purge, I found that I was unable to stop the habit. My purging was to go on for twenty seven years. I don't know why I didn't die.

Naturally, Jeffrey left anyway.

Little by little, however, my life was returning to normal. I worked in the restaurant and took classes at the University, occasionally accompanying students in their recitals.

It was just such an accompanying job which was to get me into the worst trouble of my life, but at this time I was blithely unaware of the new danger which lay ahead of me.

I was to go literally from the frying pan to the fire, and I only wish that I had known then, in the fall of 1967, what I know now.

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