Caprice Druse Speakout

Submitted by admin on Wed, 02/21/2007 - 02:00
I almost wasn't going to speak today. I was just going to come and listen. But when I got here I found a bunch of my friends standing around looking sad. The event before ours was a memorial service for a young gay man named Leonardo. He killed himself. And when I found that out, I knew I had to tell my story, because I could be him, all too easily.

I came out as a lesbian when I was 15 (I'm 29) in my small suburban town in upstate New York. It's not a town that welcomes difference. I have a friend who was fined for letting her lawn grow too high and wild. That pretty much sums up my town.

When we came out, some friends and I, high from the big 1993 LGBT march on Washington, started a gay group at our school. We called it Visibility -- eerily prescient, as we were soon all too visible. The climate was different then. There were no such groups that we knew of. People gave us a hard time. When my friends graduated, at the end of my sophomore year, the brunt of the harassment fell on me.

It was a climate of fear. I was chased home, had frog parts dropped down my shirt in bio, rape threats in my locker, threatening phone calls at home. Soon after that, in June of my senior year, some kids tried to run me over with their car, shouting "Dyke!" out the window, just a few blocks from my house. It was a climate of fear. There's just no other way to put it.

I finally graduated. I actually almost didn't graduate -- I had missed so many classes that I violated the school's attendance policy, and they insisted I repeat my senior year. My family and I appealed to the principal, the school board and the superintendent, writing letters and holding meetings, until they finally "let" me graduate -- with honors, thank you very much. They made their decision so late that my name wasn't in the program at graduation.

But I did graduate, and went to New York -- the Land of Queers -- to start college at NYU. It was time to put all this behind me. I went to the youth group at the LGBT center, Lesbian Avenger meetings, NYU's Queer Union, dyke bars and clubs.

Yet I was strangely obsessed with high school. Running into former classmates agitated me; visits home depressed me for days. I even worked on a 250-page "novel" about the experience, whenever I wasn't bumping libidos at the Clit Club or, oh yeah, studying.

Two years into college, I had a plum summer job as a camp counselor in bucolic Vermont. One day off, my new girlfriend and I wandered along Route 9 with precariously tall ice cream cones from Stewart's. A massive truck sped by, the driver's head out the window: "DYYYYYYYKES!"

Suddenly I wasn't in Vermont; I was in my hometown. Would the boys come back, how would I get home, who would I tell? I couldn't bear going to school tomorrow, not again, I hadn't studied, I had so many absences. I was completely agitated, blood racing, yet also entirely exhausted, my body heavy and unwieldy.

"Caprice?" My girlfriend peered into my face. "You okay?"

I thought I was crazy. And I don't mean "crazy" in the Icarus sense -- mad in a mad world -- I thought my mind was working against me. I didn't know what was going on.

Over the next year, this happened again and again. I rarely visited my parents because it happened there most often; but even in New York, it kept happening. I would sit in a class and suddenly think I was in high school, panicky, mistaking my classmates for people from home. I started having nightmares, reliving high school events over and over. Many nights I stayed up until daybreak, terrified of going to sleep. I smoked too much pot, put away the novel, quit going out, afraid to run into anything or anyone that might set me off.

The trauma took up residence not just in my head, but in my body. My right calf started to tense up painfully when I walked. Some days I had to stop two or three times just to walk the half-mile to class. I started taking Tylenol throughout the day in order to get around, more and more as the lower doses became ineffective. One frustrated, terrified evening, slipping in and out of time, I took the whole bottle, and wound up in the hospital for a week. A few months later I did it again, landing myself in the psych ward for 72 hours, where a nice psychiatrist told me that if I didn't get on anti-depressants, I would be in and out of hospitals for the rest of my life.

Frankly, I thought there were too many drugs in my life already. I threw out the painkillers and the pot (also a painkiller). I cut back to part-time classes, read up on nutrition, figured out I was hypoglycemic and made effort to always have good food with me or in the house. The symptoms abated, but not enough. One panicky, timeshifting evening in late 1998, a "friend" walked me to the hospital and had me committed involuntarily.

The nurses held me in the emergency room for hours, waiting for a bed. One a.m. became two and then three. The lights were too bright, the other patients noisy. I knew something about self-care by then; I knew that hospitals triggered me, knew that my routines of food and sleep calmed me down. It felt absurd to give up my self-help routines as part of being "helped". I waited until the nurses were changing shifts, tore off my hospital bracelet and snuck out.

I woke two hours later to a pounding on my door. "Open up! Open up! It's the police!" It was straight out of Law and Order. The police handcuffed me and took me in an ambulance back to the hospital, where they kept me for another 72 hours, the legal involuntary limit. They gave me pills, without telling me what they were, which I flushed down the toilet. I tried to talk to the doctors about what was upsetting me -- the flashbacks, the nightmares, the leg pain -- but they just looked at me cooly over their clipboards.

When released, I kept going to school, kept making good grades, kept making healthy changes. I moved from the disjointing clamor of Manhattan to the pre-Yuppified peace of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Some bad days I would hobble up the hill to Prospect Park and sit in my favorite tree all afternoon, letting the memories come, grounding myself in the rough bark beneath me, the long green meadow before me. I saw doctors for the leg pain, got a pair of orthotics, wore only thick-soled, shock-absorbing shoes. As the leg pain abated, I walked more and more, getting out of my head and into my body, letting years' worth of feelings pass through me.

I also read everything in the library that might possibly be relevant. (The Courage to Heal and Trauma and Recovery were particularly helpful.) I finally figured out that all this "craziness" was actually a maddeningly (pun intended) textbook case of trauma reaction. The "time-traveling," as I called it -- that was "splitting" or "dissociating". Apparently it's incredibly common for people to leave a situation mentally when unable to leave it physically, and also common for that skill (for it is a skill) to become difficult to control. The nightmares, the wildly cycling obsession and repulsion with what happened, the isolation, the physical manifestation of the trauma -- one after the other, all absurdly common.

I'd love to say that once I figured it out, it all went away. I'd love to say, That was then, and now I'm all better. (It's all over now, Baby Blue.) But that would be bullshit. I carry this experience with me every day of my life. I still have trouble staying present if I'm stressed, scared, hungry. I still hate hospitals, and handcuffs, and homophobes. (This sentence apparently brought to you by the letter "H".) I'm still learning more and more, day after day, about what it means to me to be healthy, how to get there, and who I want there with me -- and most of the time it's learning I enjoy. That's it.

Actually I have one more thing to say. Will mentioned earlier that Icarus is an anti-oppression group. Sometimes I talk to people who don't quite understand that connection -- how does mental health relate to racism, sexism, homophobia, the whole laundry list of oppression? But for me it's more than connected, it's inextricable. My mental health troubles come directly from how I was treated for being a lesbian. This is not a coincidence. Oppression dehumanizes people, keeps us from remembering and valuing who we are. That's what it's all about. That's its whole shtick. The more we fight oppression, the safer and healthier everyone will be.

Thanks for listening. This is a really safe space. Thanks to Icarus for putting this on.
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