The house was an old one, old enough to have already held much uncertainty and pain. The rooms were small and crooked, the doorways narrow. It was cold in the winter and stifling in the summer. It was often an uncomfortable place to be.

We were all about discomfort in that house. Discomfort, and awkwardness, and confusion about where our lives were going next.

For most of the people who found themselves stranded on this pleasant back road in the Hudson Valley of New York, the house was one more stop on a long journey of displacement and despair. There were lots of different words the world outside could use when talking about Robert and Charles, about Lucinda and Madeline, about Stephanie (all names and some identifying details have been changed). It all depended on how polite people wanted to be. They could say manic-depressive. Borderline. Narcissistic. Schizophrenic. Suicidal. They could say psychotic. They could say crazy.

All of the people in this house had been churning through the mental health system for years, and had now been deemed by professionals to be on the road to recovery. Well enough to leave the institutions—that sinister word!—where they had spent weeks or months. They weren't, however, necessarily ready to go home. Nor were the people waiting there necessarily ready to take them back.

So they had ended up here, in a "halfway house," the grand experiment of an pioneering New York City psychotherapist who had a vision: Here, in the quiet embrace of a pastoral landscape, people living with mental illness would heal in the company of others. She wanted to create a groundbreaking refuge from the over-medicated hospital wards where so many languished, a place where the patients would be treated as whole people.

Advertisement

They would stroll the grounds as the leaves rustled in the wind, or turned red, or fell to the ground. They would watch the snow fill up the driveway and the daffodils bend in the breeze. They would have private therapy sessions behind a gently closed door. They would talk things through as a group in a neat circle. They would go shopping at a nearby strip mall, for normalcy. They would get better. That was the plan.

Like the others who slept in these low-ceilinged rooms, I was there reluctantly, although I came by a different route. That New York therapist with a big idea was my mother. I was 16 years old.

This was not home. Home, for me, was still our apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I graduated a year early from high school, but wasn't going to college yet. Through family connections, I had landed a minimum-wage job as an editorial assistant at a small New York publishing house. My mother came back to the apartment some days and nights to continue a small therapy practice in the city, but mostly, I was on my own. I visited the farm, as we called it, although it had no animals or crops, on weekends and holidays as I banged up against the future.

Advertisement

At work, I proofread cookbook manuscripts and fetched lunch for the editors from the greasy diner downstairs. I helped find photographs for a coffee-table book about skyscrapers, rummaging through the files of the city's great architectural firms as if I knew what I was looking at. I ate apples and yogurt for breakfast, and toasted cheese sandwiches for most other meals. I went out dancing and drinking until all hours, and I did some very foolish things. I was lonely and sad, although I pretended not to be.

I fought about this arrangement by phone with my disapproving father, who lived in California with his second family, until he grew tired of the arguments and broke things off with me altogether.

I drifted. I set about reading through the complete works of Virginia Woolf, looking for a trail I could follow.

Advertisement

When I was feeling particularly unmoored, I would go up to the farm. There, in the close, slanted rooms of the 18th-century house, I would hang out with my mother's patients.

At first, I was shy of them. She had always conducted therapy sessions in our apartment when I was growing up, but when I got home from school in the afternoons I would go quickly to my bedroom in the back, timing my arrival so that I never encountered the people she sat and talked with, hour after hour after hour. In between patients, she would come in from the kitchen, give me an afternoon snack on a tray, and then close the door on me again.

At the farm, her patients and I were on the same side of the door. And these were not people who just needed talk therapy once a week; these people were seriously ill. I had heard my mother talk about the medications some were on, drugs that she disapproved of: mostly Haldol and Thorazine, the main antipsychotics of the day. I knew of the crippling symptoms they caused—the drowsiness, the emotional numbness, the disfiguring twitches of tardive dyskinesia.

Advertisement

Because I had grown up in a progressive Freudian therapist's house, I knew how wrong it was to stigmatize or look down on people who had these problems. It was also a time when mental illness had a strange glamour in popular culture. After generations of silence and denial, the American public was opening its mind to the idea that "crazy" people were just people, after all. It was part of the same cultural moment that saw other marginalized groups such as gay people and cancer patients (with whom my mother also worked as a therapist) emerging from the shadows of shame.

Like every other person coming of age, overexposed, in the '70s and '80s, I had seen the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when I was probably too young for it, then read the book for more horrifying detail. I had laughed at Woody Allen's obsessive ramblings about psychoanalysis. I had read The Bell Jar, over and over, wondering if I, too, was a depressed genius poet. I had thrilled to the exotic disorder of Sybil, the story (which was later challenged as a fraud) of a child abuse victim who developed multiple personalities.

As sophisticated as I imagined myself to be, however, I was still nervous before my first trip up to the farm, terrified of coming face to face with real people who had come through those fires, who had lived in locked wards. What could I possibly say to them that would not sound false?

Advertisement

What I later discovered, as we sat around the fireplace watching the embers like some misbegotten Colonial-era family, was that they had been as leery of me as I was of them. I was, after all, the daughter of the woman that they all had for a therapist. My mother was for them a central figure in the narrative of their illness and recovery, an icon ready for transference. They envied me my privileged access to her, my status as her actual child.

For my part, I had a normal teenager's seething ambivalence toward my mother. I was angry at her for marrying a man I didn't like, for moving from the city to this dead-quiet nowhere, for abandoning me half-formed in the chaos of 1980s New York.

Advertisement

And so her patients and I formed a sibling-like web of relationships. We were teammates and rivals, stealing cigarettes outside together, laughing at my stepfather behind his back, joining together in Christmas carols around the upright piano that Robert played so well.

He was about 25, thin and wiry with enormous eyes that were always too wide open and nostrils that were slightly flared, as if he were in a constant stage of thinly concealed outrage. He was the most judgmental of the people in the house. At the piano, we could connect, but even there, he was coiled and ready to strike. I still remember how it stung when he told me I was singing flat.

Charles, only a few years older than I, was the opposite: so soft and kind, it seemed he would rather disappear than contradict another person. I wasn't certain then, but I think now that he was gay, at a time when that was a terrible shame for many families. I did know that he had tried to make the problem of himself go away, forever, by attempting suicide, although I never dared to ask him how he had tried it. I always wondered why Charles had to be there in that house, as he seemed to have nothing wrong with him. Looking back, I understand that he must have been deeply depressed, demoralized to the point of self-erasure. At least with us, it was safe for him to be seen.

Advertisement

The other three residents of the house that I got to know were all women. Madeline was the oldest, in her 30s or 40s, I couldn't be sure. She had children at home, but she never spoke of them. She never spoke of anything. She was the sickest person we had, her body weighed down by the drugs that doctors had given her for years to calm her mind. Large doses of Haldol and Thorazine had left her with permanent tardive dyskinesia, causing her to twitch involuntarily, sometimes baring her teeth. She sat as if enthroned in a chair apart from the rest of us, sweating, in a fog of visible misery. None of us approached her very often. The terrible magnitude of her illness was humbling. It commanded its own kind of respect.

As for Lucinda and Stephanie, they were both in their early 20s, from well-to-do families, as were all the patients. Not much separated me from them. We had the same concerns and vanities, the same anxieties. We sat and gossiped for hours together in the long country afternoons, talking over our crushes and our sadnesses and our inability to see what could possibly come next.

We were all three ragged and directionless, all three unhappy and resentful and frightened, all three still living in hope. I wondered, as I looked at their faces, as we exchanged intimacies, what made us different, or if anything did. Why was I considered normal, well enough to go out into the world? Why was I expected to fend for myself, while they were held here in suspension, under my mother's care?

Advertisement

One day, the three of us discovered in the attic of the house a box full of dresses and hats from the 1940s. They must have been the very finest things belonging to the women who lived in the house in those days. We took them out carefully, holding them up against ourselves to see if they would fit us. If they would suit us.

Stephanie and Lucinda and I were all young women who hated our bodies, who chafed in our own skins, not able to see what beauty we had. My special torments were my soft white belly and my cloud of frizzy hair, which I had tried for years to straighten in the hopes that it might someday satisfy the people around me. As for Stephanie, she was quite overweight, mostly because of the medication she took. Her face was round and moonlike and covered with acne. Lucinda was thin—I envied her that—but she had a bad habit of pulling her long black hair out by the roots. The habit has a medical name, trichotillomania, and it left her with a bald spot at the back of her head. A diagnosable spot.

The clothes we found in the attic promised a transformation, a reprieve from our unhappy flesh. We each found a dress that would fit us, and a matching hat, and hurried into our separate rooms to change. Then we emerged and gazed at one another in delight.

Advertisement

Stephanie looked every inch the demure midcentury housewife out for a Sunday stroll, her hat a crown of respectability. Lucinda was sleek and cute in a navy blue sailor-themed outfit, her bald spot covered by a veiled toque. And I had found an elegant pale-brown rayon dress, delicately embroidered with sparkling glass beads in the shape of flowers at the neckline and on the sleeves, with a ruffle running down the skirt. It made me feel voluptuous and feminine rather than fat and clumsy.

We ran out into the living room in our finery and posed like strangers for the other residents, for my mother and stepfather. We threw our hips out to one side coquettishly and smiled like nothing could touch us.

I took my dress back to Manhattan, and then to California, where I finally went to college after surviving the dangerous limbo I was in and making things up with my father. I wore it for years to come, as I left the stagnant eddy of my teenage years behind and went forward under my own power, sometimes into new catastrophes, but always forward.

Advertisement

I wore it long after my mother lost that house and everything in it, along with almost everything else we had, because of her own reversals of fortune. Her grand experiment was well intentioned but short-lived. For a time, she made a place where people could be frail and human. Maybe it couldn't last. There was only one of her, after all.

In the years that followed the dissolution of her ideal and our home, whenever I put on the dress—always for a party or other festive occasion—I remembered the people I had known in that place, the low-ceilinged rooms that held us in and down. The safety we found there in the backwater.

I don't know what happened to most of the people I met there, although I did hear that Stephanie eventually made a successful career as an educator and public speaker on mental health issues.

Advertisement

I hope they all made it out into the rest of their lives in peace, even Madeline. I hope.

Eventually, the brown dress fell apart, rotted by time and sweat. I couldn't bear to let it go, so I cut out the sparkling beaded flowers, planning to somehow incorporate them into another garment. I held onto those flowers for years, as if I needed them to remember who I could be.

At some point, I must have thrown them away. I don't have any idea where they might be now. I, however, made it through.

Advertisement

Sarah Goodyear has written for a variety of publications, including the Atlantic's CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She is also the author of a novel, View from a Burning Bridge. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @buttermilk1.