Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, September 6, 1998

TEEN WRITES OF TROUBLED TIMES AS MENTAL PATIENT

September 6, 1998

Advertisement

The author credits her stay with a Lawrence couple as the turning point in her recovery.

Anna didn't flinch when some kids in the mental ward began calling her Crazy Girl. Truth is, she saw it as flattery.

It was their way of saying she was stubborn. It was her way of thinking she was sane.

But there she was, just 14, locked in a mental hospital -- metal bars, metal window screens, metal beds -- a place so bleak she sometimes lashed out, banging her fists on the floor or pounding her face bloody against the walls.

Anna had been signed into the state-run hospital by her parents -- a father, she says, who slapped her around and a mother who beat her while she was in the shower, called her names and, in between, told her she loved her.

Anna was terrified. But she was furious, too, being cooped up, constantly monitored, watching as some kids were wrestled to the floor or subdued with drugs. She spoke out.

``The other kids thought I was crazy that I still had any spirit left,'' she says. ``They didn't think that anybody lives any differently. When some girl comes along and says there's something better out there, they think that's crazy.''

So they nicknamed her Crazy Girl.

``It was one of the few compliments I had, really,'' she says.

While still a patient, Anna decided the world should know what can happen to abused kids in the mental health system, how they can be overmedicated, intimidated and neglected. This was a story that should be told by an insider.

Anna was just a kid, but she had the perfect candidate. Herself.

A life of isolation and abuse

My grandmother says I destroyed my mother before I was even born. A little flame of hate burns before her ordinarily cold gray eyes when she says ... `You were so big, you tore her apart.'

And so it begins.

At age 16, Anna typed the first words of her story on a borrowed word processor. She had dropped out of high school to complete it.

At age 17, she had a 525-page manuscript, as thick as a phone book.

``Becoming Anna,'' the memoir of her turbulent adolescence and survival as a mental patient, is being published this month by The University of Chicago Press.

Anna Michener is now 21 though she barely looks it, with green-gray eyes, a Victorian pallor, short brown hair and blood red lipstick and nail polish.

Today, she has a new life and a new identity. She adopted her first name from one she had taken in a German class. Her surname comes from Charles and Mary Michener, the elderly Lawrence couple she credits with rescuing her after her release from the mental hospital. Charles Michener is a professor emeritus of entomology at Kansas University.

Anna's parents are not identified in her book. Her birth name and those of the doctors and mental hospitals were changed by her publisher for privacy and legal reasons. And that's fine with her.

``It's more of an Everyman kind of story,'' she says. ``It drives home the point that it could be anywhere.''

For Anna, home was in Midwest farm country, where she and her younger brother were part of a respected, intelligent, middle-class family. Her father worked at a convenience store; her mother suffered from diabetes and neuropathy, a painful, sometimes debilitating illness.

Anna -- called Tiffany in her book -- blames her troubles on a childhood she says was filled with physical and mental torment: a father who never touched her except to hit her; a mother who could give her the best birthday gift, then twist her arm; a grandmother who jabbed her with knitting needles and told her she had no conscience.

Anna says those experiences at home turned her into a scared kid at school, cowering when teachers came too close, fearing they'd strike her.

``I just didn't know what anybody ever expected of me,'' she says, ``so I tried to do as little as possible to leave as little room for mistakes.''

She had few friends and comforted herself with solitary activities, such as drawing and writing. But she also called attention to herself, faking seizures after discovering they aroused sympathy among teachers and classmates.

When Anna was 13, her parents took her to a psychiatrist. He asked if she would like a ``little vacation.'' That turned out to be a private mental hospital where she stayed for seven weeks. After a few months back home, she was committed again, this time to a state mental hospital. She was 14.

Her first diagnosis was depression. Then, dissociative disorder, a set of conditions that include disruptions in consciousness, memory, identity or perceptions.

Anna's memories of nearly a year in the state mental hospital are filtered through a teen's eye, stark and simple, good vs. evil: The kids, generally, are caring and decent, tormented by the staff that is, generally, insensitive and sadistic.

``It certainly wasn't a place for healing,'' Anna says. ``Everyone's treated the same whether you're supposedly depressed or violent or schizophrenic.''

As time passed, Anna, the timid girl who carried her stuffed brown bear to the hospital, turned foul-mouthed and rude.

She chafed at the 5 a.m. showers, the point sheet to grade her behavior, the ceiling mirror in her room that allowed staff to always see her, even from the other side of the door.

So much was wrong in life, but Anna was unsure how to make it right.

`They made my life worth living'

I asked Lori one day if it was too late for me, if I was completely crazy. ... I reminded her that I had faked seizures to get attention, that I was completely paranoid ... that sometimes I wanted to kill my family or the people who worked at the institution or kill myself.

-- from ``Becoming Anna''

Lori, the pseudonym for a ward psychologist, was the one staff member Anna trusted. She told Anna one day she noticed she was becoming worse in the hospital, acting out more.

Anna was eventually released to her mother, who was by then divorced. But just a few months later her mother grew sicker and was hospitalized, unable to take care of her children. Anna's brother ended up in group homes.

With Anna in danger of becoming a ward of the state, a high school friend, Galen Turner, stepped in. He was living with his grandparents, the Micheners, a soft-spoken, stable couple who had raised four children in their 53-year marriage.

The Micheners agreed to let Anna stay for a month.

``We still were thinking we really don't know this girl,'' says Charles Michener. ``We were worried. What if she turns out to be wild and difficult to live with?''

But the mercurial Anna and the mild-mannered Micheners were opposites that attracted. She stayed for two years. Although the Micheners didn't always approve of her friends, her clothes or her constantly changing hair color -- red, blue, pink, black -- their bond grew strong: They became Anna's guardians, and she took their name.

``We looked at it as if she were our daughter,'' Michener says, sitting in his house decorated with African and Aztec masks and other souvenirs of work-related world travels.

``We love her. We think she's wonderful. We're very proud of her accomplishment.''

The feelings are mutual. The Micheners, Anna says, were patient and compassionate, trusting her to make her own decisions, showing her how to live by their good example.

``If they didn't save my actual physical life,'' she says, ``they made my life worth living.''

Even so, Anna says, the transition wasn't easy for a 16-year-old who hadn't gone to the movies or parties or done so many things common for kids her age.

Mixed reviews

Anna began writing shortly after moving in with the Micheners. Though she left school to do the book, she later earned a high school equivalency diploma.

One Christmas, the Micheners, in their annual holiday letter to friends, mentioned Anna's project. One, a biologist in Costa Rica, was intrigued. After reading the manuscript, she was impressed. She asked an editor she knew at The University of Chicago Press to look at it and perhaps give Anna some publishing advice.

``I was amazed by the story,'' says Susan Abrams, the editor. ``She knows how to use language.''

The university press shipped the manuscript to professionals for review. Two of four mental health experts were unhappy with its harsh depiction of the child welfare system and life in mental hospitals.

But the press' faculty board voted to publish the book. Since then, reviews have been mixed.

``Were this a novel, sympathy for the overwriting, self-sanctifying pathetic narrator would run awfully thin,'' Publishers Weekly wrote.

But Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winner who, as an adult, wrote about his own miserable childhood and cruel stepmother in ``A Hole in the World,'' was wowed by Anna's writing and organizing skills. They've talked several times.

``What struck me most about the book was her rational penetration of all of the confusion and hypocrisy around her,'' Rhodes says. ``It was her remarkable sense of self-possession in the midst of all this horror that made the book so exceptional.''

Anna says if she wrote her story now, it wouldn't be so emotional or angry. But her editor, Abrams, says this is no exercise in revenge.

``Anna hasn't written this book to get back at people who have hurt her,'' she says. ``She's written it to get herself straight.''

Still wrestling with her demons

The only thing that bothers me about the fairy tale ending to my book is the fact that I simply lucked out. I had absolutely no control over my coming to live with Charles and Mary, absolutely no say in my own fate, and this is true of all children in this country.

-- from the epilogue of ``Becoming Anna.''

And so it ends.

Anna spent this summer with the Micheners before returning East to her new home, where she has supported herself working in a pizza parlor.

Though she found happiness with the couple, her scars remain. ``I'm not riding off in the sunset and everything's OK,'' she says.

She suffers from depression and wrestles with the question of whether she was crazy.

Anna would like to write more, but is pleased she has come so far.

``If I'm a loser the rest of my life,'' she says with a rueful laugh, ``if I'm a sorry drunk in the gutter, I can say, `You know what? I wrote a book when I was 16.' ''

She has decided to delay college. For now, she is recapturing her teen years, going to movies and restaurants and just enjoying herself.

``The most important thing I'm doing,'' she says, ``is being a kid for the first time in my life.''

-- Sharon Cohen is the AP's Midwest regional reporter, based in Chicago.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.