A Blanquito In El Barrio

In Memory of Gil Fagiani

blanquito

Poet Extraordinaire and Beautiful Human Being

Gil Fagiani wrote one of the two book reviews on the back cover of Left of the Dial.

I had wanted him to write a book review because one of his own poetry books was titled Serfs of Psychiatry.

That book is an autobiographical account of his earliest job in the mental health field.

A Blanquito in El Barrio graphically conjures his descent into street drug abuse.

Gil is one of the people who lived to tell and was able to stay clean for decades.

He treated me come un figlia.

In his name (as was requested) I’m making a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I urge you to read Blanquito and any other of his books that you can find.

He is the third person I have lost in three years. Each of them to life-ending illnesses.

Our lives are like the song lyrics to “Big Yellow Taxi.” You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. All that remains of paradise in that song was a parking lot.

One day all that will be left of this planet is burnt earth.

It’s time. For days now I’ve been thinking of the quote: “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

You and I don’t know how much time we’ll have here. We don’t know how much time we’ll have with our loved ones, friends, and others we’re close to.

Make every day a day when you wake up and choose to love.

There is no other way to live.

One day things could change. Love is a life preserver. Acceptance is a safety net.

Make every encounter with another person a positive one.

Find the good: In life. In other people. In your situation.

Take a cue from Gil Fagiani’s remarkable life:

Fight the good fight. It isn’t over until it’s over. Treat everyone you meet with kindness.

Night of the 7 Fishes

2016-lobster

Un Buon Natale Con Italiani!

This photo was shot with my digital camera on Christmas Eve–the Night of the 7 Fishes in coastal Italian families.

You can read about this tradition in my memoir Left of the Dial.

We are from a town near Naples so we are Neapolitan thus we celebrate the holiday with 7 fish–the lobster is the big attraction.

Years ago when I was the Health Guide at the HealthCentral website I researched via a simple Google search the impact of culture on a person’s recovery from a mental health challenge.

Trust me I couldn’t find any studies that corroborated the link between culture and recovery. I couldn’t find this for Italians, Hispanics, African Americans, or any other ethnic folk.

You can read more about Italian American Mental Health in the book Benessere Psicologico: Contemporary Thought on Italian American Mental Health. The book costs $20 and is well worth the splurge.

It was published in November 2013. To this book I contributed a 10-page chapter titled “Recovery is Within Reach.”

Years ago at HealthCentral I did write about the impact of culture on my recovery. I wrote about finding a female Italian American therapist to talk to.

I do think that ethnic identity can have a positive role in helping a person recover.

I stand firm in my assertion that I recovered because of my mother. I recovered because I had the love and support of my close-knit Italian American family.

It’s time to stop judging people. It’s time to stop stereotyping people. We each of us need to see the person first. Not attribute to them a characteristic you think they have just because they’re from a certain ethnic identity.

Which is to say that not all Italians are bigots. A friend of mine who was Sicilian had a woman tell him she couldn’t hang out with him because he was Italian and she was African American. She had always been told to have nothing to do with Italians.

Can you imagine that?

I say: come on over and have some lobster!

Come on over and have some lobster!

Insieme.

We’ll treat you like family.

Buona Pasqua

Buona Pasqua–is Happy Easter in Italian. Though most likely it could be titled Happy Eater.

I went to my cousin’s. Her mother my Aunt and her sister were there. The amount of food could feed a small nation.I knew there would be too much food so I wasn’t worried that I couldn’t eat whatever meat was served–I knew there would be a ton of other food like vegetables. And the antipast’–a banquet before the main meal.

We are Italian, so there was a cheesecake, Russell Stover chocolates, a multitude of cannoli, other pastry, sorbet, chocolate chip cookies…and the list goes on.

It’s all relative…as to who your relatives are…when you are Italian. We consider them as true as blood. An Italian woman I talk to gave me this advice about a guy I like: “Kiss him. You’re Italian. You know how this goes: we’re Italians and we kiss people.”

The spring is coming: beautiful weather to be out and about. The tour guide in Rome told us it’s all “kissy-kissy” when I traveled there.

You turn 50 and think: it’s all about famiglia because you don’t know how much longer you’ll have with them.

I say: honor the parents who gave you birth. Except if there was outright abuse our parents most likely did the best they could. Honor them and protect them and care for them in their old age.

Buona Primavera. A Happy Spring to you!

Sagra del Libro

I sold copies of Left of the Dial at the Italian American Sagra del Libro or sale of the book.

It was early so I ducked into Angelo’s of Mulberry Street.

“Soltanto uno,” I told the white coat waiter. “Only me.”

“To drink?” He ushered me to a table.

“Aqua.” I unwrapped my thick pink boucle scarf and eased out of my coat.

CNN was playing on a TV on the ceiling. I ordered the mezza luna and escarole.

The waiter asked: “Italiano?” “Si,” I told him.

“Dove?” he asked. “Sicily. Naples.” I said. He shook his head.

“Calabria,” I continued. “Mi paesan!” He smiled.

Doppo cena / after supper I bought a pink scarf from a street vendor with the ubiquitous “cashmere” label even though it’s not likely cashmere for $5.

I was the first to read at the Sagra open reading. I read the Chills concert scene from the memoir.

You know it’s too cold when you wear the new scarf inside the coat and the old scarf outside the collar.

Spring is here in three weeks so hopefully the cold will be another season’s memory soon.

The event was filmed so stay tuned for where you can view the video where I’m reading from the book.

Mille grazie to all who stopped by.

Hospitals in Winter

You’re 22 and you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia and start to go down a long and winding road to get to a better life.

One day you turn 50 and are confronted with the reality that you don’t know how long your parents will be here. You don’t think NAMI and other mental health agencies are doing anything to help people older than 50 achieve a better recovery on their own.

I picked up two bereavement and grief pamphlets at the APA convention I attended in 2014 and read them. At HealthCentral I wrote about geriatric psychiatry and recovery at mid life when no one else was tackling these issues.

This is how it plays out:

You visit a person in the hospital. You’re told to go into the solarium while he’s checked on. You don’t sit on the couch. You count the available seating in the room: 15 chairs. You circle around the coffee table over and over.

A TV plays some kind of Christmas sitcom. There’s a remote control built into an electrical outlet on the wall. You channel surf until you hit CNN which is a better though not by much alternative to FoxNews.

All the news reporters have attractive faces. You wonder if being photogenic is written into the job description as one of the requirements for getting a news announcer’s job.

Why aren’t there any plain-looking news announcers? you think.

You’re called back into the room. He’s old; 81 years old. Your mother has brought pignoli cookies and seven-layer cookies for him. The three of you have a brief conversation before you head out to leave. “I love you” you tell him.

The next day you tell your hairdresser. She takes 50 minutes to perfect your new haircut. It looks stunning. It’s better than a trip to the shrink. “I want you to leave here happy,” she tells you.

You duck into a store and buy yourself gifts with the holiday money you were given. It’s just another Christmas in recovery.

Luckily you recovered. What about the others? What will happen when their parents are gone? How will individuals living on SSI and Medicaid be able to function on their own when their caregivers are gone?

Riddle me this Batwoman: who will care about them then when no one cares about them now?

La Notte Del Sette Pesce

The Night of the Seven Fishes / La Notte Del Sette Pesce is an Italian tradition of having fish on Christmas Eve.

Specifically it’s from towns on the seacoast. My mother’s mother / Nonna’s family was from Salerno in Naples on the bay.

I’m 50 now and every year since I was seven we’ve celebrated the seven fishes tradition. That’s 43 years of having lobster on Christmas Eve along with clams mussels shrimp other seafood and angel hair pasta with lobster or marinara sauce.

We are lucky to be able to afford lobster. I refer to this in Left of the Dial.

My contention is that a person can find pockets of joy in the hard times by enjoying a tradition. It doesn’t have to be lobster. It can be celebrating an equinox. It can be by doing volunteer work.

It’s possible to reclaim your self as well as your mental health after you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia. I understand that for some of us our old lives are gone and it seems like we’ve changed into a different person with new limitations.

This could be true yet I make the case for designing your lifestyle around your values and around an identity that is salient for you. As hard as it can be if you ask me celebrating ourselves is the way to go regardless of what has happened to us.

I identify as an Italian American. I identify as a Christian even though I don’t attend church and I’m not a member of any organized religion. I’m also a Fashionista and an Artist/Creative.

Finding an identity that resonates with us if you ask me is the key to transmuting our pain and changing our perception of what we’re capable of.

Some of us are going to have limitations imposed by the illness and others are going to have minimal disruption to our lives. Which is the prime reason I make that case for getting quicker, individualized treatment, appropriate medication, and practical career counseling–this Triangle of Mental Health can allow a person to have an easier time of it in recovery.

I have made this clear more than once.

I’ll go sign off now as I have to get ready to have the fish today.

Buon Natale a Tutti.

Thank You

I want to thank everyone who has read this blog over the years.

Thank you for buying Left of the Dial or for reading the memoir excerpts here if you didn’t buy the book.

I’m trying to line up a featured reader gig for the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) in May. I will tell everyone the information about this if I’m able to get the green light to do this.

2016 is the 25th anniversary of IAWA.

Everyone should take pride in their heritage if you ask me. A few bad apples shouldn’t spoil it for everyone else in this ethnicity.

I once saw a young teen wear a hoodie with bold letters proclaiming: “Proud to be Muslim.” I would like to have a tee shirt that proclaims: “Proud to be Italian.”

You don’t have to be Italian. You can have a different ethnicity. Either way taking pride in where you come from matters if you ask me.

A lot of the customs have gotten lost in translation. I say there’s a beauty in keeping traditions alive.

I wrote years ago at HealthCentral about the recovery strategy of establishing a tradition. I’ll talk about this in detail on Thursday.

Enjoy your day.

Cucina Povera

Abito una vita di cucina povera adesso. Soltanto mangio lentiche; pasta; verdure; dei pesce; e frutta. Aqua, aqua, aqua. Non bevande.

The Italian is elegant: cucina povera is literally “poor kitchen” or poverty food. It sounds beautiful in Italian though.

Years ago I told my shrink: “I want to lose weight.”

His automatic response: “Lay off the pasta”–giving me a Cheshire smile like he knew I was up to no good with the sauce.

Yet I think more psychiatrists should take an active role in having a dialogue with their patients about health, nutrition, and fitness. I think it’s foolish and could be unethical to merely write out a prescription and send the person on their way after a irresolute 15-minute chat.

I have decided that having a poor kitchen eating plan is better: for my wallet, my health, and for our planet.

We need to vote with our pocketbooks and not fork over our hard-earned money on food and drink that is going to make us sick while agribusinesses earn billions and billions of dollars.

Monsant-No! has polluted waterways with cancer-causing PCBs that have decimated inhabitants of a town and left it a ghost town. This company vociferously claimed its Agent Orange product would not harm human beings. Yes right we all know how that turned out.

Eating mostly fruits and vegetables is the way to go now. And I eat mostly organic fruits and vegetables. It’s better for the planet; it’s better for our plates. This is one instance where individual choices can benefit the world we live in beyond our bottom line–our waists and wallets.

I will return in here with cheap, simple recipes readers can cook or make.

I wrote in the Flourish blog about nutritional psychiatry. It’s high time and high tide that psychiatrists strive to treat the whole person: our bodies not just our heads.

Our shrinks must dialogue with us about our eating habits and refer us to a nutritionist if we have to consider this option. From 1990 to 1993 I met with an MD who had a private practice focused on nutrition and health. Dr. K. wrote on her prescription pad the RDAs of protein, calcium, and other vitamins I needed to have in my diet and what kinds of foods were the source of the RDAs.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that after I started seeing Dr. K I lost 20 pounds and kept it off until I was 40 and gained five pounds. Since taking up a weight lifting routine I lost those five pounds again.

There’s something to be said about judicious frugality like keeping a poor kitchen.

Che Bella Figura

The Italian ethic of che bella figura is literally what beautiful figure a person makes in society.

It’s the often stylized theatrics of acting as if you’re successful long before you’ve arrived at the place you want to be. I alluded to this in a scene in Left of the Dial.

In one way I had certain expectations I was supposed to live up to: to go to college to better myself and go farther than my parents had. Though having owned their own business isn’t shabby.

I do think culture impacts a person in recovery. This has not been widely researched or reported on or at least I could not find a lot of information about it on the Internet.

I contributed a 10-page chapter “Recovery is Within Reach” to Benessere Psicologico: contemporary thought on Italian American mental health. That’s of course psychological well-being in Italian. You can buy this book on Amazon. It features three peer stories in the first-person recovery section of the book as well as interesting glimpses into research studies about ethnicity and counseling.

Yes: I’m proud to be Italian. I credit the love and support of my close-knit Italian American family as a prime factor in how far I was able to go in my recovery.

I remember dancing the tarantella at American Legion halls. I remember the parties hosted downstairs in my Nonna’s basement. Nonna’s food was sprinkled with garlic cloves as big as teeth. You could scare the devil with how hot the sauce was.

No: I don’t approve of the family-bashing that goes on in the consumer recovery movement. I don’t approve either of when family members call their loved ones “a schizophrenic.”

Above all my mother was quick to boot my ass to go out and get a job. She didn’t think I was a schizophrenic: she thought I could hold a job just like other people could.

In October I will talk about finding the career you love. October is Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Stay tuned.

Sprezzatura

I’m proud of my Italian heritage.

I wrote at HealthCentral circa a year or two ago in October on how culture impacts recovery. October is Italian Heritage Month.

Though I might be biased, I think culture does play a role in a person’s life and in a person’s recovery. Some things can’t be a coincidence if you ask me.

Allure–the women’s beauty magazine–recently published a feature article on ballerinas titled Amazing Grace. After I read it, I decided I wanted to write in here about culture. In the memoir, I credited the love and support of my close-knit Italian American family as a factor that enabled me to succeed.

The feature on ballerinas reveals a little-known Italian ethic: sprezzatura, or the art of concealment. It’s why I’m a big fan of keeping the details of your illness private and maintaining decorum in your own life. Knowing who to tell and when is your right. Yet I see no benefit in random widespread disclosure to everyone you meet.

Ballerinas make it look easy and I might make it look easy too.

The Allure feature article sums it up thus:

“The combination of hidden discipline and apparently effortless grace is the secret to ballerinas’ enduring appeal. They have sprezzatura, Italian for the art of concealment. We know that what they do is hard. We know it takes enormous work. We even know it hurts. But they make us forget all that. They make the extraordinary seem natural. And that’s quite a special effect.”

Recovery is hard. It takes enormous work. It can hurt to be in emotional pain. It can hurt when other people don’t understand us or accept us or give us compassion.

I understand what it’s like to have a mental illness. I know how hard it is to get up every day and have to work twice as hard to get what you want when it seems things come easy to other people.

I’ll end here by telling you again that jealousy serves no purpose and self-pity serves no purpose.

Be grateful for what you do have and what you are able to achieve. Recovery is not a race, nor is it a competition.

And if it is a ballet, I want to be the dancer that makes you forget.

I want to bring readers moments of joy and grace and beauty.