The first time I ever experienced a higher state of consciousness—that I can remember, anyway—happened shortly after coming to terms with my own mortality. I wrote:

I was walking alone along Strawberry Creek on campus shortly before a therapy session with Dr. F when the knowledge—and I mean this in the deepest possible sense—came to me that I had the ability to realize all my aspirations, that is, to become a singer, a writer, and a visual artist.

For a brief moment, this realization lifted me above all the other feelings I’d been grappling with. In a rapt state, I told Dr. F about what I was experiencing. His response was a skeptical, “Well, maybe you can, maybe you can’t.” And in that moment I understood he was suggesting that my certainty was probably just grandiosity and self-delusion. I was so suggestible at the time that I was instantly deflated, plunged back into the depression I’d been feeling only an hour before. After the session I sank down in the grass in front of the hospital—though people were passing all around me—and sobbed without restraint.

Some time after this, Dr. F offered me sessions twice a week, so long as there was no one else needing to see him during his “free” hour. In the following days I felt so grateful—believing he made this offer because he cared about me. But the next time I saw him, he said he’d changed his mind. When I asked why, he said, “Because I don’t think you can handle it if I have to see someone else. And besides, I don’t want you to feel special.”

I was so angry I could hardly speak during the session, and when I left I knew that, though I’d been seeing him for ten months, I never would again. I was furious that he imagined he knew better than I did what I could and couldn’t handle—he didn’t—and given the pain I was in, his concern about my feeling special seemed ludicrously beside the point.




Once I was back at Cal for my senior year, I was able to see a therapist at the student hospital as I had during the spring of my sophomore year. Since Dr. Camarer had committed suicide, I was assigned to a new psychiatrist, Dr. F.

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

It was several years after my death despair began that I first told my mother about it. I remember, as a teenager, sleeping downstairs on the sectional in the living room for a time rather than in my bedroom because I was afraid to be alone. When I asked my mother how people came to terms with death, she said when I was an adult, I would know.

Consequently, when I was twenty-two and officially an adult, the conviction took hold of me one day that I had to face my death despair—I couldn’t keep trying to ward it off. Dr. F thought that I was trying to punish myself for something, but I believe I was simply trying to prepare myself for adulthood—as I’d been doing from the time I tried to befriend Britte as a senior in high school. It was the reason I’d sought therapy in the first place, gone to Spain, and started voice lessons. I was trying to extricate myself from my dysfunctional family and prepare to be independent. Because I’d already experienced so much misery since sixth grade, I was determined to turn my life around. If only I were brave enough, I told myself, I could free myself from the depression and anxiety that hampered me. In particular, I imagined that this was the way to free myself as an artist.

So, by degrees, I tried to stay in the anguish longer and longer when it overwhelmed me. I began to go through the stages of a dying person that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes but that I didn’t read about until years later—denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. (I skipped “bargaining.”) I became so deeply depressed that if I’d been that depressed about anything else, I probably would have killed myself. It seemed to me that my denial of my mortality and my will to live were one and the same thing and that if I gave up the denial, I might actually die. I remember examining my body one evening as I soaked in a warm bath—arms, legs, hands, feet—and crying bitterly, knowing I would have to surrender it. Another day, riding on a bus, I remember saying good-bye to the sky and clouds and April trees, and going to bed that night utterly depleted, not expecting to wake up in the morning. I’d accepted the laws of nature, bowed to the inevitable…and stopped resisting, knowing that if I survived, my life would never be the same.

Then there came an hour when I could rest, finally, in the despair and no longer try to escape it. I didn’t reach any kind of equanimity about dying—only a cold, soul-numbing resignation. I emerged from this passage doubting that I would ever feel carefree or joyful again. Though I went through these stages over the course of many months, it was years before I completely recovered. Throughout my twenties I couldn’t undertake anything long-term because I no longer had the sense that I had any time.

The hour I described above would have happened soon after my twenty-third birthday. So it’s interesting to consider, all these years later, that my grandmother, Marie, also had to face death at age twenty-three, twelve days after giving birth to my father. Do I think there’s a connection? Probably.




From A Patchwork Memoir:

I started with two voice lessons a week, then went to three, then four. While jealous of the more advanced students, I felt a pugnacious competitiveness. “Just you wait,” I thought fiercely, “I’ll show you all.” Which I suppose I got from my mother; that was her attitude about going to college, in the face of her father’s opposition.

Mrs. Unruh didn’t want her beginning students to practice on their own. She felt they were liable to undo her good work. So after my lessons, still full of music, I did the only thing I was allowed to—whistle at the bus stop until my cheeks hurt. Unlike most students, I loved vocalizing and wasn’t at all impatient to get to the songs at the end of the lesson. I would have been content just to stick to my nee-nay-noo-no-nahs because as the months passed my range broadened and my voice became more supple and resonant, until it finally began to soar.

To get to Mrs. Unruh’s studio (only fifteen minutes by car, but I didn’t have one), I had to take three buses, a two-and-a-half-hour round-trip. I’d arrive late in the day after my university classes, tired, depleted—and sag on the piano bench.

Mrs. Unruh had her own way of developing a voice. She’d been a pianist and learned to train voices from her choral director husband; in the years before his death, they’d had a philharmonic chorus that had toured the country. Unlike other teachers, she didn’t stop and start you till—maybe—you got it a little better. Instead she played the piano fast and loud, forcing you to keep up while covering your bumbling attempts enough that you didn’t feel self-conscious. She had such a wonderful ear that, even above the din, she could hear where you were having problems—what needed fixing—and she would bark out instructions like “Relax your jaw!” and “More breath!” As the music swept me up, I would feel my tiredness and despondency fall away. I now believe I was inadvertently moving energy up through chakras, because I would eventually reach a state where I felt both wonderfully energized and deeply relaxed.

Though I was depressed at the time, I came away from each lesson feeling transformed, however briefly. Singing seemed to tap a spiritual wellspring inside of me. I felt when I sang that I became my voice, and because it was beautiful, I was beautiful. As my technique became more assured, I found singing not less but even more fulfilling than I’d ever imagined it could be.

I remember a day, shortly before I had to quit, when Mrs. Unruh ordered me up off the bench where we sat side by side and had me stand in the middle of the room. As I began, I heard an amazing volume of sound swell around me until it made the whole room throb, yet it felt so effortless, I had no sensation that it came from me at all—it seemed, instead, to issue from the walls.

A quote from Gone with the Wind has always stayed with me: Ashley says of Melanie at her death, “She was the only dream I ever had that didn’t die in the face of reality.” Singing was mine.




To say I was “heartbroken” after my friendship with Britte ended would be an understatement. “Annihilated” would be more apt. That’s the risk with a teacher-student relationship that becomes as deep as Britte’s and mine did. As in a therapist-patient or minister-parishioner relationship, there’s a power imbalance that renders the student/patient/parishioner vulnerable in the extreme. I’d felt unlovable until Britte took me under her wing—and it was only believing I was valued by her that had given me a sense of selfworth. She was the authority figure, after all. Not on an intellectual but an emotional level, her rejection reinforced my feeling of worthlessness, confirmation that I truly was unlovable.

Not knowing where to go after my friendship with Britte “destructed,” I went to my mother’s—but didn’t stay long. She and my brother had moved to El Cerrito during my time abroad. In the two years I’d lived away from home, they had reached an accommodation of each other, and I was the interloper whose presence disturbed the equilibrium of the household. As my mother once told me, she’d decided after the divorce that since she had nothing to give Doug and me emotionally, she would provide “services,” like doing our laundry and dropping us off at our friends houses’—a bargain my brother was happy to strike. He regarded our mother as crazy, he told me later, and didn’t want anything to do with her beyond these practical ministrations.

I, on the other hand, wanted to have a relationship with my mother. I’d felt an empathy for her from my childhood on and knew things about her my brother wasn’t interested in knowing. I wasn’t able to just write her off, and, unlike my brother, I felt anxious and guilty about being a burden to her.  

After Christmas of that year, I moved into a group house for several months, started back to school, and began voice lessons with Arlen’s teacher, Mrs. Unruh.



The year I traveled and lived abroad, I got a serious throat infection every time I underwent a dramatic climate change—in Canada, then Spain, then England. In Spain I realized I was coming down with tonsillitis one day when I swallowed and felt a twinge in the exact location I knew my left tonsil to be. Rosi, the senora of the residencia, took me to the doctor in a cab. When he asked me if I had a fever and I said not that I knew of, he smiled at me with indulgent condescension, he was so sure I’d misdiagnosed myself. After he examined my throat, however, he looked both startled and sheepish to discover I DID have a spot of pus on my tonsil.

After the school year ended, Dale and I hitchhiked to England to meet up with Britte, the three of us planning to travel around Europe together. In the wee hours of the morning in a hostel on the outskirts of Stratford-on-Avon, I realized I was coming down with yet another throat infection—and by dawn I was running a high fever. I asked the director if I could spend the day in bed, but she said no, they closed down during the day. So Britte and Dale left me off in the lobby of a hotel and went to look around the town. By the time they came back for me I was so racked with fever I started “convulsing” when I tried to walk across the street—my teeth grinding and muscles seizing. They installed me in a room in a cheaper hotel and went out sightseeing for the day. I was so out of it that it didn’t occur to me to ask to see a doctor; all I wanted was to curl up in a ball, instinctively, like a sick animal in its lair. Britte and Dale brought me food in the evening, then went back to the hostel, leaving me alone and untended during the night.

In the morning when they came by, Britte said she’d gotten the name of a clinic to take me to. I thought my fever had broken because I no longer felt hot but told her I felt so weak I wasn’t sure I could get up. When she acted annoyed, I forced myself—but as I tried to walk down the stairs, I was gripped by a sudden panic and realized I was about to pass out; I had to put my head between my legs until my head cleared. At the clinic they told Britte my temperature was 103 degrees and scolded her for getting me out of bed to bring me to a place where they couldn’t treat me, saying I had to see a private doctor. (If my fever was 103 when I didn’t even feel hot, what had it been the day before? I wondered.) I remember going to the doctor alone later that day and asking him to please give me a SHOT.

For the next few days, Britte and Dale left me to convalesce by myself, bringing me food occasionally. Remembering how Britte had taken care of me the previous summer, I felt so abandoned that, still running a temperature, I bought a loaf of nut bread at a little grocery and went and sat by the river in the rain, where I sobbed without restraint. But I was so ashamed of my “infirmity” and worried about being a burden that I didn’t complain. One evening I said I felt well enough to go out for an hour or two, but Britte told me she and Dale had standing-room-only tickets to a play and insisted it would be too arduous for me. The next day I said I thought I could manage an afternoon outing, but she told me they’d planned something for the whole day.

Britte had acted cold towards me from the moment Dale and I met her at the airport—not the reception I was expecting. I wondered then if she was angry at me because I’d fallen off writing letters home in the previous couple of months—as my time in Spain drew to a close, I’d wanted to make the most of every moment. My affection for her was as deep as ever, but I’d figured we’d be together soon and have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company in the future, sharing the apartment she’d recently rented in a brown-shingle duplex near the high school. Or could she be jealous of my relationship with Pete? I wondered.

Whatever the case, it seemed clear to me throughout my illness (which lasted only four days, thanks to the antibiotics) that Britte was captivated by Dale, that she was busy “courting” her, and I was an encumbrance. In Athens Dale met a man she went off sightseeing with, leaving Britte and me behind. Over coffee in an outdoor restaurant, I told Britte what I’d been feeling—that she no longer cared for me, that she seemed completely preoccupied with Dale. I waited for a response, but she didn’t have anything to say.

In subsequent weeks, I couldn’t forget how completely I’d allowed myself to trust her the previous summer. I’d been so sure of our friendship then I hadn’t doubted that we’d be together at one or the other’s deathbed. Actually, I was so stunned by this reversal that I couldn’t entirely take it in. And once again, despite my wonderful, liberating year in Spain, I began to sink inexorably into depression.

Though Britte wouldn’t share her feelings with me—she never had until that morning at Jim’s in New York—I tried to trust that things would get better between us. Ten months had passed, I’d changed—I thought maybe it was just a matter of catching up, making adjustments. What her reasons were I won’t try to guess, but we became roommates as we’d planned. Maybe our relationship had gathered so much momentum over the previous four years that neither of us was able to abruptly change course.

I remember strolling on campus one day and feeling numbed by the impersonality of it all—the fact that everyone was walking around in their own world, that people didn’t meet each other’s eye, smile, acknowledge each other, that there was no human contact or connection.

I dreaded going back to school again and decided to postpone it. I borrowed Will Durant’s History of Civilization from my uncle Rob, instead, and started reading, but as my depression deepened, the excitement I’d felt about learning in Spain subsided, until one day I closed the book and never opened it again.

Looking back on it, I know my depression had to do with the staggering losses I was experiencing: the loss of a place I’d loved and felt deeply attached to, of the people there—my Spanish and American friends—of a way of life that had allowed me to bloom, and, most of all, of the feeling that I was loved and cherished by Britte that had been the foundation for it all.

I called the student hospital, hoping to resume therapy with Dr. Camarer, but was told he no longer worked there. When I mentioned this to Britte, she exclaimed, “You didn’t know? He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge!”—which left me dumfounded. I remembered how I’d intended to write him in Spain—to thank him for his help and tell him how happy I was. I even found myself wondering if that would have made a difference…if I could have saved his life.

For the first couple of months back in Berkeley, I had trouble functioning, so I was relieved when I found my energy returning and was able to do more. But my improvement didn’t improve my relationship with Britte. One day she yelled at me that she’d given me everything and sometimes she didn’t think I was worth it. It was all I could do to hang in there, trying to hold on to the faith that this was merely a difficult passage and we’d come through it. Then one day she exploded, smashing a glass table top with her fist and screaming that she felt like killing someone. I was so frightened by her behavior that I moved out—and took refuge briefly in my mother’s house, since I didn’t know where else to go.

Britte’s outburst marked the end of our friendship; she went into therapy briefly with a colleague of my mother’s, and on the few occasions I talked to her after this, she was hostile and distant. At the end of the school year a few months later, she went to France, where she would live for a number of years. So it was a very long time before I learned what the demise of our friendship was really all about. Though Britte could imagine that she’d given me “everything,” she continued to deny me the one and only thing that would have made all the difference: the truth.