“Hi, I’m Jody. I’m a lesbian but don’t worry, it’s not like I’m going to attack you in the middle of the night.”
I spun around to see a stocky woman with close cropped hair standing a bit too close for comfort. Jody appeared to be 20-something, like me, and wore tattered dungarees, left-overs from the 70s, like mine. I had been unpacking and quietly checking out my new digs on the unlocked unit of this prestigious, private, psychiatric hospital south of Boston. I think I did feel a bit attacked as Jody’s booming voice jolted me back to reality. I likely jumped a mile.
All I could hear inside was “Lesbian. Lesbian. Lesbian.” as if trapped in some gay version of the The Brady Bunch. I intended to only say a friendly sounding “hi” but for some inexplicable reason, I followed that one word with, “Oh, I’d love to talk to you about that sometime.” I don’t know why I said it. I felt my heart beating in my neck. I freaked myself out; I hoped it didn’t show.
I was only two weeks out from an overdose and the contained silence of the locked ward had quickly become my norm again. When heavily drugged, also the norm for new admits at that time, my groggy brain never felt ready for the noise of the “outside world.” And I definitely didn’t feel ready for someone like Jody. Emblazoned on the front of her baggy, lavender t-shirt were the words “loud and proud”. A red and black checked, flannel shirt was layered over that. Her outfit was replete with boys, high-top, black converse sneakers.
It was the early days of AIDS, a tough time to be admitting I might not exactly be straight. Society, including my family of course, was scared. Some were already calling it “the gay plague.” Newsweek Magazine wrote an article calling bisexuals “pariahs.” The world was not a safe place to be out; it certainly didn’t feel safe for me to be coming out.
Jody extended her hand but instead of shaking mine, she enthusiastically threw her forearm around my neck and pulled me in for a way too long hug. My body stiffened as “a lesbian is hugging me” sent a shiver down my spine. I had always been a hugger by trade, I loved to hug, but this felt different. Arms glued to my sides, I could almost hear the pounding in my chest and wondered if she could feel it. I think I was holding my breath like I tend to do when anxious.
All I could think was “What have I done?” I had trouble talking about sex stuff in therapy, and now I was going to talk with this complete stranger about lesbianism? “I need a do-over” was so loud in my head, I thought I said it out loud. If words could be sucked back in, this would have been that moment on steroids. I felt completely exposed.
“Cool. I’m here to talk anytime. Anytime. I really look forward to it. When? Let’s figure out a time.” I backed up a few paces and shoved my hands in my pockets. The insistence and tenacity of her words sped past my ears like hot bullets just missing their target.
Jody looked down at her watch and summoned me with her shoulder. “Come on down to dinner. It’s Friday. All the lobster you can eat.” I heard “lobsta” from this native Bostonian and I was no longer a psych patient for a split second. I was a nurse in Texas being teased for not pronouncing my r’s.
Cotton mouth that made my tongue stick to the roof, and that same old squirrel scratching to get out of my belly, brought me back to standing there drenched in fear, shame, guilt, and mostly embarrassment. It was all I could do to yank on my hoodie and run after her.
I tried to catch up as Jody volleyed herself down the heavily lacquered staircase. Again I searched for words to hide my full body tremor, I mean terror. The space between her lobster comment and my response lagged. “All the lobster you can eat. Very amusing. But this is not my first time in a funny farm.” Did I just scream funny farm in a mental hospital? I felt so aware of every word now.
Jody, taking two steps at a time, didn’t skip a beat. “No, seriously, all the lobster you can eat. You aren’t in just a regular loony bin anymore.” I was glad Jody could also make light.
Alice, the nurse who had admitted me just a half hour before, appeared out of nowhere. “Jody, walk, don’t run. One step at a time, please. I wish I had your energy but slow down before you kill yourself or somebody else.” Over time, I came to see Alice’s kindness. Even when she tried to be stern, her eyes smiled.
This hospital was nothing like all the horrible places where I had spent many months over the last few years. Good food, nice staff, and opulent surroundings. I felt like I had landed in the twilight zone. Was there an episode about a young virgin traumatized by the hug of an admitted lesbian? Probably not. Lost in these silly thoughts, I had managed to gather a plate full of lobster with drawn butter, two hot rolls, and Caesar salad. This was the best I had eaten in weeks, probably months, with my depression. Jody motioned to follow her to the crowded table in the far corner.
“Sit with us.” With a bow and a flagrant wave of her hand as if she were Jeeves the butler, Jody declared, “This is Betty. Our new roomie. She took Donna’s bed. Go easy on her,” and laughed. “I think I just scared the shit out of her.”
“As only you can,” the red-headed woman with the heavy blue eye shadow laughed. The rest of the women at the table laughed, too. I dipped my first fork of lobster into the drawn butter and feigned a laugh as well. I couldn’t let them see that Jody was right.
From that night on, many times each day, and with great enthusiasm, Jody was in my face saying, “Remember, we are going to talk!” She must have thought she was refreshing my memory, as if I could ever forget my earlier lapse of judgement.
I wanted to say, “I didn’t mean what I said and I don’t want to talk to you.” Instead, each time, I kinda murmured, “I remember. Soon.” then made up a staff talk or some excuse to walk away. She never got the hint.
Then came the day. Jody was suddenly right in front of me proclaiming so everyone could hear, “I’m being discharged at two. It’s now or never.” More softly she said, “Let’s go to the sitting room.” Hoping she had not told everyone but fearing she had, I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I was certain she could see the “I’m embarrassed” rash I always got on my neck. I gave up resisting, nodded my head, and followed. Jody sat on the couch patting the cushion next to her. I took the chair across the room. She frowned.
“You said you wanted to talk. About being gay?” Go for the jugular, Jody. “Um. Well. OK. Yeah.” Big deep breath. An onslaught of words fell from my mouth. I seemed to have no control and went for it.
I started with, “You see, I have this friend Loren.” Deep breath for courage. “We’ve been close friends for about three years. OK, sometimes more than friends.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Jody nod and softly smile. “I have never been with a woman before her and I guess I will never be again so it’s not so much that I’m gay or something, it’s just Loren.” Words were colliding against each other in my frenzy to explain (or deny). I continued, “So I don’t know why I even said that to you that day. I love Loren, but I’m not ‘in love’ with her. We are just really just really close friends really.” Good grief, really stupid sentence, I chided myself. We both let there be some air in the room, thank goodness, but Jody was grinning ear to ear.
“We all start out that way.” Jody’s announcement was met by my dead silence. Then, against all that was holy, I continued to dive in.
“OK, honest? We are a couple.” I said. “A closeted couple I guess. I am in love with Loren, I think. First time saying that out loud! But it’s just Loren. It’s not ALL women. Truth, she is the
only woman I have ever slept with.” Somewhere inside, I decided to go full honest. “OK, the only person I have ever slept with. Intimacy is not my strong suit.”
Leaning back in my chair, I tried to look casual after my intimate oversharing. I diverted the attention back onto Jody and followed up with, “When and how did you know you were gay, weren’t straight?”
“Probably since the day I was born,” Jody started in. “Always the tomboy, always in trees. Hated dresses much to the chagrin of my mother. Father didn’t notice or didn’t care enough to care. My mother is the quintessential, Jewish mother. If chicken soup could cure being gay…”
Jody trailed off while a tear fell from her eye. She wiped it away with her forearm. “That’s why I’m here. She manages to get me committed over…and over…and over. To cure me. My parents willingly pay for these private expensive places to ‘straighten’ me out.” Jody put the straight word in crooked air-quotes.
“I have a lover, Danielle. I have been in love with her since we were in grade school. I think, like me, she just always knew too. Our first kiss was when we were like 12, 13. She’s my one and only, always will be.” Another small tear rolled down her cheek. “I’m not crazy. We are lesbians that’s all. I just love women. That doesn’t make me crazy.”
I didn’t say a word though there were lots of them in my head. She knew so young. Had I known on some level for a long time too? I wasn’t brought up in a homophobic house, I was raised in a heterosexual home. Gay people didn’t really exist in our world. Except, I had a great aunt who was an army nurse, never married, and always had a female “roommate.” Mom told us she always had to call Mabel’s roommates “Aunt.”
“They did shock treatments,” Jody continued. “Tons of antipsychotics. They even donated my flannel shirts to Goodwill!”
I was grateful for the lighter moment and wanted it to continue so I added, “Your parents are my parents, or would be if they knew. Minus the homemade chicken soup, of course.”
But the levity was quickly over as Jody slammed her fist on the table next to her. “It’s not going to work. I love women. I don’t hate men.” A deep second passed and with a lower pitched voice, Jody said softly, “I wish my family didn’t hate me.”
Tears rushed down her face. I knew in that moment, it was Jody who really needed to talk. Jody and I talked non-stop for a few hours that day. Two o’clock came too soon. Why had I pushed her away. Why had I not talked to her sooner. Jody helped me see that day it was not just Loren I loved. It was women. And now I loved Jody too. She was so brave.
Jody and I stood and hugged. Once again, for too long, but this time it was not uncomfortable. We were both snotty with tears. Jody reached into her pocket, handed me a tissue, and whispered in my ear “It will be ok. There is nothing you need to do. Just go love Loren. You will figure out the rest over time.”
She hugged me tighter; I hugged her back even tighter still and whispered her words back to her. “It will be ok for you too. Just go love Danielle. Your parents will figure it out over time.” I released her body but held her chin. “And thank you, Jody.”
I was packing to leave a few weeks later when I realized Alice was standing in the doorway of my room—her eyes red. I squinted, “Was she crying?” For a second I didn’t understand what was happening. Everything went into slow motion. Her words drifted across the room, consonants and vowels elongated till they weren’t even words anymore just slow, sloppy sounds, stinging as they struck.
Nothing made sense. In that moment, the world just stopped making sense. I looked down at my hands but they didn’t make sense. My eyes went cloudy. Her words echoed like I was underwater, like she was really far away, like I was in a tunnel.
The word “suicide” was all I caught at first. I saw myself back in the ER with black liquid charcoal being forced through the tube in my nose. But I wasn’t me, I was Jody. She was reaching out to me but I couldn’t get to her. In my tunnel, I could hear her calling out but couldn’t understand her words. A flash of her parents standing in the morgue as they slid the sheet off of her face “That’s her. That’s our daughter,” her dad said lovingly in my head. Her mother was sobbing.
I was lost in the sound of this woman wailing till I realized it was me and Alice was holding me. She helped me down to the floor before I fell and sat cross-legged with me for I don’t know how long. All the tears I’d been storing up since my own overdose came rushing to the surface and I just couldn’t stop bawling. I couldn’t feel the floor under me but I could feel Alice’s steadying hand on my shoulder. She was saying words. Just words like “It’s ok.” “It’ll be ok.” “She’s at peace now.” Words. They didn’t mean anything. I could feel myself start to dissociate, floating away to that spot above the door where my spirit goes to escape.
“Take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out through your mouth.” I knew this breath grounding exercise Alice was attempting. “What colors do you see, Betty? Look up. Look around.” I knew this exercise, too.
“What happened Alice? When? How? Is she going to be okay?” Alice looked into my eyes and held my chin like I had held Jody’s. “She’s gone, Betty. I’m so sorry. She’s gone.”
“She can’t be. She can’t be.” But through Alice’s eyes, I knew it was true. “I saw her but I couldn’t reach her. I couldn’t reach her.” I told Alice as if I was recounting a dream. I still wanted to know if she was going to be okay.
I think I really wanted to know if I was going to be okay.
With Alice’s encouragement, I was convinced to stay a few more days. She and I talked several times until I was discharged. Those of us who had known Jody spent time crowded around that same far corner table in the dining room late into the evenings. The first night, crying and hugging; the next, crying and laughing. Someone repeated a lame joke Jody had told them. Some were angry with her parents. Some with her. I felt all of those things, but I also just felt blank.
In the last weeks of Jody’s life, she altered the path of mine. Twice. A short time later, I came out to my parents and I also never tried to kill myself again.
Decades later, over a cup of tea while home for my dad’s funeral, I told my mom I used to think they would rather have a dead daughter than a gay daughter. She said I was wrong. I told her about Jody. We both had watery eyes and she said she was sorry, then we hugged for a long time.
I’m 67 now, retired, my mom recently passed and most of my friends are older lesbians. Some things in society have changed and some have stayed the same. In the United States, marriage equality passed and HIV/AIDS is no longer seen as an unavoidable death sentence. We are in the third year of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID 19) pandemic which has claimed over a million lives in just the USA.
And there continues to be too many Jodys, and too many moms and dads of Jodys, unable or unwilling to just let their kids be who they are—Loud and Proud.
Betty Aubut © 2022
This story with my friend Jody is a chapter from my memoir. It’s about her losing her life because of homophobia and it’s also about her willingness to help me look at my internalized homophobia. Back in the days of the AIDS crisis, the idea of coming out was fraught with fear and shame.
In contrast to Jody, who at an early age accepted who she was and never questioned her sexuality, it wasn’t nearly the same for me. As you can see in this piece, Jody is largely responsible for me beginning to accept my truth. A lifetime of trying to find a way to like myself, dare I say, love myself. This chapter is just the beginning of a long story of self-acceptance. I think I just wrote the “Table of Contents” in my bio.
The memorable few days I spent with Jody, starts with me being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. It was not my first and though I like to think it was my last so that on some spiritual level Jody’s life would have mattered, I actually had many more I think. I stopped trying to be dead the time I succeeded.
I was DOA from an overdose in the mid 1980s. I clearly remember floating above the narrow bed in the ER and seeing my naked body below. In a cloud of light above, my beloved and recently passed grandmother pushed me back with her words: “It’s not your time. Your work is not done. You need to go back.” In that moment, with a whoosh I felt throughout my body, I was sucked back in as I heard the doctor say “We got her back.”
I have a lot of stories to tell but so many require I publicly acknowledge I am a woman with “lived psychiatric experience,” the new age positive take that is supposed to eliminate stigma. Right. I don’t mind saying I am scared to death, so to speak, that I will be judged or seen by people who have known me (or thought they have), as a different person than they thought I was yesterday.
Or worse, those who don’t know me well, will place me in the “crazy” category and I will become a non-person again. I will suddenly be that dangerous person who can “go postal” at any moment. I fear being called bananas. Bonkers. Cuckoo. Crackers. Loony Toon. Sick. Or just plain “mental” as a finger is spun beside their ear warning the person behind me “Crazy lady coming through.” Stigmatized.
For several years now, with the right medication, I am happy to say I live well with bipolar and a few other probably well placed diagnoses like PTSD. Unlike some, I am not against labels. Like the word lesbian, I feel labels help me find my people. People who see, accept, and care about all of me. People who love me warts and all—the quality in a friend never to be taken for granted!
Sometimes in depths of despair, I have had to remind myself I have been a “real person” who had a “real life.” People who live with mental health issues desperately want to be seen as a person first. Perhaps coming out of this second “closet” will help someone else feel less crushed by the stigma placed on us by society.
And I need my life to have mattered. I need my difficult as well as my amazing experiences of life to have significance. While documenting my sadly too common stories of bad therapists, inpatient abuse and even sexual assault/rape within the psychiatric system, I hope my forthcoming memoir will encourage others to fight internalized shame with me as they share their own potentially painful experiences.
I know I am far from alone and our stories need to be told. The psychiatric system needs to be fixed and only will be if we finally tell the truth of what has happened to too many of us under the “care” of psychiatry.
Jody changed my life that day. And yes, the fear of confronting internalized homophobia is still hard in the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Homophobia still feeds self-hatred for too many of us. Part of that self-hatred for many folx can be childhood rape, beatings by bullies that too often result in teen suicides, esp trans teens, and even parents who still, in 2023, throw out their 13 year old questioning son who ends up homeless, a sex slave, or worse.
Still too many Jodys, and still too many Mr and Mrs. Jodys.
Thanks for sharing your time with me and Jody today, Per healing guru Brené Brown, this is my first stab with “vulnerability 101.” Kid gloves?
© Betty Aubut
At the age of three, I was already operating on dolls. That was it. No need to ask what I was going to do with my life—I was going to be nurse. But the year I graduated from the local nursing school, hard to believe now, but there was a hiring freeze for Nurses. No jobs.
The way around this was to be hired unseen, through the mail, by The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. There was no zoom in 1975, in fact there were no computers and of course, no internet. I had rarely been out of my small rural town and suddenly I was in a 1962 Chevy pulling a UHAUL heading for the big city and finally, my big career.
“People plan, God/dess laughs” as they say in my circles. A long three years in college and a short three years as an RN, I suffered a severe back injury and four major spinal surgeries. And that was just the start. I also suffered a nerve injury during my 3rd surgery that left me with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome which in the medical world, remains untreatable. CRPS is an exquisitely painful condition with “central sensitization” of my sympathetic nervous system. Don’t ask. Please see Google. I had a doctor tell me once that you can’t live in constant pain and not be depressed. So clinical depression led to a diagnosis of Bipolar and every diagnosis under the sun so insurance would keep paying the medical bills.
I feel like I can skip all the 40 years since then (though clearly I don’t) and sum it up for you. Life was hell. OK. Not always hell, lots of it was good because I didn’t let parts of it eat me up and spit me out. Yeah, OK, sometimes I did.
I ended up with epilepsy after brain inflammation post-myelogram, a short lived addiction to physician prescribed pain pills, way too many shock treatments that literally had me forgetting my name, and numerous suicide attempts. I spent the majority of my life walking with crutches and braces, living alone, and stubbornly independent even when it was not particularly wise. I was disabled. Mentally and physically. I had to accept it.
I am the author and copyright holder of the phrase “You never know where you have to be willing to go in order to end up where you are supposed to be.”
What do you do when you are half way through a burning forest? You keep on going! Turning around just puts you back on square one and you have the entire forest ahead of you again. So, slightly altering a way too often used phrase, “Buckle up, my life has been a bumpy ride.”
Life wasn’t heading in a great direction when I injured my back so did the injury actually save my life? We won’t ever know. I like who I am as a person so how can I dislike the way I got here is a question I often pose. Maybe there could have been an easier way, a shorter route, a clearer path, but apparently not for me. “We never know where we have to be willing to go…”
In the end, besides my time in Texas, I have lived many places in Massachusetts near Boston including Brookline, Belmont, and Cambridge – smack dab in the middle of “Hahvad” Square. Where better to live except minutes from the subway (known at the “T”) when you are unable to drive because of seizures. For a short time I lived in Hyannis and West Yarmouth on Cape Cod, Kennedy country. Most of those years, I volleyed between inpatient and outpatient treatment for neurological and psychological conditions.
As I relocated and went through my ups and downs, I tried to find worth and meaning in life. For about half a decade, I volunteered 16 hrs/week on a crisis suicide hotline and a drop-in center for the unhomed. (Chosen to take the course to become a Hotline Trainer was a real zip to my flattened ego.) Every single day, except the evening I was attacked when walking to my car, was fulfilling. But after being nearly hijacked that night, another admission ensued where many memories of other abuses in my life became my now daily flashbacks. One nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told me it was about time I started remembering things. “You’ve been diagnosed with PTSD for years.”
At some point in that same decade, I worked as the RN Evening Supervisor in a 100+ bed nursing home. I worked as an RN for 9 community residences for adults with developmental disabilities. I was also employed as a psych counselor in an apartment complex for adults living well with Schizophrenia. Every person had their own apartment and privacy. Unique and inventive for the times. Still would be if it continued to exist.
I decided I might be up to attending the College of Public and Community Service within UMASS, Boston Campus, for my degree in Human Services. Having completed the four year program in only two and with honors, I knew I was back!
Resuscitating my embouchure for flute and piccolo, I laid down my crutches when I could, and joined the newly formed Lesbian and Gay Freedom Trail Band of Boston. I played in Pride parades from Boston to New York and in between as well as performed in concerts throughout New England. I even joined a few Pride committees, organized an all day women’s rights panel, produced a Disability Rights conference and organized concerts hiring lesbian singer/performers from as far away as DC. (All replete with ASL interpretation and of course, wheelchair accessible.)
Pushing my comfort zone to the max, I even spoke at a Sexual Attitude Reassessment Seminar launched Dr. Stan Ducharme. These Sexuality and Disability seminars were in response to consumers in rehabs and Independent Living Centers who were asking questions of unprepared physicians about the specifics of having sex with a spinal cord injury, etc. Disabled people had sex? It’s hard to believe, even now, that I literally spoke into a mic the details of making love, specifically within a lesbian relationship, to a partner with chronic pain, epilepsy, depression, and whatever other questions they asked. That would feel brave, even now.
If you can believe, I was even on a live TV show talking about bisexuality on April 26, 1986 when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine melted down. I have the VHS tape to prove it.
In 1999, before selling everything and moving to Naples, FL, I completed a six month Graphic Design program. At Unity Church of Naples, where I rediscovered my long lost relationship with spirit, a friend told me that the local natural health magazine was looking for a designer. I ran the Advertising Department, designed ads and in short time, was designing the entire local magazine. Mixed up in there was a year of classes to become certified in Alice Bailey’s Esoteric Healing. A Universal energy focus is still a very prominent part of how I do life.
Did I forget to say I also organized an entire World AIDS Day event in I think 2000 with Andrea from Planned Parenthood. I was also the guest speaker. Subject? A topic just beginning to be addressed – “AIDS and the Senior Community.”
In 2005, having evacuated 6 times for hurricanes, I had a dream that I was standing in the mountains painting. From that day on, Asheville seemed to be in my face in every way possible. Someone was moving to Naples from Asheville, a speaker I was designing an ad for was lived in Asheville, the crystal healing down the street was opening a second office, where? Asheville. On and On. I didn’t even know Asheville was in North Carolina, or that it was in the mountains, and I certainly didn’t know it was kind of a Lesbian mecca after living in very straight, very white, Naples for 6 years.
Long story short, though telling short stories is not my strong suit as you can see, an advertiser I had served with on the board of a local healing center the year previous, told me on the phone, she and her husband were moving to North Carolina where they were starting a new franchise, the goal being 5 national franchises of this natural health magazine. Where? Asheville of course.
I have no earthy idea why, but out of my mouth popped “I could be convinced to relocate and run the magazines for you.” The unexpected response was an enthusiastic “yes” and 6 weeks later, again selling most of my stuff, I landed in Asheville, North Carolina. Within a month, I got quickly involved in the lesbian community and created the logo for and joined the board of the The Asheville Lesbian Professionals (ALPS.) I also started a successful, but now defunct women’s group known as SPLAT! (Spiritual and Political Lesbians of Asheville. TaDa!) All the topics you were not supposed to discuss, were.
I had not been hospitalized or even been on any medication for over 10 years. Life was good until I witnessed a crime in a grocery store parking lot that involved the SWAT team aiming their drawn rifles toward my car. I freaked out, found myself needing hospitalization, and started back down the PTSD road where I still reside today.
Just past my 17th year in the WNC mountains, I am retired, still run my graphic design business “inFlow Productions” but now out of the first home I have ever owned. Unity of The Blue Ridge feeds my spirit and soul, and I have been back in therapy for years again. Plan to be for the rest of my life. I wish for the sake of peace in the world and honesty in government, everyone saw a therapist and dealt with their traumas.
As you can see, much like the local hills, it’s been a rollercoaster life. But in fulfillment of a dream, though I don’t go up into the mountains to paint, Asheville is home. Besides hours on the computer playing with PhotoShop, Illustrator and Indesign, I also stay busy making and designing beaded jewelry, writing memoir and screenplays, and I plan to leave my North Asheville condo, feet first.
Did I mention I wrote a book about suicide titled “Angel in Your Heart: Surviving Suicidal Thoughts” which I hope to finish editing and publish soon. BOLO.
Thanks to those who got this far. I have a mental illness and a sometimes visible physical disability but as you can see, I’ve also have had quite a life. Never say never. Just wonder “What’s next?”
© Betty Aubut (and next to me on the recliner, my loving cat, “Kat.”)