Road to Riverhead
by Julie Burroughs Erdman
Eighteen years ago, I moved to Sag Harbor from Albany, New York. Finding work in the Hamptons busy summer restaurant industry, waiting tables came unnaturally to me. I was often scattered, particularly when I had to move at a fast pace. Even worse, I was a klutz, and no amount of practiced balancing could prevent me from routinely tripping over my feet and smashing glasses. Still, I needed work and had no better alternatives.
A bartender friend who doubled as an astrologer determined that I came to the east end of Long Island to find myself. People moved to the east end, he said, my natal chart spread in front of him, either to find themselves or lose themselves. I was a young woman. His was a reasonable conclusion, but he had it backward. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a college senior more than a year before, I was bolting.
When I moved, I had the bird’s eye perspective of a vacationer: surrounded by water, vast oceanfront beaches lined with cedar shingle mansions covered the south fork and acres of wineries dotted the gentrified north fork. With nothing but the roar of the ocean to draw me to Long Island, I inevitably faced disillusionment. The ebb and flow of the ocean tides did not provide me with the womb-like tranquility I sought. Drownings were commonplace in the erratic currents of the bays, sound and ocean.
The sea was a heartless monster.
Symptomatic and lost in existential dead space, four years and two psychiatric hospitalizations later, I moved west and began to finally find myself.
Settling northwest of Montauk Highway, a career change led me to the populated town of Riverhead. In the newer part of Riverhead, unlike the rest of the east end, neon lights are permitted, advertising a plentiful array of fast food eateries, big chain businesses, and nail salons. By contrast, downtown Riverhead is comprised largely of historic brick buildings and houses with lookout towers. Amid an award winning Aquarium and shiny new hotel, the stretch of empty storefront on either side of Main Street is conspicuous.
It is in this section of Riverhead where the thousands of homeless people are most visible at the local soup kitchens, shelters, and the Department of Social Services. With the only two day programs on the east end for people with psychiatric disabilities in Riverhead, another cross section of the population is strongly represented. Fourteen years ago, I began working for an agency that provides housing and coordinates treatment for people with psychiatric disabilities: a significant marker in what has heralded my own healing journey.
A working mother raising three children, I have lived through getting married, postpartum depression, the death of a child shortly after birth, and an impending divorce. I have not seen the inside of a psychiatric ward as a patient since 1998. There are steps I take day to day to ensure my continuing recovery from mental illness, but it started with first making a choice to live.
Surviving is different from living, and for those of us who face the wretched seasons of mood disorder, passively submitting to the involuntary vacuum of survival warns of danger. Our chest rise and fall with the contraction and expansion of our lungs. For someone with a natural proclivity for despair, making the transition from surviving to living can be a challenge. The every breath of survival can feel like the tick tock of a clock marking time in hell. Realizing that we have a choice is a first step and frequently begins with a clear deciding moment, or an epiphany. The epiphany to which I refer is not the holy grail grasping of the meaning of life, but the awakening to the revelation that life does, indeed, have meaning.
I know of no better example than that of a young man I will call Tony whom I met through my work as a mental health provider. I crossed paths with him last year when he was given a second chance in the housing program that, one year prior, had asked him to leave for offenses that ranged from abusive language to downright violence. Tony also self mutilated, with the cuts on his arms sometimes deep enough to warrant an ambulance ride to the local ER.