OUT OF THE BLUE
The room was nice. Large and sunny. Inviting, almost. The layout was defined by three rectangles. One was an entry large enough
to be a vestibule, which lent the space an aura of privacy. Itopened into the principal area, but there was a little niche off to
the side–so instead of a room with four walls, there were eight, and instead of four corners, there were six, plus the private bath. It gave the room a cozy complexity.
But the showstoppers were the two large windows facing east and two more facing south, which framed the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge a quarter of a mile or so away–the one immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel. It spanned the East River ten floors below.
New York City would never have a lazy river, would it? This one flows energetically to the south and then turns right around and flows to the north. . . . All day long it goes back and forth, back and forth, with the big Atlantic Ocean tides. Fast, but still not too fast for the ferries, which roar back and forth, insensible to the havoc left in their jumbo wake. Only the little tugboats go slowly–nudging enormous tankers through a narrow strip of commerce that never gets snarled like the three lanes of traffic heading south on the FDR Drive. It’s just the opposite of the song: The lanes heading north are on a lower level, so in effect the Bronx is down and the Battery’s up. I’m smack in midtown, the busiest place on earth–rush hour is every hour of the day, and sometimes the night.
And, of course, the sun moves around a lot, too, rising over Randalls Island with my breakfast, then climbing higher and higher. For lunch, it turns toward the Chrysler Building, and then down and out of sight. Every day. But I’m not going anywhere.
This was my home for three weeks in the spring of 2001.
My tides were fluctuating, too–back and forth, back and forth–sometimes so fast they seemed to be spinning. They call this “rapid cycling.” It’s a marvel that a person can appear to be standing still when the mood tides are sloshing back and forth, sometimes sweeping in both directions at once. They call that a
“mixed state.” It felt like a miniature motocross race going on in my head. It made a little hum, and my eyes sort of burned and felt a little too large for their sockets.
But it was a lovely room. When I checked in, late in May, I was lucky to get it. Evidently there were no other VIPs in residence at that time–not at this address, at least. I was allowed to bypass the usual chaos at admitting, a nod to my potential to be recognized, and though technically I was a patient at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, I was installed in a room on a general floor, another nod to my singularity. I never saw it, but I heard that the other
floor had locked doors, that psychiatric patients were supposed to wear hospital gowns rather than the fancy pajamas I was given liberty to wear.
The special attention and fine accommodations had not been at my request, nor was I here because I wanted to show off my nice pj’s. I was here because they said I ought to be–I accepted that much–and had come, under my own steam, for a few days.
I became accustomed to mealtime trays with plastic utensils and no knives, to leaving the bathroom door open at least a crack, to sleeping with a lady in white sitting six feet away in the darkness, keeping an eye on me. No hands under the covers, she said on my first night away from home, which made me cry–acutely aware of where I was and why. I cried a little harder.
In time, my lovely, sunny room, with African violets thriving under my personal care in the morning light, came to feel like home. And I had to wear pajamas only at night–sweats and T-shirts seemed perfectly appropriate for casual entertaining in my room with a view.
Hives: I used to call them the seven-year itch, because they had first appeared when I was seven, then again at fourteen and, briefly, again when I was twenty-one. That last time, just before I finished college, everyone had a case of nerves: My roommates were either hyperventilating, suffering migraines, or getting married. When I was twenty-eight–at the next seven-year interval–the hives were silent and, I thought, gone for good.
Out of the blue, in March 1999, while I was on vacation with my family and six months shy of my forty-ninth birthday, my unwelcome friends came back for the first time in my adult life and settled. I didn’t see them every day, but often enough that any day they could show up for no reason. These were not red,
patchy, itchy everyday hives; mine involved soft-tissue swelling in odd places such as the pads of my fingers and feet or the pressure point from a bracelet, but most typically on an upper eyelid or my lips–places most incompatible with a career on camera.
That would be the least of it.
Chronic recurrent idiopathic urticaria edema is the full name–a diagnosis more worthy of all the attention. After I first spoke publicly about it, scores of people wrote to me, thinking–mistakenly–that, being a TV personality, Jane Pauley would have been given the cure. I had not. But for me, as it turned out, the treatment was far worse than the disease.
“We have to smack them down!” my doctor had said after my first trip to the ER. Steroids were the weapons of choice–the antiinflammatory kind, not the bodybuilding kind, but it felt like a heavy dose of testosterone nonetheless. It was not a decision made lightly; these are powerful drugs that have to be taken in slowly increasing increments over a period of weeks. Tapering off is done in similar increments. The steroids had the desired effect–the hives subsided–but as a side effect of the drugs, I was revved!
I was so energized that I didn’t just walk down the hall, I felt like I was motoring down the hall. I was suddenly the equal of my high-energy friends who move fast and talk fast and loud. I told everyone that I could understand why men felt like they could run the world, because I felt like that. This was a new me, and I liked her!
Earlier that spring, I had had a modest idea for a voter registration drive at New York City’s High School for Leadership and Public Service, where I was “principal for a day.” The faculty, staff, and kids ran with the idea–fifty-two students were added to the voter rolls at lunchtime in the cafeteria. It was very moving.
Later, I was back at the same high school, with a bigger idea. After weeks of steroids, I had a more ambitious agenda–a ramped-up voter registration drive. It would be like the first one, but instead of confining the drive to the cafeteria, I said, “Let’s do it citywide!” Two thousand New York City school kids were registered before school was out.
It was nearly midnight, and I could see the flashing lights approaching our apartment building from two blocks away–a fire truck and an ambulance. I was both relieved and embarrassed. My throat was swelling up. My doctor had suggested I call 911 instead of looking for a taxi to the hospital. I had called 911, but I didn’t anticipate a convoy.
Before long, the doorbell rang and I went to answer it, finding two paramedics–a Hispanic woman and a black man, both middle-aged and experienced-looking–standing at the door with two very big bags, ready to save a life.
“Where’s the patient?” they asked.
“It’s me,” I said sheepishly. Any kind of swelling that involves air passageways,...