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Gabrielle Lennon

‘I thought I was God’s little voodoo doll’

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As a child, Gabrielle Lennon suffered with OCD, depression and an eating disorder. As an adult, her personal understanding of mental illness informs her writing, acting and artistry.

WARNING: This story contains discussion of suicide. Please use good judgment and self-care in deciding whether to read it or find someone you can share and discuss it with. If you need help call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text line at 741741.

Gabrielle Lennon was just 7 when her obsessive behaviors began. She washed her hands incessantly, often in scalding water, and shook them dry so they wouldn’t be contaminated by using a towel. She walked with a bizarre stutter step, trying to give each foot an equal opportunity to lead. When one of her two younger brothers brushed up against a child with a rash on her arm and their mother refused to make him shower, she ran away from home. A voice in her head told her something horrible would happen if she didn’t comply with these compulsions.

“It was scary because I was just a little girl and I didn’t know what it was,” says Lennon, 56, a writer, actress and teaching artist who grew up outside Philadelphia and now lives in Sarasota, Florida. “I just knew I was different from all the other kids – and not in a good way.”

She told her parents there was something wrong, but although her father was a psychiatrist, they dismissed her concerns, even chastising her when she got out of bed to wash her hands again … and again. Her mother’s response was to hand her a book – Eda LeShan’s 1972 classic for children, “What makes me feel this way?” which provides coping skills for typical childhood emotions.

“I knew it was a book about normal people, normal kids’ feelings and I was not a normal kid,” remembers Lennon. “I read it and nothing about what I was going through was in that book. So my parents just didn’t deal with it.”

In third grade she began dropping sentences like “I am so unhappy” into the middle of her writing assignments, hoping to signal to someone that she needed help. Finally, her teacher sent her to the school psychologist, who suggested they play a board game. Lennon said she’d rather talk. But after the psychologist called her mother in for a session, “that was the end of it,” she recalls.

Though Lennon did have friends, they were not above finding her behaviors strange and occasionally taunting her about them. By the time she was 10, the obsessions had eased into a more generalized anxiety, but with the change came a gradual descent into a depression so severe she began entertaining her first thoughts of wanting to hurt, even kill, herself.

“I did not have a plan or hear a voice, but I heard me saying over and over that I was a piece of crap, that I deserved any abuse I got from anyone, that I deserved to die,” she says. “Life was so painful for me, I just wanted to end the pain.”

Her mother refused to allow her daughter to have “any kind of animal that could pee on the rug,” so the ultra-sensitive Lennon sought solace in a menagerie of unusual pets – reptiles, amphibians, a crustacean – sometimes as many as six at once. She would play winking games with them, sing to them, have conversations with them. In these creatures she found the kindness, love and acceptance she couldn’t find elsewhere. She felt she was providing them with something they needed too.

“I knew that nobody was going to give newts and frogs and a hermit crab love like I did and that’s what kept me alive,” she says. “I never attempted suicide because I didn’t want my non-human family members not to have someone who loved them and took care of them. They saved my life.”

At 12, Lennon saw the 1976 movie “Sybil,” starring Sally Field as a young woman with multiple personality disorder. It cemented her existing desire to become an actress and sparked a fascination with mental illness. Her first research resource was the family encyclopedia, where she eventually found a description for a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

“I was like, oh my God, I have OCD!” she recalls. “That’s what I have! It has a label!”

But by this time, her struggles included not only OCD and a growing suicidal ideation but an eating disorder that escalated from a “bad habit” in sixth grade to “an addiction” by the end of her eighth grade year. She alternated between binge eating “shocking amounts of food,” starving herself for days, abusing laxatives, over-exercising and weighing herself incessantly. It’s an indication of the tyranny of her disorder that even today, more than 40 years later, she can remember exactly what she weighed at every stage – from a splindly 70 pounds on her 5-foot-2 frame in middle school to more than 150 pounds in her senior year of high school, by which time she’d taken to wearing sweat pants and maternity tops and stopped weighing herself “because I was afraid of the number on the scale.”

At 16, as she spiraled downward and her parents headed toward a divorce, her father finally arranged for her to see a counselor. She welcomed the chance to talk at last, but “it did nothing for my eating disorder — absolutely nothing,” she admits.

Finally, in the spring of her senior year, she got into a recovery program that, gradually, began to alter her tyrannical relationship to food. At first, “white knuckling it,” she adopted a meal plan where she weighed every ounce she ate and reported her intake every night, adhering to a rigid eating formula as rigorously and religiously as she’d embraced any previous obsession.

Though Lennon had been raised Jewish – attending Hebrew school, having a bat mitzvah and being confirmed – she says she never learned how God should fit into her daily life or sustain her spiritually. When she went to New York City for the first time and saw homeless people living on the streets, ignored and uncared for, it was enough to make her abandon her beliefs entirely.

“When I saw those homeless people, I thought, there no point to all their pain,” she says, “which led to, there is no God. I had been a little religious to that point but after that I totally lost my faith.”

By the time she left home to go to college at Northwestern in Illinois, where she would major in performance studies and creative writing, her primary focus was not school, but her recovery “because I wanted it so badly,” she says. Every day she would go to the college dining hall, measure out her food and sit by herself without talking to anyone – hyper-focused and enormously lonely.

Then one day, seven months into her recovery process, she had a transformative meal that became a “spiritual experience.”

“I just said, ‘Today at lunch I’m going to sit with someone and talk to that person,’” she recalls. “And I did — though I mostly listened. And somehow that broke the boulder wide open. I remember later in the day looking at the sky and thinking how beautiful it was and then realizing, ‘Oh my gosh. I haven’t thought about food since lunch.’”

Her spiritual practice also evolved. After taking a course in Oriental philosophy, a friend who practiced Buddhism invited her to come to a meeting at her temple. Not only did she embrace the teachings of the Eastern philosophy – after graduating she spent six months in a yoga ashram to deepen her understanding — she began a chanting practice that “transformed my life” and continues to this day.

“I used to joke that chanting is my Prozac,” says Lennon, a vegan who does not take pharmaceutical medications. “As long as I am chanting, with quality and quantity every day, I’m happier than most people walking around.”

If her spiritual studies led her to a place of greater serenity, the acting classes she pursued after college helped her release the emotions she’d long bottled up inside. Exercises she was taught to bring a depth to her thespian pursuits also allowed her to “dig deep” into the repressed wounds she’d long submerged.

“I don’t know if it resolved my early trauma,” she says, “but it certainly helped me to express it.”

After moving to California, marrying and having two children (now 16 and 18), Lennon became the victim of a “terrible crime” that involved stalking and resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and a deep depression with daily suicidal thoughts. Once again, a refrain in her head taunted her incessantly: “You are so stupid. Your brain is shit. You’re never going to be able to do what you want to do. You should kill yourself.”

“It was different than when I was a teenager, because although I was thinking about suicide every day, there was no way I was going to do it because now I have a family,” she says. “So I started writing a suicide poem every day. And writing that poetry helped me not do it. Help is also necessary and I did get help. But writing helped me get it out enough that I could just go on another day.”

Lennon would eventually author two books –“After Midnight: A Book of Poetry” and “Touch Me Real and Other Stories,” a novella and short story collection. Not surprisingly, mental illness is often the main or at least a tangential focus in her writing.

“I write a lot about it in my work, including the various ones I’ve had, so I really know and can write the truth about the illness,” she says. “I want people to understand, if they don’t have the illness, what it’s like so they don’t judge the people who have them. I want to show the illness and also the person underneath the illness, because both are important.”

That is precisely why she ended up turning her novella, “Touch Me Real,” into a one-woman show. The play tells a fictionalized version of the story of her best friend (and romantic interest) from college, who begins exhibiting disturbing and frightening behaviors while visiting her after college. In real life, Lennon’s father ended up diagnosing him with sudden onset paranoid schizophrenia. Though it is not revealed in the show, Lennon eventually had to break off the relationship because her friend’s illness was not well controlled by medication and his ongoing psychosis prevented a healthy connection. It is a pain that remains with her still.

Lennon first performed the show live in Ecuador in 1997. After she and her husband did “a big research project on where we wanted to raise our kids and grow old,” and settled in Sarasota, Florida, she again performed the show there in the 2018 Sarasolo Festival, which is devoted to one-person performances. She earned the festival’s “Emergence Award,” presented to a performer whose voice is deemed to be important and whose future is promising. Thereafter, she received an artists’ grant from the state of Florida to tour the production.

When the coronavirus pandemic cancelled all live performances – but the grant still needed to be fulfilled – Lennon and her husband turned their living room into a “navy blue box” theater and, under the supervision of a director from New York she’d never met, recorded a digital version of the show which she has been screening in Zoom sessions ever since. Included in each session is a post-performance live “talk back” with Lennon, which has produced some raw and emotional testimonies from viewers.

“The show really opens people up because it does go into the deepest emotional truth of the whole situation,” she says. “People open up about their experience with loved ones who have mental illnesses, some of which are very severe. The stigma is so huge that there’s been nowhere they feel comfortable talking about it, and they desperately need to talk about it. The shows makes it possible for people to talk about all the feelings coming up for them.”

Surprisingly, the Zoom format dictated by pandemic constraints appears to have been a boon in disguise. According to Lennon, audience members connect deeply both with the subject matter and the authenticity of her performance (based on her own lived experience) thanks to the intimate and “close up” format. In these discussions, she encourages her audiences to do everything they can to provide support and understanding for someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Through her website, she also shares a list of national and international mental health resources addressing many different conditions, all available free of charge.

“Definitely tell them if there’s something you know that might help,” she says. “We have no control over if meds will work, or whether they will take them or what other stuff will arise. But what we do have control over is to let them know we love them no matter what. And that’s true even if we can’t be with them. Tell the people you love that you love them before it’s too late, because people can be taken in many ways other than death.”