Robert's Little Rebellion

Marti and I are down. We realize this at lunch. For the first time ever in the history of our best-friendship, both of us are depressed at the same time.

How could this happen?

"We can't do this!" she says. "We've got to..."

"Be the women we are and not the bitches we've become?"

Marti nods quickly. "Yeah that, but we've got to make a plan. We've got to pull ourselves out of the black hole."

A plan. That's the ticket. A plan.

It reminds me of something I've done when for the past bazillion years, ever since I got a job as a social worker at a rural mental health center in Georgia.

I was new...New to Georgia and new, really, to true mental health work. I only had my bachelor's degree at the time, but I thought I was the shit. I mean, I owned a 4" thick copy of Otto Kernberg's tome on psychoanalytic psychotherapy. What the hell else would a good therapist need?

I'll tell you what...When you are stuck in East Bumfuck, Georgia, with redneck crazies who are in real and genuine crisis, no textbook, even the kind for Dummies, is gonna help you. You need seasoning and experience. You need the wisdom that comes from time spent in the trenches. You need mentors.

As I did not yet have any of these things, they stuck me in the Day Treatment Program for chronically mentally ill adults. I suppose they thought I couldn't do too much damage to there...Those patients already been through the wringer. They'd had electroshock treatments, been involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals for years and been loaded up on more drugs than you can find in most pharmacies.

Surely a little, Yankee, do-gooder would be safe with them.

They did not expect me to really do anything. I mean, what could you do with people who'd been suffering from psychotic illnesses for decades? They were beyond helping. The best you could do was to provide a few hours of respite for their poor, beleaguered families. You could entertain the poor, crazy people. That was a valuable service.


Like I would ever fall for that idea! Not help someone? Me? I had The Book. I was going to change the world.

Little did I suspect my patients would end up changing me, enriching my life in unimaginable ways.

They taught me about mental health. They showed me how to find happiness when all hope is lost. They gave me the gift of their love and respect while I, in turn, loved and respected them right back.

Lesson Number One: Follow A Schedule.

No matter what. No matter how bad or crazy you feel, a schedule will give your life purpose and meaning. To this day when I am depressed, I create a daily schedule and I follow it. I build in meal times and exercise. I force-feed fun and exposure to other humans and activities. I act as if I am a happy person having a happy, satisfying life until finally the act becomes the reality.

This lesson has served me well. It has gotten me through tough times and broken hearts. "Fake it 'til you make it."

Robert was the best at living this rule.

He was a thin, pale man in his 40's, with sad brown eyes and thinning gray hair. He'd had ECT so many times he'd forgotten most of his life and seemed to no longer care about what happened next. He appeared perfectly content to live with his mother, following her rules and becoming once again the child she never wanted to relinquish.

I saw him once a week for individual therapy and my sole goal was to see him smile. Just once. I carefully took him back through his life, searching through the shards of his memory for any happy moment that might remain...but those tiny pieces were few and far apart.

And then we hit a vein rich with treasure. The years between high school and going to war. Robert had truly lived then. Rolled cigarettes up in his t-shirt. Courted wild women. Raced cars down deserted, red clay county roads in the middle of hot, Georgia summer nights.

I mined that ore, delighting in the momentary smiles that crossed his face only to vanish like comet tails or shooting stars.

I mourned the loss of that happy, free boy. I wanted to bring him back. But day after day he showed up, dropped by his mother at the clinic door like a preschooler arriving for Mom's Morning Out. He followed the schedule...went on outings, cooked in the kitchen, listened to music, made awkward clay figures in art therapy...But the boy he had been never seemed to visit the man he had become.

Until one early spring day in April.

An hour after I'd come to work, just as my patients were beginning to arrive, the center director called me into her office.

"Robert won't be here today," she said. "He's going back to the hospital."

"Oh, no! What happened?" He'd seemed so...Robert yesterday. What had sent him into this downward spiral?

Claudette was shaking her head. "I don't know. His mother called. She was terribly upset. Somehow Robert managed to get ahold of his monthly Social Security check. Apparently it was quite large, probably making up for the months his claim was in process."

I'm listening, heart pounding, worried he'd bought a gun and tried to shoot himself.

"Robert went down to the Toyota dealership yesterday afternoon and bought himself a bright, red sportscar. A convertible no less!" Claudette was obviously horrified.

Yes! The boy Robert was back! He'd finally done something to reclaim his lost life. I barely managed to remember that this would not be deemed appropriate behavior by Robert's mother or the psychiatrist. I kept my face carefully arranged, appearing concerned instead of delighted by Robert's rebellion.

"So, is he all right?" I asked.

Claudette nodded somberly. "Yes. Thank goodness they finally found him before he crossed the state line into Florida."

"Good," I said, sounding unconvincing even to myself.

Was it my imagination or was Claudette eyeing me with suspicion?

"So will he be back tomorrow?" I wanted to secretly congratulate him. I wanted to celebrate the attempt at freedom and independence.

"Oh, no," Claudette said. She frowned. "They took him right back to the state hospital, of course. It's clearly a manic phase."

A manic phase?

"What will they do?"

Claudette shrugged. "Change his meds, I suppose. Keep him there until he calms down and stabilizes."

Calms down and stabilizes. Code for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest sanity. Good behavior, as judged by his keepers...He would have to stop "making trouble."

I tried to explain the way I saw the situation, but it was like pissing into a tornado. What foolishness. Robert would always be the way he was. He wasn't going to get better. People like Robert don't get better they said.

That night I lay in bed, envisioning Robert driving his red convertible on the open highway, the wind sweeping through his sparse hair. I imagined him smiling, humming along with the radio, maybe even singing. I hoped that no amount of drugs or electric shocks would ever remove the memory of that one brief day from his memory...And I prayed I hadn't done more harm than good.

And then I quit.

I wanted no part of that kind of mental health. I went back to school. I played the game, wore the face, regurgitated the lessons, and eventually learned to sort out the good from the bad techniques- through trial and error and instinct.

I started working with drug addicted bikers and strippers in a treatment center because that felt honest and true to me.

And every time I felt down for longer than a few weeks, I would remember the Day Treatment Program. I would make up a little schedule and follow it, blindly believing in "talking the talk until I could walk the walk." But above all, I remember Robert's rebellion.

I remember how important it is to fan the sparks of our true being; how necessary it is to create happy memories- even if we can only use them to warm us through the darkest of desolate winter nights.

1 comment:

Kim said...

omg, I go away for a week and you changed EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING! I have a lot of reading to do...