“You can’t go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe
“That’s Bull” – Pete Feigal
Like the silk-scarved flying aces of the Golden Age of Aviation, we’ve been barnstorming the nation. Instead of acrobatics and wing-walking we’ve been speaking, teaching, and performing. The “we” I refer to is the team of mental health professionals I’m working with: psychiatrists, psychologists, consumers and family members, those with letters before their names, and those whose degrees are honorary. People of experience and eloquence who can articulate the gifts and curses of surviving and recovering from this most terrible of illnesses. By speaking from the biochemical and the personal points of view, we try to open both people’s minds and hearts.
We swoop into a community and, in a whirlwind of programs, workshops, and theatrical performances, hit the middle and high school kids, teachers, churches, doctors, emergency professionals, dog catchers, anyone we can get to listen. “Hey You!! Yeah, you! Over there, with the tuba! Come’ere! I wanna tell ya My Life Story.” It’s the most exciting and exhausting experiment I’ve ever been part of, and judging from the response of where we’ve been and the interest of where we’re being booked next, one of the most successful.
The last week of January brought us to Rochester and its famous Mayo Clinic. Olmsted county NAMI president, Vicki Dalle-Malle, had done an amazing job of advance planning and PR, and over a period of just three days we did a dozen Standing-Room-Only workshops and a performance of Tilting At Windmills’ “Faith Healer.” It was a kind of homecoming for me, because I’d been born there and raised in the nearby community of Pine Island. Thirty years ago Rochester was the place that I was first treated for my depression, an event that led to a long hospitalization at Mayo’s Adolescent Psychiatric Unit, (a place that really took the “fun” out of “dysfunctional,” but that’s another story!) and my subsequent self-exile in shame from my town, family, and friends. It had been an experience that almost destroyed me, and one that unfortunately conditioned me to stay away from mental health care for the next decade.
I was expecting a “memory meltdown,” a return of the old “Inner Tyrant” having a field day of shame and pain and anger. But it didn’t happen. I was amazed that the return felt so natural. There was no residual shame or regret. None of the queasiness that I was expecting after the terrible experiences and memories of that sad and tragic adolescence. I felt empowered, healed, cleansed. There was barely a spark of the four-alarm rage I had carried for so much of my life.
One of the most interesting moments came when I was asked to speak at the Mayo Clinic’s Grand Rounds for their entire psychiatric and psychological sections, apparently the first time in their history a consumer has been asked to do so. I almost felt like Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus. In the months before I spoke, during the planning stage, they had asked for the title of my talk, and the first one I came up with was “You Stupid Knuckleheads, Shut Up And Listen To Us!” Realizing that this was, perhaps, somewhat less cordial than they were used to, I chickened out and changed it to the more formal “The Person Beyond the Pathology: Learning a New Mental Health Vocabulary For Physicians, Families and Consumers.”
And when I spoke, I told them how strange and wonderful life was, how exactly thirty years ago was when my mom and dad had brought me there as a troubled adolescent, and my wanderings/journey through the mental health system started. I talked of my first memory of treatment there: of Mabel, the old cleaning lady on The Unit, the crabbiest person I’d ever met, who, even though she never stopped griping, was the most beloved person on the Unit. Beloved because she was an equal-opportunity griper who groused at the doctors no differently than she groused at the patients. She was the only one that treated us all like people instead of as sick kids. And she washed and mopped her way up and down that Unit, giving us some of the best and most therapeutic advice we would ever get. I still remembered her outlandish mop cart, painted in fluorescent orange and lime green by some unrecognized flowerchild artist in the late ’60’s, and covered with the lines of some unknown poet.
I talked about the real toll in my own experience, of having my dreams destroyed, of losing meaning and purpose, of feeling damaged, toxic, without credibility or offerings and how this had wounded me much more than the illness itself. I ended with the lines of poetry from Mabel’s cart that had stayed with me all those years, words that, as I discovered later, were in fact part of a famous poem by T.S. Eliot, a writer who had also struggled with depression.
And after I spoke, many of the doctors came up and thanked me for my time and insights. They spoke of how easy it is to lose your sense of perspective and how necessary it is to be constantly reminded that it’s people they’re treating, not illnesses.
And one elderly man who looked vaguely familiar came up and told me that he had been one of the doctors on the Unit all those years ago, had long since retired, but recognized my name for Grand Rounds, and returned to see and talk to me. He was one of those who had not been kind to me, and for an instant, I didn’t know what to do or say, how to react to this unexpected confrontation with this man that had helped start me on my 30-year stroll down the streets of Hell. And with terrible sincerity and with an obvious lump in his throat, he said that he knew that he hadn’t been the best help for me back then. And he looked at the floor. And I took his hand and shook it and told him how we had all died a little back in that terrible time, and that he had given me amazing insights and gifts into how I saw my life. And we parted, maybe not as friends, but as equals, allies in this struggle with despair.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets