By Robyn Segal
A young man sits across from me and eats his lunch without saying a word. I also eat my sandwich in silence despite the ten inches that separate us. If either of us looks up at the same time we will be staring each other right in the face. Neither of us does. Chew, chew, swallow, swallow. This is the dance of depression.
I have been at the Psychiatric Day Hospital for five days and every day I eat at this same table, alone with this same guy, part of me hoping he will say something to make lunch pass quicker, part of me hoping he will leave me alone with my thoughts. He ignores me and I him. I don’t care if I sit alone in silence or if I sit alone with a stranger. I used to care so much.
Lunch ends and everyone shuffles into their next group. We all take our seats in a circle. Some people doze, some stare off, some weep to themselves.
It is the first week in January and there is a girl with pink hair wearing bright green plastic flip-flops. She raises her hand and offers to share her plans for the weekend in a group called “Weekend Planning”. She describes a party that she and her roommate are hosting in their new apartment at her group home on Bassett Street. Her plans also include a long overdue reunion with her mother in which Pink Hair, her lover, and her social worker will be telling mom that she’s a lesbian. My mind drifts. Then it’s my turn. “Pass,” I say. There is no “pass” in these groups, though, and I am forced to tell the group that I have social plans and have set aside time for rest and self-reflection.
In the weeks that follow, I acclimate to the routine and begin to feel more comfortable at Lawrence Street. The patients refer to it as such because of its location. I notice that the regulars at Lawrence Street refer to all the programs, group homes, and facilities by the names of the streets they are on. As my depression begins to lift, I take an increasing interest in the other clients at the day hospital, as I am here three days a week and have little else to do. While sitting in the lounge, Gary, another patient, spots Helen, an old friend of his.
“Hey, don I know yous from some wheres before?” Gary sheepishly asks.
“You ever go to Williams street?” he continues.
“Nah, but I juss came from Roosevelt,” Helen mutters.
“That’s it,” says Gary, now looking kind of interested.
“I was in there before I was in the hospital.”
Hardly kindred spirits, they list over twelve people they both know from their collective experiences at different institutions.
Every day on Lawrence Street starts with a group called “Goals”. We all sit in a big circle and say how we felt the night before and what our goal is for that day. In the beginning I don’t know what to say, so I just repeat what the person next to me says. I do this until the person next to me one day says, “The voices were getting louder” and her goal is to ignore them. I am too self-conscious to repeat that. I make a note to myself that I must come up with a good goal for tomorrow.
One morning a young black girl comes walking up to me before “Goals” group and shouts my name. I search her face for something familiar but find nothing. “It’s me, B, Miss B.”
I still have no idea who she is.
“Don’t your son go to Wee Ones Daycare?”
Then it hits me. This is my son’s preschool teacher. I am shocked. She only worked at his school for a short time – maybe five weeks – before the school found out that she was six months pregnant and let her go. Now here she is, acting as if she has bumped into an old friend in the aisle of the Shop and Shop. I don’t know what to say.
“What you doing here, girlfriend?” she asks. Unsure how to respond, I stammer a moment and pretend to look for something in my pocket.
“You come every day?” she asks, as if to say there’s no way she would come every day.
“I come three days a week,” I answer, adding that I am grateful to have a place to wake up and come to. I feel embarrassed confiding this to my son’s fired preschool teacher.
“You court ordered?” she asks, but she says it really quickly and it sounds like “coat ordered,” so I ask her what that means.
She laughs and says, “You knows, it’s when the judges makes you comes here.”
“Are you court ordered?” I ask naively.
She puts her hand on her hip and swings her hair extensions back before going into a lengthy explanation about how her lover took her to court because she claimed that Miss B had “cut” her and the judge ordered her to come to Lawrence Street, five days a week for several weeks or she would end up back in lock-up. Had I ever been in lock-up? I told her no and what followed was a warning about why I wouldn’t want to end up in lock-up so I should keep coming every day.
They call us for “Goals” group. I give my usual answer when it is my turn, but wait anxiously to hear what Miss B is going to say. As person after person recites in the same flat monotone voice that they haven’t slept the night before and their goal is to stay safe, I grow wild with expectation as to how Miss B will respond when her turn comes. She apparently saw her turn as an opportunity to announce her arrival to Lawrence Street and what she did was like a scene from the movie Sister Act.
“My name is Miss B and what will be will be, you will see get giggy with me!” she says in a little rhyme.
I wait, but none of the stunned clinical staff redirect Miss B as they normally do with other clients, nor remind her that “get giggy with it” is not a goal.
When goals group ends, she asks me if I am staying. It is only 9:30 A.M. I have no plans to leave, but before I can respond I see her head out the door. I want to call to her but don’t know her first name and would feel funny calling her Miss B.
The next time I see her is weeks later again in “Goals” group. During the time set aside for “special announcements” after the reminder about the ice cream social at the local mental health center, Miss B raises her hand and tells the circle that she won’t be in the following day because she has a court date. After that I never see her again.
Everyone at Lawrence Street attends Group Therapy or “Group” as we call it. The people in your group are the ones you know the best because they have all shared their stories and hardships with the group.
There are some in the group who are too caught up in their own misery to ever connect. Glen has been pining away for the last two months about Floe. I listen sympathetically as he tearfully describes the big empty apartment he returns to after working his shift at the Kentucky Fried Chicken near his house.
I watch for weeks as he shreds cup after Styrofoam cup, teetering between moving back in with his abusive alcoholic father who is dying of lung cancer or making a go of it on his own without, of course, Floe. Glen is like the lost puppy of the group, but instead of dog treats we give him our old used Styrofoam coffee cups to shred. Some days there is a pile of cups waiting for him before he sits down. During group, when someone finishes their coffee, they pass the cup down to Glen to feed his nervous habit. No one ever says anything about it – they would just hand their cup over and Glen nods thanks.
Towards the end of my time in the program, an older woman arrives at the day hospital. She looks out of place. She is Indian and wears a trench coat that she keeps on the entire time she is inside. She clutches her pocketbook, a big vinyl bag, as if at any moment, one of the severely depressed clients is going to somehow rise out of their depression, break out of their trance-like stupor, and mug her.
The first few times I see her in group therapy she sits, looking off to the side, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, but never talks. Then one day she is sobbing in her chair for nearly half the session until our group leader asks if she has anything to share with the group. Through her tears she blubbers, “I am velly velly bad person. Oh da shame, I am so ashamed. I can neber tell, it is so terrible but I hab done.”
She goes on like this for several weeks until I am firmly committed to staying at the psychiatric hospital forever if necessary, just to find out what she has done that was so terrible.
Then one day, the group leader interrupts the crying and self-flagellation and asks the group what we think of the whole matter. No one speaks. The group remains silent for quite some time and then I hear the group leader say to me, “Well what do you think?”
A million thoughts race through my mind. What should I say? I should have been paying more attention. Am I supposed to know what to do? Then before I can stop myself I blurt out,
“I don’t even know why she’s crying.”
That said, there was only one thing left to do. With a little nudging from the group leader, this old, purse clutching, Indian lady whispers to the group, “I boosted a stereo from Wal-Mart.”
In that single moment I know that this is my reward for being mentally ill. I am now privy to a world I would otherwise never know, a world far more exciting than my own boring life. My own secrets are far less exotic than that of the lady in the trench coat. Through tears and more self-flagellation, she begins to piece together her history of petty theft. Her habit, as it were, was getting harder to fix and I guess it’s hard to hide a stereo under a trench coat. She explains how, in her culture, no one will understand.
I want to tell her that I don’t think my family would be happy if my old Jewish grandma was caught stealing a television from Circuit City, but this is a group of unconditional support. Our small little group, who has fallen silent in the face of adversity in the past, now sits tall and offers strong words of loving encouragement.
“You’re not a bad person,” the manic-depressive says.
“We all love you here,” says the agoraphobic.
“It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes,” says the schizophrenic.
Finally, the obsessive-compulsive in the group stands up and shouts nervously, “It’s not ok! She stole. She’s a thief.”
The room falls quiet again and the Indian woman goes back to dabbing her eyes with her tissue.
I have grown to love the drama and I want to know how things will go for the Indian lady after her court date, but I know my time here has ended.
Occasionally, I pass the building on Lawrence Street, see the clients sitting on the steps wearing flip-flops in the snow, smoking their cigarettes, and think, “Ahhhh…the good ole days.”
Robyn Segal is an artist, writer and mother. She has a B.A in Mass Communications and a Master’s of Science in Healthcare Administration. Her short stories and essays have been previously published in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Equally Wed Magazine, Literary Yard, Connotation Press and Workzine. She lives in North Haven Connecticut with her four children and wife.