Sunday, June 1, 2008
Late spring and the air has grown heavy and warm. I met the young woman who would take me upstairs to the locked ward of the hospital. We were buzzed through the heavy doors and walked the long empty corridors to the large common room. It was announced that we had arrived and on hearing this the hospital clients fled like cockroaches when a light is turned on.
The young woman and I sat at the head of a large circle of chairs. We waited a considerable time as slowly, one by one, the men entered the room. Five men joined the circle and sat with us. They wore hospital issued pajamas and lightweight robes. They wore slippers or thick socks with rubber treads.
The young woman introduced herself and then introduced me. She explained why we were there, that we were not associated with that or any other institution, that our aim was solely to be helpful and what the format of our time there would be. I spoke. I tried to explain what I knew my problem to be and how I have, thus far, succeeded in putting this problem into remission. I spoke of the difficulties and the mistakes I've made. I spoke of early experiences and feelings of inadequacy, family, disappointment and self loathing. More than anything I tried to be honest.
The pain in the room was palpable. I had broken an invisible barrier. The first man spoke "I saw you come in and set up the chairs. I felt bad for you that no one was coming in. I didn't want you to have come up here for nothing so I stayed. I was all ready to be released tonight but after hearing what you had to say I'm going to stay another day and try to do the right thing."
Something caught in my throat. We were there to help him and he stayed because he was trying to spare our feelings. We'd each taken actions to ease another's suffering and through those small actions he'd heard a message of hope.
The next man couldn't stop fidgeting. He didn't wish to speak. He continued to fidget and look out the door. The third man spoke: "I'm fifty five years old" he said "I've been doing this for years. I can't stop and I'm in physical pain. I just want this to end." Tears began to gather in his eyes, he removed his over sized glasses and ran his hand through his shoulder length, unwashed gray hair. "My son called me today and asked me to take care of myself and I told him I would. I'm going to try..." His words trailed off. He placed his face in his hands.
The following man was heavy. He held his clasped hands on his round belly. He was visibly nervous. Scared. This was clearly his first experience of this kind. Avoiding any eye contact and with stooped shoulders he stared at the floor in front of him. His voice trembled as he spoke. " I have a family you know. A wife and children. A mother and siblings. Till I heard you speak I didn't think what I might be putting them through." He struggled not to cry but failed. He thanked us for coming.
The last man was older. Perhaps late sixties, hard to tell. He was missing most of his teeth. He was medicated and fairly incoherent. He spouted a slurry of familiar slogans " I know what I have to do. Keep it simple. One day at a time. Keep coming back."
The pain in the room was extreme. The lost opportunities and missed chances of these five men weighed heavy on me. The sadness of the situation hit me hard and I too began struggling to keep tears from running down my cheek. I wept not only for them but with gratitude that I had somehow managed to escape a situation that, to these men, now seemed inescapable.
Had I made a difference? Is it possible for the trajectory of a life to be changed just because one hears the truth of another's experience and struggle? I can only hope that I made the slightest difference for one of those men. I find great satisfaction by being useful in this way, it doesn't happen always and I'm often frustrated by my inability to reach anyone but when it does happen I experience an intense satisfaction. I feel fortunate that my struggles might make a difference to others. If reliving my experience can be useful then my trials were not for nothing. Because of the specifics of my journey I am uniquely qualified to be of service where others, even professionals, fail. This fact brings relief even to one as prone to discontentment as me. For this I give thanks.