New York, 1976 Bronx State Mental Hospital
I’m drowning in a sour-soup of disillusion, here at Bronx State Mental Hospital finishing my internship. Distracted by my misery, a good healthy finger gets squeezed in the hospital door. I shriek in pain, fearing the tip has been severed. The aides rush me to another ward and the doctor stitches me up. He drugs me to a stupor and promises I won’t lose my finger. He also treats my other finger cut badly the other day, now hopelessly infected, and re-bandages that. Now I’m wounded on both hands, like a soldier.
My supervisor is not pleased, how can I lead the drumming circle or play the guitar with two bandaged hands? Meanwhile, the young emotionally-challenged boys on the ward seem thrilled with my bandages, like I’ve come straight from a street fight. Usually they’re reluctant and squirrelly to begin but now they’re witch-doctors of importance who want to heal me. Their power brings another world into existence and they pound the drums with purpose. I start to dance and they play even stronger, louder. So strong the supervisor comes rushing in. Startled by the intense focus, she turns all shades of purple but says nothing. She’s threatened by the thing she cannot name. It’s new on the ward, this music therapy, and what’s happening with the boys is therapy at its best. This noise, this thunder, this tribal abandon, seems dangerous to her yet she can’t help see how responsive the boys are and nods a tentative approval. Once she’s gone, the boys squeal like they’ve slayed the dragon. They whoop and holler and slap each other high fives though I quickly get them drumming again so we don’t lose this grace.
Each day I fall more in love with the patients who’ve rejected reality, or rather live in another dimension, and they in turn seem to love me more maybe because I see them and understand their suffering, their courage. Their smiles leap large when I arrive with my bandaged fingers, guitar and sack of instruments. If only the doctors didn’t medicate them so much. The sessions before the round of meds are animated but right after, they’re like zombies. I mention this to the head nurse.
“Better they sleep,” the nurse says,“than have a fit and destroy your instruments.”
Is there no middle ground? It kills me to see the patients like captives during the music sessions, strapped down, tied up, immobilized by medication. Tiny slits for eyes and expressions on their faces that seem to cry for help, though they hardly make a sound.
The supervisor expects me to waltz in like Houdini, unlock these heavily-medicated patients for the half-hour session, get them moving and singing and feeling someemotion – but not too much. Her favorite words: Don’t over-excite them! What is she afraid of; an in-house revolt? The patients are so drugged they can barely hold, let alone play the light percussive instruments I hand them. The more attentive ones (who must trick the nurses and not swallow their medication) grab hold of my hand at the end of the sessions like starved children begging for more. I feel for them, but must be careful to not care too much or I shall cross that tiny line of sanity into their world.
I can’t imagine that in our secret hearts, we’re not all starved for real attention – to be alive and seen and loved. Even my supervisor, who’s always talking of dieting but only gains more weight each week, perhaps she also aches for someone to hold her. Maybe once she had that but that person went away and she’s shoveled down those feelings. Maybe she also takes one of those multi-colored pills. Better not to think – that’s what I mostly learn with the other therapists in the cafeteria, or at our meetings. Just keep it all going, like a machine.
Every morning, half-asleep, I drink my coffee, then rush out the door to join the masses. Everyone on the subway with heads down, crammed like sardines for the harsh rumble and shriek to Pelham Bay Park. We’re all crushed by the non-stop mantra keep moving, keep moving. I can’t help wonder if the mental hospital is worse than prison, for the patients have no idea what crime they’ve committed besides feeling and wanting too much.
When I catch a glimpse of sky between buildings, I think of beauty and nature and wonder why we’ve stripped so much of it away. I’m thinking of this as I enter the ward. Maybe the patients feel it, that I’m different, for they rush towards me – the ambulatory ones – to stand beside me, to touch my shoulders, my bandaged fingers. I let them, and gently touch them back. The look in their eyes is like the gorilla’s sad eyes at the zoo. Pleaseunlock the cage and let me run free in the trees and the green. There is no green at the hospital and barely a thread of sky beyond the barred and narrow windows. Their eyes tell me they’re here because they were too slow and the cup fell from their hands and shattered on the ground of the perfect world, the world with no patience for breaking things. They’re here because they refused or could not keep the charade going. Gave themselves away by their confusion. The unprofessional side of me wants to run into the big depressing room where they waddle, or are wheeled in, for the music therapy session and scream: This is a human zoo. Get up from your chairs and dance and sing, loud and strong. Don’t take the medicine they give you. Look at what they do to you, because they’re scared of you, you who are closer to the real nature. They are scared that you know this is wrong, even if you haven’t the strength nor the words to express it.
The old Cherokee story goes:
A young man was struggling and ran home to speak with his grandfather.
‘A terrible fight is going on inside me,’ he said. ‘Like two wolves inside me.’
‘Tell me,’ the grandfather said, as kindly as he could, encouraging the boy to speak.
‘One is evil: he is filled with anger, envy, sorry, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment and all over dark things like my insecurity, and false pride.’
‘That’s when you feel superior, is it not?’
‘Yes, yes!’ the boy cried. ‘But even if I think I am better, I don’t feel very good.’
‘And the other?’ the grandfather asked. ‘What is the other wolf like?’
‘Well,’ said the boy, beginning to calm down, even considering this other wolf began to change his mood. ‘The other is good, he is filled with joy, peace, love, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion. When that other wolf fills me, I feel faith and hope.’
The grandfather swooped the young boy into his arms. ‘This same fight is going on inside of everyone.’ The grandson thought about this for a moment and then asked his grandfather which wolf will win?
‘Ah,’ the old Cherokee laughed, ‘the one you feed.’
I love this story, and like most of us, even knowing this story isn’t a guarantee that I will forget and will need reminding. It isn’t always easy to just choose the more loving of these wolves, these sides of us, even if it will ultimately make us happier and healthier. How easy to get stuck in the other loop! Important to remember that negativity shouts seven times louder and stronger than the positive, whether in feeling, action or thought. Or in another’s reaction to us, that in turn can trigger and ‘feed’ the wolf we’d planned to starve. And at times it sure can feel better to be that first wolf, the more aggressive wolf. That side may seem more exciting, more sexy, jazzy and thrilling.
I wonder now, if at times we need to be that other wolf – but maybe away from other people, in nature, in movement, in sound and in dancing. To give voice to the darker sides, to vent our sorrow – a more active form of ‘feeling sorry for ourselves, is to feel our sorrow. To give time to these shadier, gloomier aspects. I love this story and its simple message and yet challenging this further, it does seem in my experience – and in my work with Alexander Technique in combination with therapy in working with trauma and the source of anxiety – that tapping into both of our wolves is crucial. We have both wolves inside us. Indeed, we can learn to ‘feed’ one more than the other, but perhaps a sense of giving time to listen, to be attentive to both sides in us, especially if one is less active or scarier (with the help of a professional to give guidance and support), a lot can be learned. Growth and recovery, healing and learning have many shades in-between black and white.
Yes, I want you to like me. Yes, I wanted my mother to like me, to love me, to be proud of me. And sadly, she obsessed her whole life with not being okay. It worried her terribly, the last days of her life. My brothers called repeatedly saying she’d gotten stuck on the chord of having been a terrible mother, especially towards me. The one who left the US, who saw her far less than the others, the designated black sheep in the family. Though I prefer to think of it as the colorful purple sheep.
We’d worked through so much the last years. More than enough, so I thought. Apparently, she hadn’t felt as relieved. Or perhaps she’d forgotten. One of the last weeks of her life, visiting her in her new apartment in a retirement home in Lennox, we sat in a circle, my brother Peter, my husband and myself. Her face compressed in, her shoulders pressing forward, desperate for love. After she died and we all went through photos, there was one of her as a little girl, maybe five, with the same expression. Please don’t send me away. It shocked me to realise my mother, my great and wonderful mother that everyone loved, carried this her whole life.
“When you were a little girl,” Peter said, in a caring tone, his body leaning towards her, “your mother told you that if you weren’t good enough, they would give you away.”
My mother’s eyes filled with tears. She shook her head, her lips turned-down in a disgruntled curl. Soon eighty-nine years old, soon dead, and still that little girl aching inside, the little girl never good enough. Her eyes now turning to my brother, tears falling down her cheeks.
“Youaregood enough,” Peter said.
“But, I…” my mother had lost her voice. It was just a croak that came out.
“I know,” my brother said. “You think you have been a terrible mother to Deborah. That’s why we’re doing this. She came back to be with you, to let you know that she is okay and she loves you and forgives you.”
I didn’t wait for permission from my brother, who was leading this ritual. Instead, turned towards her, taking her hands, saying the same. She was crying more now. “It’s okay,” I kept repeating. “I love you, and you are good enough.” Then my husband and Peter echoed the same, like a Greek Chorus.
My brothers told me how she kept talking about a birthday party she wanted to make for me at the end of May. We knew she’d soon die, but as her first (blood) granddaughter was getting married June 8, we thought she’d live for that. My birthday was the week before and my original flight would be in time for this birthday brunch.
She died six weeks before that date. Alone in her bed when she passed, not with any of her kids or step-kids. Peter thinking this was her last wish, to not show favourites as there was no chance for me to be there. My brothers and father met anyhow to celebrate my birthday.
I was able to make it back for the funeral April 12, and stayed for the wedding. The longest period spent in the US since moving away, and the longest time with my family since childhood. At times painful but also liberating to discover how I’ve carried this legacy of my mother – of not feeling good enough. So many choices made due to this need to be confirmed, to assure no one gets rid of me. Though sometimes it happened, because of this, this unquenchable need.
For whom? For what?
This essay could go in another direction now, towards the political decisions currently being made here in the US, based on ignorance, incompetence or even worse – a distortion of facts and scientific knowledge. Our environment is one of the states were such wrong decisions are made, with disastrous consequences. None of them thinking perhaps they’re not good enough. Wish they did.
Rather I shall continue on the personal note. For my mother, that early-planted need was not so easy to let go. Or she’d not have carried it for most of her life.
In the journey of my life, I’ve gone in many directions. Often judging this as too many directions; if I’d only followed one trajectory and poured all obsessive energy into that, I’d have ‘made’ it. To make it: the most important thing for my mother. In her case, that meant money. In my case, fame and recognition. In my yearning to be loved, to be good enough. To have permission to indulge in activities I love, an indulgence I’ve often felt foolish for.
How sad for my mother, that no matter how much money she earned or how many people phoned her, loved her, it was never enough. Those pits carved out in our early years rarely do get filled without some arduous work (that she seemed to have no time for), and she suffered that aching hole. My brothers and I hope we helped release her in the end, and she died in peace. Yet how much better if she were able to release that earlier?
Mom, I feel you teaching me now, that even if no one tells me so: I can be okay and more than enough.
We yearn to be whole, mostly unbeknownst to ourselves, but still we do. The part of ourselves we most hate will often reappear in one of our children. Depending on our awareness and commitment toward growth, we can embrace this challenge and grow to love or torment this child for showing us what we hate and refuse to see.
While watching the second season of The Crown, I was deeply moved by the ninth episode: the story of young Prince Charles and his education. Having struggled to be in a regular school, the Queen was advised to send her sensitive and not quite the sporting type son to Eton. His father, Philip was adamantly opposed. Eton, he felt, would turn his son into everything he hated. He wanted Charles to be toughened up, just as he had been. In the end, he won the struggle and the Prince was sent to the frigid and frightening Gordonstoun, where (according to the series) he suffered terribly for six years.
What struck me in this dramatization was the degree in which Philip rejected who his son was – the sensitivity and hurt Philip himself had been forced to push away in his own life. His shadow. If Philip had had another upbringing himself – as the episode revealed the hardships Philip endured at this Gordonstoun – perhaps he wouldn’t have had such a severe shadow. The denial of sensitivity, replaced by the need to ‘toughen up’ is not an unknown story.
Today, this element is acute in the United States. Trump, supposedly, was. tormented by his own father growing up. A year before the election, I was having tea in Berlin with a German friend. He warned that the rise of Trump (similar to the rise of Hitler) would be very much about the shadow. “If only America,” my friend said, shaking his head sadly, “could rise to the challenge and embrace their shadow. But I fear the country is too invested in its mythology and will miss this chance, just as we in Germany missed ours and there will be some very dark years ahead.”
What does that mean to embrace the shadow both on an individual level and a broader societal level? And what kind of maturity does it take? Obviously, in the case of both Germany and the US now, that degree of maturity doesn’t seem to exist.
In my own life, I had a terrible time growing up. My parents couldn’t accept that I was sensitive and moody and more interested in creativity than in their conventional and materialistic practicality. Unfortunately, being the first born, the same as Charles, I came to represent the shadow in my family. I can see that now from the distance of years but as a child I had no clue, only suffered miserably trying to please my parents. Just as Charles did. The only way to please a parent who refuses to see who you are, is to deny who you are.
Years of therapy, Alexander Technique and 12-step support has aided my cause in becoming more my ‘authentic’ self, but even at age 63 I still struggle with this element, still can more easily toss myself and my deepest convictions away, suffer terribly bouts of insecurity and self-hate, before climbing out of the darkness when realizing I’ve yet again chosen first to throw myself away. Especially, in the growing arena of social media where one can be constantly tormented with comparison and not measuring up, it is a challenge to be in your own ‘axis,’ to be your own person, to have healthy self-regard regardless of what other’s think.
My husband came with me for a Tango festival on the Costa Brava, in the Catalan town of Sant Feliu de Guixols this early September. It seemed a good way to start our exploration of the Barcelona area, it’s northern coast, a place we’re considering relocating. The weather was unseasonably hot, a steamy hot, not the dry heat one associates with the north of Spain. My husband, not a big tango fan, is fine with heat. He’s from the north of Holland, where the wind blows to make you mad, so whatever the weather, as long as there’s no wind, he’s fine. Me, on the other hand, since menopause, find oppressive heat claustrophobic, strangling.
I dared not moan of the heat, or how clammy my skin was getting. To be at a tango and get to dance as much as I was, you will be struck-dead by the tango police if you dare complain. In truth, there is no tango police, just the eyes of the waiting un-danced women, hating you silently that it’s you and not them on the dance floor. When I first began dancing, twenty-years ago, there were actually more men. It was the men who puffed themselves up, and we women had our glorious pick. Not sure when the switch happened, but I do remember entering a dance hall, a Milonga, and gasping at the row of women eagerly waiting, their breasts heaving forward like melons ripe for the picking. This sadly has become the norm. And once you start sitting, it’s not long before your dance-cells sag, and you look like a desperate dog hoping to be taken for a walk, let alone a dance.
I don’t mean to brag, but there’s a sort of thing I do that helps. I hadn’t even realized I was doing this, until a tango friend pointed out to his then girlfriend to watch me and to do exactly what I did if she wanted to dance with anyone besides him. It had started innocuously during my first visit to Buenos Aires. Always forgetting to reserve a table and arriving too late to get one, I was lucky to sneak a spot by the bar – the place reserved (and the unspoken code) of where the Milongueros (the great male dancers) sat and drank and eyed their next conquest.
Not just that I wasn’t meant to hang around the bar between dances, but I’ve never been good at keeping still: I was one of the kids at school forever sent out of the room for disrupting the others (the dreamer, the hyper-active dyslexic who in the early sixties teachers didn’t know what to do with). Still can’t sit to meditate. I have to move, like there’s ants in my pants (the song we sang as kids in New York) with or without a partner. Using a nearby chair, a pole, a wall, anything to bounce against, I make my own tango dance, in between the real ones.
When this trend of too many women began, I was already an experienced dancer and quite good at my little game. Not only do I keep in subtle but constant movement – a thing even more crucial in my 60’s; if I don’t keep moving it’s instant hardening of all moveable parts – but if a leader happens to pass by and likes what he sees, he just takes me by the hand and leads me straight to the dancefloor. A thing already in motion is easier to keep moving, than a static waiting blob. And I try to stay in the ‘flow’ of movement.
One young woman at the festival danced non-stop, just as I used to, with boundless enthusiasm, rubber flexibility, and a face smeared with ecstasy, like she was falling in love with each and every man she danced with. Before menopause, I used to get into heaps of trouble with all that love dripping from my face. If a man, especially in Buenos Aires, felt and saw that on you and wanted more and you said no, you never got to dance with that man again. Simple as that. I thought I’d feel jealous of this younger woman, as the older women in Buenos Aires used to years ago loath me. But I didn’t. If anything, I was relieved the dance was no longer about sex (though there’s always a sensuality); the ones who want that no longer bother with me. Yet at this festival, while I danced and sweated across the floor, I realized that the dance still made me as happy as it had always done. Like a magic potion, all troubles vanished. So what if my husband and I have been looking for ages, and still can’t find a common country, it didn’t matter a hoot. So what if Trump is president and the world of kindness has exploding, nothing matters for the delectable three minutes of the dance. So wonderful it is to dance – I’m convinced if everyone danced, there’d be no wars (but I don’t want to be the one to dance with Trump) – it’s the same if I were twenty or thirty, or one-hundred and seven.
The last day of the festival the heat was stifling. With no air-conditioning, it felt like a Finish sauna. We were all soaked through. Even the ladies in waiting had fans like it was a bullfight in boiling Madrid. I felt for some of them who had sat and sat until – as the Argentine so crudely say – the crack in their butt had long disappeared and had to be re-drawn. I wished everyone could be dancing all the time. The final hour, the DJ put on non-tango music like Salsa, and Meringue. Just to move other muscles, I began to dance by myself on the dance floor. I signaled to a few of the un-danced women to join me. No one dared. But when I returned from the restroom, the floor was filled with many of these women, who now smiled at me, encouraging me to join them. Who cares if the younger women were dancing with the few remaining men, we wild and ageless women were having the time of our lives.