It’s the first day of rehab. My boo-boo tongue still hurts. My speech is halted when I can summon the word I might want. I am not allowed to go to the bathroom alone, and nobody comes to get me when I want to go. Part of the program requires attending morning meetings with a social worker. I was sure she didn’t possess her own Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
On the first day of morning meetings we are instructed to go around the room and say how we feel. I for one feel pretty damned shitty physically, but my spirits were high! We write our thoughts on an index card and then take turns “sharing.” It didn’t feel like sharing to me. You don’t give a kid a twinkie, then take it away and give it to kid #2, and then tell screaming, crying, kid #1 “thank you for sharing.” (I have seen people do this sort of thing, but I’ll share that another day.)
Nobody wanted to go first. Having worked a few tough rooms in my corporate training gig, I volunteer to break the ice. I said “I feel hopeful.” I wanted to set a good example for the class, but I did indeed feel hopeful. The second person was up, a woman who had shared at puzzle time that she had a shunt in her head to drain fluid and prevent pressure buildup. She said she felt lonely. The group facilitator asked “Why do you feel lonely?.” No visitors for 3 days. Empathetic nods all around. The next person shared that her boyfriend was probably leaving her, couldn’t take “all this medical stuff.” I’m thinking to myself “good riddance buddy.” The group facilitator asked “How did that make you feel?” My blood pressure inched up. How did it make her feel? How would you like to feel my foot up your ass, lady? To the moon Alice! To the moon!
Second day, second meeting, same cast of characters. We’re dealt six cards each, cards depicting scenes from the 1950’s, but not in a cute, retro way. I (or rather, my insurance company and I) am paying a million bucks to be here and all we have are 50 year old visual aids? I was skeeved to touch them. The task was to put the cards in order. I will attempt to give you an idea of the story the cards tell: ”woman gets basket of laundry, woman folds laundry, woman irons laundry, woman vacuums, woman talks on phone, woman pets dog.” Take all the time you need, YOU put the cards in order!
Mid-day group time comes along. I have failed miserably at walking on “romper stompers” in physical therapy and I find myself in a group doing a post-mortem on the prior night. Shunt-girl had a terrible night and she just wants to get out. Badboyfriend was putting on makeup at the table trying to cover up a worn all-night cry. The empathy center of my brain was active and I wanted to ease shunt-girl’s loneliness and sign up badboyfriend for match.com. Instead of cheering anyone up when finally forced to contribute to group, my hostility bubbled up and group was abruptly dismissed. Two of the seven people thanked me for getting us out of it. A third offered me a cigarette.
We skipped group in lieu of arts, crafts, and puzzles for a few days. The puzzles had 50-100 pieces. I never finished one. If the plan was to prove to us that our brains were not the same, it was working splendidly.
Someone came to see me every day, and I became increasingly aware that this was not true for the others. A brain spectrograph would have revealed that my empathy center was becoming flooded with information it couldn’t process. During the days we would wheel around the hallway, but nobody smiled or even showed signs of recognition that we were all in a similar boat, or that we’d seen each other the day before. A particularly feisty African-American woman rolled up and down the corridors, talking to herself: “I’m gonna get me outta here yes I am. Can’t stay here. I’m gonna get me outta here!” I longed to re-braid her fraying dreads, something inside of me wanted to touch her, to try to offer her some comfort. I was aware that I wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to help her if we were “on the outside.”
Third day, third morning group. We got a new person, a woman with a perfectly shaved head and a scar that looked like the barber had been drinking. She was warm, cheerful and sharing. I never saw her again. Mental note: Being cheerful gets you outta here.
On my last day of group, I quit. Turns out you can’t just quit, so I pulled a Tom Cruise. I screamed that shuntgirl didn’t want to try to get better and that badboyfriend girl was wearing excessive makeup to cover the fact that she was cutting herself, a detail that no professional seemed to notice or address. That afternoon a different social worker came to me and said I no longer had to participate in group, sparking anger and jealousy on the floor. I felt like a bitch. I kinda enjoyed it.
An exchange with the kindest a nurse soon afterwards:
Nurse: “If you want to get better you have to help yourself.”
Me: “I don’t feel that wallowing in self-pity is doing much for anyone here.”
Nurse: “You have to realize, you are by far the healthiest person here.”