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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sometimes, It All Just Goes to Shit

I didn't get much sleep the night before I was scheduled to teach drama therapy in my quaint litlte psych hospital. To the best of my knowledge, it had never been tried before. And I had absolutely no empirical or therapeutic basis for what I was preparing to do-- which, frankly, wasn't much.

I stared up at the faint, dark outline of the ceiling fan as the rhythmic thrum of the air purifier mixed with my cataclysmic thoughts of how drama therapy was going to go down as the single worst idea in the history of the therapeutic milieu.

I was very worried it would end up looking something like this:

I'd, of course, be one of the fuckers getting his face stepped on.

My supervisor, who has a rather inflated opinion of my capabilities, decided to schedule me to do two rounds of drama therapy, once on the general unit, and once on the lock-down, acute unit. Drama therapy in the land of the bolt-down tables? Was this practical, or was it even possible?

Before I go any further and make it sound like my supervisor is entirely to blame for me trying out something like this in a mental hospital, I should point out that I, um, signed myself up for it. Three weeks ago, I put down on the calendar that I would like to try out drama therapy on the 17th. I do this kind of thing to myself a lot. I'll sign myself up for something, as long as it's at least two weeks away. If it's happening tomorrow, even if it's as innocuous as a television show I've just found out about, or dinner with a friend, I'll turn it down. It's just too soon. I don't roll like that. But, I'll book myself for pretty much anything if I can perceive that it's far enough into the future that I don't have to worry about it, yet. Public execution? Sure, I'll take pictures-- it's in a month, right? Pubectomy in six weeks? No problem-- I'm there.

In a way, I felt obligated to sign myself up to teach drama therapy. When you come into a job for which you're completely unqualified, and they find out that you're a theatre major-- your sorry, skinny ass is pretty much going to teach drama therapy, like it or lump it.

So I did my half-assed, haphazard preparations the day before. Because that's what I do. I was practically trembling as I walked into work on Friday. I looked at one of my coworkers.

"This is going to blow up in my face like a cake that says, 'Happy Birthday, Hindenburg' on it, isn't it?" He smiled wanly.

"Well, it may, but, remember," said my typically sardonic cohort, in a rare, sincere moment, "you may have the best idea in the world for a group therapy session-- and that doesn't mean it's going to work, and that's not always your fault. Sometimes, it all just goes to shit."

Oddly enough, I took comfort in that sentiment as I tucked my bulging clipboard underneath my right arm with what was becoming a familiar gesture.

"Oh. The humanity," I said flatly. I sighed briskly. "Okey-dokey: here we go."

A patient encountered me in the hallway on my way to the activities room.

"What the hell is drama therapy, guy?"

"Well, you're just going to have to come on down and see what's behind Door Number One in order to find out, aren't you?" I said with game-show enthusiasm. The more truthful answer would, of course, have been, "I have no. Fucking. Idea." But I couldn't say that. In the land of steel doors and cinder block walls, the man with the clipboard and the keys had better have a fucking idea, or be very good at faking it.

Halfway through the actors' warm-up exercises, Theresa (name changed) was smiling. I hadn't seen her smile in three months. Her psychiatrist was peeking through the window in the closed door, and her eyes were popped wide. Other faces, those of coworkers, crowded around the small window, peering excitedly at the strange spectacle of teacher and patients, leaping about the room enthusiastically, doing vocal warm-ups, doing scenes, working together, stretching, being silly. It didn't go pitch-perfect of course.

"Okay, Olga," I whispered to a patient with whom I was doing an improv scene, out of earshot of the rest of the patients, "in this scene, I'll be your son, and you're my mom, and I've just broken your favorite lamp. And we'll improvise a scene and the other patients will have to try to figure out what we're doing."

We walked back into the room where all the patients were waiting, and the first thing Olga says to me is,

"Why'd you break Mommy's favorite lamp, sweetie?"

After the group ended, after any group ends, I had difficulty taking stock of the situation. When you're in it, you lose yourself, and time, and your brain is working feverishly to make sure patients are engaged, not ripping each others' faces off, or licking the armchairs. It was 12:00pm before I knew it, and people filed out of the room. They were smiling, giggling, chatting with each other about what they had just done. A male patient, who did not participate at all, but sat and watched the whole time ("What is drama therapy," I asked him, "without an audience?") looked up at me and said,

"You know what I liked the most about that group?"

"No," I said, "what?"

"That Theresa smiled. You did good."

No, I thought-- they did good. They could have blown me off. Could have said, "Fuck this-- this is gay. You don't know what you're doing." But they took a chance, they went with it, and it went really well. And I guess I'm proud of myself, not because the group went well, because I could do the exact same thing next week with a new set of patients and it could absolutely tank, but I'm proud of myself for volunteering myself for something scary. For not pussying out. For taking a chance. For embracing being green at something, and not hiding behind the safety net of the same old thing.

Besides-- I had fun, too.


  1. As a special ed teacher, and especially working with students with Autism this year, I experience those same kinds of feelings a lot. When it goes well it makes you feel all tingly inside :)

  2. Well done. I'm glad Theresa smiled. I'm glad you had fun and that nobody stepped on your head.


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