Social Integration: Learning Life’s Lessons in the Least Likely of Places

I look out the window feeling like I am straight out of the mental institution as my wife’s SUV pulls off the freeway toward the Marriot Hotel. We are on our way to visit my wife’s dear friend and goddaughter at an Irish Dance competition. I know I will be feeling straight out of it: trying not to let my face go flat; exhibiting all the buoyant pleasantries. It is one of those rare occasions that I will be integrating with the “Normal” folk. I dread this. Often all I learn in these kinds of contexts is that I am less than.

Perhaps I feel this way because I work nine to five in a mental health ward that serves inner-city Boston in the Roxbury neighborhood. I have done this for thirteen years.  I work with an extremely deprived lot of people and it can be hard to leave it behind.  Before that I was underemployed for a significant amount of time having just moved into Boston from an out-of-state, State Hospital where I was an inmate for three months.

My wife’s friend is a stay at home, decorative home-schooler who lives off family money and has expensive tastes. I am not proud that this is the way I see her.  She is certainly nice enough. They live in a hippy town out west along the Masshole Turnpike.

At least I can say that my wife does not have to pressure me to do an event like this.  She supports me emotionally and I am genuinely motivated to put on a good show for her. Our relationship is solid.

***

Once parked, we struggle to find the proper side entrance though the clutter of prepubescent girls that are taking over patio and lawn. I note the anxiety, practicing, and perfectionism and wonder what it’s all about, really. I don’t even know what Irish dancing is. I spot a boy or two on the way in. Sure I was lucky to have baseball games and have my parents attend too. But coming face to face with insulated childhood innocence is gearing up to really blow my mind.

We enter the ball room and navigate the crowd scanning for her friend.  We find each other and there are hugs and pleasantries and I wonder if her friend is angry at me.  The last time we paid her a visit in hippy land I lost my cool when her husband ordered the most expensive meal when it had been clear we were paying. But to make matters worse, my wife topped it off by buying her friend some thirty dollar bottle of grape juice. Yes, grape juice. That was just too damn much for me.  I thought of the poverty of the people who I employ after work trying to help them get on their feet after catastrophic mental health break down and I just could not keep my eyes from bulging in their sockets.

My wife managed me well and respected where I was coming from. But somehow I don’t see her friend as being so humble.

My wife’s friend is hosting her parents who are in from out of town.  I have met them before and they are okay.  They’ll talk about their struggles to bring it in and will tolerate their daughter’s expensive tastes with some degree of eye roll. I give them all hugs but my mind is already consumed with the dancing that is going on in this massive marble ball room. They have imported mobile wood floors that are getting good and stomped on in rhythmic patterns.  The get-ups are like nothing I have ever seen before, polyester and doll-baby, yet Irish. I presume they are only worn for these statewide competitions and imagine they are costly.  Many girls are wearing wigs to look more Irish.

The thing that gets me is the privilege involved with spending hours training to put on a show that only Irish lace people would really dig. I go on as we are all seated and my wife is whispering to her friend, thinking about the way people honor such waste in this society and develop these truly idiosyncratic traditions; for what: so that one girl can be better than the next. We are totally surrounded by lace lovers that are stroking their knees, taking pictures, and perpetuating grandiosity.

***

When I work on a mental ward—either as an inmate, a hostage taker, or hopefully, with some skill, a dream maker—it is hard not to see something like rank as being anything but highly hurtful. Although we charge our clientele a high level on their insurance, we stay in an old dilapidated section of the hospital. With hard work the place has gotten better over the years, but there is that yellow stain that runs from the urinal to the drain of the men’s restroom from years of neglect that just won’t go away even when the floor is glossed. Everything is old. The window panes are crusted with soot while the rest of the hospital is renovated. Bubbled widows in the hall that you can’t see in or out of only just got removed two years ago. And though many of us do all that we can, to create a healthy and healing environment, there are still institutional lines that form in front of the decaf coffee among other signs of overcrowding. Just outside the unit is the stench of a trash compactor that the clients who smoke illegally must breathe. And we are located right next to the morgue.

Just witnessing this ballroom reminds me about the importance of ranking up and somehow being deemed talented and worthwhile. My wife points out a dancer that her friend and daughter are appalled at.  Sure she is bow legged and a pinch awkward but she’s getting good exercise and is clearly deserving of love too. I know that if she can’t find love, she will one day get driven into the squalor that I deal with on a daily basis.  And yet it is so important to the lace bastards of the world to worship the best.

In support of our goddaughter, the whole lot of us keep shifting and moving around as a unit.  Eventually, the parents leave and my wife’s friend starts complaining about the fact that her parents snored last night. She can barely stand it.

I look at the competitive display going on right in front of our eyes, each girl trying to take center stage in front of the judges. I lean over and whisper in my wife’s ear, “Why is it that all I can do is hear these girls in my mind saying things like, ‘you bitch,’ and ‘you cunt.” I have distorted my voice a bit when I say the expletives. I probably repeat them a few times.

My wife laughs hysterically and I am a little surprised that I got away with the “c” word.  I mean, it was funny but I really know better than to be using such derogatory language.

As our goddaughter takes a turn, I take notice that the outfit of her troop is simpler than the troops of other girls.  My wife’s friend is madly trying to make her stomp shoes appear a little less old by covering the worn portion with black ink.  All the moves our goddaughter makes look perfect and eloquent but our goddaughter looks a little bit tall and lanky as she does her stuff. And her dress is just a bit wilted made of fuzzy fabric rather that spanking bright polyester.

It is not long after that when I see the one girl that really stands out. She is the only one out there who dances with the grace and ease that tells you she knows she is the best. She is the true doll baby of the ballroom. I hear my wife’s friend comment that the costume she is wearing costs eight hundred dollars.  This girl comes from one of those wealthy districts who can dare to give them the advantage of requiring eight-hundred dollar uniforms for their special girls.  She dances next to a teammate who also has good moves but also bears just a little extra weight in a way that makes her socks look like their pulled up too high.   Yep, the teammate is definitely second rate.

And suddenly we are all scrambling to get to a distant dance floor where our goddaughter has been moved.  The grandparents are back and we join a different crowd of parents that are all collectively clapping for all the dancers.  Somehow all these dancers have advanced and they sure do look better with the community clapping for them. We clap and clap.

I think about all these little egos getting that community boosts and think about how the little girls back in the ghetto block where I stayed back in college had nothing quite like this going for them.  One of them that first hits my memory had a mother who had been developmentally delayed, raised by her maternal grandmother. The way they loved the hell out of us when we gave them attention, told us they had to fight for everything they got with fisticuffs. Maybe they danced well in the double-Dutch but they didn’t experience the ballroom clap.

I think about what it’s like to be a parent and have to drag yourself to all these events.  Yeah, this must be when it gets worthwhile when you get to contribute to your child being clapped at. This is what it’s all about for the parent: contributing to boosting you little girl’s notion of superiority. Though I am clapping to fit it, I feel like we’re all a bunch of assholes.

Just after the clapping stops, I see one mother at a little girl’s throat. How dare the little girl want to go sock-less like her friend! I feel oddly validated. We may all create community for a minute, but it is all dog eat dog in this crowd the minute we have to deal with anything that displeases us. It’s not that I like to see abuse.  It’s just somehow comforting to be reminded that this sense of community is in fact built on façade.

We have to wait around a while for our goddaughter to get her results and I am starting to get that itch. We are just waiting and waiting. I have seen enough to know that our goddaughter will only end up in tears for the most dumb-ass of reasons. I feel that what makes her awesome in my book, the fact that she did not push to get up front and be seen by the judges, is not likely to be respected in this crowd.

I need to get away from here, I think. I can’t learn a damn thing about anything that is going to help the world endure in future generations in a place like this. I am so sharply bias in this manner. The whole days a wash.  I didn’t get any writing done. I really don’t have too much time away from work and this just a royal goddamn pain that isn’t going to help my spirit in any manner whatsoever!

***

And then it dawns on me.  I think of one of the male peers I have worked with back on the crumbling mental ward.

This particular “patient” had been a true twisted character. My colleagues were frustrated with him and talked disparaging of him.  He lost all his board and care placements. He wouldn’t follow rules and sit in groups. The unit felt all but hopeless for him. At one time a competitive swimmer, from wealth and privilege, he went homeless repeatedly. He was incapable of making a friend. And what was worse was that we couldn’t bill for him.  He was utterly useless.

I remember how, myself being the only staff person who could actively demonstrate that he know what “psychosis” feels like, he’d talk to me. He had this terrible chronic pain in his back that made him unable to stand up straight and stay have patience for group.  But then many of my colleague would negate that because on break he would go into the hall and start dancing.  I can’t count the number of times staff made fun of him for his dancing. There was Sid dancing in the hall like a full on lark, making the mental ward just a pinch loonier.

It dawns on me that he was doing Irish dancing. All those fancy moves had looked oddly familiar.

Suddenly I have an ability to understand his behavior on our unit, in the homeless shelters and board and care home that force him into our dilapidated setting.  Finally, I can see the thing that is keeping him going in spite of his pain and in spite of his “psychosis.”

I can see that this lace culture is the one thing that helped him feel valued and that continues to give him hope in all of his squalor. Though I imagine he now feels conflicted about it, I now understand better how disparity in his life make him unable to accept anything else. I think of my own behavior and the way people despised it during incarceration and believe that in time, Sid will overcome all the bullshit and return to health much as I did.  I held onto the privilege of my past to endure minimum wage work, poverty and madness, all at the same time. In spite of all the harassment and humiliation I made people sandwiches so that I could keep afloat and out of the hospital. In like manner, Sid danced in the halls to tolerate being an inmate.

Although I have not seen this man for a year, it is so nice to be reminded that he will be okay. Social integration into the Irish Lace community has helped me decode his existence.  And now I don’t have to look at all this hype with quite the same edge.

***

I always wish I could help some of the other staff I work with not to be so negative and critical toward characters like Sid. I know I need to have more compassion for my fellow staff.  Some are used to being treated to Marriot Hotel-land. They are fighting hard to give their kids that lift and afford these dance competitions. One or two might even feel bitter that they have to come in and work with the dilapidated losers to maintain their career. I wish I could help those on our staff who don’t like what they do see that they work with the greatest people in the world. I wish more of us would be motivated to crack the case of Sid, the Irish Dancer, as I have just done.

People often don’t like to learn the lessons they most need to learn. They don’t feel comfortable when you put them out of their comfort zones. Not everyone integrates gracefully into the squalor or institutionalized poverty. I certainly didn’t initially. But there is hope that as they survive in this wide world we travel through that they will learn the really important of life’s lessons. It is only stigma and oppression that differentiates the people in the Marriot and the people in the inmates in the county hospitals.  I am still the same person I was when whistle blowing landed me in the State hospital and in years of Mad crisis.

As we mount our hybrid SUV and prepare to leave this la la land, I hope and pray that I will continue to learn my lessons so that when I end up back in the institution in old age without a child to take care of me, that I will have learned enough to endure and be humble enough to accept my place in this society. I hope I will find a few staff that actually care about what they are doing and will learn from my experience. I hope that I will enrich their lives the way people like Sid enriches mine.

Author: Tim Dreby

I am an award-winning author and practicing psychotherapist

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