My Favorite Job
Ruth Z. Deming
It took me until age 45 to find what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I worked in the newsroom of a local paper, where one of my jobs was to write the education column. My eye lit on one Vince Capelli who’d just gotten his master’s degree in Group Therapy from Hahnemann University right here in downtown Philadelphia.
Losing no time I called the chairman, Fabian Ulitsky, and was enrolled in the program in the fall. First, though, as a certified scaredy-cat, I hired a psychologist, who rode with me on the train downtown, drove with me on the turnpike, and even stayed with me on various elevators, as my stomach quailed in fear, lest the elevator squash all the passengers to death. This was agoraphobia, a side effect of my bipolar disorder.
I loved every single class. I did become psychotic under the stress of writing my thesis – “Single or Dual Leadership in Group Psychotherapy” – but my psychiatrist prescribed Navane, which got me out of the woods within six weeks.
The degree I earned was an MGPGP. Look at the beautiful configuration of the lettering. Master, Group Process and Group Psychotherapy. As lovely to me as the constellations in the sky. It was a golden chariot that took me places I’d never dreamt of.
At work, you never ever tell your boss or colleagues that you have a mental illness. Why? They’ll find an excuse to fire you. Any excuse would do. Mental health centers, ironically, are pitiless. To them, we’re the people you see on TV who do terrible things. We may even be mass murderers.
They whisper about us behind our backs.
I kissed my two teen-age children goodbye before leaving for my first interview at Bristol-Bensalem Human Services. Taking nothing for granted, I bit off a piece of yellow Klonopin, a tranquilizer, and won over silver-haired Richard Henderson. He hired me on the spot. My new title was “Intake Specialist.” Decades later, I still have the black and white business card buried in my wallet.
In grad school I gulped down knowledge like a fish and used every bit of it as a psychotherapist. “Learn everything you can about the client,” Fabian told us.
Training consisted of observing intake interviews. I found the interviewers inept, awkward, losing precious time in the hour-long interview. Psychotherapy was nothing more than a conversation between two people. We may all be created equal, but like Bach’s Themes and Variations, the wrong variations caused misery and unhappiness.
Oh, the people I saw! A whole new world opened up like Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The walls of my office were as thin as crepe paper. My office looked out upon a vast expanse of greenery, the former playground of Clymer Elementary School. When the elementary school closed, a mental health center moved in.
Oftentimes when I finished an interview with a client who had disobeyed the law – stolen money from relatives, used fraudulent credit cards, or written “hot checks” - the dozen or so people who worked near me would be absolutely silent. Listening in. Nothing to be done about it until I brought in a radio.
I’d turn the music onto the classical radio station and would turn up the volume when their secrets came pouring out. People trusted me. Even today, say, waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s as if I have a sign on my forehead that says, “Tell me your secrets.”
One of my first clients was a woman I’ll call Pamela. She began talking the moment she entered my office. I motioned for her to sit down.
“Life is so great,” she said, without pausing for breath. “God put me on earth so I can save mankind and bring peace on earth. I’m so grateful,” she said, making the sign of the cross.
I nodded. “What,” I wondered should my response be. She sounded like me, when I was manic.
Her husband was up in the waiting room.
“Be right back, Pam,” I said, wondering if I should leave her alone.
Always say the person’s name. Makes them feel important.
I ran up to the waiting room, stooping to pick up candy wrappers and a few squashed cans from the vending machines.
The mental health agency had no pride in itself. Your office should be treated the same way as your home.
Pam’s husband Paul was a soft-spoken man with a full head of black hair.
I sat down next to him.
“Did your wife ever act like this before?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s got bipolar disorder and went off her lithium.” His blue eyes had grey bags under them.
“Paul, here’s what you’ve gotta do,” I said, not mentioning that I was also on lithium. “Leave here. We can’t help you. Go to the nearest ER. There’s one at Doylestown Hospital.”
Paul and I walked back to my office. When we entered, Pamela was babbling away about her mother, who Pam said would die the very next day at exactly 3:05 in the afternoon.
He and I looked at one another. He rolled his eyes.
“It’s not true,” he whispered.
My beautiful secretary Lillian sat in the next office. She usually listened in for the first five or so minutes. I felt like I was on stage.
After Pam left, I poked my head in Lillian’s office. “Did you hear that idiocy?” I asked her. “They think they’re doing great so they go off their meds.”
Lillian, with shoulder-length curly hair, came from a large Catholic family. She had six sisters, all of whom would die from cystic fibrosis. Several had already passed away but Lillian herself did not have the gene.
“This is ridiculous,” she had told me. “Why did my parents have so many kids? They drown in their own mucous.”
What could I say?
“You’ve got another Ted today in half an hour,” she said.
In the short time I’d been there, you might have called them “The Terrible Teds.” The courts had mandated them to attend our clinic. They were all trouble-makers. One or two worked for tree removal firms. To this very day when I see the orange trucks from the Asplundh Tree Company on the side of the road, I wonder, “Is there a Ted up in the tree, recently out of jail?”
“Jail” was the preferred term. “Prison” implied a wretched place where dangerous things happened.
“How can I help you, Ted?” I asked, as he took his seat. I adjusted the radio.
He was a handsome man with chipmunk teeth. Mandated by the court to seek help.
“Look,” he said. “I have a little problem with my temper. I would never hurt anyone like my wife, JoAnne. She’s an angel.”
“So what happened, Ted?”
I knew the answer. My paperwork listed the charges against him.
He began. “This idiot was tailing me. At the red light, I jumped out of my car, grabbed a baseball bat from the back seat, and bashed-in his trunk.”
His ears reddened.
I was silent a few seconds. Then he said he was really sorry, he would never do such a thing again.
“Ted, would you like to come in for therapy? I think we can help you.”
“Sure,” he said, with a grin. “I sure would, especially if you’re my therapist.”
“I’ll put you on ‘our list,’” I said.
Little did the clients know but the list might take up to five months before anyone was seen. These were suffering human beings and for them, the wait was interminable. They were poor and had nowhere else to go.
Meanwhile I was maneuvering behind the scenes to run groups. After all, I was trained as a group therapist. In a group, I could help eight to ten clients at a time.
One morning I drove in early before I got my endless list of clients. Henry Sterling was the CEO of our clinic. His secretary Linda Rooney told me to wait for him in the lobby. He was a wealthy man, who not only owned our agency, but also an Acura dealership.
With Linda’s knowledge, I slipped into his office before he came in. I wanted to prepare myself. He had a huge mahogany desk with many drawers. I only peeked in one. Saw some pink “phone call” slips.
His walls were filled with framed art work.
Then I opened a tiny door that led to his own private lavatory. I took a quick leak, startled at my audacity.
Smoothing down my grey permed hair, I went back out into the lobby to await the intimidating Mr. Sterling. The Klonopin anti-anxiety med was doing its job; my stomach was calm.
Briefcase in hand, tall Henry Sterling entered the double glass doors of our agency, took off his hat, and nodded at me and his secretary. In a few minutes, Linda said, “He’ll see you now, Ruth.”
This was like a black and white movie you’d watch on Turner Classic Films. “Ruth, he’ll see you now.”
I entered the inner sanctum.
I stated my case. I’d practiced with my therapist friend Judy Diaz, who advised me he’d run me through hoops before he’d let me run a group.
The hoops weren’t too bad. He wanted daffodils planted around the agency. He told me where to buy them, at nearby Wankel’s nursery. He didn’t offer to pay.
Staring at his pencil-thin mustache, I was reminded of Salvador Dali. He had no idea how excited I was to become a group therapist. Better than if he gave me a free Acura convertible.
Ted the car banger was in my first group. As were Mandy, Liz, John, Sandra, and Ken, who had a harelip so he was hard to understand. In fact, I thought his name was “Hen.”
Every single person made progress. We understood that Ted’s anger stemmed from having a mentally handicapped daughter he never talked about. Not even he and his wife talked about it. He was on disability but through the group he found a real job.
Mandy, too, was on disability. She was a beautiful bashful woman, an artist in a beret, her blond hair swept across her forehead so no one would see her. She had been shamed in Catholic school, her knuckles rapped with a metal ruler, and hadn’t a bit of self-esteem.
Through the group she found volunteer work at the nearby Riverside Theatre.
These were fine individuals, who tried so hard to please me and the other members of the group. Cruel fate had placed them in the underbelly of society. Dreadfully poor, subsisting on Social Security Disability, they saved money by purchasing counterfeit registration stickers and counterfeit driving licenses.
The cars they drove rattled, their mufflers often coughing as if they had TB.
One day John, who liked to wear plaid shirts, offered me a gift. We were not supposed to accept gifts. How could I refuse him? I happily accepted a CD of the Welshman Richard Thompson singing his “Wall of Death,” a rousing dance-able tune about an amusement park ride.
All of us were shocked when, a few years later, we heard rumors our clinic would shut down. It was true.
What an experience it was! That fate gave me the opportunity to succor these people, that I could help them feel like real human beings, instead of discards and “the forgotten ones.” Never again did I minister to individuals such as these. I felt “chosen,” a sacred duty to help them.
Bristol-Bensalem closed down in 2001. I turned in my keys – a woman who had been locked up at Norristown State Hospital for psychosis.
Standing in the front parking lot, I stared at our agency for one last look. I picked an apple blossom from the apple tree and whispered goodbye to the best job I ever had. Tears splashed down my cheeks as I got in my car.
Driving home, I stopped at a Wawa and ordered an egg salad sandwich on rye. And my beverage, a diet Dr Pepper.
Where are they now? My beloved clients. And do they still remember me?