By Robin. Part One is here. I share my stories here and over at Life... On Its Own Terms. Thanks for listening and as always, if you want to know more just write to me, I'm always happy to correspond.
Before I went to detox I had never been inside any institution but the orphanage we adopted our daughter from, and that place did nothing to dispel my general idea that institutions were peopled with drooling, grunting, dull-eyed beings fed and changed by professionals in white uniforms.
I had thought, before, that institutions stripped people of their humanity but in this place I discovered that the opposite was true: here we lost everything we had constructed for ourselves and were left with only our selves, the human-ness with which we had each been born. No longer were we swimmers or accountants or parents or Republicans. We simply were.
I remember the day one of us sat down at an old piano that squatted in the common room and played Mozart’s Requiem and we stared, dumbfounded, as if we’d never heard music before. He looked startled, too, I recall, as if he didn’t know where the notes flowed from either.
We were, to a person, liars and braggarts of such magnitude that we didn’t even believe the details of our own lives. One day the director casually told me that she had googled me and that some story I’d told her about working in Pakistan was apparently true and I said, “Oh?” as if it was the first I’d heard of it. She was just making conversation but now that I think about it I imagine she and the other counselors spent a great deal of time fact-checking, or else they’d never know who’d they actually meet when they got to work in the morning.
Someone who was there when I was did turn out to be famous – you could kind of tell by the way he hid, not meeting anyone’s eyes, while the rest of us spun tales of climbing mountains and slaying lions. I hadn’t heard of him before then but now I see his picture everywhere and it disturbs me, the way a stumbled-upon love letter from a long-ago affair that ended badly disturbs, stirring up a brew of anger, vulnerability, and dangerous intimacy.
For in that place, where we had no last names or IDs and we sported matching blue cotton robes and took our exercise walking in endless circles around dull trees, there where we weren’t who we were anymore, we were as intimate with one another as twins in the womb.
From the stately older woman pausing in the lobby to chug one last bottle, to the young mother caught pilfering pills who was brought to the door in handcuffs, our paths there had been wildly disparate but once inside we converged completely.
From this forced proximity we began to grasp, slowly, how necessary we were to each other; to a person this was a revelation. We’d come together from different times, places, and circumstances yet we’d all somehow learned the same essential lesson: people hurt you. And throwing down smokescreens of laughter or promiscuity or daring-do, or money or charm or whatever superpower your drug gave you, would keep others at bay while you made your getaway.
And finally, we’d learned that a good backstory could keep others – or, hell, keep yourself – from knowing your essential truth, and if no one could know it then no one could condemn it.
To a normal person looking in on us, it would have appeared that no one accomplished anything there, and it’s true that no one got engaged or took a photograph or prepared a speech or fixed supper. I only knew I was getting better when my next-door neighbor and I had wheelchair races around the ward. I knew I was getting better not because I did this mildly off-limits thing or because I laughed out loud while doing it but because the nurses let us.
For it was only when our wardens allowed us to crawl tentatively back out to the edge, out beyond the basics of human upkeep, to shift focus momentarily from eating and sleeping to play or to converse, it was only then that we knew we just might be climbing, at last, out of the depths, and might one day glimpse the sunshine.