I go to therapy in an uprise downtown, an oddly angled, metallic expanse that always seems to be on the verge of blasting off. It has multiple stories, an eccentric amalgam of all kinds of business offices and insurance companies. I enter on the ground floor through round-robin glass doors, the kind that simultaneously delighted and terrified me as a child (what if you get stuck going around and around forever?), and am greeted by few plush armchairs and a couch seated beside an electric fireplace, a kind of corporate-cozy gathering space with a Starbucks in the corner and a hushed feeling in the walls.
I love this entryway, because besides the possibility of caffeine, it offers a mixing-pot of people. There are young men with spiked hair, square tortoise-shell glasses, and rolled-up pant legs, who rode their bikes in to work at tech start-ups. There are secretaries, almost always in a gaggle, and woman in power-suits and heels who move just a tad too fast because they are perpetually busy and important, and they have to walk that much faster than the men just to prove it.
And then there’s the patients. It’s often easy to spot them, for they fold into their sterotype just as easily as the people I described above. They are the ones without a badge, with a slight hesitance in their step, who have the uncomfortable look in their eyes that comes when you feel slightly out of context. They are often the ones who stop and sit in the fake sitting room, take a breath to ground themselves, to remember who they are amidst a sea of rushing workers.
There’s the woman with her stone-washed jeans pulled up above her belly-button, who sits next to her rolling suitcase and talks just a little too loud and a little too much to anyone who will take the time to listen (she is the kindest person I’ve encountered yet). There are kids being dragged along by harried parents, reluctantly attending family therapy sessions or getting ADD medicine refilled. There are students, and salesmen, and teachers, all unified by the noun patient, and a destination: floor E.
I’m brazenly labeling all of these people because, as I said before, I am one of them. I’m a patient on G, and have been a patient for years, and I’m fairly certain that I betray this every time I walk into that building with my wide-eyed determination to look like I belong. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve also begun to work on floor J, at a company that is part of the very same system that provides my behavioral health services.
When I take the elevator up, it is a smaller sub-set of that larger melting-pot. And when I get off on E, it feels less intense, less chaotic. It’s even more obvious who is who here: patients are in the waiting room, or checking in at the front desk, providers have IDs and calm, reassuring voices. I know my role here. I am A Patient. I’ve actually been told many times, verbatim, that I am a “good” one.
Because I know my role, I also know what I could get away with. That sounds terrible, but it’s true. If I were to scream and throw things, sob in the hallway, allow myself to break down in the bathroom, it would be okay. People would notice, people would react-some with fear, some with annoyance, some with amazement or embarrassment. I would certainly be approached by a provider, who would use some kind of step-by-step protocol to calm me down (I say this with compassion and the beginnings of a new understanding after working on J; I have never been a mental health provider and have no doubt it is incredibly hard, and that no one goes into that profession some kind of care and drive to help people), but it would not be outside the realm of normal. On the floor E, acting crazy is normal.
That’s extreme, the throwing things; it’s not likely I would ever do that, despite my Intense Intensity. But I did find myself in tears last week, and the only place I knew to go was the bathroom on E. Because crying on J, were I work, would be unacceptable. I’m already out of place there; I come to the office on time, I dress according to the company code, I can sit in meetings and listen and understand much of what is said. My badge grants me access to all that, opens that door to that world of research and education and people who have power. It doesn’t fool anyone, though, especially me. I can wear my badge on J, in the elevator, even in the lobby or on the bus. And people look at me differently; sometimes I even feel more capable, more in control. But wearing it or not, it’s hard to shake the label of patient. It’s what I’ve known for so long, feel like it’s in my blood, my bones, my brain chemistry. I think I’m learning that broken is one of the hardest things to let go. Who am I when I’m on floor E? And who am I on floor J? It’s the same person, at least I’m trying to be. And still, I go to E to cry…
And so this week I look to the quote above my writing desk from Ghandi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” If crying on the floor where I work because of stigma and insensitivity in a meeting results in people continuing to see me as only a patient, listen to my ideas as only a consumer, that isn’t the kind of world I want to live in. I want to shake the norm that allowing space for emotions is crazy, weak, patient-like. Because it’s human. Yesterday I cried on floor E and floor J, tried to push aside the shame that has held my feelings back, tried to show up in the truth of my Intense Intensity, my Sarahness.
It’s a decision (is crying a decision?) that has me shaking, literally, with fear each day I buzz myself into the office, every time the elevator doors open and I don’t know if a co-worker will enter, or a fellow member of my DBT group, or the psychiatrist who read me my diagnoses one after the other until I felt like a lab-rat. I hope that, some day, all of those people might feel it is okay to cry, or dance, or admit to feeling afraid, whether it’s on in a workplace, a clinic, an elevator, a lobby. Because it isn’t us or them, it’s we. I live the we every day. And the more we all practice showing up as human, the more understanding we might have of each other, the more normal crazy might become, the more our tears and our joys will overlay our hard hearts.