My small town is really a hub for all the local one-hound dog towns. We have a super Wal-Mart, a chain grocery store, several gas stations, a few restaurants, a newspaper, about three car dealerships, and a hospital. We also have the only mental health clinic this side of a large city. It’s in a strip mall along with a renal care center and a veterinary clinic.
I have been attending women’s group therapy meetings at the clinic for over a year as part of dealing with my husband’s midlife crisis and in order to deal with some issues from my childhood. I have come to the conclusion that in our area, if your head’s not screwed up, either your kidneys or your dog are. I see everyone from miles and miles around in that parking lot. People from three towns away are there either getting a rabies shot or a prescription for Xanax, along with locals in need of dog tags and Lithium. The vets are local, but the people doctors are imported from elsewhere, much like exotic foods.
During the women’s group meetings, I often hear newbies worrying about others “finding out” they’re having problems. My stock answer is to tell them that if they are that concerned about their cars being spotted and recognized in the parking lot, they can always tell people they were checking the “free pets” bulletin board at the vet’s.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that pretty much everyone shows up at the clinic at some point or another. It’s the only place to go if your child is going through a rough patch, has a learning disability, or needs diagnosing or ongoing treatment, the state DUI programs are held there, many, many couples going through life transitions go for marriage counseling, and parents whose children are deployed overseas in the military go for stress reduction or just to find someone to talk to about their concerns. I’ve met parents of my children’s friends out in the waiting room, my husband’s insurance clients, neighbors, knitting compatriots, and familiar faces from the grocery store, too.
I can tell which doctors are rotating through that day by the clientele. As two of my sons have ADHD, we parents have frequent reunions in the waiting room on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the child psychiatrist is in. Marriage counseling, which I have also attended, tends to be on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
My group meets on Tuesday afternoons, and we’ve recently gotten so large that we’ve gone to meeting for an hour and a half instead of just an hour. It could be kind of a sad thing, since we have mainly three things in common -- we’re women, we’re all survivors of child abuse, and we all want to get better. It would be sad, except that we have a hell of a time. Yes, we do cry, we do trade some horrendous stories of things we have lived through, things we are going through now, the long-term effects of child abuse, and what caused us to show up, frightened and discombobulated on the doorstep. But we also tell funny stories of coping, trade jokes, share anecdotes about good things in our lives, award prize stickers to each other for acts of courage and signs of strength, we celebrate birthdays with cake and gifts, and we hug and laugh. Sometimes we go out for dinner together afterwards.
We laugh so much sometimes that some of the very sad, very embarrassed, very distraught people in the waiting room wonder if the clinic is renting out the conference room for parties. The front desk staff refers to our group as the one everyone likes to go to, and they sometimes mention they’d like to go to a meeting or two also. The clinicians take turns visiting us, perhaps for insight into our shared pathology, or perhaps in the hopes of being there during those many good moments as a respite from an endless daily parade of distress. We get trainee shrinks, too, sometimes. They are very stiff and professional, try very hard not to show that they are taking highly specific mental notes, and wind up looking a little daffy themselves in their distractedness.
The sad part for me is not that there are so many of us, nor that we are all in need of some help. The sad part is that so many other places, institutions, and people have failed us, and that we have only this one place to go for the companionship, the openness, and the sharing that we all need, and that builds friendships. Most of us have been disappointed or ignored by our churches, our partners, our jobs, and our circumstances. We have held sinking ships together, been coping as fast and as hard and as diligently as we could, and, finally, one day, we could cope alone, unsupported, no more and reached out for help and found each other.
I really don’t know why I’m holding forth about this today, other than to say that it’s Tuesday, and I’m glad I have group to go to. I don’t have to be a mother, a wife, a child, a daughter-in-law, or a daughter there. I can just be myself, and I need that right now. No expectations piled on me, no constraints or restrictions, no prohibitions against too much or too little displayed emotion, no dealing with someone else’s problems because they’re afraid of them or don’t want to face them… I’ll just get to deal with my own, and I’ll get to share a shoulder, or a hug, or a laugh or have them shared with me.
And, as for worrying about who might recognize my car in the parking lot, and what they might think, I wish I had a bumper sticker that said, “Ask me why I’m here. I’ll bet you wish you were, too.”