- Hold On
Do you ever write about us? I was running a group therapy session when a client, a recovering alcoholic, asked me this.
I had been writing, but about a wasp that, briefly, lived in the staff bathroom between the window pane and the wooden shutters outside. Somehow, seeing it for the few minutes a day when I retreated there for a little privacy became an inspiration, like a healing oasis. Just watching it do its thing—fuss over its nest, a boxy, miniature chandelier tucked in a corner of the window frame—with no need of and no reference to me or the dramas playing out in my life: there was no therapy better than this.
I found myself answering the client, Yes. I actually was working on something. The group of women all knew I wrote, because I mentioned it sometimes, to encourage them to find something, besides getting high, that they were excited about. Most said they didn't know who they were, what they felt, or anything they liked, down to favorite color, food preferences, or hobbies. Or whether they'd ever enjoy sex sober.
I hadn't written regularly in years, was the truth. Not since my 20s when I was married. We were both poets. My husband was 16 years older than me, kind, stable. Two summers after our wedding, I left him.
He's remarried now to another award-winning poet. They have two little sons. In interviews, he edits me out of his biography.
Aww, we inspire you, Ms. Liz! the client said. The mood lit up, as if everyone liked the idea. I felt shy, holding their fragile trust. [End Page 115]
Over weeks of observing the wasp, I got attached. I wanted the tiny, alien creature to be OK, allowed to go about its mystifying business. It wasn't hurting anyone out there, buzzing beyond the glass. Inevitably, though, our maintenance guy destroyed its papery home somehow, maybe flushed it down the toilet. And then the wasp didn't return anymore; the window was just empty. This was something I cried over.
In a single year, hundreds of souls passed through the facility where I worked, which housed 25 women at a time. It was an all-female residential rehab in an aging house in New Orleans, a neighborhood of rundown Victorians and lush, sheltering oaks. We staff referred to residents as "clients" or "the Ladies."
They couldn't do anything without our permission: wait in line to use the hallway phone for five minutes once a day; walk to CVS for cigarettes, candy, and Milk of Magnesia; haul their often sick, abused bodies on city buses to medical appointments. We OK'd these activities by initialing little slips of paper at strictly designated times. After 30 days, clients were eligible for four-hour passes on the weekend. Some had no homes to go to, no people.
The group attended some 12-step meetings outside the house. These occasions were like date nights. Everyone wore their best outfits, of the few permitted, and full faces of makeup; they queued up, in a poignant buzz of excitement, at the old, ornate front door. They rode the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, a few blocks away, on which they had such noisy fun that other riders complained, and it got back to our CEO.
Clients had come to us from mental hospitals, shelters, and detox, from living under the Claiborne Avenue overpass. Some stayed barely 24 hours. Others, for up to a year or more. Many were missing teeth, rotted or punched out by lovers, or had hepatitis C. Almost all were diagnosed as bipolar (correctly or not) and sedated on psych meds: Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Lithium, Gabapentin, Seroquel, Lamictal. Those just released from prison had no shoes.
My groups had been a favorite of the clients when I started as a counselor there. They joked that I made everyone cry, like when I asked them to write, in a letter to themselves, the loving words they'd always wanted to hear from [End Page 116] their mothers. But by two years into my role, when...