Her name was Marina, and she was a woman with reddish-brown hair and a nice smile in her 30s. She sat opposite me. The other people in the group had been similarly paired up. I had never met Marina before. And I had never done anything like this.
I was sixteen, and this was a group therapy session in D20, the psychiatric unit. This was very early in my time there, and I was trying things that were recommended to me as possibly being helpful. And it was thought that Conversation Class would be helpful to me. It was in this class that I literally learned how to talk to people again. And how to talk to women, especially.
We started with basics. Hello, how are you? What’s your name? This kind of thing. The kind of thing you most likely can’t imagine ever needing to take a class to re-learn. I never imagined myself in such a situation, but then when I was a little kid I never imagined how traumatised I’d feel just going to school, either. And at no point in my conversations with Marina, who was one of the other patients (I never found “what she was in for”, as everyone tended to speak of reasons for being a patient in a psychiatric unit), did she ever regard me with loathing, disgust, mockery, or anything other than kindness and curiosity. I found this disorienting.
Only now, thinking back on this, do I wonder why a grown woman in her thirties might need such a class. I find myself faced with no good possible hypotheses.
When you’re a patient in a psych hospital, whether one, a small public unit like D20 was in the 1970s, or a larger, private hospital like the one I was in last year, one of the first surprising things is that the staff like to see the patients organised into activities. In D20, at the start of each week, patients had a meeting with an occupational therapist for “goal setting” in which the idea is you plot out your week like a school timetable. I generally hated this very much and tried to weasel out of it when I could. This was mainly because I was starting to recover from my initial stunned passivity when I was too broken to do much more than nod and do whatever was asked.
There were all kinds of group therapy classes, ranging from things you might expect (Relaxation, Meditation) to things you might not (Woodwork in actual workshop). In the “day room” you could sit in the bright sunlight pouring through the huge windows and participate in “Arts & Crafts” (rug hooking, bas relief work in copper). There were groups of a more conventional nature, in which the participants sat around in a circle, all of them fidgety, angry, unhappy, bristling, sometimes smoking, sharing their views and feelings in response to questions from the occupational therapist leading the group. These groups were sometimes extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable.
My favourite was Art Therapy. There was a fully-equipped art room, with everything from pencils to charcoal to paint to clay, whatever you wanted to work with. There were structured sessions, such as the one where you render in your chosen artistic medium the feelings you have about whichever issue was the topic that week.
The marvellous thing about the art room was that it was open all the time, and patients were welcome to come in, anytime, and just do stuff, whatever you felt like. Out of the two years I spent as an inpatient and then as an outpatient, I probably spent at least half of that time in the art room, and a big fraction of that time working with clay. Many days it was all I did all day long. There was a table by the big windows offering a view towards A Block, and I would just sit there and sit there for hours and hours, and the therapists, Margaret and Jo, who became good friends with me, were happy to let me do so. It was bliss, richly satisfying. Hours would pass and I wouldn’t say a word to anyone, and no-one would disturb me.
But the most surprising, the most unexpected class, for me, was Ballroom Dancing on Thursday afternoons. It was suggested that maybe I should put myself down for it.
I panicked. Fight/flight response engaged. I have a vague memory of actually running from the room, breathless. Of a running battle over several weeks between the occupational therapists and myself over whether I could be coaxed into this class. Every Thursday afternoon, I made sure to be busy elsewhere. The entire proposal was upsetting. Nothing good could come from it. It reminded me of things.
High school. The gym. Blonde wood and varnish and basketball markings in worn white tape. An atmosphere of stale sweat. Something unpleasant, as if there was a rubbish bin somewhere in there you couldn’t quite see.
And us, all of, I think, Year 9 or 10. Girls on one side, enthusiastic, glowing with a light sheen of perspiration, their uniforms tidy, mostly enjoying themselves. Us boys across the other side, slovenly, sarcastic, fed up, shirt tails hanging out on one side, 1970s hair hanging lank, sloping through the same basic cha cha cha, the same box steps.
How I hated all of this. We were informed that Ballroom Dancing was the very stuff of romance, and that knowing how to dance would open up a world of social possibilities for us that we simply could never imagine. In that stuffy, stinky gymnasium on those afternoons it was simply impossible to believe such nonsense. It was like maths teachers telling us how when we grew up we would use algebra every day to help us design bridges. Time Traveller me would like to blip back to those classrooms and provide an itemised list of all the bridges I’ve designed in the years since I left school. It would be a similar list to the number of romantic dates I’ve been on with beautiful women I’ve met via the medium of Ballroom Dancing.
There was an instructor gliding up and down the gym’s centre line, showing us the waltz, the rhumba, all of it. It was all so beautiful, so elegant, floating on air, so evocative of a glamorous, gleaming soft-focus past. He’d show us a few fancy moves, always done with a certain panache, and then it was our turn to try it out. I just remember the noise of all those shuffling footsteps, the sight of crowds of people manoeuvring in a box step.
Then, at last, the part I truly hated. The part I would fake illness in the mornings of these classes so that I could avoid it. The part that made me react so poorly a few years later in hospital.
We were told to choose a partner.
About ninety-eight percent of us had little trouble here, and were soon teamed up. Of the handful left, the girls tried to hide behind each other. The boys, most of us fat and awkward and pale, bumbled about, asking any girl not huddled behind someone else. It would take a while, and it was excruciating. There were pained smiles, and reluctant nods, and no hand-holding. The happy couples came back to the centre of the room.
The girls I found never looked at me. They looked at the instructor. When instructed to hold their partner’s hand, they might–might–link pinky fingers. Sometimes not even that. I burned white-hot with horror and shame, but not with shock. All of this was my lot in life. I was loathsome. I was filth. I was not a person.
We went through steps. Some girls consented to be touched, but we stood as far apart as it was possible to stand. Others simply refused, and did the steps as if I were not there. I sweated, and probably stank. I would like to have died, had the option become available. The music from the lousy PA system boomed and echoed, reverberating hollow and lifeless around the gym. It was the opposite of romance, the opposite of fun. It was horror and torment. It was institutional bullying. I’d rather be taking a group shower after Friday sports class.
At D20 they did, at great length, and after a very considerable amount of persuasion on the part of the wonderful occupational therapists there (especially Maggie and Virginia), talk me into it. I had explained my horror of the whole thing. I told them I wasn’t making it up. It really was like that. It had been one of the worst experiences of my entire high school career. They were very good about it. They understood. They helped. They did not tell me I was imagining things. All this while nudging me down the hallway, past all the Van Gogh prints on the walls, to the art room, where the Ballroom Dancing class was held.
I was terrified. It was all coming back. I could smell the gym, the sweat, the horror of it. Maggie and Virginia promised it would never be like that, that the teacher was lovely and kind, and was used to helping people who’d had terrible school experiences. It would be okay. I heard them say all this, and it was reassuring. But it was just about true that they needed to put me on a trolley to get me down that hallway.
I went in through the art room door. Inside, the tables and desks had been moved into a corner. There was a group of patients (I was the youngest), and some of the current batch of student nurses doing their psychiatric nursing rotation. People seemed pleased and surprised to see me. The teacher, whose name I forget but might have been Susan or Suzanne, welcomed me and thanked me for coming. She seemed enormously kind and reassuring. I smiled and smiled, nervous, scared, as if hiding behind the façade of my teeth.
Immediately, this class proved different from what I remembered. It was much smaller, most obviously. But it was also intimate, with only perhaps a dozen of us. And we were all, I soon noticed, equally nervous and awkward. This was new to all of us, patients as well as nurses. Teacher Suzanne took it slow. She was funny and disarming. There was lots of nervous laughter, and lots of regular laughter, when things worked, when the steps operated as shown.
When it turned out to be fun. When women consented to be held. When there was conversation, some nervous humour. Tangled feet. When there was no horror. The opposite of horror, in fact.
Weeks and weeks later, I was still going, and it had become a highlight of my week. I looked forward to dancing in the art room as much as I looked forward to messing about with giant lumps of clay. I grew to enjoy the dancing so much that I started to get a bit good at it. I had been a patient so much longer than almost everyone else that I had attended more classes than anyone, so Suzanne would choose me to help demonstrate steps and moves. Me! Traumatised, psychotic, non-human, loathsome me!
One Friday night, long after I had left D20, I found myself in the city on my own. I went to (I think it was called) Gilkison’s Dance Hall, a place where they actually had proper Ballroom Dancing in a social atmosphere, where you could meet people, and who knows? I managed to screw up my nerve, and went in. There were a lot of stairs. The place was loud. I loved the UV lighting, which made white shirts fluoresce, but also white stitching in shoes. I did manage to find a young woman who agreed to try a rhumba with me, and we got our feet tangled up real good, laughing. That was as far as we went, but for me it was everything. Conversation and dancing with a woman unrelated to me, and who did not seem horrified in my presence.
It was nice.