Southern Gothic Dancin’

We rolled into Milledgeville, Georgia in 2002; straight off the little highway connected to many other little webbings of other tiny highways with their distincly black and white signs declaring you have just entered into nowhere land. I will never forget passing onto the street that was one long strip mall of cheap clothes and fast food wrappers. I sank and swore under my breath as I died just a little. I was trapped on this ant farm of tiny highways that led to nothing of substance. This big city girl was being squeezed and stuffed into small town life. I couldn’t breathe and only did some of the strangest things breathe life into my caged up heart.

Milledgeville, it turns out, is an icon in lunacy. Growing up in Georgia meant that you may be threatened with being sent to Milledgeville to live at the Asylum. Taking up some two thousand acres, The Georgia Lunatic Asylum established in 1883 was once the largest mental health facility in the United States. Then called many other less kind things, it housed between 13-15 thousand patients. Practices, much less medicine was scarcely humane and people were sometimes chained to walls, children placed in crib cages and overall treated with less decency than my own pets. Legend has it that some of the less ill could be taken home to clean and cook for you and the residents had their own garden. It was said to have one of the largest laundry services on site making the hospital more like its own city. Some physicians and staff lived in tiny houses settled right next to the massive buildings that housed room after room of mentally ill patients. Without much regulation, most anyone deemed ‘sick’ could be left there and because of the lack of staffing, sometimes the patients became the workforce treating the other patients. Now some twenty five thousand patients are buried on the grounds of the hospital creating fuel for the often haunted gothic stories that have become apart of Georgia’s history.

By the 1960’s a governed decentralization of mental health facilities began and the onset of stabilizing medications for the severely mentally ill along with recognition that mental health issues did not constitute removal from society, created the slow disinegration of the once massive city. By the time I arrived for my volunteer orientation at the Powell Building in December 2002, less than half of the community was being used and many buildings were already condemed and haunted by its past.

I was sent to work with a professor and part time psychologist where the acutely physcially ill were housed and made an apparent impression that quickly led to a paying job, office and a behavioral health partner to work with. Stationed with the severly mentally ill geriatric patients, I was schooled in how many mental health disorders looked in their clearest diagnosis and through this lens, I learned more than I could ever offer them, affording me the ability to learn and understand their world view from living with them eight hours a day, five days a week.

And it was the little things that even school could not teach me that informed me of their world view. It is true that with the onset of major mental health disorders like schizophrenia and Bipolar I disorder, the brain is more suspectable to dementia due to the malformations occurring physiologically. Some clients liked to hoard wads and wads of paper while others wore their lipstick wild, drawing farther outside of the lines when less stable. Others signed their name as famous presidents and during the difficult times, many would yell, call me names and wildly run naked through the hospital. I loved them all dearly.

Over time I would find ways to be supportive without being overbearing. I learned to slowly slip out some of the garbage hanging about my patients clothing. Of course it always gave way to more later, but at least there was room made for the hunt to continue later. I would politely ask to help adjust my patients makeup as she went for a big outing like a dance at the auditorium or to shop. And I considered it a compliment to receive a good tongue hammering from one of the once stotic church ladies who kept loads of waded up tobacco in her mouth while spewing her ugly fuck language at me. Perhaps I learned a thing or two about flinging around my foul language from her.

I realize now what a debt of gratitude I owe them. Being a part of their lives gave me the foundation for what I continue to use today as I am in relationship with so many who will never exhibit the extremes I have known, but perhaps, like all of us, have a touch of madness that can be connected to those that showed me what it was like to live with in its most pure form. We would like to believe we are really somehow eons away from the Central State Hospital resident. I believe this is a disservice to my people then, as it is to us collectively now.

I would be entirely remiss to not mention my fellow behavioral specialist and friend Charles. He was known as the quienessential ‘jack of all the hospital trades’. It would not be odd to see him on his way to a treatment team meeting for a resident with three different tools in his hand and some part-a-sum-em that he was steadily fixing that broke. He had his way of making life in the hospital run smoothly, whether it was to create a calming effect on an irrate resident to fixing the dishwashers so the cooks could carry on with their work day. He would often make sure the once entirely too godly church woman had her tobacco, a vile behavior to her visiting friends. We were amused at her way with cuss words, especially when the tobacco ran out. I learned so much about how to be a good human in his presence and offer love where it often faded away in our quiet and isolated world of Central State Hospital.

All these distant memories occurred long before my own kiddo was born and in just these past few weeks did the two collide……And I promise, this next thing, I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.

Fast forward to 2016. It’s a cold and dreary evening and my daughter and I are so excited to get ready for her first middle school dance. We prep with a new dress from Grammie, ballet slipper style shoes and a sparkly purse to make all the pretty things shine. Just a week before we execute our marvelous plan, I realize where we are going…….I am taking my kid and dropping her off to the newly acquired auditorium AT THE CENTRAL STATE HOSPITAL. RIGHT NEXT TO THE MAIN BUILDING ENTRANCE. I have died and died laughing. I wanted to call up Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess and beg her to listen to this story. I always understood that southerners joked about happily parading around their crazy, but I had no idea that they would send my kid right up in it!

As we ride into the back side of the campus, I squeal in delight showing her the building I worked in, where my office was and the people I adored there. I can see her rolling her eyes from the back seat as she says, “Mom is taking herself a trip down memory lane.” She is not amused and said, “This is why everyone said I was going to a dance at the asylum.” Lawd. What could I say but ‘Yes honey, yes you are.’ We passed the main hospital where residents stayed when they were physically ill and told her stories of life on the inside.

We cruised right by the Powell Building, the main entrance and I pointed and said, “This was where the residents went if they became actively psychotic.” Lyra gasped and said, “That sounds scarey! Did you have to handcuff them?” I unknowingly but nonchalantly said back, “Nah, we would sometimes just wrap them in a sheet, especially when they got naked.” Silence. And the next building over is the drop off point………… I swear, I swear, I CANNOT make this shit up. I still remain amused and astonished all in one.

Still….none the less…How can you not be in love? ❤ ❤

                                               fullsizerender-2

                                                                   LIVE.OUT.LOUD.

When Father Comes Around,Part I

I last saw my birth father in 1994 at the age of 19 when I was getting ready to leave for college. Somehow my grandmother got in touch with him, mostly a mystery as to how, and invited him to come see me before I left. Memories of him for the most part are iconic, as if I quickly painted a portrait crystallizing the moment because I knew there would be so few.

He sat in my Gram’s rocking chair out on the enclosed porch of her Kendallwood house. It was one of my favorite homes and we shared it for eight months before I shipped off to Alabama for a southern style college life. He always wore one of those grey fidora hats with a fancy feather in the side to cover his bald head and this time a pair of boot leg jeans with his blaring red beard. He always said my mother was the cause of his baldness from the early days of beauty school, but I know better. We drove around in his gold dated Honda and he showed me how his police detector worked, illegal in California, but that was always part of his problem. He played Pink Floyd from the CD player and when he learned my appreciation for the old school, quickly gave it to me. It is the one and only possession he ever gave to me. He told me how proud he was of me and wanted to know all my big plans. He always spoke of his big changes, plans of stability, frequent phone calls and relationship.

It was AWKWARD. All awkward. My relationship with my mother was strained, yet as we drove by her neighborhood in town, I felt like I was betraying her and my Dad. My step-Dad–DAD- the person who had shown up for me during the worst of the unconsolable adolescent years. And I knew, despite wishing for real wishes and magic, this would be the end. The only thing that frequently changed in my father’s life was his address.

The years rock by along with years of therapy. During the end of my first round in college I recall my therapist suggesting seeking out my brothers who were last known to live in Texas. I suppose I was not ready and only did many years later. For us siblings, we are a reminder of him, our one and only vague link to each other and understandably, not the brightest of subjects to discuss. With a little energy, I found them and once again- the father.

You might imagine I attempted to find him through various ‘where are my people’ searches, but instead, I knew where to look. Arrest and conviction records often tell a succinct story and one can always hope that the gaps are the bright spots where he fell off the radars of law enforcement. The luck of living in a small town affords me the ability to ask for a first look help. But how do we openly invite that kind of shame into our lives? No one would fault me for a convicted felon father, but they would also just know. And just wonder. Hell, I couldn’t blame them, I certainly wonder how a man with an active drug addict and felony conviction a mile long (probably not much exaggeration there) have any part in the life of a successful therapist; much less partnered for 19 years with happy kid and no arrest record to speak of??!!!

I recall lining myself up along the pew of the jail. Literally, and I hope you can see the irony in the church pew as your place to sit as you await your fate at the jail. It was a visiting day and people came from all around to love their orange jump suited people through the heavy glass. There were creases in every inch of the officers uniform, but the people were sloppy and disheveled having honest reason to loose track of themselves while the orange people blared ugly in their lives. My blue sear sucker suit and red sude heels stood out. Clearly, I was not them and yet had my life been about chasing orange uniforms, me and the thick glass would have been best friends.

Apparently the officer supporting my ‘let’s conquer the daddy issues’ had read one too many of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books and as he began considering fishing around in the dregs of my life, he asked me what my purpose was. The dragon tattoo girl sought out her father to kill him. I think I was past that stage, but did have to giggle that my life could reflect a fiction thriller. And so the online pursuit began and eventually he popped up in jail….and then prison. Again. A petty theft led to more probation time and I very shamefully write that his love affair with the police was very short tempered and he allowed a dog to attack an officer. He went off to prison for that bullshit to complete his time and when I arrived at this knowledge, he had been released with no further probation and a last address.

I sent a card. I wanted him to know he may be lost, but I was not.

He had a successful daughter and grandchild. I couldn’t want anything from him.

But it was returned, floating between here and there for weeks.

And many more years collected dust on the relationship table of me and him.

Then, just this year during the cold dark days of January, the phone call came from a nurse named Esther. A little biblical and breath taking. I assumed she was Jesus’s messenger and delivering the news that he was gone and I was the only connection left, the glue that held what was left of my Gregory family. I was panicked and alone. My namesake, one that I have kept unchanged, was potentially further broken down while I waived in the wind of the Gregory name.

As I picked up the phone to call back, my hands shook in fear and anticipatory sadness. Was it just easier to keep him the iconic memory and could I withstand the change that was about to plop like wet poop into my lap? I just didn’t know……But my silent sister Glennon Melton (that gurl NEVER calls me) tells me that we can do hard things and I say that if the next step makes you squirm and uncomfortable- its likely the next right one.

So I called to hear the voice of Esther and learn of the news she had to share. Either way, the dust would rise and make noisy floating specks in the suns rays on our relationship table…………