When November came to its grey ending and December's first timid snowflakes began to fall, a different feeling seemed to fill the State Hospital rehabilitation center where I was a nurse. With the first strains of White Christmas and Home for the Holidays, the first poinsettias and wreaths, one could sense the change.
I've heard Talbot House described as "gloomy" despite our best efforts to renovate this turn-of-the-century infirmary, but I think none of us who lived or worked there ever saw it that way. It was, instead, a house filled with hope. I'd watched the transformation from a chronic hospital building used to warehouse patients to Talbot House, a place where troubled people could begin the journey back.
The residents of the house governed it. They made and enforced the rules, even for us who worked there. We staff were solely advisors and counselors. There was a spirit of caring and involvement there that put much of the rest of the world to shame. That spirit had not come about overnight. It had been carefully nurtured by all of us, and we'd had to fight hard for this program. There were all the usual barriers to overcome or chip away at. There were as many chronic employees as there were chronic patients, and the attitudes that had made so many of these patients life-long residents existed to the very top of the bureaucracy.
Anyone who's ever been in any
hospital during the holidays knows it's never a particularly happy time. In a mental hospital, you watch the sickest patients drift even further away from reality, as though to shut out all that Christmas implies. Even those who have been doing well become anxious and upset. Will their family invite them home? If they're invited, should they go? And for those left behind, a turkey dinner and a gift from the Salvation Army will never make up for the absence of another human being who can simply say, "I care!"
At Talbot House, Christmas seemed even more agonizing. Our residents left the hospital every day to go out into the real world to work. This exposure to the real world seemed to sharpen the pain of Christmas. These were people who had started to dream dreams again.
The unrest was the worst, and most tangible, among the alcoholics. Most of these men and women had been through countless jails, Fifteen-Day Observations, and detoxes. Though these things had been happening to them for years, most of them had continued to drink. Because of their notorious failure rate, most state hospital programs refused to accept them. Thanks to a stubborn Irishman named Mac, our program accepted them. He had fought for the alcoholic when Talbot House was still in the planning stages, and won. His experience was invaluable. He'd worked with alcoholics for twenty-five years.
I've seen him spot a guy who'd been drinking from fifty paces, or simply walk into a resident's room and instantly pick the place where the bottle was hidden. But those skills were only a small part of Mac's remarkableness. His most important attributes were that he was always willing to listen, and that he never gave up on anyone. He believed strongly that "some drunks really have to hit bottom before they can come back up," and he was always there to hold out a helping hand. Mac's graduates
still stopped back to see him, long after they left the hospital, and they could call him any house, day or night.
Both Mac and I quickly spotted the pre-holiday mood, and determined to do something about it. We had group sessions to talk about feelings, and encouraged all the residents to reach out and help each other. But as Christmas approached, all our efforts seemed to have been in vain. Mr. O., an older man who had once built bridges and now worked on an assembly line in a plastics factory, had stayed sober at the center for several months. Before that, for ten years since his wife died, he'd gone down to near-death from alcoholism. The week before Christmas, he weaved unsteadily into my office, a plant in one hand, a brightly wrapped present in the other.
"These are for you," he slurred. "You've been so good to me . . ."
I said nothing, and I saw his eyes fill with tears.
"Please take them . . . I don't have anyone else to give them to."
One of our biggest concerns was Jim, a man who became extremely violent when he drank. No one had really believed that he was going to make the Program anyway, but Mac and I had hopes. Jim's attitude did seem angry and arrogant, and he stayed to himself a great deal. He attended A.A. meetings under protest, and shared his thoughts with no one very much. He did have one friend, Tom, who had been in another detox with him. I'd worked with Tom extensively, and I had a feeling that the little bit of conversation Jim did have with me was only due to Tom's intervention. Finally, after I'd made several fruitless attempts to get Jim to open up, he exploded.
"It's all this God damn Christmas stuff! They should block out the music, hide the decorations, pretend Christmas doesn't exist . . . in a place like this." His rough face, usually devoid of emotion, was filled with pain.
"I had a wife and two little boys. I loved them . . . I still do. I stay away from them . . . I have to, for fear of what I might do. She's married to someone else now . . . I don't blame her. But if I couldn't stop drinking for her and my boys, then I don't really think there's anything that will ever make me stop."
The day before Christmas, when I arrived at the rehab center's office, Tom was standing in the doorway, motioning for me not to go in. I could hear loud cursing and obscenities. It was Jim, obviously intoxicated, and in an ugly mood. He had refused to leave the office when the counselor asked him to, and now was trying to pick a fight. I did go in, and three of us eventually persuaded him to leave the office. But we knew this was only the beginning. I called the director, who ordered a tranquillizer, and detention on the hospital's locked ward. It took three burly attendants from the locked ward, plus our staff, to hold Jim down while I gave him the injection. Then they took him away, still irrational and ugly. There are many ways a state hospital can take away someone's dignity, but few of them compare with being pinned down in front of several people, and being given an injection in the buttocks. The tragedy and waste of this made off of us less than we were before.
The day passed drearily. As I drove down the narrow, tree-lined avenue leaving the hospital grounds, the windshield wipers beat an unhappy rhythm as they licked away the snow. We had lost. Perhaps all those experts who had disgusted me with their smugness and their unwillingness to treat alcoholics were right. Maybe drying them out-locking them up for a few days, giving them medicine, food and vitamins, and then sending them out with the knowledge that nothing had really changedmaybe that was the best we could do. At the edge of the hospital grounds, I saw one of our residents returning from work. He had been a top salesman who now worked in a warehouse. Under his arm was a brown paper bag of suspicious proportions. I kept going, but tears began to well up in my eyes.
I remembered I'd promised Mac I'd pick up a cake he'd ordered at a local bakery. It was for a Christmas Eve get-together he was having that evening at the center. In disgust, I muttered, "To Hell with it," and started for home. But in a few moments, I turned around and headed for the bakeryif only for Mac.
The ancient red brick of Talbot was reflecting the Christmas lights in the windows by the time I got back. Most everyone had returned from work. Much to my surprise, I saw a group of residents, so often loners, gathered around a table covered with poker chips, cards, sandwiches and coffee. Tom looked up and winded at me. "This game may go on through New Years!"
The ex-salesman with the brown paper bag was talking to Mac. "I heard about Jim when I got off the bus downtown. Never got along very well with the guy, but I know how he's going to feel. After all, I've been there a few times myself. Can you send this stuff up to the locked ward to him?" In the bag were cans of fruit juice, soup, and a few packs of cigarettes.
Christmas means so many different things to so many different people. Children no matter what their age, think of bright lights, presents and Santa Claus. To others, it's parties and family get-togethers. But to the alienated and the misfits of our society, it's a time for standing out in the cold, looking through a window at the happiness they never seem quite able to reach. Now for the first time the magic of Christmas became, for me, a handful of Talbot residents, some poker chips, and the contents of a brown paper bag.
Editor's Note: Although this story was written almost 30 years ago, the issues and the problems, as well as the hopes and challenges, are still very similar. Only the players have changed.
Joan S, Marlboro, MA. Joan is approaching a decade of recovery in AlAnon. Joan's two loves are nursing and writing. She has been a free lance writer since 1974, and has a short story published in the recovery collection "Having Been There." 1992.
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