If you work in the mental health field for long enough, eventually you’ll hear the word “mindfulness” so often that, one day, you’ll be sitting in a treatment team meeting or at a continuing education conference somewhere and someone will say it and you’ll just start vomiting uncontrollably and you’ll never stop.
But at least you’ll be doing so mindfully.
Mental health is no different than any other field — all professions latch onto abbreviations, tropes, or fads — we’re all very susceptible to buzz-words and trends. Mental Health First Aid is thing now. “Trauma-informed care” is another one. Everything has to be “trauma-informed.” It’s not enough to do yoga with hospitalized psychiatric patients — it has to be “trauma-informed yoga.” The art on the walls has to be “trauma-sensitive.” So does the paint on those walls. And the plants in the corner.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. For five years, I worked in an inpatient psychiatric hospital and that, I suppose, will do a number on you if you’re not careful — and even if you are. When started, I was wide-eyed, innocent, and nice. A bright-eyed, warm-hearted, angelic colleague of mine, early on in my inpatient adventure, said to me in a quiet moment in the nurses’ station, “I’m so glad that you work here. You’re very good for this place.” I was touched by that comment, because I felt the same way about her. By the time I left, though, this woman no longer worked there, and I’m not sure that she would have said the same thing to me if she’d known me, five years in and about to make my own exit. In the words of another colleague, I had gone from “green, to brown, to black. And that’s okay,” he assured me, “you have to do that if you want to survive here.”
But I didn’t want to survive there; I wanted to get the hell out. Just like the patients.
I was burnt out, and I was angry that I was burnt out, which didn’t help. I was angry at myself because I had let things — like the same patients getting re-admitted constantly, getting assaulted, being around depressed colleagues, responding to frightening emergencies — get to me, when there were folks who had endured far worse and were still clocking in and out after twenty-five or thirty years. I allowed my inner-monologue to joyfully and constantly berate me.
You disgraceful coward.
That was in 2015. I foundered around in the darkness of depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and, probably, PTSD from the things I had seen and done and experienced at the psych hospital. I took a job at a theatre company in downtown Philly and resigned after three weeks. I handed my dazed supervisor the key to the theatre door on the sidewalk and apologized profusely. She hugged me. I took another job, and stayed for a year. I started to feel better, more confident. Then Trump got elected, and my wife’s mental health took a nosedive, too, along with a good portion of the country’s. I was mindful of what was going on around me and in my head and in my house. Despair and fear had settled in and had gotten comfortable on the couch next to the basset hound once again. I had to do something.
So I did what any stable, former mental health professional, father-of-two in his mid-thirties would do in that particular situation: I convinced my wife that it was the right time to buy a white, 1963 Volkswagen Beetle and turn it into Herbie: the Love Bug.
Surprisingly, my wife, who is typically fiscally conservative and hyper-rational, did not require any inordinate amount of cajoling or convincing to allow this momentous purchase to take place. She, too, was mindful of her emotional state and was ready to acknowledge that it was time for some joy to be injected into not only our lives, but the lives of random people in the neighborhood out walking their dogs or taking their children to school. It was time for their muddled and negative internal monologues to be interrupted by the roaring, rhythmic sounds of a 1600cc air-cooled engine approaching, time to turn their heads and see a black “53” in a white circle, some red, white, and blue stripes, and two innocent, round headlights coming down the street. Time to take a spin down Memory Lane, in Herbie.
There are lots of different kinds of smiles — there is a wry smile when your brain processes the punch-line of an off-color joke, there is a pure, Jesus-ray smile when you hear your baby laugh for the first time, there is a post-coital smile and a post-midterms smile. There is also Herbie Smile, and it’s unmistakable and, for me, it has a narcotic effect. The more of them I see, the more I want. When it’s beautiful out, I’ll take an hour and drive him up and down the main drag of this town or that town. If people give me a Herbie Smile, they get two quick toots of his endearing little horn; that’s the transaction, though it’s far from transactional. It’s more transcendent.
Herbie is good for people, and he is good for me. For my mental health. You can’t hide from people when you’re noodling around in The Love Bug, and why would you want to anyway? When I’m not driving Herbie, the part of me that wants desperately to be invisible dominates. My head is kept down. I avoid meeting people’s eyes. I stumble through routine social interactions and small-talk while sweat trickles down the center of my back. When I get behind that ivory-colored steering wheel and settle into that squishy, vinyl-covered driver’s seat, though, another part of me wins out. I don’t know if it’s a child part of me, or an exhibitionist part of me, an attention-seeking or impish part of me but, whatever it is, I can feel it in my chest and in my hands as I let down the parking brake, push down on the clutch, and gently move the gearshift lever up into First. Prepare for take-off. “Okay, Herb,” I saw, giving the steering wheel a pat, “let’s go to work.” The job of making merry. We take it very seriously.
Driving a 54-year-old movie star on wheels is a singular experience for many reasons, and there is so much that we miss, puttering around in our Subarus and Toyotas, and I try to be mindful of every single thought that passes through my mind when I’m in Herbie. I try to soak in and imprint ever Herbie Smile I see, every thumbs-up — the guy who bowed down on the sidewalk as he was about to get into his Mazda and his world just stopped when he saw us coming. Me and my little boy.
Around a month ago, a police officer from a neighboring town stopped Herbie and I as we were parking at a supermarket. I thought I had done something wrong, but he just wanted to talk about the car, about how happy it made him. We ended up talking in that parking lot for an hour, while his Chipotle lunch went cold and ignored on the passenger seat of his patrol car. We talked about parenting, about politics, about the perceptions of policing in America — about mental health, about PTSD, and trauma. He told me that he’d shot and killed someone last year who was trying to commit suicide-by-cop. He’d exited his patrol car, the guy was coming at him with a knife, and he killed him — the whole thing took fifteen seconds. Herbie and I listened as this officer talked — he talked and talked. He needed to talk. As he talked, I remembered some of the things I had tried to forget about the psych hospital. Patients trying to kill themselves on the unit. Patients attacking my friends — people I loved. Staff members screaming at each other over scandals created by borderline patients; experts at splitting and dividing and creating chaos. Tackles, restraints, injections, the floor — rolling around on the floor, trying to subdue, dodging blows or bites.
Everybody’s seen things and done things and said things in their lives that have caused pain. I’m mindful of that. And I’m mindful, too, of how, sometimes, in a small way, a small, round Volkswagen with a Hollywood pedigree can help you forget, can help you heal, can help you begin again.