Emotional Health

The Best Christmas Party Ever!

I’ve always been a sucker for Christmas. I love the lights, the smell of fir trees, the music, and all the extra food. I am also charmed by the sentiment, the nostalgia, the warmth of good wishes and the spirit of generosity. It drives my husband crazy, but I don’t mind that it starts earlier every year, and the commercialization is something I accepted long ago.

Although I am essentially an extrovert, I am not entirely crazy about parties. Many people feel the same. I have never mastered the 5-10 minute mini-conversation called for at large parties, and my feet really hurt almost the second I put on heels. Dressing up, in general, has always been a bewildering puzzle rather than an exciting opportunity for me.

Yet, parties offer the chance to see friends, enjoy treats, and meet new people. Despite my less than stellar skills, I almost always accept invitations and wind up having a good time when I do go.

My understanding of parties changed in 1979 when I did a yearlong internship at a state mental hospital in the South Bronx. At that time, this was one of the country’s most blighted neighborhoods, and the residents of the ward I worked on were among the most disadvantaged of the city’s citizens. Most were chronically ill, considered unsuitable for life outside the hospital despite the era’s mandate to release as many patients of possible. Some had not spoken for years. Others were remanded by the state for committing crimes but were deemed unfit for trial and were unlikely ever to be. Almost all had delusions and/or hallucinations, and no one had any personal possessions, including clothes, to speak of. Most had few or no visitors.

Ward Nine was a research unit where we were investigating the effects of long term use of anti-psychotic drugs. While useful in calming some of the worst symptoms of psychosis, these drugs had side effects, including a long term, disabling condition called Tardive Dyskinesia, resembling Parkinson’s disease.

Because of this, we were lucky to have a bright young psychiatrist, a rising star, leading our team, rather than the usual type of tired state employee that ran some of the other units. “Dr. O” was warm, personable, and dedicated, and he helped make our therapeutic “community” well, more therapeutic.

As the youngest and greenest employee (I was 24), I was surprised by much of what I found on the ward. Despite seeming disconnected and lost in a separate world, many of the patients were actually quite observant, in their own way, of course. They were even empathic at times. For example, when it was my turn to lead the daily community meetings for the week, the patients, many of whom were regularly disruptive and agitated during meetings, were relatively docile. After a few days, I realized they were actually trying to give me a break, recognizing I was new at this. Of course, some of my popularity may have been the result of my willingness to share cigarettes with them, one of their few real pleasures.

One long term patient, Carol, had been there for decades. She never spoke directly to anyone, but occasionally she would mutter as you passed, “Purina cat chow, purina cat chow.” After a few weeks, however, as she felt more “comfortable,” she began to give me the more abbreviated, intimate version of the song—“meow, meow, meow” she would sing softly, her eyes downcast. I had no doubt that she was saying hello in her own way, now that she knew me.

As the holidays approached, a Christmas party was planned. Sad, tired, state hospital sanctioned decorations were put up, and the staff volunteered to bring in cookies and chips.   Other than that, the party had no frills: no dressing up, no guests, other than staff and patients, and certainly no alcohol.

But “Dr. O,” it turned out, knew how to play the guitar. A few of the nurses had ace singing voices, and quite a few patients, including some who remembered almost nothing, knew lyrics to Christmas carols. As the group launched into song after song (albeit with a few singing a different one than the rest), I realized I had rarely been to a party I enjoyed more than this one.

Later, I wondered why I had liked it so much. I asked myself: Was I so pathetically self-conscious that I only felt comfortable around society’s most wretched individuals? But as I thought about it more, it really was because I felt comfortable with these people, albeit for a different reason. Despite the huge chasm existing between our backgrounds and fortunes in life, at that party we were connected. That day, I saw there was more to bound us together than otherwise and a human bond clearly existed no matter how many obstacles were in the way. My fellow party goers knew and saw me, and vice versa, and that truly felt like Christmas.

Throughout the rest of the year, the spirit of connection remained, and the experience was transformative for me. Until then, I hadn’t realized how much of an outsider I had always felt, and I learned that, in the words of the eminent psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, “we are more human than otherwise.” I learned that not only was connection the essential therapeutic tool, but also it was the thing that made all life’s possibilities thrive and glow.

Christmastime or otherwise, since then I’ve come to realize what makes a holiday—and what makes a party—uniquely important. These are the opportunities for celebrating, reinforcing, and enlarging what binds us together as human beings, despite our differences. And sometimes, even because of them.

That day, I saw some people who had nothing much to feel joyful about, experience real joy. And I felt it too, and for the same reason. For a few hours, we were not alone anymore. It was a good party.

 

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