Dr. Carpenter’s BLOG
From time to time I will be adding posts here. Some will be short essays, some will be drawings or pictures or photographs, some will be poems. All will touch on the topic of psychotherapy to some extent or other. These are a few more drawings that began as "therapy notes," doodles with fragments of speech from a session.
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Vernon, Rage and Fear
It was around 10 p.m. on a summer night many years ago, and we were closing up the little mental health center. The moths swam in the porch lights, and the frogs were singing, and Martha, the secretary, was locking up while Bill, a social worker, and I were jotting our last notes and clicking shut the file cabinets. Suddenly in burst Vernon Aldridge (not his real name), waving a pistol and looking like a nightmare. In fact, he was in a nightmare of his own. He was acutely psychotic, and on a mission of murder. Vernon was a large man, who had earlier been a legend as a high school tackle. His hair was wild, his clothes were sour and rumpled, and he had not slept in days. He had come to kill Dr. Thomas, his psychiatrist, whom he believed was inside.
Vernon was ordinarily a peaceable, sweet-natured man, in spite of his size and strength. Occasionally he was dangerous in a bar, when a few beers and the wrong words could suddenly wake up a demon normally asleep inside, with fists like mallets who had sent many men to the local hospital. And once in a while he became psychotic. I had known him during a previous illness, and had worked with him in group therapy in a nearby mental hospital. We had come to be fond of each other then, but the friendly man who had gradually re-emerged during those weeks was nowhere in sight at that moment as he filled the doorway, and pointed the big revolver at us. Bill, who didn't know him, had pinned himself against a wall, while Mary was scrambling beneath her desk. Since I knew him, I was tacitly elected to try to talk to him. Vernon sat down with me near the door where he could keep an eye on the other two.
He had been up for many nights because he had "realized", with the eerie clarity of paranoia, that his family and Dr. Thomas had a plan to trap him when he went to sleep and conduct a horrible operation on him to change his sex. He was wild and enraged, and his words were neon in the air. Then he suddenly focused hard on me, and I could see him deciding that I must be in on the plot too. I was stiff with fear, and then something -- clinical intuition, or some passing angel -- whispered to me what to say. You can remember this, because you might want to say something like it too, if you are ever in such a spot.
I said, "Vernon, I won't let anyone hurt you."
It was odd to be firmly promising to protect a man who was pointing a pistol at my chest and squeezing the trigger. But his shoulders heaved and slumped, and the exhaustion of all the nights fell over his face like a shade, and he searched my eyes to see if I really meant it.
A minute later he knew that I did, and I had the gun, and had it unloaded.
Bill made a phone call, and soon an ambulance and some deputies arrived to take Vernon, gentle and weeping, off to the hospital.
In more recent years, madness and danger are often less contained in hospitals and mental health clinics. We have largely closed them, and rely on prisons and local hospitals with psychiatric revolving doors to temporarily control and superficially treat such profound distress. If not imprisoned (which is frequently brutalizing), many people are thrust quickly back into the traumatic situations in which their illnesses were first cultivated. Such illnesses may end in death, most likely of the sick one, and sometimes at the hands of honest police officers who do not know any other way to contain the danger. All of us need to work on the x-ray vision (I mean the imagination) that lets us see the great fear that lies within most rage.