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Get with the Program

The asylum was a home to ghosts now. But then again, it always had been. Only back then it was the other kind. Back then the ghosts were bodies without a spirit, instead of the other way around. Or sometimes it was a body with more than one, or the wrong one – one that hadn’t come with the original owner.

People didn’t understand that bodies were a bit like houses. Sometimes they were unoccupied. Sometimes there was a new tenant. And sometimes there were squatters – people who snuck in and never left.

But the asylum’s founders never saw it that way. They saw it as a character flaw that people were less than stable. They were running a warehouse, not a hospital. It was more like a prison than a sanatorium. Nobody got sane there. In many cases they went even further down that rabbit hole. Sometimes so far they never came back.

That all changed when the new Program started. It was small at first – privately funded by a few far-sighted citizens and understanding congregations. It never wanted to take government money. Government money meant government meddling, and that meant nothing ever got done.

The Program’s motto was “Get with the Program” and they didn’t advertise or recruit. People found them through word-of-mouth. People who had gotten their lives back told friends they thought were ready for it. It was private, but not secret. But it was free to the people who needed it. Healing shouldn’t cost money. That cheapens it. But there was a cost. The clients (never patients) had to clean and cook. They were supervised and assisted but they had to do the work. Idle hands meant idle spirits, and the goal of the Program was to re-integrate body and mind. They did this by making the clients participate in their own recovery. They truly healed themselves – and more importantly they were taught how to keep that momentum going once they left.

They weren’t out on their own after the Program. There were weekly meetings to attend as graduates, to remind themselves of how far they had come and the path that led to life. All too often people forgot how they got well and so got sick again, entropy being what it is at all.

The natural way of life leads to decay. The founders of the Program knew that. They taught their clients a series of steps to do daily maintenance on their souls and bodies, just like with a car or house. This was their secret. It wasn’t pills or talk therapy that did the trick, but they were included too. It was more like occupational therapy than psychotherapy, with the occupation being living your life.

For some people, just being alive was work, and hard work at that. The daily tasks of self-care didn’t come easy to them, or they never learned them. So they struggled with tasks that everyone else did unconsciously. Or they did them for a little while – a week, or a month, or even a year – and then forgot, or assumed their stability was normal, forgetting the incredible framework they had to build all the time in order to prop themselves up and avoid collapse.

They were taught that sanity isn’t like taking penicillin. You don’t follow this prescription for eleven days and then stop. It requires daily work to keep away the decay in body and mind, the decay that leads to death. Maybe it isn’t an actual death, but a sort of living death, a half life. Maybe it is a zombie kind of life, one where you go through the motions, never really here.

The goal of the Program was life, full stop. A true integration into reality, an active participation. It included classes in mindfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. It taught cooking and how to navigate grocery stores. It taught how to budget money, time and energy. It taught how to express feelings verbally and through art. It taught self-sufficiency and interdependence. And it did it all out of love.

Eventually, the building closed, because this new way of living became part of the community’s way of life.  Everyone followed the Program.  It became normal to take care of bodies and souls together, to not see them as separate, or as opposed to each other. It became normal to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit.  They kept the old building as a reminder of how far they had come, and as a warning to not go back.

(Written mid-July 2018, updated February 2, 2019)

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