The drive was therapeutic. The ribbon of a back road highway meandered like a mountain creek over hills and through patches of forest, beside farmhouses and fields of green. It was the perfect transition from my clean, easy suburban lifestyle to the grit and gruel of Orange Correctional Center, a minimum security prison for men in Hillsborough, North Carolina where I volunteered as a music and art therapist for a small group of schizophrenic inmates.
My tires crunched gravel as I pulled up to park next to the chain link fence topped with razor wire. I pushed the bell and in no time a uniformed correctional officer let me in.
“’Mornin’ Miss Brynne. Mighty fine day now, woon’t you say?” No need for any identification or security badges—I had been coming for years, every Friday nine-o’clock.
“Certainly is, Officer. Beautiful even.” We exchanged smiles, too.
The small activity room sat on the far side of the camp. I passed a few inmates on my way, each one nodding, some removing their cigarettes out of respect. A few even smiled before their eyes met the ground. A smile too kind might get them a write-up. Most weren’t willing to take that risk. A write-up could mean more time. I opened the door and started to set up my things. Slowly, like teenagers on the first day of middle school, they started to amble in one by one.
“Mornin’ Miss Brynne.”
“Nice to see you, Miss Brynne.”
“How ya doin’, Miss Brynne.”
I greeted each one, too, gauging their state of mind by their voices. Everyone seemed pretty stable. I decided to go ahead with my planned activity.
I always believed that schizophrenia was not so much an illness as it was a state of mind, and working with the ‘guys’ (as I affectionately called them) only confirmed this supposition. Donner snapped when he went to Vietnam. Antwon when his Mama’s house burned down with her in it. Herb saw his baby sister get run over by a train. Each one had some horrible story, some unbearable reality they had to escape. Each one was creative enough to construct a new and more habitable reality. Maybe that’s why I always felt they were somehow more evolved even wiser than most every other ‘normal’ person I had ever known. Maybe that’s why I always felt they taught me much more than I could ever teach them. And especially….on this particular day.
Most days I had a few things planned and I let the guys show me what suited them the best. Some days we’d dance (ok, maybe a few would only move their fingers but they were required to move at least that), other days we’d paint. Sometimes I’d take them on a visual meditation or a walk through the gardens of their dreams, and all days we’d end with smiles. On this day it was music that felt right and unlike the usual jazz or soul, I had chosen a song for its words, for its message, a song that I thought would help them see how very wise they were even if society didn’t ever tell them so. The song was “I Have A Dream” by ABBA, and none of them had ever heard of it, or the band, before. I was thrilled.
I played the song then shared with them the words, asking them one by one what they thought it all meant. At first they were shy and unsure, afraid to say what they really thought. But then, as I began to share what I thought the singers were saying, I noticed a change of scenery in that little room that will stay with me forever.
Tightness was replaced with soft lines. Raised shoulders dropped, heads held up straight suddenly cocked to the side, revealing fresh vulnerability. Even their smiles seemed deeper, as if we now shared a secret. The song’s words told a story, their story. For a few minutes, the music of ABBA made them feel less crazy, more understood, maybe even beautiful. And I like to imagine that for a brief moment, they might have even grown compassion for themselves, a gift they might have never known before.
Years later I still think of nothing else when I hear that song. I see their faces open, exposed, revealing the essence of who they really are. I remember the feeling of breaking through another person’s invisible wall to that vulnerability we all keep hidden beneath layer after layer of protective armor. And then, before all those images and feelings leave me, I find myself growing compassion and, as they say in the song, to once again see and value the beautiful, magic wonder of the fairy tale.