When I was in between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was home during the summer and needing a job. Of course I was picky and coffee houses didn’t exist back then and the coveted jobs at the local record store were few and far between. A position came open as a “worker” at a day treatment program for adults dual diagnosed with mental illness and cognitive disabilities — seemed like an interesting job for a 19-year-old and luckily my mother was the director of the program… so, I had my job.
The clients there were endearing and mind-blowing and exhilarating — I remember their faces and most of their names. One of the clients, a man we’ll call “Scott”, seemed so interesting to me. He played football in his youth and still had the physique — 6’2″, broad shoulders, and handsome. He never spoke — never. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his facial expression… always a flat affect. He was always by himself. He never joined the group — always alone. I found out that he had almost killed his 11-year-old cousin. His illness took over one night and he choked the boy — he was found to be mentally ill and placed in the day treatment program. To be honest, I was scared of him. I kept a safe distance from him, I always made sure I knew where he was, I never pushed him to participate in any of the groups.
I play the piano — a little anyway. We had a beautiful piano in my house when I was growing up. Our house was always filled with music — my brother is a drummer, my older sisters were in chorus, I played the trumpet and the guitar and we all played the piano. My mother was a musician — a vocalist. She had aspirations of being an opera singer. There was never a day that went by in my house that my mother didn’t sit down and start playing the piano and singing. We weren’t an average family. Our parents raised us to be independent and self-reliant and we weren’t exactly Ozzie and Harriet. But, it was very normal for us all to gather around the piano and start singing along — Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, The Commodores. We always had plenty of songs to choose from — sheet music was everywhere. The piano was often the center of our universe. When we didn’t have words for each other, we could sit down and play a song and inevitably someone would come in and sing along.
There was a piano at the day treatment facility. It never got used and was desperately out of tune. Still, I couldn’t help but sit down and play a song each day as I passed by. No one ever joined in to sing — I was usually ignored. Until one day, I sat down and started playing “Endless Love”. “Scott” came over and sat down next to me. I started singing in my best Lionel Richie voice and hoped my nerves wouldn’t show through as he gazed at the piano and then at me. When I finished, his expression was still the same, he still didn’t talk, he still didn’t smile. And I left him there at the piano.
My summer came to an end and I headed back to college — always thinking about the people from the program and sharing their stories with my friends (my summer job was much cooler than working at the record store). When the next summer came around, I was very eager to reclaim my job at the program and luckily many of the same clients were still there — including “Scott”. The therapists were anxious for me to see everyone and said I would be surprised at a few of the people and their progress. On the first day, “Scott” was the first to greet me. He walked up to me and smiled and said hi. We had a conversation — a real conversation. He walked away to go help some of the other clients — he had become a group leader and was perfect in that role. He eventually made his way to the piano and started playing a song — apparently he knew how to play but had stopped when his mental illness started to control him. A few clients gathered around him and started to sing along with him… and me, I was there too.