I was on Interstate 86, heading east, returning from a road trip that took me across most of the country, when I entered Allegany County, in western New York. It was a place I knew well, but not as well as I might. I lived in Allegany County for two short years before I moved on. The mere sight of the place unexpectedly filled me with a longing to return. I’d just been through the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, across the Midwest, the Great Plains, up and down the Rocky Mountains, and back again on this road trip; but there was no place I liked as well as Allegany County.
Evidently, not many people agree with me that Allegany County is the best place between here and the Rocky Mountains. The population at last count was well under 47,000, spread over an area the size of Rhode Island. Few visit, and many residing a short distance away, in Buffalo or Rochester, never heard of the place. The economy is ailing and has been for a long time. It doesn’t even have a WalMart, or any other big box store, and few fast-food joints. It does have many greasy spoon diners that could not possibly have earned a health permit. Allegany County once enjoyed an oil boom. Rusted tanks and machinery are scattered across the landscape. Oil brought money, and money built big, fancy Victorian homes, now in disrepair. It has suffered the fate of much of rural America. Its only distinction is that its decline came first.
If you enjoy worn down old mountains, covered by trees, with the occasional open field, populated by white-tailed deer, then Allegany County would be your kind of place. You would call it beautiful; and it is, by those standards. I liked that about Allegany County, for I enjoy those things, too. But the beauty of the place does not account for my strong feelings. There are many other places just as beautiful, if not more. There’s no good reason why I feel as I do about Allegany County. I have a longing that’s inexplicable. At least until I explain it.
I’m not trying to convince you to go to Allegany County. Too many people would certainly spoil the place. I’m hoping you would come along with me and visit, not the county, but this longing, to see if we can make some sense of it. You, too, probably have an inexplicable longing for a person, time, or place. Longings are painful but, if you’re like me, you wouldn’t exchange them for anything. Longings speak to our values; if we can figure out what they’re trying to say.
I first came to Allegany County as a refugee from a failed marriage, embarking on a new career. I saw an ad and answered it. They were looking for someone with at least a bachelor’s degree who would come and be a therapist in a clinic for the most seriously and persistently mentally ill. I had a need to leave the place I was, start afresh, and still be close enough to see the kids each week. I had a new bachelor’s degree, was working on my masters and was surprised that anyone would hire me to do so much with so little training. I was not wise enough to know that the more difficult a job is, the harder it is to get people to do it.
I took being a therapist very seriously, soaked up everything my clients taught me, and tried out everything I knew. This was in the days before the newer antipsychotics came out that could treat the worst of their symptoms without causing them to stare like zombies. They were all zombies then, so the damage I could do was limited. It was all I could do to get them to say good morning. They weren’t about to share their deepest, darkest secrets with me. I could tell them anything; they never seemed to listen.
We tried a lot of group therapy at that clinic. In one group, I was feeling especially frustrated by everyone’s failure, or inability to open up. Totally exasperated, I said, “I’ve done everything but stand on my head to get you guys to talk. What more do I have to do?” I knew the answer, so I found a spot on the couch, raised my feet in the air, and stood on my head.
That was enough to get them going. They thought it was fun and we all had a good laugh. I saw some of the life I was looking for. By the time group was over, everyone was talking at once about how funny it was. The next time the group met, they were as dead as before. I wasn’t about to stand on my head every time.
There was a lesson in that incident that took me years to learn. I didn’t catch on until long after I left Allegany County. Talk therapy was not going to work if no one talked. They weren’t going to disclose their feelings. They weren’t going to delve into their childhood and see patterns that play out today. They weren’t going to learn skills to cope with their symptoms, and they definitely weren’t going to tell me their traumas. But what they could do was create a community. They did so by sitting together and having a good laugh, at me.
It turns out, you don’t need a lot of education or clinical work experience or even a high IQ to facilitate the building of community. Any clown can do it, but especially a clown that sets the joke up by acting superior. It would have been nice if someone explained that to me when I was hired, but maybe they didn’t think they needed to. Community was the treatment at that clinic. Yes, a psychiatrist came by every week and prescribed those awful meds; but, more importantly, my clients had a place to go and people to be with.
They don’t have this kind of clinic anymore, at least not around here. It was what was called a Continuing Day Treatment Program (CDT). The idea was that, if you had a serious and persistent mental illness, you could go to a CDT and stay for the day, up to five days a week. There would be groups and classes where we therapists would futilely try to be therapeutic; but there would also be bingo, arts and crafts, van rides, physical exercise, and most importantly, the chance to sit around, drink coffee, smoke, and be around people who don’t judge. Like I said, CDTs don’t exist anymore. Bean counting administrators, state regulators, and insurance companies who think like I did and don’t appreciate the therapeutic properties of community put an end to them, believing they were an ineffective use of resources.
I now believe that having a community is far more important than anything else that can be done towards healing serious and persistent mental illness. A community is just what people with mental illnesses most lack. They are generally judged, feared, and discriminated against. They can’t get a job and are shunned at most of the places people gather. Many of my clients were not even welcomed by their families on Thanksgiving. I would even go so far as to say that community is essential, even for people without serious and persistent mental illness. Everyone needs community, everyone naturally builds community, everyone hurts when community is gone, and everyone will do anything to protect it. So, there’s one reason I long for Allegany County. There I had witnessed the power of community. The second was that I found my own.
The staff at CDT naturally divided into two groups. There were the married ones, who came to work every day, and went home to be with their families. They participated in staff meetings and the like, but their primary community was outside of work. Then there was the group I belonged to, the single people; some, like me, imported from away. We didn’t have our own communities, so we made one together. Most days we would stop after work and drink with each other until it was time to go to bed. Then we saw everyone safely home. It wasn’t about getting hammered; it was about being together. We had affairs with one another, but no bond between any two people was as strong as the bond to the gang. We spent every minute together like a military unit deployed, a ship’s crew at sea, or college undergrads on campus. For a refuge from a failed marriage, relocated to a small, remote town, it was lifesaving. I loved those people and the community we formed. Even though the census count in Allegany County is low, the time I spent there was thickly populated.
Unfortunately, our community had a dark side, as communities often do. We palled around so much we must have looked like an impenetrable clique to our married colleagues. The staff at CDT became split into two groups that grew to dislike one other. I dubbed them the saints and the sinners. I was with the sinners because we were the ones carrying on every night. It got to be that any normal disagreement in staff meeting became a reason to choose sides. Each person went with their group, regardless of the issue at hand.
When the leader of the sinners, the director of the clinic, fraudulently submitted travel expenses to go away to a love nest with another member of our group, she got fired. We didn’t know the reason she got fired, we assumed the big boss was choosing sides; so, we circled the wagons. Things got super tense in staff meetings. Bad words were said. We felt our community was threatened, and we would preserve it at all costs.
At this point, the big boss summoned me to his office and promised to appoint me the next director if I could broker a peace between the two groups. All I needed to do was to go to the saints under a white flag and build a community that included them. I wouldn’t do it. I had too much loyalty to my fellow sinners and gave the big boss my resignation instead.
If my account of the way my sinners interacted with the saints sounds like the way the country is today, with its polarized divisions, that’s no accident. We have the same conditions I found in Allegany County. We are isolated due to the decay of institutions that once brought us together and cling to whomever we can find online who seems to think like us. These cliques then go to war against any threat that comes their way. I’m sorry to say that the behavior we sinners fell to was just like that of Trumpists today. We thought our leader was being attacked, when in fact she was at fault, and went on the offensive rather than admit we were wrong.
I hung around Allegany County for a few months and finished my masters while we sinners conspired to open up our own clinic. It was not to be, however. Two of our community took jobs in Rochester and I soon followed them. Most of the sinners have since lost touch with each other, except one, who is still my best friend.
The longing I feel towards Allegany County has little to do with worn out mountains, rusty oil machinery, or greasy spoon diners. Those are the symbols of it. My longing has to do with community, which I briefly enjoyed, but have lost. Oh, I have a wife, her family nearby, my kids, and my friend. I belong to a church, a tennis group, and meet regularly with other therapists; but I don’t have a community as intense and all-encompassing as I had in Allegany County.
The community I had in Allegany County was sectarian, primitive, defensive, and exclusionary, but necessary for my circumstances. Without it, I would have been in crisis and utterly alone. It’s no accident that these kinds of intense communities form for people in adolescence and early adulthood. They’re a replacement for the family of origin. I should have moved on by now, to the point where I don’t usually need my momma or her substitutes anymore. However, even though I have outgrown the need for that kind of community, I still long for it.
Layered in with this longing for what I lost, is a regret for what I failed to do. I had an opportunity to reach across the divide that separated the sinners from the saints and build something more solid, but a stubborn patriotism for my faction prevented me. Perhaps if I had another chance, I would do better. I don’t have one now, but my longing and regret prepares me if I ever do.