A briar is a thorny shrub. In that old tale, perhaps made most famous by Disney, Br’er Rabbit survives by begging not to be thrown into the briar patch. When he is tossed into the thicket, he runs off, unharmed.
I’ve been thinking about briars because I’ve been reading a lot about the history of psychiatric hospitals. Oddly, plenty have the word “briar” in their names.
Briar Ridge. Stonebriar. Briarfield. Briar Hills. In Season 2 of “American Horror Story,” the various nightmares happen in a psychiatric hospital called Briarcliff.
I stayed for a week two Christmases ago in a lovely establishment called Greenbriar, where the head nurse asked the girl next to me in therapy if she believed in Jesus, and when she said no, not really, he established to all of us that we were in there because we did not believe in Jesus, even though none of us, except for that girl, had said anything about our thoughts on Jesus.
The underlying idea seems to be that whoever named these places knew that if you found yourself in them, you were definitely in an unpleasant place — no bones about it. Your own mind was the thorny shrub. It wasn’t going to be any worse to end up eating styrofoam “eggs” in the thorny shrub of their hospital.
The hospitalizations that I’ve experienced have always emphasized coping. Coping with our illnesses. Coping with our families. Coping with being alive, period.
To cope is to “deal effectively with something.”
For a time, I lost the ability to think I could live a normal life. Coping seemed like all that I could ask for.
I remember being on Level 3 privileges years ago, which meant that I could leave the hospital under supervision. It was snowing, and I was with my father, who had flown in from China. We walked — I don’t remember where we were going. Possibly nowhere.
Finally, he stopped, and I stopped, and he looked at me and said, “I don’t even know who you are anymore,” and I started to cry because I’d always been the family overachiever, and now I was a crazy girl who was about to get kicked out of the Ivy League school that everyone she knew was so impressed by. I cried while we were snowed upon. I felt like I was losing everything.
But I’ve always been a fighter. It’s true that for a time, I stopped wanting anything more than to cope. After a while, I realized that what I actually wanted was to be amazing.
Is that crazy?
I got out of the briar, by which I don’t mean the hospital. I mean I got out of the lie that all I could hope for was to cope.
I don’t think anyone should have to just aim for coping.
I look at the list of the people registered for my restorative journaling class, and even though I don’t know a lot of them, I know a great deal of them through the emails they’ve written me, or the comments they’ve left. And I know, in my heart of hearts, that they can go beyond just coping, because they’ve signed up for something with that thought in mind.
It rattles me. It rattles the cage of my ribs in the best way possible. I actually cry. Whether or not you ever take my class, or whether or not you’re in dire straits, keep in mind that you always have the potential for greatness. At least, I believe that you do.