‘Twas 49 years ago today that I began my career in mental health. It was 11-16-67. It was a Wednesday as I recall. It was a different world then. Viet Nam was heating up and I was little more than an exceedingly immature college grad student. My draft deferment had been renewed for another year–and so to work I went.
I parked my black ’63 Plymouth Savoy in the Zone Center parking lot and with considerable apprehension sauntered into the Administration Building of what was then the brand new prototype of an inpatient/outpatient community mental health complex that Illinois was pioneering as a replacement for the old state hospital system.
I’d just driven 1500 miles from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Rockford, Illinois. I arrived on Sunday, the 13th. Monday and Tuesday I looked around for a place to live and tried to get my bearings in Illinois second largest city. At 140,000, Rockford was about three times the size of ‘Cruces. It was also cold and seemed perpetually overcast compared to where I’d lived the previous seven year. Back then it was a prosperous industrial town, today its solidly rust belt.
I’d been hired for a clinical internship over the phone and so I’d never seen either Rockford or the Zone Center. The Zone Center struck me as larger than I’d imagined. Three enclosed walkways tentacled out to inpatient units and the Activity Hall from the Administration Building.
I followed the signs upstairs to Dr. Brit Lathrop’s office. She was the chief psychologist and would be coordinating my internship. I was scared out of my wits. I had bluffed my way thru the phone interview making it seem as though I had much more experience working with people than I really had. My Master’s was in Experimental Psychology, not clinical. Hell, I was so pathologically shy that I didn’t even like people, much less trying to have a helping relationship with them.
Dr. Lathrop at 48 was exactly twice my age. She was the type of woman sometimes described as “handsome” as opposed to winsome. She also hated men. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that. For the next two days I waited outside of her office and she spoke with me as she had time. It wasn’t hard for her to pick up on my insecurity and my lack of experience. I also made the mistake of telling her about my mother’s mental illness. At the end of the second day she said, with her voice dripping sarcasm rather than concern, “Carl, do you really think you ought to be working in mental health?” She hinted that perhaps I should quit. I was devastated but some dogged determination precluded me from that choice.
On Friday, she marched me over to Birchwood Hall and the Four Area Community Return Unit. It was only the second deinstitutionalization program in the country. It was such a ground breaking and successful program that the PBS station WTTW in Chicago made a documentary about it called “To Save Tomorrow.” Birchwood was run by a charismatic rehab counselor, Marv Benson. Marv was a tough looking chain smoker with a large scar on his left cheek. The unit’s psychologist was Dr. Bob Ryan. He was blind and also a memorable character. He was a typical heavy drinking Chicago Irishman. He was to be my supervisor for the next four months.
Dr. Lathrop had called them late the afternoon before and asked if they’d like to take me on as a project. Little did I know that they disliked her immensely and if she couldn’t find hopeful things to say about me, then they surmised I must be okay. Birchwood dealt with some seriously disturbed folks and thus was a locked unit. A nurse let us in. After Brit introduced me to Marv and Bob, she said tersely, “Fit in!” and as she exited the door was locked behind her.
I did, praise God! And here I am 49-yrs after.