I was twenty-one and in one of those spaces life sometimes bring. College was behind me and I was living at home in Chattanooga for the last time, though my childhood friends were by then scattered to the wind. One weekend, I drove to Memphis where I would be be entering medical school in the Fall to find a place to live, or maybe just to get a visual of what was up ahead. The space between those cities through the cotton fields of northern Alabama and Mississippi was as empty as my summer. I’d spent my life in the mountains of East Tennessee and didn’t know the world could be that flat with that much sky showing. It felt too close to the sun. I might as well been on a trek through the Sahara with all the heat in that summer of 1963 creating mirages on the road ahead.
Though I’d lived in the segregated South all my life, being in Faulkner country for the first time and having watched Martin Luther King’s dream speech the week before, it all felt different – everything. It wasn’t the wonder of new experience, or even the boundary between youth and what follows [which it was]. It was a reshuffling of the deck, how I saw the place of my life. And it wasn’t a good feeling, nor was it clear. It stayed with me after returning home. Then a couple of weeks later, one morning I read about the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham killing four little girls, and it became all too clear – and things were never the same for me. I turned from sympathizer to activist by the end of the article.
Medical students don’t have as much time for involvement in the world of social change as others, but I was as involved as I could be, and my new wife took up the slack. When it came time to settle down, we came back to the South and enrolled our daughter in an integrated public school, living out our adulthood in a place changing slowly before our eyes. Watching Obama’s inaugurations has been surreal for me, getting to see something I could never have imagined happening in my lifetime back in that summer. I can only describe my feeling watching it fifty years after MLK’s dream speech, the death of those children, and Medgar Evers assassination [that same summer] as awe – awe that things can actually change so fundamentally, albeit a work in progress.
I’ve seen the same thing repeatedly in long psychotherapies – a point along the way where there’s a session or a day where things change, perhaps only apparent in retrospect. And it may take a long time for that change to ripple through and be felt widely in the patient’s life, but one can know with a growing conviction that it’s going to happen. I’m writing about that here because I’ve had individual conversations with a couple of you recently and heard your discouragement, and heard it in the comments here and on other blogs – an angry disillusionment about all that has been so very wrong in psychiatry. So I wanted to say that I don’t share that gloom, and my earlier story is why. This is just what change usually feels like, lumbering along like an old plow horse long before breaking into the sprint of a young stallion.