Lisa Mitchell

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beauty witness

Lisa Mitchell | Feb 27, 2013 | 7 comments

The following is a glimpse at the early roots of my private practice…..

I slide down the wall outside the padded room and I find a seat on the cold linoleum, desperately trying to send soothing thoughts to the crazed captive within.  All I can hear are animal growls, agonizing wails, and violent thumps as they migrate through the cracked seal that locks the cell door.  He doesn’t know I’m here at the hospital.  Or that I’m on duty as the mental health investigator.  He probably doesn’t even know where he is or why he’s been 5150’ed.  The nurses explained he’d been walking all night and was picked up by the police after refusing to leave the median strip that divided the busy street in front of the concert hall.

Last night, I sat still, all ears, letting his elegant piano notes wash over me.  I had been entranced by his passion.  His ability to communicate was magical, and I was truly inspired to be a better person.  When I left the hall, all tingly in appreciation, I felt I could run all the way home and still have energy to paint a masterpiece.  He was beauty in action.

And now he was beauty caged.  The sounds that came from within the solitary confinement room were not magical.  They were painful.  And I felt disillusioned. This was my first glimpse of real life tragedy outside of my own family.

I was 22 years old, fresh out of college in my first real job.  The public defenders with whom I worked thought my fascination with the mental health calendar was strange. Graduation briefcase slung over my shoulder, weighted down with case files, I would arrive at the local locked facilities and interview patients to make sure their rights weren’t being violated.  Or, I would listen intently to patients who had requested a writ in protest of the involuntary hold that been placed on them due to the alleged danger to themselves or others.  I was innocent and young, but unlike others in my office, I was not at all repelled.

But this day, the day that Jonathan, the brilliant concert pianist, was being held in solitary—pacing, wailing, hitting– was an eye opener.  His parents had called our office, and the office had sent me to the hospital.  I sat in the cold hallway for hours.  They wouldn’t let me talk to him.  (They can hold anyone without legal counsel for 24 hours.)  They wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to tell them who he was.  I didn’t feel like an efficient investigator.  I didn’t feel I could do anything at all.

Then I remembered his beauty.  His magic.  His music.  I began to hum the Beethoven Sonata that he’d played the night before.  The same piece that had brought tears to my eyes.  I knew every note because it had been my mother’s most practiced piece from my childhood.  She lent me the notes, he lent me the memory of his passion.  And I hummed.

After a few minutes, I noticed that the wails had quieted to whimpers.  I heard him fall against the floor into stillness, the violent thumping no longer an accompaniment to my Beethoven hum.  I felt joined with him, with my mother, with the magic of music.  He and I sat a wall between us, in our shared appreciation for the beauty of music.  Without thinking, I stopped a nurse who was walking by and told him that it was urgent.  He had to let the piano player out.  He had to let him play.  The nurse started to protest, but for some divine reason agreed.

Together we led Jonathan to the clumsy piano that sat in the community room.  He sat down to play the out of tune friend and it was the second time in 24 hours that I let the magic wash over me.  He played Beethoven and he came back to himself.   I sat on the ratty vinyl couch tuned to all that he had to say.  His beauty was in action again.

That was when my mission was born.  I realized at that moment, that I was not an advocate for indigent criminals or an investigator for do-good lawyers and their impoverished clients.  I was an advocate for beauty.  That I was a junky of sorts—looking for a fix of beauty—even in places where it might not appear.   I could draw it out, celebrate it and set it free.  And when I connected others with their beauty, healing magic was born over and over again.

At what moment did it become clear to you, that this was what you were meant to do?  How do you carry that clarity with you in your work today?  Your comments (below) are sure to inspire others.

7 responses to “beauty witness”

  1. Ann Elizabeth Burke says:

    Well written, beautiful, stunning, moving. It opens a place in me that is already there. Tears sit on the edge of my eyelids I am so moved. I love to find that beauty in the patients I see. I am often surprised at the talent in a room of dually diagnosed patients and it is in their art where they find the strength and courage to heal. Thank you

  2. Wonderfully inspiring! I want more!!!

  3. Crystal says:

    Indeed brought me to tears and a wonderful memory somewhat similar-
    I was actually still in Grad school and one of my several jobs was as an on-call mental health worker at a dual diagnosis homeless facility in a not great part of LA. There was a horrid problem with roaches and without notice Mgt. came in one morning and told us to get out for the day as they were finally treating the place. What to do? With a large group for an entire day? Well of course we went to an art museum! Many had never even been to a museum as far as they remembered. Afterwards we went to a park and relaxed in the warm sun ate ice cream and played tag football and played, played, played. As we all returned to the van and settled in and grumbled about returning to the facility- on the radio came Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” – at that moment conversation just stopped,. not a single one of us said a single word. Silence as we listened. Tears welled up in my eyes. Still gives me goose bumps remembering it and yes even tears. We all were sharing this moment together- client and employee- from 19 to 60 something year old- mixed ethnicities and cultures- mental illness and dual diagnosis — it was the perfect moment to a perfectly average day and yet soooo much more. More to say too but indeed I need to run- Thank you for all you do Lisa

  4. Grace Bower says:

    thank you for this powerful post about what is really important – for all of us. You were so blessed to find this at the beginning of your journey and we are grateful for all you share. I will pass this on to others who can be inspired too. Apt reading on Thanksgiving day…

  5. Laura Pratto says:

    I love your website and your premise. I feel at home reading your material. A fellow creative who confidently colors outside the lines.

    I haven’t written since I finished grad school Aug 2011. I literally purged my soul and then hit the ground running to finish my clinical hours. Whew – I’m done and after a little respite my creative energy is slowly creeping back tugging at to me develop my own practice in my own way. Casey Truffo said she was chronically unemployed because she was very opinionated. I look at it as marching to your own drum. Gifted. An outlier, perhaps. A fellow creative.

    This is my second career after teaching in public school, having 2 children – one of which is on the spectrum and required home teaching and enormous amounts of advocacy, and now reinventing myself as a therapist.

    What is my specialty everyone asks? I’m reading everyone’s websites looking for inspiration or even a slight likeness of self. Thank you! I found it here in your blog and website.

    • admin says:

      So good to hear from a fellow creative. Welcome to this amazing community of therapists who believe they are artists and therapy is their art form!

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