On October 10th, the world commemorated World Mental Health Day, an important global milestone in raising awareness about the pervasiveness of mental illness in today’s modern society, as well as a chance to highlight the many avenues of treatment. It seems that hardly a day goes by in which the headlines don’t trumpet stories about individuals clearly exhibiting behaviors associated with mental illness. The unanswered question for me is always whether the outcome might have been different had these individuals found treatment.
In my experience, treatment was the single most important catalyst that put me on the road to recovery. Between the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1971, I was a patient at the Menninger Clinic, located in Topeka, Kansas, at the time. My regime included daily classes of sewing, sculpture and gym. Except for brief group walks on the grounds down to the pond and back, my physical activity was minimal.
I remember as if it were yesterday, the first time that Mona, my sewing instructor, walked me over to the gymnasium for my first obligatory volleyball game. As we approached the gym, I could hear off in the distance the familiar high-energy Three Dog Night rendition of their classic anthem “Joy to the World” being blared through the loudspeakers.
A tiny shiver of happiness pulsed down my spine. I remember being surprised at the return of an emotion I hadn’t felt in months. As I walked tentatively into the gym, I could see other patients lined up on opposing sides of the volleyball net, poised for the opening serve.
Each team had some players clearly more caught up in the sheer joy of the musical moment than at the prospect of competing. Their bodies swayed back and forth to the beat of the song, caught up in their own expression of exuberance and inspired to dance by the song and its nonsensical lyrics.
Lyle, our gym instructor, would always start off our class with a short program of simple exercises before the volleyball game began. We seldom had enough players to field six players on each side of the net, but Lyle did his best to match the teams in a way that ensured equal competitiveness. The truth was that most of us were easily distracted and had a hard time staying focused on the game.
What I came to learn, however, was that volleyball was my time to move around, get loose and express my body physically. Initially, the prospect of playing volleyball was depressing; I had never been a decent athlete. However, the experience became a form of respite for me, from homesickness, from chronic worry about the wellbeing of my baby Laura and, most of all, from the all-consuming dread and fear I carried within me about the possibility that my husband Larry would be killed in the Vietnam War.
On good days, we would field two teams of six players; other days, our teams would be small, as some patients stayed back on the unit due to a “bad day.” Fortunately, few of us cared about the outcome of the match. Instead, we embraced the absurdity of the moment, the silliness of the music and the chance to be active as a group. It became a break from the difficult, emotional work we were all doing.
Today, “Joy to the World” remains one of my favorite songs. As I listen to it and, if no one’s around, I find myself sliding and twisting around my dining room table and remembering with fondness my beautiful friends from the Clinic, and thinking about this strange, beautiful dance we call Life, for which there is no manual of instructions, except for what’s hidden within our heart.
Take a listen, it can’t help but make you smile. (c) Tyra Manning 2017
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
If I were the king of the world
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you
Sing it now
Credit: Hoyt Axton, songwriter
Listen to “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night below: