Public Comment


Tuesday December 27, 2005

Bertha (not her real name) sat in a chair opposite my desk, a woman in her ‘60s, thin, wearing a faded print blouse and pants that I could see were held up with a safety pin. The sandals she wore looked like they were two sizes larger than her feet. 

As I sat there looking at her, I wondered what I could do to help this woman adjust to her life outside of the psychiatric hospital. She looked clearly uncomfortable, avoiding my eyes and staring out the window, twisting a piece of kleenex between her fingers. 

“Bertha,” I started, “Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?” She shook her head, no. 

My small office, felt smaller with long silences between my asking questions about her sleep and appetite.  

My supervisor in Graduate School cautioned me not to delve into her early history. She wanted me to do supportive therapy, to find out what her interests were and help her get back into the community and functioning again.  

“I’d like to find out what sorts of things interest you, something you liked to do before you went into the hospital. Maybe it’s something we might explore together, like taking a field trip. We can have our sessions outside of the office,” I offered. I felt like a saleswoman at a department store, trying to sell someone on a stuffed boar’s head with two horns. We sat there in more silence for what felt to me like a long time. Slowly she lifted her head and looked at me. 

She spoke in a whisper when she said, “I used to like to go to Thrift Stores. Do you think we could do that?” she asked. I sat there puzzled. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. “What are Thrift Stores, Bertha?” I questioned. “When we meet next week, can you show me where they are?” For the first time in our session together, she brightened. “Yes, I’ll show you the ones I used to go to,” she said. I was not playing dumb. I had no idea what a Thrift Store was, but I was certainly open to Bertha teaching me about them. 

The following week, Bertha and I took off in the County car around downtown Sacramento. 

It was a sunny fall day, I remember, and a good one to be out of the office. Bertha pointed to a store that said, “Good Will Thrift Store” on it. I parked the car and we went in and started browsing down the aisles. Then I saw something that caught my eye. It was a red hat, a large straw hat. I think the label said, “$l.00” I heard myself squeal with delight and say to no one in particular, “Would you look at this? It’s only a dollar. Oh my gosh.” I quickly scooped it up. And in a few minutes, my arms were full of sweaters, slacks, a few pots and pans, and I didn’t want to stop. Bertha looked at me and I think I must have looked like some of the patients she left behind in the hospital, behaving like some bizarre manner. That was the moment, the exact moment when I became addicted to thrift shopping, and I haven’t stopped since then. 

Bertha and I continued our weekly sessions in the community and she became my teacher in learning how to thrift shop. She did not know it, but as a student-intern, it was hard living on student loans and making ends meet. I felt ignorant and knew nothing about jewelry. She taught me about gems and what was fake and what was authentic. I helped Bertha buy clothes that fit and find comfortable shoes to wear since she walked everywhere.  

I was humbled by learning about her life. She had cared for her aging, ailing mother and, after her death, Bertha became depressed and began to hear voices. Unable to cope, she was finally hospitalized. 

Now she was adjusting to her new life. When we weren’t shopping, I took Bertha to a day treatment center where they had creative art classes in pottery, collage and watercolor. 

I think Bertha was more my therapist than I was hers. As a student, I felt poor and lonely too. We became kindred spirits who learned from one another. 

Although it has been many years since Graduate School, when I get into a gloomy mood, I head for the nearest Thrift Shop and have a splurge, buying something I absolutely do not need and may never use. My collection over the years has grown in different ways, depending on what phase of interest I’m in. For example, I like to put pillows on our two living room sofas. 

My husband recently counted 40 of them and, because he knows I have some shame about it, gently asks me to get rid of some of them so our guests can sit on the sofas, not the pillows. Over time, clients have introduced me to some of their interests that eventually become mine. One of them, I remember, had a collection of rocks. Since then, every time I’m on a beach, I select rocks that are smooth, or have a heart-shape, multi-colored, and speckled ones. 

I have a large collection of these stones from the different beaches, rivers and lakes I’ve visited over the years. I like to decorate the garden with them. 

Today my horoscope said, “It’s time for you to let go of some useless things. You need to have a garage sale.” I’m not ready to do that yet. I have a new client. She is a retired professional woman who shared with me, in confidence, that she is depressed, doesn’t know what to do with her time now that she does not work anymore.  

I lean forward in my seat and ask her, (as though I’m about to give her the most profound insight of her life), “Have you ever been to a Thrift Store?”