Years ago, Becky had invented the non-alcoholic drink contest to honor Sherry’s years of sobriety. Each of the guests would bring their tastiest non-alcoholic drinks for Sherry to sample.
Sherry would joke about accepting bribes and we would blindfold her so she wouldn’t guess who brought which beverage. She would sniff each cup we handed her, sip one and then the next, swish them around her mouth and then pronounce the winners, starting with the last runner up (somehow the soy milk with cinnamon and cayenne pepper didn’t rank very high) and culminating with the first-place beverage.
Over the years, we had so much fun with Sherry’s ritual that I began to plan a ritual of my own. I decided keys would be a good image. The only visible difference between staff and patients on the psych ward, where all staff wear street clothes, was that the staff carried keys. Coming into a locked ward, one always passed the sign announcing “elopement precautions”— I didn’t have anyone to elope with anyway.
So, anticipating the ritual, I started collecting castoff keys from my friends, along with prayers and blessings. Some were house keys, others luggage keys, one car key (where is that car parked?). The three most unusual keys were from a friend who collects antique keys. My favorite key of hers is an 1870s-era hotel key: a long black key designed to make the keyhole harder to pick—it folds in half to fit more easily in a pocket.
Although I collected keys randomly, I ended up with exactly the seventeen keys I’d hoped for, to symbolize seventeen years outside the hospital. I put them all on a big round key chain that came with a whistle. The night of the party I brought the keys in a pretty metal tin with pictures of fruit on it that reminded me of the fruits of the spirit. I took the keys out and with each key read the prayers and blessings and testimonies people had given me. I felt it was a kind of witnessing. My fur person Chester couldn’t be there but Becky’s cat Trinket stood in for him as a feline spirit.
The keys themselves are less important than the intangibles they stand for—I call them my Keys to Wellness. I taped these names to the keys:
- Meds & vitamins
- Talking therapy
- Tai Chi/70%. (70% is a principle of Tai Chi that means literally not stretching or moving your body more than 70% of what you are able. The extended meaning is not taking on more commitments than you can manage or pushing yourself past tiredness.)
- Eating Healthy
- Fur Persons/Chester
- Walking with a friend
- Let tears come
- Challenge distorted thinking/No to voices/Choose life, hope (These words just fit on the long folding antique key.)
- Compeer (a friendship organization for people with mental health challenges)
- Balanced sleep
- Joy and Laughter
- Reach Out
As a finishing touch, I added:
- Think Outside the Box (This I taped to a fingernail clipper, which could probably pick a lock in a pinch!)
- Ask for Help (I put this on the whistle.)
After the party, two more keys from my godmother arrived: a skate key and a jewelry box key. I decided that together they stood for two short words that are of huge importance in my life.
Margalea Warner is a freelance writer who attends First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa. This article was first posted in August 2012.
Margalea talks about her keys to wellness in this video of a talk she gave at at NAMI event.