A Safe Harbor

A client builds a new life in the mean streets of the Bronx

IN A RUN-DOWN BUILDING ON A DECAYING block off the once-mighty Grand Concourse in the Bronx lives 28-year-old Maria Rivera, and four of her five sons. The interior of her apartment attempts to defy the squalor of the neighborhood. ThanksgMng was only a few days ago, yet standing in the corner of her living room is a proudly, but sparsely decorated Christmas tree whose blinking lights reflect off neatly wrapped presents. On top of the altar that is the television sits a gleaming new VCR, a gift from Maria's mother. There are no tapes to play, though her eldest son - 15-year-old Jose, who has been raised by his grand-mother in Puerto Rico -will be bringing some when he comes to move in by the end of the year. Opened to the Book of Matthew, a Bible rests on a nearby table. A cockroach, separated from its brethren in the kitchen, scurries across the sofa's plastic slipcovers.

Maria has invited a visitor to her home. She has volunteered to be interviewed about her experience at the Morrisania Neighborhood Family Care Center, where she's been a client for almost three years. While she relates the story of her life and of her _ therapy, Maria's boys play noisily in the bedroom. Every ten minutes or so their din reaches an unacceptable level. Maria politely excuses herself and takes a few moments to check on them. Order restored-sort of-she returns and picks up where she left off.

Maria first went to Morrisania after learning that she had cancer of the uterus (she has since had a hysterectomy). That news, and a terril~~ing drug experience a few weeks later, tipped her over the edge she'd been teetering on for years. Her anxiety attacks, a lifelong problem, worsened. Suffering from uncontrollable fits of crying, insomnia, and periods of stark, inexplicable terror, she thought she was going to die. As a teenager in Fuerto Rico, going through a similarly nightmarish time, Maria had been admitted to a hospital and tied to a bed for three weeks, screaming, as she flitted in and out of consciousness. Fearing a repetition of this "treatment," she'd resisted going for help. Finally, though, she could no longer bear it and went to Morrisania NFCC.

At the time she was 26, living on welfare with a drug addict boyfriend and _ her four sons. As if victims of a mysterious medieval curse, her children have experienced a seemingly endless series of medical problems-autism, cerebral palsy, tumors, physical deformities-some demanding complex surgery.

As Maria talks about herself her life takes on the fabric of a tale from Jerzy Kozinski's Painted Bird-one awful, violent act followed by yet another, even _ more horrible one. She describes rapes, beatings, relationships riddled with alcoholism, drug abuse, psychotic breaks, and violence. Some incidents run so counter to the visitor's conception of human behavior that he finds himself questioning their veracity.

For example, at 17, she broke the news to her first husband that she was three months pregnant with their second child. Her husband had also chosen that day to I tell Maria that his girliriend was pregnant. When Maria reflised 200 dollars to "take the child out," her husband threw her down a flight of stairs and, as she lay on the ground floor landing, kicked her repeatedly in the stomach. At birth, the child developed meningitis and today suffers from cerebral palsy.

What is one to make of a story like that? Is it true? Can it be true? Can human beings actually behave that way? Maria's matter-of-fact rendition seems to indicate they can. The world she lives in does not surprise her, only her naive visitor. He does not want to believe it.

ULTIMATELY DESCRIPTIONS of the debilitating brutality of poverty sound numbing and cliched -the bleakness and pain, the violence, the dittleulty in getting food and shelter, the humiliations, the futile escape to drugs and alcohol, Maria's history reminds one that behind all the deadening platitudes about poverty, the experience is painfully real.

But none of it had been very real for the visitor until, parking his car and climbing the stairs to Maria's apaitment he started feeling the thumping tension a sense of impending danger that would not go away. Nevertheless, he reassured himself it would soon all be gone again, when, well~intentioned but thoughtless citizen that he is, he drove away.

But Maria can't drive away. She lives here, in the environment the visitor is bravely exposing himself to for a few hours. That thumping tension is the unreported subtext of her everyday life. It's in the streets out there, in the rubble, the dying buildings, the homeless. And it can't be kept outside. It's in the slipcovers, the bare floors, in her child's limp, the garish colors of the walls, filling up the empty patches of space by the kitchen, in the living room. To live in it, she too must, in a way, forget it. Push it out of her mind, into her body. Incorporate it. Take it for granted, like the thousands of others in the Bronx who live in it with her. It's a given-implacable, omnipresent -that must be gotten used to.

ONE CAN get used to anything until, one day, "anything" becomes too much.

When Maria finally walked into Morrisania NFCC for help her problem, as she recalls in her quiet Spanish accent, was, "I didn't have friends. Everybody was on drugs. I couldn't have a friend who wasn't on drugs. That made me anxious."

Her therapy was conducted on two levels. On the immediate one, simple human compassion was most important. ~ The wave of crisis that swept Maria in for treatment could just as suddenly have swept her out again. Maria's therapist, Jo Vanderkioot, believes that, in addition to getting help in negotiating the -esque intricacies of the welfare system, clients who do come back to Morrisania have found some hook there. That hook may be a sense of hope or power, or a feeling of constancy or warmth amid the powerlessness of their daily lives.

For Maria, the hook was friendship. "Jo told me I needed a friend. She told me, 'I'll be your friend, Maria,' and she gave me a hug. She's not only my therapist. She's my friend. It's not like, 'Okay, you're finished. Your hour's up.' It's like, 'I really care."'

In a community as hostile as the Bronx, having a friend, an ally, as reliable and sincere as Jo, was incredibly empowering for Maria. "I felt like even if I walk out of the office, I have a hand holding me, helping me, guiding me. Anytime I knew I could reach for the phone and get help. Anytime."

Therapy was no short-term proposition. Maria's life had been one of neglect and deprivation; there were too many important experiences missing. WorkinWoff the trust and rapport she initially established, Vanderkioot set about recreating a past for Maria. As in Milton Erickson's famous case of the "February Man," that past would contain the care and friendship Maria had never known growing up. As the months went by, Jo would walk Maria hypnotically through the positive experiences and fantasA~~ her life-as seemingly perhaps, as hugging a teddy beat or.:tmcin a boat ride-to piece together a past filled with something other than her all-too-frequent sense of helplessness and terror.

Change took place very slowly. Maria's anxiety attacks continued. It was many months before she could talk coherently about an event that had lurked in the back ground of her thoughts for many years. At her third birthday party she'd been taken to the bathroom by her father's brother and raped. (She pronounces the word in a soft, apologetic tone, as if confessing a crime.) when her mother noticed her absence, Maria's parents began a search, came across the locked bathroom door and broke it down. Nothing happened to the uncle. They didn't want to make a big thing about it, she was told. They didn't want people to know.

Marked by the shameful loss of her virglnity, Maria was shunned by her family, raised as a kind of defective human being. Growing up in a Hispanic culture in which women are expected to know their place and not complain, Maria was given the message to keep her shame to hersell~ to remain mute. She obliged. But, as a result, starting in cbildhood she began to experience with regularity (sometimes several times a day) the anxiety attacks that would torment her throughout her life. During an attack she would regress and become as uncommunicative as a three.year-old, gesturing violently, thrashing around, making raspy, gurgling sounds, unable to breathe.

She had never made the connection between her terror and the rape. "I used to get real paranoid the day before my birthday. Terrible anxiety attacks. I'd lock myself in my room and don't come out. I felt desperate. I didn't understand why. Then I used to expect them everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday 'cause I didn't know where they were coming from." Blackouts and spontaneous menstrual bleeding often accompanied the attacks.

"I'd go in to Jo and say, 'I'm so sick again. I don't know why. I don't know why.' and Jo would say, ~ou don't know why? Okay, let's see.' And we'd see what the date was or wnat it was like what I was feeling. And I'd remember."

Slowly, with Jo's help, Maria overcame the psychological and cultural strictures against expressing negative feelings. At the same time, the warm associations of safety and security which Jo had been building with her over the months gave her something to hold on to when things got rough, to prevent her from falling all the way back to the horror of the rape.

Gradually, she leamed ways to control her attacks, to recognize their early-warning signs, and to shift focus constructively in order to prevent them from mounting. The more she verbalized and put aside her sense of shame, the better able she was to handle everyday problems, become assertive about her own needs.

FROM ThE clamorous bedroom where her four sons have been playing, her three-year-old appears, complaining of a belly-ache. Maria hoists him onto her lap and absent-mindedly strokes his bare belly as she continues.

"And Jo would explain that when I had an attack, 'It's okay. It's okay. It's just a reminder. Your mind is reminding your body of what happened. But that b~pened~ You gotta keep on. You gotta do something. It's okay to be anxious, but don't expect it's gonna get worse, that you're gonna die, that your heart's gonna stop and you're gonna die.' when you know what it is, you can just talk to yourself and say, 'That's okay. Let's just go ahead."'

Maria's relationship with her therapist was not without crises and interruptions. -Once, when Jo called her "Cinderella," confronting her about always being the martyr and suffering for others, Maria got -angry and dropped out of therapy for a while. when she came back, through the intervention of her physician, she learned, with Jo's help, how friendships can grow even if there is anger and conflict. Her confrontation with Jo had an impact; Maria discovered that there were choices besides either automatically accommodating or running away. She developed friendships outside the Center. She was being nurtured into self-sufficiency.

Throughout the therapy, Maria's doubts about her mother's feelings for her were a recurrent theme: she had never felt hugged enough, loved enough. Much of the work with Maria was individual, but finally, while visiting New York, Maria's mother attended two sessions with Jo and allayed Maria's chronic doubts. Maria heard her mother say, yes, she loved her daughter.

"I learned from that," Maria smiles. "'Cause sometimes I catch myself letting a day pass without telling my kids that I love them or kiss them or hug them. Sometimes you are so busy you didn't realize it. I go to the room. I turn on the lights and I say, 'I love you. I love you.' I give a kiss. She was a great mother-but she forgot a lot of things. I realize I can't make the same mistake."

It appears she has not. The interview has lasted too long to keep her other kids cooped up in the bedroom any longer, isolated from the stranger in their midst. They sweep through the room with warmth and spontaneity. As they maglcally record and play back their voices on the visitor's tape recorder, the stutters of a few of them add poignancy to their charm.

Why haven't the children been involved in the therapy? According to Jo Vanderkioot, it's because they don't need it. when, periodically, they do attend, it becomes a kind of family celebration, a special treat during which Jo makes popcorn for them.

Maria goes to therapy less frequently now. There's less time now that, with Jo's prodding, she's back in school. And with her new-found hope, there's less need. Going back to therapy now is mainly for reassurance, like a grown daughter might -go back to her mother when there's a problem with a grandchild. "Every time I do something that Jo taught me to do, I'll remember her. She'll never be away from me. I got a lot to thank her for. A lot."

'You seem pretty happy," the visitor observes.

She bursts into laughter. "I am.

"A lot of bad things happened to you." The list is very long for a woman only 28, who, since her hysterectomy, describes herself as "old."

"And good things too."

"what good things?"

"Going to school. I'm gonna be a reglstered nurse. I'm gonna get paid I'm -gonna get a bank account. I'm gonna move out of here. I'm gonna move upstate to Westchester County. Valhalla. A little more quiet, a better place to raise -the kids. Beautiftil, just like P.R."

"A lot of people get overwhelmed when bad things happen to them, things nowhere near as difficult as what's happened to you. But you're not. You seem cheerful."

"If you would have seen me eight months ago, you'd say, 'I can't speak to this lady. I'm gonna get just like her. Get me out of here."' She laughs.

"But you cannot stay here," she continues more seriously. 'You want something, you gotta go after it. Nobody's gonna give it to you, only you. You should give it to yourself. You just stay there feeling sorry for yourself how you gonna get it? Maybe this is crary, but I tell myself 'Focus what's happening at the moment, Maria,"' her voice assuming the firm but reassuring tone of a teacher lapsing into the language of self-help. "'No need to be anxious. You can handle it."'

The visitor can't quite grasp how she can cope with all this. He wonders how much he could withstand: surgeries and illnesses, Medicaid, special education prograrns, the burden of the past, and the awful weight of the present, the neighborhood, burglaries, robberies, the tension. One adult, four kids in a war zone, making do on ten thousand dollars a year in welfare checks, 551 payments, and food stamps. He is grateful that however complicated his life may seem at times, it is not so messy, so oppressive. He is fradkiy happy to leave, to forget about Maria and the thousands of other Marias, about the stuff life throws at them every day.

The visitor packs up his tape recorder. The kids playfully hang on him, puppies huddling for some warmth. Donning his winter clothes, he feels his scarf and heartstrings pulled by the four boys jumping and shouting for his attention, his approval.

"Will you take us fishing?"

"Look, I palnted this."

They address him by name. Hearing it come so readily from such strange lips is unexpectedly touching. Given his impending departure, whatever response he gives them sounds cruel.

Maria asks the visitor not to leave just yet. A disturbance in the hall is audible. Her neighbor, a woman who sees men in her apartment, is having a rowdy altercation with one of her patrons. In a minute or two, the noise subsides. Feeling itchy to go, the visitor declines Maria's suggestion to walt just a little more. He helps her undo the four locks on the inside of the door and leaves, jumping ship, wishing her well.

OUTSIDE IT is dark. A teen-age girl hurries by, seeking sanctuary in a nearby building. As he approaches his car he sees, twinkling on the hood, the broken fragments of a bottle of Bud. Across the street, where an empty lot meets an abandoned building, three men hover by a trashcan fife.

The car starts up; thankfully, he feels a fear drop away. Ficking up speed down the block, he is glared at by a group congregating in front of a bodega, waiting out the cold December night. In a few minutes, he will be on the West Sid Highway, heading south. He will notice that a tightness in his chest has gone, his breathing has become easier. E