Days leading up to September 7, 2010, were excruciating. We knew something was wrong with her. Something wasn’t right. She’d been hearing and seeing things that weren’t there. She thought there were cameras in the Golden Spoon taking pictures of her daughter, she slept in her car overnight paranoid that there were devices planted in the house, she was making wild connections between people on Facebook, she thought everyone could smell her body odor, she thought we were all involved in a family lawsuit, she thought her doctor had implanted her with herpes during the birth of her daughter.
This uncertain time was what I’d prepared for in theory as a young social work college student and intern at Pacific Clinics in Pasadena and Irwindale. I’d seen my share of people with this debilitating illness called schizophrenia. I’d read the book Surviving Schizophrenia by E. Fuller Torrey and attempted to understand how to help clients, like Joyce and Thomas to live more quality lives off the streets.
As a rarin’ to go employee in 1995, I’d met with groups of mostly middle-aged men who’d suffered with this illness or others like it, and who’s lives had been turned upside down. I wondered, “How did they get this way? What were there lives like before mental illness?” Thomas, a bright faced long haired client in his late 40s would spend every cent of extra money he had writing extensive legal briefs on a typewriter no less, and then spend all the extra money he had that was intended for food on sending these legal briefs to government organizations. He preached against the sodomy of children…and many other injustices in these briefs.
Somehow I loved this man with the out-of-this-world ideas and fractured mind. I was there to help him with the practical things, managing his money and making sure he ate. I took him shopping once and gave him tips on how to spend his weekly budget for food. He was very grateful hearted, but it stood against reason for him to spend money on food when he had this mission to send legal briefs to government agencies. This was much more important. I tried to encourage him to take medication for the delusions, but, the medication was a conspiracy to control him. Since he wasn’t hurting anyone or himself in a violent way, there was little I could do to help, other than listen and try to love the best I could. I’d think, “Where is his family?”
Joyce was a 50-something homeless woman whose skin was leathered from the many days of living outdoors. She was unable to carry on a sequential conversation, unable to share her history, fragmented sentences and thoughts reigned in her brain. She was vulnerable. She came regularly to Union Station for a meal and we eventually located a Board and Care home for her. She was another client who would not take medication consistently and lived in the delusions in her head. I asked her once, “Joyce, what’s so funny?” As she pinched her pointer finger and thumb together in the air repeatedly, she said, “I see balloon people. I’m popping them.” She was the sweetest innocent woman I’d met. She once made me a wooden placard with a clown on it. I still have it as a reminder of her. I’d wonder, “What was her family like? Does she have kids? Do they wonder how she is doing?” After several months at the Board and Care room she’d been living in, I went to visit and check on her. She had completely disassembled her microwave to its smallest components. It was hardly recognizable as an appliance.
I went away from that job feeling completely ineffective, discontented, and depressed. It was so hard for me, at that time, to understand that kind of brokenness and work within a system that seemed so unable to make intense positive change in these complicated lives.
Fast forward 14 years, my sister, my youngest is spiraling downward into the abyss of mental illness. I know this. I’ve seen it before. Now those same questions that I asked about the families of Joyce and Thomas,”How did they get this way? What were there lives like before mental illness? Where is his family? What was her family like? Does she have kids? Do they wonder how she is doing?” became instantly answered.
Now I was one of those family members. I knew I loved my sister. I knew I needed to help her. But how?
These desperate emotions drove me to cope in the best way I knew how…try to eat away the sadness.
Continued tomorrow. Love you loves.