(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)
I’ve always identified with the subterranean souls, the underdogs, the ones that needed a helping hand and got kicked in the teeth for it. And so, as a young firebrand, I went into health care, working with the mentally ill.
25 years ago I was the young supervisor of a locked psychiatric unit. It wasn’t inpatient – it was locked because the patients didn’t respond well to medication and couldn’t function without a lot of staff assistance. Like all health care workers who deal with the disenfranchised, I learned to love these folks who wanted only two things: to live on their own and to have a job. Nothing grandiose about these desires. But of course, many of my patients would never realize their dreams. What most people take for granted. So, many of them had a short term goal — to be accepted as human. Sadly, this dream also proved elusive.
One man, very tall, very ill — a Jewish man we’ll call Daniel — lived on my unit. For the most part, his symptoms didn’t respond to medication. But he was harmless, a gentle giant. I liked Daniel although I didn’t know him well. I saw him everyday and he impressed me. Despite his suffering — he heard voices that berated him — he found joy in simple things.
One day a small man, very gray and frail looking, came to the unit. It was a stark contrast, father and son. The large Daniel and the small dad. They sat together sharing some candies and chuckling occasionally over a small joke. It’s an indelible image for me.
It was a warm day, the day Daniel’s father came. And so, midway through the visit he removed his sport coat and he rolled up his sleeves. I walked by the table where father and son were conversing and as I passed I noticed the numbers. I had never seen Holocaust numbers tattooed on an arm before and it was startling. Particularly as I am German American. I still grit my teeth whenever I think of it.
After the visit I could only marvel at the father’s ability to laugh. Surviving the Holocaust only to see his son stricken with schizophrenia. I have no words to describe the combination of emotions this image elicits — 25 years later.
Another mentally ill man I knew responded better to his medication than most of the patients who lived on my unit.
Joseph eventually graduated from a halfway house and lived in an apartment with other patients in recovery. Joseph lived simply with his one “possession” – a dog. The dog was a friendly little beast named Herman. A neighborhood girl, a grade-school-age youngster, often smiled at the dog when Herman’s owner took him for a walk. One day the girl asked if she could pet the dog. Joseph was anxious about interacting with people he didn’t know but he said OK. Later that night, the girl’s angry father showed up at Joseph’s home — armed with a baseball bat and accompanied by some like-minded individuals. They beat Joseph so severely that they fractured his skull. Several surgeries and a steel plate later the fracture was all but mended. And so, leaving Herman behind, Joseph got on a train and headed upstate. Somewhere north of the city he got off the train and walked into the woods. He sat down and waited to die from exposure. He was too frightened to continue living. The police called to let us know that he had been found dead. I don’t know whatever happened to Herman.
When I hear people talk about how they don’t want the mentally ill to live in their neighborhoods I think to myself that I have never met a mentally ill person who would use a baseball bat to crush another person’s skull.
If I could find a way to convey this to the intolerant, to speak out for the least among us, I would do so. I would be shouted down, perhaps threatened. But the truth would out.