Carrying stories for others

I’ve never written or even talked much about my work life. Much of my work life involved the stories of other people’s lives. Recently somebody made a remark implying that since I never had children, I’d never had responsibilities for another person. I would never equate anything I’ve done to parenthood, and hold with great regard, awe and respect, my siblings and friends who are parents, a role like none other, with all that life can give in joys, stress, challenges, love, disappointments, and every other human emotion and experience. However, like many friends who never had children by choice, circumstances, or biology, I’ve had responsibilities in the lives of others in diverse ways, most recently in my mother’s life as she struggled with and declined from Alzheimer’s. Later reflection on the remark caused me to recall women I helped find safety from domestic abuse, children I reported concerns about because they showed clear signs of abuse or neglect. I thought of some of the people I worked with in my private practice, even students in classes I taught. Occasionally someone will come up to me and say how much a class they took helped them, telling me how. Most of all I thought of the people I worked with when working at Community Mental Health.  I was hired to set up community support for people who had psychiatric disabilities, people diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar. Though I was not responsible for their lives, I was an important relationship for them primarily because they often lived lonely lives and the time we spent together was the only time they talked to somebody who treated them with respect and appreciation, who knew they had an illness but also knew they were smart and had dreams and desires, like everyone.  Some of those relationships spanned nearly 10 years.

Some of the men were not much older or younger than myself, often I was the only woman in their age group who ever paid them any attention. Other clients, women younger, or older, or my same age, had no other women friends to chat about the things women chat about. It is out of respect I’ve never talked of these people, it is the code of ethics for a profession where people carry in their heads and hearts the stories of other people’s struggles, even after much time has passed. Some of the people I worked with have died and many years have passed, so with the same respect and compassion I’ve always had for people living with the struggles of mental illness, I tell the stories of a few. For me it is like opening a book I read once, yet never told anyone about.

Bi-weekly I visited a man living in a tiny single apartment behind a house his parents owned. No one lived in the house. He was overweight, rarely went out because he was uncomfortable doing so and very paranoid of people. He stayed at home with his cat in the cluttered, dark, shade drawn apartment. I’m allergic to cats. Walking into his home with the stench of body odor and a cat box rarely emptied, cat dander and thick dust everywhere, my nose ran and eyes itched immediately and for hours after I visited him. I had to wash all the clothes I wore that day. He was very smart. Astute about people, he talked about his large eccentric family. His parents owned several businesses but he lived only on the disability check he and most the people I saw received. Our visits consisted of me sitting in the only available chair opposite him in the lounge chair he pretty much lived in. He talked of his life and told stories and secrets from the past about family members. He would tell me the same stories, sometimes there would be new ones. He had an intuitive understanding of the nature of people and I often thought that perhaps, though he was the one with the mental illness, he might have been the only one in his eccentric family that truly was sane. He had diabetes and several years after I no longer worked in that job he died of complications from the diabetes. I drove by the apartment, closed up, and wondered what happened to his cat, and thought of all the stories that died with him.

Another man I saw also lived in a tiny apartment. He began to have a crush on me which I realized only after we stopped while on a drive (my job was often to get people out of their apartments for a change of scenery) and he asked if he could kiss me. It was a scary moment, we were standing on a bluff, he was taller and weighed much more than me. I said some form of no in the most diplomatic way I could to a person with severe paranoid schizophrenia. Most our visits were sitting in his apartment, me listening to many of his obsessive, paranoid thoughts. He eventually stalked and killed his father, who lived in another town. I realized later it was inappropriate for me to be asked to continue to work with him after the bluff incident, I was not following my intuition when I wanted to say I wouldn’t.

There were two older women I saw. Both were diagnosed with bipolar and each had been hospitalized many times throughout their lives for bizarre behavior. When I came into their lives age had mellowed them and the disease had loosened its grip, though its presence was still obvious. One once shined the copper bottoms of all her pots when the mania was coming on. I suggested she make a conscious effort to do so each time, then we’d both know that she might need help, the pots could be the conversation started. It became an endearing part of our relationship and her way of letting me know either she needed more help, or she’d had a bad spell but was ok. She had the best looking revere ware! I always wanted to bring her mine! She was bright, talked of many life stories and heart breaks and over time became fond of me and I of her. The other woman also talked of her past, her daughter, who she was beginning to have a better relationship with, and her paranoid thoughts about her neighbors in the apartment building. We went shopping together and ran errands, she loved going to thrift stores. Both these women have died, and though their lives were often hell, I believe they died in peace, a peace they came to during the time I knew them. They both talked of their deaths and enlisted my help making  prior arrangements, not morbidly, but matter-of-factly. Neither had a lot of control over many aspects of their lives, but they wanted to say how they would be treated when they died.

There was a young woman with schizophrenia I invited to attend an out-of-state conference for both professionals and people with psychiatric disabilities. My colleagues thought I was the crazy one traveling so far with her and staying in a motel for three nights. Her behavior was thought to be unpredictable. But what was the point of all I knew and believed if I attended this conference alone? It was an act of trust and bravery on both sides. I had confidence in her and our relationship and I believed my trusting her would help her to trust herself, in spite of thoughts she couldn’t control. We completely enjoyed each other’s company, driving north out of Salt Lake, where we flew to, doing a little sight-seeing before we went to the small town where the conference was held. I was so proud of her participation at the conference.  I helped this young women get an apartment and move from her parents house and over many years she asked me questions all young women want to know as they think of their future, of men, of how they look and the questions she had as she tried to navigate life with thoughts she didn’t understand and couldn’t trust. It was with heart ache we had to end the relationship when I left my job. She asked if we could be friends and I said yes, after a year and after she had another “case manager”. We did see each other several times a year later, but in spite of her illness, and because of her illness, she had the insight to say it was confusing for her to know what she could say to who, so we discontinued our visits. Many years later her father brought her to where I was working to see me, it was a sweet reunion, brief, but the affection we both felt was still evident. She thanked me again for all I did for her.

These are only a few the stories, a few of the people whose lives I hope I touched, at least for a moment, in a positive way, even the ones that had sad endings. There were the young people I arranged hospital or treatment stays for, or visited while in hospitals or treatment facilities to see if there was a place for them in the larger community. I could go on, but I will close the book in my heart where I continue to carry the stories of many people.