I work with people whose lives are ugly. They are all chopped up. They have no teeth. Things are breaking down in their bodies. Their minds are against them. They have no place to sleep.
This is obviously a judgment from without. I don’t know how many of these people would find their lives ugly. Perhaps there is beauty there that I don’t see. And I truly don’t see. This might lead one to ask as to whether I find my own life to be ugly, and the answer would be that I do. My mind is against me. My body is breaking down, teeth included. I am lucky in that I have a place to sleep, but when my parents die or some other sort of calamity strikes this might no longer be the case.
For work I visit psychiatric hospitals in New England and talk with the patients there under the auspices of providing advocacy. Someone with a less dire outlook on things might feel better about what they do, but I leave this position feeling as though I’ve done nothing for anyone, myself most of all.
Most of what I do is talk with people. Often this is just getting talked at. People who are manic will talk at you for as long as you occupy the same space, and mania seems to be a feature of many people who wind up in the hospital. I’ll walk onto the unit, sit down with someone, and an hour will pass in which I’ve said nothing and learned nothing. I burn an hour and all I have to do is nod my head.
I feel bad writing this. There is a strong preference among my colleagues for not discussing mental illness as a physical affliction or material condition of people’s lives, but, with some remorse, I don’t share this inclination. My own experience has been that there is something distinctly different about my neurological makeup that makes me more prone to various forms of suffering, and I assume the same about the people with whom I meet.
With this being said, the afflictions that are most common in the hospital are poverty and isolation. One could argue that there is a chicken and egg problem at play in this statement. Is a person mad because they are poor or poor because they are mad? Do you lose the people in your life because your thoughts and emotions are disordered, or do your thoughts and emotions become disordered because you’ve lost people? My thinking is that neither is true- these conditions arise simultaneously and are intertwined, and whether or not I’m right about this or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the problems of poverty and isolation require remedy, nor does it change the bleak reality that this remedy will likely never be delivered, and certainly not on a locked psychiatric unit.
Yesterday was the worst. I was plagued by the realization that I am awful and that the world is also awful. I saw a woman at the hospital who had been injured by staff while being restrained and helped her file a complaint. According to her she punched a nurse and this is what precipitated the hold, but it is not my place to judge her actions.
I’ve worked with this woman before. I helped her and her former boyfriend navigate a period of homelessness, mostly by paying out of pocket for motel rooms. After we filed the complaint we talked about him. She says she’s done with him. He is currently in state prison. Apparently he has an ugly rap sheet, one that includes lewd and lascivious acts with a person under the age of 13, a fact that I am not surprised he omitted from our many conversations.
In the course of their relationship, which I observed to be violent on the part of both parties, they had both pressed charges against one another on multiple occasions, and apparently he neglected to attend a court date related to one of these incidents. It was only when she searched him on the prison’s ‘inmate finder’ that she learned about these other convictions. It made me sad to learn this about him and she was deeply distressed by it- somehow she hadn’t known. People can be excellent at keeping secrets as long as the secrets are their own.
She has been homeless for who knows how long. I drove her to a court date once, and she told me that a few years ago she’d been shot with a 30.30 right in the gut by her father and that she’d almost died. She’d had a happy week or so where it appeared that she was going to receive some sort of settlement stemming from this (how the man would have paid anything out after 8 years in prison was unclear to me) but the money never materialized, and not long after that she ended up back in the hospital.
This isn’t the only woman I’ve met in this job who has been shot by a man in her life. Up north, in my first months of working here, I met a woman who had just arrived from Oregon, fleeing her family for reasons that I didn’t entirely understand but that seemed to center on them being heroin addicts. She was homeless, having been beaten up and thrown out by the man she was staying with when she refused to have sex with him, and was sleeping in motels using vouchers from Economic Services. Years earlier she had been shot in the back, and most of the bullet had exited her chest. She showed me the exit wound right below her clavicle. She said she still had little pieces of bullet left in her body.
But as I was writing, yesterday was unbearable. I didn’t get shot in the chest or anything like that, but on a spiritual level I felt dead inside. I sat through a meeting in which a hospital bureaucrat grossly distorted statistics about patient complaints and ate a bad sandwich composed of some sort of deli meat. Possibly ham. When the meeting was through, I walked out into the parking lot.
It was stiflingly humid but it had been windy earlier in the day and somehow there were two baby squirrels, unweaned, their eyes not yet open, dying behind my driver’s side front tire. Perhaps it would have been more humane to ignore their presence and end them abruptly by mashing them into the asphalt, but I couldn’t. I thought maybe it would be better for them to die in the cool grass in the shade, so I picked them up and put them somewhere that looked peaceful. I wished that I could save them, but I don’t know the first thing about dying infant animals. I walked by where I had left them today and their corpses weren’t there. I wondered what took them, hoping that perhaps something ate them. There seems as though there’s dignity in being eaten.
I drove home and talked to a friend who is also deeply depressed. Despite his struggles, I envy him. There is a functionality that he has that I do not. He complains that he can’t stand working part-time, that all the unstructured time is getting to him. I don’t like working part-time either, but I definitely don’t want to work full-time. I am more of a no-time person.
After this I went to therapy. Therapy has been helpful for me in some respects. It helped me go back to work. Not that working is something I want to do, but in the present it appears to be necessary. I told the therapist that I was badly depressed. He asked me if psychotherapy was working for me. He wanted to know, because it didn’t really seem as though there had been any breakthroughs.
I’m not someone who can be honest in the moment. I need time to sort things out. So I did not say all the things that occur to me now. That no, psychotherapy is not working, just like meditation, medication, drugs, no drugs, busyness and idleness have all failed to work. That maybe nothing will work, and it might just be that non-existence is the magic bullet. But therapists don’t tell you to commit suicide, even if they think you’re beyond help.