Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Tragic Way to Live

My friend Kara called yesterday from Arizona and left a message. She had read my blog about cleaning. "I hope you don't lose your mind," she said. "It's a terrible thing to lose."

Now, I'm not really losing my mind. It's just a figure of speech I used to describe how frustrating it was to clean a house with children underfoot. Which is why I don't do it. But Kara works with people who really lost their mind. For a short time, I worked in the same field. Terrible is a good word to describe what it must be like to go insane. In fact, after working in a group home with mentally ill women, going crazy was my worst fear.

They lived in the group home after leaving the mental hospital. We made sure they took their medication, ate meals and got out of the house. But what they really wanted to do was sleep.

It happened to the women when they were in their 20s. They were ballerinas or mothers or office workers. Then one day, they woke up believing their house was overrun with deamons. Or that everyone in the world conspired to kill them. Or that they were the grande dame in a real life soap opera--which sounds fun but wasn't.

Being crazy, for them, was not like how they show it in the movies. Tragic or comic, movies at least make it look interesting. But a dull sadness hung over the house where I worked. It was all brown carpeting, brown upholstered furniture, rented movies, tuna casserole, tabby cats, kitschy art, and somebody thinking helicopters were coming after them.

I remember going back to the woman's room with her and peering through her blinds, seeing if the choppers had come yet.

"I don't see them," I kept saying. Telling her they weren't coming was fruitless, so the only proof I could offer her that she was safe was that they weren't there yet.

And I'm such a chicken that I started thinking, "What if helicopters are coming after her? What if she knows something we don't?"

My friend Kara is really good at working with mentally ill people. She probably would have told the woman the yard was too small for helicopters to land and that would be that.

It was a job I was terrible at. There was a woman in the house whose mom said she could only smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and we had to dole them out one at a time and she'd glare at us and yell at us and call us names. She'd point to me and tell everyone I was the snake who married her son. I didn't know what to say to that, so I'd laugh. I was always laughing about the outlandish things she said, but the truth was, I was scared of her. When she glared at me, she seemed to see through to a part of me that did marry her son and behave like a snake. Like an alternate reality.

I wish now I had given her however many cigarettes she damned well pleased. I didn't know how to work with her, but putting myself in her shoes would have been a start. It's just that they were scary shoes to try on.

One night, a woman at the house was doing dishes and let out a high pitched scream for 5 minutes. I made everybody go outside in case we were the scary things she was screaming about. But before I could usher everyone out the door, she stopped.

"Are you okay?" I asked, tiptoeing, around her.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said brightly, as though she had no idea why I would ask.

She had a family who lived a few miles away and she'd call her husband to see when she could come home for an afternoon. He'd schedule it for a month down the road. We'd pick her up afterward and she'd cheerfully describe how she cooked for her kids, but a coworker said the woman just slept while she was there.

There was a woman my age there who would take off and go panhandling for money to buy Coke--the soft drink. I'd head for the bright lights of the nearby college town in the company minivan. Led by intuition, I'd turn left and right until I saw her dyed blonde hair and unselfconscious gait. Even though she didn't have to come with me, she'd get in the car.

"How did you know where I was?" she'd ask.

I'd shrug and she'd tell me some of the things she saw while she was out.

I always felt proud of that one talent I had in this job, but I think now she would have come home anyway when she got tired of walking around the city. The minivan was simply a free ride home. Eventually we scheduled these escapades, taking her walking around the college town in the evening. I always volunteered for these field trips because I liked being out in the fresh air, too. But she'd still run off on the nights we didn't have a fieldtrip planned. I heard that one night she took off and never came back. I guess it was only a matter of time.

So that is my experience with women who have really lost their minds. I worked there for less than a year. Kara, on the other hand has worked in the field for years. She has a lot more stories to tell -- not all of them sad, either. I guess that's how you know you're in the right place. If stories about your day are mixed with perplexity and clarity, sadness and funniness, complaints and gratitude, challenges and confidence, then you are probably doing something right.

I wish I had tried harder at my job in the group home. In contrast, the mentally women tried hard to live as they had before losing their minds. They'd call their husband or old friend. They'd adopt kittens from the pound. But the husband was reluctant to see his wife and the friendship was on different terms. And there was the worry, when the kittens grew up and got scratched in an alley fight, that they had "mad cat" disease. Living like before was impossible.

At the end of the day, the woman couldn't say, "I thought helicopters were chasing me today," because she thought they were still chasing her. The women couldn't get out of the stories they were living long enough to tell the tales. And yet, they knew there was a tragic tale to tell. To me, it was the ultimate tragedy.

3 Comments:

Anonymous mom said...

I was happy you left that job to teach english. I always thought it was depressing. Now, I'm glad you left English to write - it makes me happy!!

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peggy VanDyke sent me this site. I am so glad. I have really missed reading your work in the Wednesday. I'm sure you have no idea what good your work did for those women. I have found that we will never know what effect we have on others. The little I have been around you as an adult, I know that your smile and your touch must have brought many moments of comfort to them. It has to our family. Glad that we have to opportunity to read you again. When you win those big awards, try to remember us little people that knew you when…. Vicki Silverman

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peggy VanDyke sent me this site. I am so glad. I have really missed reading your work in the Wednesday. Glad that we have to opportunity to read you again. When you win those big awards, try to remember us little people that knew you when….
I'm sure you have no idea what good your work did for those women. I have found that we will never know what effect we have on others. The little I have been around you as an adult, I know that your smile and your touch must have brought many moments of comfort and happiness to them. It has to our family. Vicki Silverman

7:33 AM  

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