I stared numbly at the words that my mind refused to comprehend. Missing man, thirty, found dead in the creek wearing only his underwear. He was just a kid. And suddenly I was filled with such a moment of fury and heartbreak that it took all that I had in me not to pick up the nearest item and throw it through the window. HE WAS JUST A KID!
People who make snap judgements will look at the grainy photo that went along with the article and make false and hurtful assumptions. Probably another junkie. One less drain on the system. He must have been doing something…and then dismiss it from their minds. In that moment I was filled with a rage that such people cast down opinions from the lofty heights of their moral smugness without knowing the first thing about the person or his story.
He was one of my residents several years ago. I remember how shocked I was that someone in his early twenties and physically healthy landed in an assisted living facility. His roommate was more than fifty years older than him and unwell. I thought that there must be a better place for him, more suited to his needs. A safe place where he can be around people his own age with similar challenges and make friends and have a better quality of life. I didn’t consider at the time that deep cuts to the mental health care budget robbed him and many others like him of a better option. There are no long term treatment centers for those living with mental disabilities. He never complained, though. Never once did I hear him say a negative thing about anyone or anything.
He had the mind of a child, but he also had the heart of a child. He was a big guy. To look at him, you wouldn’t think he was so gentle a spirit. You wouldn’t know that he was the first one to help a feisty old lady get down the hall in her wheelchair; just about the only person she would LET help her. You wouldn’t know that he’d give the shirt off his back to a friend. I used to worry about him being taken advantage of by some of my other residents until I realized how much he got from being able to help another. He was kind and he was lonely but he had a good sense of humor and the moments I could coax a smile from him reminded me why I was in this field.
And then one day he was gone. People move from facility to facility or back home to their family with little to no warning. I’ve gotten used to quick adjustments. Old residents move and new ones show up just as suddenly. I didn’t see him for a few years after that, but everyone who has ever been in my care has left an imprint in my life and every now and then I would wonder how he was getting along. Then one day last year, I saw for myself.
On sat nights, I volunteer at a behavioral health center. And there he was! In the support group! Now, the meeting I bring in is completely voluntary so I always feel hopeful when the clients in that short term center choose to come to it. I’m able to offer some numbers and resources that can get them on a path to wellness at least. I feel like I can bring them a little hope, but if I am being honest with myself, I could tell he was not looking so good. He was every bit as kind in that setting as he was when he was living at the facility… but his smile seemed haunted, his eyes looked sad and he appeared way too thin. After the meeting, I gave him a gigantic hug and told him to take care of himself. To talk to his case manager. That I loved him to pieces and that everybody missed him. He smiled and waved as he walked back to his unit. I wish I had taken five minutes to get him some phone numbers. He didn’t ask for any and maybe he wouldn’t have used them if I had, but I wish I tried.
That was the last time I saw him alive.
I want to tell him I’m sorry. I am so sorry that you died in such a way. You deserved so much better. I’m sorry that people failed you and had failed you most of your life. I’m sorry you weren’t protected the way you should have been or encouraged and given the opportunities that so many take for granted. I’m sorry I rushed out after that meeting rather than stay and talk with you for a few more minutes. I’m sorry that cuts to mental health funding and Goddamn politics played a part in the untimely death of such a good kid. I’m sorry there was no one to whom you could reach out and that you fell through the cracks of the systems designed to protect you time and time and time again. I hope part of you knew that you were not alone. I will not forget you, my friend.
Throw me in the trenches. Put me in the most challenging situations; places that no one in their right mind would stay for any length of time. Throw me into a household where the family’s ideals are vastly different than my own and my client’s husband needs almost as much care as she does. Let it be a reminder to me that we are all more than one thing and I don’t pick the traits or opinions of those within my care. My job is to foster their independence, not to dictate what that should look like.
Surround me with those who have lived so long believing that they were broken that they have lost hope so that I can remind them of who they are beyond their disorder.
While it’s true that I have my moments when I wistfully wonder what it would be like to work in a well run facility where everyone is treated well from the residents on up or for an agency without the complications that arise from being an independent home caregiver solely responsible for setting my own work boundaries, I know in my heart of hearts that is not where I am meant to be…at least for now.
I cut my teeth in caregiving in a facility on which I later blew the whistle. It was there that I saw the deep flaws in the Long Term Care system. It was there that I learned the value and depth to be found in our field. It was through trying to improve that particular facility that I realized that the problems were much bigger than one place and that creating real and lasting change would be a marathon, not a sprint. It was through my journey into private care that I was forced to set work boundaries. It’s given me the freedom to really explore the depth in which good quality care can impact not just my client but also her family. There are times when the long hours in a small environment with only my client and her husband test my patience, but it has also strengthened my ability to redirect and listen on a deeper level. It has forced me to think outside of what I know in order to be a better and more effective caregiver.
The truth is I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to be so far removed from the problems that I forget why I began this journey in the first place. So, for now, I choose to stay in the trenches. It’s where I can do the most good. Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. Some can’t see the trees for the forest. I see the forest and I will spend my life in a variety of ways and levels trying to improve it, but I must never forget that it is the individual trees that make up the forest who inspired in me the will to fight in the first place.