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.
I was hurting. It wasn’t the only emotion I was feeling or even the strongest but it was there, nagging at me; an annoyingly persistent hangnail in my soul, taunting me in the back of my mind. The weather wasn’t helping with its clouds heavy with unspilled rain lingering above as I drove the ten miles to what promised to be a long shift full of me biting my tongue through twelve hours of political discussion.
I’m not sure why everything decided to crash in on me this morning. Sure, I have had a long tumultuous stretch in my life, but the good has far outweighed the bad and the opportunities abounded in ways that I never saw coming. Still, emotions don’t always work in logical ways and I just felt so…tired. So uncertain of everything.
Leave it at the door, Alice. It wouldn’t do to simply plaster a smile on my face, keep an upbeat tone of voice. No. What I have discovered throughout my years in this field is that what those within my care lack in physical ability they make up for in emotional awareness. This has especially been true in private care, where we spend so much time together one on one. I can’t just fake it. My client would call me on it. I took a deep breath before I unlocked the door and made a silent list of all I had in my life for which to be grateful and got to work.
I thought I was doing well. I really did. I honestly believed that I had worked my way through that vague nagging malaise that invaded my spirit this morning. Blood sugar. Morning meds. Breakfast. Wash-up. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. My mind unconsciously chanted as my hands moved by muscle memory.
“What’s wrong, Alice?”, the words cut through my repetitive thoughts. To my shock and horror, I felt tears well up in my eyes.
“Nothing. Everything. I can’t really tell at the moment.”, I answered honestly.
“Oh. I have days like that.”, my client replied. And suddenly I felt a little better. Suddenly I felt less alone with my troubles and I was able to regroup.
We caregivers have to compartmentalize so much. It’s just part of the gig. Our client’s and residents have so much to deal with we never want to add to their troubles by carrying our own into the work place. Leave it at the door. It’s hard for me to shut that off sometimes; that dissection of my own emotions in order to function better for those around me…that minimization of my own concerns.
It’s been a process for me to learn how and when to let down those walls and sometimes I still miss the mark. Still, today my client showed me that it was nice for her to be reminded that she wasn’t just being helped and comforted. She was able to help and comfort me as well.