A Vacation Day for a Schizophrenic:
Fifteen years ago, I remember hearing a psychiatrist who had just been away for two weeks say, “There is no such thing as a vacation when you are schizophrenic!” As an unlicensed professional vying to get a staff position on the unit, I had carefully avoided rolling my eyes. I had politely nodded my head as though it had been a thoughtful thing to say.
This year’s weekend of April 1st, my wife supports me in insisting that we take a vacation day. She packs up her hybrid SUV with camping materials and when I finish my Friday commute, we hit the interstate headed north. We plan to camp and hike at the Kings Range on the Lost Coast in Humboldt County, but we know even before we sift through the remains of the Bay Area traffic, there’s no way we are going to make it the whole way.
We make it to the city of Ukiah and drive until we find a Safeway. I am about ready to drop as we load our shit into the front of the car and depart to hit the restroom. We pass the panhandlers and the no camping sign and I start to stress about the possibility that the security will force us to move on in the middle of the night.
“Don’t worry about it my boobie,” says my wife.
I look into the eyes of a particular panhandler and hate our privilege. There sure are a significant amount of late night shoppers who are finishing their long weeks. I ponder the meaning of it all over the urinal. After we regroup, we steal into the back of the SUV.
We hit our exit in Garberville the next morning before seven am. Throughout the drive, I have processed aspects of my week and history. My wife has been sharing too. I hear about an upcoming trip; house projects she still needs to accomplish; artistic visual displays she might create to soothe anxiety-driven migraines; and many assorted details pertaining to family, her nieces, and her gardening jobs. I most definitely dominate the discourse, but she is supportive and relates to my sense of strife.
As we exit the highway beneath a beaming blue sky we follow signs to Shelter Cove and end up on a country road that is surrounded by lush spring grasses. There is no shoulder and only an occasional gravel pull out. Rundown tweaker properties mix with farm gates with video surveillance. We pass a couple men putting up a thick wooden fence that appears sturdier than the ghost town we just passed a few minutes ago and we ascend the switchbacks of the first of a series of significantly wooded ridges.
By the time we’re driving on the dirt road, we pass a campground and hit an intersection. Then, we leave the flat behind and ascend eroding, mud-gauged switch backs that make my wife progressively uncomfortable to the point where she wants to turn around.
“No, that isn’t a good turnaround,” I suggest, “There isn’t enough room. Keep driving.”
My wife intones her voice, “Now may have passed our only choice. We have got to turn around now!”
At the next switchback we turn around and retrace out steps to the last switchback where we manage to park out of harm’s way. I mimic my wife’s tone in exaggerated falsetto manner. She laughs but quite seriously stands by her decision to park the car.
We make a lunch and boot up and before long we are walking up the steep grade our SUV couldn’t make.
When my mind settles into the hike, I ponder the issues that my client’s face.
One of my clients recently shared with me that a corner boy sold her some bunk weed. It was supposed to have the buds in it so that it would be strong so she confronted the seller about the price and quality who turned around and threatened to kill her.
Many of the people I work with have spent half of their lives bouncing from the streets to jail, to the hospital and back. They are used to scraps and neglected facilities. You might think they are used to being threatened. But still a threat is a threat.
At some unlicensed board and care homes they may settle into, it is not uncommon to be bullied. Big clients might be solicited to work as a thug. I have heard that some board and care workers lay claims to their violent pasts to maintain order. Over the years I have heard the most ridiculous sorts of abuses you can imagine.
I have learned my lessons painfully that advising this person to call the police is not an option on this occasion. I now use discernment before contacting the police or APS to investigate abuse. Believing in and respecting the realities of street-life is key to supporting anyone through. I struggle but remind myself being a concerned ear, and reminding her to avoid the d-boy is the best I can do.
At least I respect her belief that she is a religious figure and learn more about how it is true.
Like the psychiatrist, I have come to realize that smoking weed and tobacco may be the only vacation many schizophrenic peoples get. I know many who are afraid to go outside the smoking areas of their homes. I would love to have all my clients accompany us out here, but their work with me does not entitle them to an SUV and a day off. It sure took me a long time to get here, I think.
When we get back to the car four hours later, we decide to leave the Lost Coast instead of take a treacherous road down to a favorite hiking zone.
Back on the interstate, we take an exit and find that the road we need to reach the coast has been washed out. Instead, we find a vacant campground where we can use our credit card, set up our tent, cook some dinner, and retire for the day. We settle into a stupid slapstick movie. Somehow Bill Murray’s flat a deadpan face is funny and entertaining as he intermingles in a caper with government spies and corruption. I can never understand how he pulls it off.
Traipsing off to sleep I retrace our steps of the day. My mind falls back into hiking down that mountain road when I had remembered studying the whaling industry in fifth grade. I had remembered a private-school-trip to Mystic Seaport during which we had walked through the hull of a restored whaling ship. I had contrasted the packed in crew’s quarters as opposed to the luxury of the captain’s quarters.
I have never done well with the contrast. My whole life I have had this inexplicable hostility for the captain seething through my veins to the rhythm of the old Ranzo-Me-Boys work-ballad. It did not bode well for my relations with my landholding family. I’d thought about how family member after family member tried to quell my stance on the matter and how alienated I have become.
My wife and I met too late in life to have kids. I’d strained financially to stay independent and understand dating regulations. Perhaps I should have just let myself get kissed-rich, but I didn’t understand. When I was in high school my room was converted to a study before I even graduated because I had opted to move out early.
While I work quite well with the crew back on the ward, my work has earned me a 1000 square foot, well-tended captain’s quarters at the end of a commute, not to mention the SUV and vacation day. I am reminded of my own contradictions.
The next morning, we travel about five minutes down the interstate and pass a sign that says, “Mendocino Wilderness Area, 42 miles.”
We follow a maze of rivers, some flowing in different directions. It’s another bright blue day and groves of trees and carved hills intersperse themselves just off the road. Low growth fenced-in green pastures dominate. I find myself needing to pull over frequently as raging large trucks seem to travel this route very fast.
Then, I get that familiar sense that I am being tailed. I look in my rear view mirror and sure enough there is a state trooper behind us in a beefy vehicle. I look for a turnout. It takes a while. I can almost sense he is running my plates.
It’s been about seventeen years since I’ve recognized these feelings. For two and a half years they dominated my life.
When a turnout finally arrives, I let the trooper pass and he does so reluctantly at first and then with quite a bit of speed.
I always wonder what is on my dossier that cops pull up.
“One time we had a patient come here saying that the FBI was following him,” my psychiatrist at Montana State Hospital had said. “And he was right, they were. He hadn’t done anything bad, but he was a person of interest.”
I had waited two months to finally get a meeting with this old hag who had the power to commit me for an additional nine months. I didn’t trust her enough to ask her if she was referencing me. But I sure though she was. I had a lot of reason to think this. And in the following two years in which I struggled to find work, I endured cop searches and opened mail and many signs that I was being looked at. I was a renegade, blacklisted revolutionary—a vigilante press-alerting pigeon. It’s just that no one believed me. All that attention for little old me, and now, I am afraid to go to even so much as a mainstream protest.
We arrive at the town or Quinto, which is a Native American reservation. We pass the tribal police headquarters and find a small outpost store where I pull in.
Sure enough, there are souvenir shirts that say, “Homeland Security since 1492” with a picture of traditionally dressed native peoples. But mostly the store is there for the locals. There are a plethora of cheap toys for the kids, a help-your-self pile of DVDs to rent or buy and about five isles of your basic food necessities. The store is empty accept for us. The owner, a gaunt, wrinkled Caucasian-looking woman, gets off the phone we ask her about hiking trails.
The woman talks to us a while. She explains that the road to Interstate 505 doesn’t open up in this season because of snow in the mountain pass, so we will have to retrace our steps to 101.
“Yes, you have to worry about straying onto private property around here,” she replies. “People end up dead around these parts for the dumbest reasons.”
A few Native American woman enter the store timidly to buy smokes and the woman takes a minute to ring them up.
An angry blonde white woman streams in saying some kind words to the owner. She buys some hotdogs and I follow her outside while my wife waits to complete a modest, respectful purchase we want to make to thank the owner.
I start by trying to make friends with the old skin and bones dog that is working on a hotdog.
“Don’t interrupt him while he’s eating she says.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re right,” I say. “She reminds me a little of my dog who passed away this year.”
“There is nothing sweeter that this old dog the white woman explains, but you can see how timid he is. His owners are tweakers and his life is full of random senseless violence. They don’t even feed him. I just do what I can to help out.”
“I know what you mean,” I say wondering if I sound as genuine as I feel.
My wife and the store owner join us and the blonde woman continues, “In fact, no one would care if you just took that old guy away from here. I was just telling him,” she adds to the store owner, “that we would all be happy because his owners do not take care of him.”
The store owners offers her endorsement of the scheme. We talk for a while.
“Think about what I said,” says the angry white woman about her life and dog.
Down the road a patch we stop at the Ranger Station we had been told about. There is a woman ranger in hiking boots who is gardening when we pull in. She looks wildly offended by our presence until my wife emerges from our black SUV and warms her up.
She insists on inviting us in to show us a map of her favorite hiking spot. I stop and pet well-fed friendly dog.
“I’m from Idaho,” she volunteers.
“I’m from New Jersey,” I counter.
“Yes, this time of year you see the cartels come through here,” she explains, but you’ll be safe if you stay on the trail.
“In this county, you can see nature everywhere you look,” she adds, “but you just can’t get out into it.”
I think of the conference I presented at in San Diego earlier in the year. I met a tribe from Oregon in a workshop who told their very disturbing efforts to get clean, recover from prison terms/recidivism, and address the generational trauma of their heritage. I had never heard such powerful and vulnerable stories. Many of them broke down and cried describing their transition away from thug-life. I could not have respected their efforts more. And I work with this recovery stuff on a daily basis.
The Idaho woman gives us the most detailed directions you could imagine. I think, wow, any idiot could follow these directions. She is really heady. She even supports my wife who fears the treacherous off-road we’ll have to take.
We all talk about how relieved we are that the state is decriminalizing cannabis and how it will translate into better economic opportunities and less violence for the tribe.
“I am a mental health counselor who works on the streets of Oakland,” I explain.
“Oh, so your accustomed to all this,” she says. “Yeah, my sister is bipolar. She self-medicates. And you don’t want to be around her unless she is high on cannabis.”
It takes us a long time to find the trail head. We take a wrong turn mistakenly follow the map twenty miles into the reservation before I realize what a fool I am. We don’t make the trail head until two o’clock. We scarf some food and get to it as fast as we can to alieve my angst. Really it’s not much different than your typical Sunday when I spend my time writing to process and heal my week and then have to charge to get into the woods before I explode.
We follow a single track trail through a thoroughly burned woodlands for an hour and fifteen minutes until the trail becomes so untended that my back starts to get activated climbing over fallen trees. It’s a miraculous, beautiful experience especially if you like to be reminded of the pending apocalypse.
On the way back, I spot a supped up black Jeep standing on a side road just as we are reentering the reservation. I can see a CB radio antennae and note that the vehicle waits for us to drive first. Like I had with the cop car earlier, I get the sense my plates are being ran and in a few minutes the Jeep thunders past our speed limit pace. I tell my wife, “It’s good we aren’t part of a gang. That interaction was a little thug-like.”
We return to the interstate and after we pick up gas, we find a popular hamburger stand in the town of Willits that even has a special for veggie burgers. As we sit in small town Americana, I get a call from my Mom.
“I was just reading your book,” my Mom said. “I am at the part where you are in Fresno and you just talked to the detective. I was scared, and I just wanted to give you a call.”
When I published for the first time two years ago, I was desperate for feedback. Usually, I can’t find anybody to read what I write. I have always been too cowardly to publish my work. Now, in spite of marketing efforts, I am still thirsting in the desert when it comes to getting feedback.
“I tried to recapture the perspective I had at the time,” I stammer once again.
“No, I don’t find your work offensive,” my Mom says. “I think you really did a good job putting the reader right there in the moment.”
“Thanks,” I say, “That means so much to me to hear you say that!”
I talk on about how I can manage everything I went through when I am on medication. “In fact I just experienced similar experiences traveling to a Native American reservation. I do every day at work,” I say.
I feel like a bumbling fool on the phone with my Mom. I am talking to her like I have never talked about this with her before. But she is being very strong for me here and it is clearly a moment of healing between us.
After the burger we head west on a road heading for Fort Bragg and the coast. There is a huge elevation gain and many switchbacks filling forest with asphalt. As we descend we enter a coastal pine grove woodland and there are clearly hiking trails surrounding us.
Before we stop for the night, I find myself thinking about what the psychiatrist said on my unit some fifteen years ago: about schizophrenics and vacations. I think about how I have fought for years to build up economic empowerment so I could have a wife, an SUV, and a day off. Often it was years on end without a day off to make ends meet. Often it was twelve to sixteen hour days in order to attain credential and licensure. I think how this started out a choice when I was seventeen and became a necessity.
It is extremely devastating to catch a schizophrenic case, lose everything that you own and then to have to escape the street life that suddenly envelops you. I took me two-and-a-half years of hell to get it together enough to get blessed with a good job.
In this day and age the earth is getting scorched beneath us! I am here, preparing to take a mental health day as a schizophrenic. Tomorrow my crew will be at work on the institutional corridor with some of the old bubbled windows still intact. I will wake up in a rundown trailer park. I will find that the public bathroom to be wrecked like the ones I’ve seen in public section 8 housing authorities and Oakland’s single-room occupancy hotels. We will drive into a posh vacation town for an overpriced cup of coffee. Then we will drive from park to park looking for hiking trails. Through miles and miles of farms and wilderness on thinnest of roads, we will find, just like the ranger on the reservation said: that there will be nature everywhere we look, but that we just won’t be able to get out into it. We even drive across a hot springs resort, enter its fence in search of a map, and find a group of shirtless white men on an LSD trip midst couples, gravel, stench and steam. We will end up finding only a small system of hiking trails only in the city of Ukiah that was built by Arnold Schwarzenegger. We will explore the trails and side trails to the point where we find local homeless encampments with the piles of water-logged cardboard beer logos spewed everywhere.
I will forever be struck with seething survivor’s guilt that the good people I work for are not free to enjoy these experiences with me. I will think how they seem to be forever sailing on our society’s ship of fools, deprived, intimidated, humiliated, and straining to make it from smoke to smoke. Meanwhile, society criminalizes every move they make from the inner-city ghettos to the reservations. Every day the law will bear down on them harder leaving them with less and less, lest there be another mass-shooting incident.
Maybe the psychiatrist was right after all! Maybe there is no such thing as a vacation for a schizophrenic. But I am just not sure if he and the rest of mainstream society knows what it really feels like to see the world in this way.