I unlock the door to the institution’s finest office. A doctor’s name is inscribed on a linoleum slide that changes every few years. I press the darkened door smudge on the off-white paint job that dominates the unit. The door swings open. I invite Eugene’s cousin in.
Eugene’s cousin sits in the cushioned seat that matched the last dirty rug. The soot spattered on the outside of the window blocks the sun’s stream. She missed my eulogy. She depicts her challenges in finding the right freeway.
I had been up In the ER waiting room anxiously reviewing what I had to say about Eugene in front of the community. When I finally gave up on her, I had to rush back and make the memorial service happen. Somehow, I doubt it was an honest mistake to have missed the community event.
Eugene’s cousin announces has brought pictures and starts positioning them on the wobbly table.
I know that if I do my job, she will leave feeling just a bit of the guilt that I feel.
Eugene could have been given treatment that could have saved him. People do rehab and come back from strokes. The nursing home had reached out to the cousin repeatedly, I had been reassured. There had been no response.
“As usual,” I explain, scanning the pictures on the table, “many community members had listened to my eulogy understanding well the importance of acknowledging the passing.”
In reality many had strained to get a facial recognition of Eugene.
“As you know, Eugene is very quiet. Many were surprised and lifted to hear the complex details of his life and his miraculous turn around . . .
Eugene had spent years amidst the chronic, room 2, crowd. He’d talk to the therapist and answer stupid questions, but he was hard to really get to know.
As I continue to speak, I feel the strongest sense of grief. There has been staff turnaround due to the threat of closure amid the Trump era financial crisis that’s hit urban cities. The sense of sprawling tent encampments that surround us overwhelms me. It feels like Eugene and his legacy will close and be so easily forgotten.
When I first started on the unit, it was hard to reach anyone in room 2. The prescribed topics of illness management and functional skills were the only direction and support I was given to solve the complex phenomena of schizophrenia.
Company managers used to say that our clients would never get any better. I vehemently objected to that mentality, and I also was very worried about job security. As long as I wrote meaningful notes, I could survive.
The first time I went in there, one of Eugene’s peers had screamed, “BUZZARDS.” There was wild laughter, and some moaning. Amidst the lonely groaning and drool going on, I had a list of questions about recovery with which to work. I just didn’t know what to do except persist.
Over time, conversing with the three or four loud personalities in the group putting out disjointed content, I’d learn that the one who yelled, “BUZZARDS” thought he was an aristocrat. The aristocrat was light skinned African American man in a porkpie hat with gums instead of dentures.
Eugene would just sit in silence next to him while he talked throwing his head and his eyes back in repetitive manner. He called this “play acting” or “just acting crazy.” He would tell me he did it because he had nothing to lose. He wasn’t really crazy.
Meanwhile, loud personalities would have creative moments of clarity. For example, I once made sure one of the aristocrat’s quotes made it into the community magazine I put together: “Some days I feel like I am somewhere between a giblet and a human being,”
As per the “BUZZARDS!” comment I always knew there was meaning to it, but it’d take time to learn to come out of my shell and really get down with it.
Of course, the buzzard in the room was me. I was feeding off the dead and decrepit. Indeed, with the salary I was making, I would be able to go from nothing to having the down payment for a bay area house.
One day I would have the confidence to start cawing like a crow. I’d caw like a crow and circle the room until I got close to the aristocrat. Then, I’d simulate getting shot straight in the heart. Then, I’d fall until I laid flat on the floor beneath him and abreact a slow and painful death. It was the only appropriate response.
I still remember the aristocrat’s laugh the first time I pulled something like this. The laugh would happen periodically at the oddest of moments, “HA-HA!”
At least when I finally got down with him, the laugh happened at the appropriate moment. Over time I did manage to understand. The aristocrat was an aristocrat. An aristocrat and a philosopher.
Still, Eugene didn’t have time for these kinds of antics. He would just give you straight forward and stale answers.
I had a few years to onboard before I officially carried Eugene on my caseload.
Our first meeting, Eugene said, “I want to purchase a book to read with the solution to schizophrenia in it. I had a box filled with haphazardly xeroxed recovery materials I’d gleaned off the internet. I shuffled through it until I found the Patricia Deegan article introducing the hearing voices network in Europe. There was a book recommendation at the bottom I explained.
It took us a while but we sent away for it through snail mail. It was a good effort but it never arrived.
One day we were sitting in doctor’s office. It was the end of the session and Eugene exclaimed, “I see alien green!” They were the last words I’d hear from him for years.
Unlike a few of the colleagues who have come and gone over the years, I insisted in keeping weekly appointments with muted Eugene. Instead of talking we walked.
He was an extremely fast and aggressive walker. I ran ten miles on Saturday and hiked twenty miles every Sunday vying to meet a soul mate; yet, I could barely keep up.
As the muted walks continued, I would try one-way comments to connect with him. I would ask if he saw any objects as we walked that were signs of alien surveillance. I would point out things I saw that could be signs of surveillance. I let him lead.
It took me a while to develop these kinds of connection techniques. We did a lot of silent walks.
When Eugene had a housing crisis, I did some research and found an odd doctor named Bassard who had a board and care that was off in the Hayward foothills. There was reportedly a lot of space out there to walk.
His dutiful case worker in West Oakland had told me he used to lead Sierra Club backpacking trips in his younger years. She sometimes talked to his aunt who would pick him up and take him Christmas shopping for his nieces and nephews who lived in undisclosed location. The aunt might be how she found out about his secret life as a backpacker.
Doctor Bassard’s board and care seemed to be a good fit for a while.
One day after our walk Eugene sat with me and explained that he used to work in a print shop, the hardest kind of physical labor there was. He reported that he was the hardest worker and would often demonstrate his superiority to the other workers. He didn’t give a fuck!
The next thing I heard from Eugene was that he was thinking about going to the Alameda County Fair. Then I’d hear about Christmas shopping with his aunt.
I’d learn that he had been a drug and alcohol counselor early on. When he’d gotten married and had his son, he switched to the print shop to increase his income.
His mom had been, “nuts.” The daughter of a famous Irish protestant radio preacher and artist. In fitful rages she would accuse Eugene of being a spy for the Irish Republican Army and beat him. His father was a roofer and (according to Eugene) a bit of a slacker. He supported the mother and later Eugene through the years of madness
Growing up, Eugene’s peers would tease him because his Mom was “nuts.” He learned to hang out with the druggies even though he refused to use. Thus, the drug and alcohol job.
I learned much of this far later in my tenure when Eugene returned to treatment.
We took a walk before he got taken to jail on assault charges. It had been a return to the mute days. He littered. Sensing his ire, I hadn’t corrected him. There was a can on the hospital grounds and he smashed it with his foot. I hadn’t done anything . . .
His roommates had been constantly stealing his food at Bassard’s. They were largely unmonitored. Eugene’s efforts to fix this were not supported by the strange doctor.
Throughout I was volunteering after work for my child and family hours. Finally, I passed the exams. I managed to meet my soul mate and collect enough for down payment on a house.
I heard about an expensive group curriculum for psychosis developed by Patricia Deegan. Me being the arrogant cheapskate that I am I decided to develop my own. Thus, I started running psychoses focus groups for years developing a curriculum.
By the time Eugene was referred back to our program, I had left my job for a year and a half, but been permitted to return when the new job hadn’t worked out.
This time Eugene was staying at McClure’s board and care home, one of the best licensed board and care in town. His trusty case manager advocated for him.
Eugene was mandated to complete our five day a week PHP program by the board a care facility. Turns out all he had done was gotten angry about taking his medication on day and slammed a door. Now, the hospital could make a lot of money off him.
The hospital had erected world class facilities but left its historic psych ward with bubbled windows (our unit) alone. No longer could we go out and sit by the trash compacter and watch the men work. Walks were no longer easily accessible.
Eugene and his peers had to weave through the historic backwards, passing the freshly built shower facilities for doctors, the hole-in-the-wall medical records department, down a flight of stairs and down and then around the substance abuse ward to find the sunlight. Then they had to walk down a sizeable hill all the way down to the sidewalk to smoke.
Everyday in community meeting they would be reminded that tickets for smoking were eight hundred dollars, the same price as their monthly SSDI checks.
Eugene was one of the few remaining room 2 clients who obeyed these daily threats. He’d be known to skip the last group and stay down on the sidewalk smoking.
By the time he had sat through two days of PHP which was four groups with the same small group of people who were just out of the hospital, he was fuming. When I sat down with him for the second time, I knew I had to do something.
Board and care homes have no legal right to mandate treatment, but they can kick Eugene out for misconduct. When he half way expressed the reason he was fuming, I could see how right he was.
Luckily the clinical manager who hated me was out for the day. I went straight to the director who had been around as long as I had. I made the appeal. I kept it simple, but was compelling enough.
I reported to Eugene that he could come just two days a week as he’d requested.
“See, what happened to me was that I leaked a suspicious death to the newspapers. I was afraid thuging residents I knew at the section 8 complex where I worked would find out.
“I sought consult from my best college friend back east, an ex-drug addict. He warned me not to leave town, he had the power to find me.
“Had he set me up to take a fall? That’s what I started thinking.
“I tried to escape to Canada and they put me in a State Hospital for three months. I was discharged to the streets and I took a Trailways to California.
“Turns out the only job I could get was arranged by my family at an Italian Delicatessen. I had to move to the outskirts of the bay area, bike ten miles and take the rails an hour to get to the job. Everyday I was followed on my way to and from the job and no one believed me.
I had told my story as such a million times in the psychoses focus group. If I hadn’t done so repeatedly, I would not have been able to even articulate secrets so raw. But I had a lot of practice and gotten a lot of support from participants who loved and advocated for my group.
“I don’t think your family is really an Irish mafia family!” exclaimed Eugene. Sure, enough he had tracked the details. His words gutted me as brutally as possible. “I don’t think you were really followed on your way to the Italian Delicatessen. I think those are paranoid delusions!”
I remained cool as a cucumber in hot sauce. Experience had prepared me for this moment. I spoke softly and peacefully . . .
“One day at the BART station, a man I knew well from the section 8 housing authority in Seattle Washington walked past me with handcuffs and a shirt that read “CIA.” He sat across from me and stared at me the whole ride. He had told me he killed people.
I answered a few questions: “yes, I knew for a fact he had been busted for impersonating a CIA officer in the past;” “yes, I knew that for a fact because I had read his file as a social worker;” yes, I ignored him;” “yes, it was just another day for me.”
Eugene’s questions were intelligent ones!
“Then there was the day I came home and my apartment was trashed. My kitty litter had been slashed and emptied over the carpeted floor; my belongings had been taken out of my closet; and the labels of my clothes had been slashed with a knife. When I went to the managers office to complain, this woman I had met before was there. She had flashed her official secret service badge at me. She told me that my uncle had entered my apartment and had the right to do so because he had co-signed on the apartment.
I paused. I was afraid Eugene wouldn’t follow the very real details I shared with him.
“Yeah, I had the secret service follow me once as well,” admitted Eugene. “One time I tried to escape to Canada myself.”
“Yes, Eugene started talking,” said his case manager. “I think he did so because he finally met someone to whom he could relate.” I could feel the social worker smiling as she acknowledged me. “I think now he has hope for recovery.”
Eugene and I had a lot of good years of talking and relating. I used to go down and have sessions with him on the sidewalk. Eventually, he started coming to see me in the office during the third group.
When I finally get to the place where I tell the cousin about how I had cracked Eugene’s case, to her credit she shifts to trying to help me grieve smoothly.
Listening to her stories is nice. She tells me about cheerful parts of Eugene: his generosity to his family and to his fellow peers at the board and care. I choose to keep a picture of Eugene with her husband, a stout Irish musician, as they shared a cigar with a smile.
Her stories help me see that when he started to tell me about cooperating and sharing TV with his roommates that we really had accomplished something. Previously he’d just talked about walking up to Berkeley to go to a doughnut shop.
The cousin tells me about how they used to visit him at the board and care home in the inner-city with gifts and that by the time they had left they would see those gifts getting sold in a garage sale at the neighbors’ yard. It must have filled them with so much guilt to see what he was going through in contrast to them.
When I was in the State Hospital, the few belongings I had to my name were constantly stolen. For Eugene, living like that was a life sentence.
Eugene had learned more about the mental illness of schizophrenia, than he’d learned about the hidden world of recovery.
In our treatment, I’d finally gave him a book with the solution to schizophrenia. I wrote it. It was my memoir.
When my mother told family acquaintances what had happened to me on my way to Canada, everybody we knew, she was sure to tell me, cursed the closings of the institutions in the eighties. They were trying to sooth her. They didn’t want her to have to enable-me any longer.
My life ended in the folklore of the Christmas Card.
Sure, I have had some mainstream accomplishments that could be cited. Sure, the community of people I once knew could stand to learn about the reality of mental illness in the U.S.
But alas, my achievements only become embarrassing reminders of the word that defines me to everyone with whom I grew up, schizophrenia. Some days it feels like that word defines me to almost every one I once knew.
Once, when I credited my Mom that investing three thousand dollars in a car for me, I was trying to honor her support. I said that it was the main thing that enabled me to recover.
Her words were, “I shouldn’t have purchased you that car!”
When I published my award-winning memoir, my grandmother’s dying words to me (who she couldn’t recognize) was that the book made the family look bad.
A relative wrote a bad review. Another made a salty, veiled-in-a-compliment criticism. The whole Clan ignored me at the family reunion.
Eugene in contrast sacrificed himself for his family. That is somehow more admirable in our shared cultural heritage.
Sure, Eugene and I talked openly about aliens. He’d explain that he could feel implants obsessively on his brain. I think they were caused by ongoing voices about which he never did get to the point where he’d share.
Sure, he’d talk about the very common experience of being able to transition into different dimensions of reality. He could tell because the board and care rats he’s seen skittering across the floor suddenly disappear into thin air. Finally, he told me about his relative with Top Sec clearance for NASA.
Neither of us suffered for the sharing of these details. We didn’t become worse or traumatize each other. No, we formed a valuable allegiance that enabled him to have relationships with others.
True, this only happened because I broke all the rules and shared with him what many would consider to be delusions about my brush with the underworld and Italian Mafia.
Sure, he died before he could start up his business or take the stained-glass, art class he wanted to take. I almost got him to pay for an art class at one point.
It’s true I wasn’t so committed to him that I would quit my day job and help him come back from his stroke.
So, when the cousin leaves the hospital, I think she feels some of the guilt I felt when I drove across town with cards and letters after work only to learn that he expired. As she leaves the hospital, she expresses a little upset that I only accepted one picture of Eugene that she had collected. I sure hadn’t realized she would feel that way.
But as I say goodbye, I still hope for the best for the cousin and Eugene’s family who accepted his gifts at Christmas and never reached back. I call his son with the phone number the cousin gave me, but never hear back. I still call my mother weekly and vie for a less hurtful relationship.
Still. I hope and pray that the fact that Eugene and I were finally able to work together gave him a sense of peace and that he may rest from the torment of that damned word we use to bill for services, schizophrenia.