Friday, October 14, 2011

Context can create understanding

            There are actions that people describe as “crazy” that really aren’t as crazy as they seem.  Rather than saying what someone is doing is crazy, I often start with, “I don’t understand what that person is doing or why they are doing it.”  The action, in and of itself, is most often neutral. When we call it crazy there is a judgment attached that may or may not be true.

The Story
The first calls started about eight thirty in the morning. The initial call was from a friend of a friend who was driving through a small town about seven miles from Ithaca. “There’s a guy walking down the road with a yak. He’s got it on a rope like a dog on a leash and he’s got a big dumb smile on his face. I thought you should know.” I often got calls like this; updates on unusual happenings where someone saw something and they just needed to call someone. The next call was from the lone officer on duty in the town. He was running radar on the edge of town when he noticed an unfamiliar sight in his rearview mirror. “This knucklehead is walking up behind me with the strangest animal I’ve ever seen. I got out of my car and waved him over to the sidewalk. It turns out that he was at the livestock auction at the other end of town and bought a cow or steer or something called a Scottish Highlander. Damn thing has horns that are about six feet wide, and hair like bigfoot. When I asked him what he was doing with it, he said he was going to go to Ithaca and set up a petting zoo. He didn’t have ID or anything except a receipt for the cow. I called the Sheriff’s department and they knew him. His name is Keith Taylor. He’s been picked up a few times, all petty stuff, mostly noise complaints, disturbing the peace and some weird motor vehicle charge. He seems pretty harmless. He was on his way out of town, so I told him to stay off the road and be careful. I was glad to see the back of him. Sheriff’s dispatch said that you had been called a couple of times on him. Good luck!”
A year earlier I’d been called to the Sheriff’s department to help them with a man they had in custody. He’d been pulled over for driving 45 miles an hour in a 20 mile an hour school zone. When the deputy approached his car, the man began with “Do you know who I am?” The deputy was expecting a tale of local fame or high level connections. Instead he got an incoherent monologue that he referred to as “arble-garble.” At the time there was a suspicion of substance abuse. The police report stated that, “Mr. Taylor declined to take a field sobriety test and became quite agitated. When I suggested that he come with me to the sheriff’s department, he began to kick my car and curse. I then took him into custody.”
The deputy was frustrated. He met me at the sheriff department’s front door saying, “The guy can’t calm down. Maybe you can do something. All he’s got is a traffic ticket. I could charge him with harassment, but that is a huge pain in the ass for me. See if you can calm him down and get him out of here. I go off shift in a while and I don’t want to leave him behind.”
Keith was being held in a small corner interview room with glass on two sides. There was a rectangular metal table attached to the floor with a pair of metal chairs facing each other on either side. Keith saw me coming and stood near the door. The deputy pointed at the chair, “Sit!” Keith sat. The deputy unlocked the door and let me in. “I’ll come get you when you’re done,” he said and left.
Keith was a tall, thin white man, with a narrow face and crooked teeth. Even though he was only in his mid-thirties, he had a haircut like a fifties rock and roller, swept back on the sides with a big curl on the top of his head that hung over his forehead almost to the bridge of his nose. He had on jeans and boots and a western shirt with decorated pockets. “I’m Terry Garahan from the county mental health department. The deputy said you were pretty upset and thought I might be able to help. What can I do for you?” Keith gripped the table top with both hands, gritting his teeth. “Now I’m crazy! I can see where this is going. I’m Keith Taylor. I’m the man who is going to decide whether you keep your job or you move on. Understand? I might not decide your fate, but your fate will be decided by me. There are things that I know and things that you know, but I don’t think we know the same things or things that are the same. Understand?” The monologue continued for about twenty minutes with my few interjections of: “That sounds pretty difficult” or “I’m sorry to hear that.” I occasionally nodded my head in response to, “Understand?” with recognition of the fact that in listening to him, there were many things I did understand. I tapped on the glass for the deputy, and said to Keith, “We need to figure a way to get you out of here.” “Good stuff!” he replied.
After an hour on the phone, I had a story and a resolution. Keith was a local guy who was born and raised on a nearby farm. He’d joined the army right out of high school and was given a medical discharge for bi-polar disorder during his first year of service. He’d stayed in Texas, where he’d been stationed, until recently when he decided to return home. His dad said the Veteran’s Administration had been slow to transfer his case and he’d stopped his medications. Within half an hour his dad showed up and the deputy was happy for Keith to leave with him.
During the following months I got several calls about Keith from his dad. He either refused to take his medication or he took it and spit it out or took it and threw it up. Keith’s mom and dad had a small dairy farm a few miles from town and had their hands full. Keith was their only son and while they wanted to help him, they hadn’t really spent much time with him as a mentally ill adult. He’d been in Texas for fourteen years.
One early spring morning I drove out to the farm after an exasperated call from Mr. Taylor. I found Keith in a shop under the hood of an old, beat up Porsche with Texas plates. There was the number 11 formed by two long strips of duct tape on each of the doors of the car. The car was as loud as a jet plane with him revving it by pulling on the throttle. He looked over his shoulder at me. “This car, after I finish, will be the fastest car in the world.” “Your dad is worried about you!” I shouted. He replied, “The 11 is for the number of letters in my name.” He reached in and turned off the ignition, then leaned against the car, looking at me, saying, “A lot of people don’t believe in numerology. But if you think about it, it really makes sense.” I asked him, “Your dad doesn’t think you’re taking your meds. Are you?” He replied, “There is a lot of misinformation going around. Excuse me.” With that he got in his car and drove away.
About midnight that night, I got a call from the state police. Keith Taylor had been arrested and taken to the county jail. A trooper had been having a coffee break in a diner just outside the city limits when he heard the sound of a very loud car. He turned on his stool in time to see a flash of metal go by at high speed. He raced to his car and got on the radio looking for other available troopers or deputies in the area. Another trooper pulled over “number 11” about ten miles away after clocking it at one hundred and three miles an hour. “What is your problem?” Keith had asked the trooper when he tossed his license and registration at his feet.  Unfortunately, the problem was Keith’s; losing his license, car and spending nearly a week in jail.
Now, months later, I was preparing to see what new plan Keith had concocted.  I stopped to see one of the psychiatrists I consulted with. “Petting zoo! Really! He wants to open a petting zoo? Danger to self or others might be able to be met with the cow,” he said, “but I doubt it. Maybe you could trade the cow for three magic beans.”
I saw Keith about five miles outside of town. He was sitting in the grass on the side of the road. The cow was tied to a mailbox, grazing on the thick grass surrounding the wooden post. It was a beautiful animal, a movie star of cows. I drove past and turned the car around in order to be on the same side of the street. “Keith, how are you doing? What’s going on?” I asked. Keith lay back on the grass and closed his eyes. “The world is in turmoil. All I want to do is bring a little joy into the world. I grew up with cows. Kids should be able to see cows. But I’m so tired.” I stood over him blocking the sun. “Keith, you don’t look well. You are really pale and you’re sweating. Are you faint?” “I don’t feel so good,” he responded. “I think you need a doctor to take a look at you. I’m going to call someone to come get you.” The ambulance and the deputy showed up together. The emergency medical technician, after looking at Keith, conducted a simple test, pulling on the skin on his wrist. “He’s really dehydrated. No wonder he feels so lousy.”
The Scottish Highlander was tied to the rear bumper of my car when the deputy pulled away. “I’m glad I’m not you,” he called out the window. It was almost six in the evening when the livestock truck came to get the cow. They came shortly after I received a call that Keith had voluntarily admitted himself to the mental health unit at the hospital.
The Stories
The stories are my remembrances. Each of them is based on a true event in my work for Tompkins County Mental Health. I have changed the names and identifying information of every client, patient and co-worker except for Beau Saul, of the Ithaca Police Department, who I was fortunate enough to have as a partner. When confidentiality demanded it, I have changed details. The dialogue is my reconstruction of what was said at the time. I have felt honored to be let into the lives of so many individuals over the years. Their stories are a gift I have been given.  Please enjoy them in the spirit with which they were written; to educate and inform.

1 comment:

  1. Bipolar people are usually trying to do something helpful. It's nice to see someone say something positive.