Saturday, October 22, 2011

Difficult lives can create challenging problems.

There are some people who live such difficult lives it is hard for us to imagine.  Pain and suffering are joined with fear in ways that produce unusual patterns of behavior as a way of coping. We can pathologize those behaviors if we are willing to help. But we must be careful about judging them.

The Story

            Her face had been sliced and cut at least fifty times. She looked like she’d been in a horror movie. The razor blade was still in her hand. “Would you please put that down?” I asked. “What? What?” she whispered back at me. “The razor is in your hand. Could you please put it on the table behind you? Can I come in?” “Yeah, sure. Come in.” As she backed into the house, I picked up a book from the same table and placed it on top of the razor, hiding it. “What do you want?” she asked, irritated that I had entered her world. “I need to make a call, give me a minute.” I said as I dialed the house phone to central dispatch asking for an ambulance and a deputy. “Shit”, she said, “Not the cops, there’s really no need for the cops. I’m not going to do anything stupid.” I remembered some time earlier that year when she had threatened suicide and made the same promise. While she and I were walking to the car, she pulled a piece of broken glass from her pocket and slit her wrist. I wasn’t taking any chances this time.
            I went to the kitchen and got some paper towels. ”You’re bleeding!” Many of the cuts were superficial, but some looked deep. There was blood in her hair and down the front of her shirt, on her jeans and splattered throughout the house. Her hands looked like they were covered in rust. I doubted she had even looked at herself since she’d started cutting. When she cut, it was usually slow, a process that could take hours, something she could savor like a fine meal.
            “What are you doing here?” she asked. I replied, “Dave called me and told me that you’ve been having a rough time. When he left to go to work, you promised that you would answer the phone. But you didn’t. I see the answering machine has eight messages on it. Two are from me. I had to come out this way for a home visit and I thought I’d stop by.” “You have no right to be here,” she said. “When I knocked on the door, you opened it and invited me in,” I replied.
            She had bunched the paper towels into a ball. She sat and stared at them. “I need my glasses. They’re in the kitchen, can you get them?” I went to the kitchen and found the glasses on the table next to a box of Cheerios. The dishes were done, the counters were clean. I was sure that after Dave went to work she’d fed Maggie, then fixed her lunch and sent her off to school. I went back to the living room and gave LeeAnn her glasses. “What time is it?” she asked. “Almost two. What time does Maggie get home?” I asked. “The bus comes at two thirty.” she answered. “Is there anyone who can stay with her until Dave comes home?” I said. LeeAnn picked up the phone and called a neighbor who agreed to meet her daughter and have a play date with her own child until Dave got out of work. She then returned to her chair and the ball of paper towels returned to her hand.
            “Do we really have to do this? I’m okay, I really am?” she said, pleading with her eyes for me to just disappear. I was tempted to have her look in the mirror. But her appearance was so shocking, I was afraid of her emotional response. Her history of dissociation had begun in childhood with daily physical and sexual abuse. She’d described to me how horrible her life had been. I was aware of her extended family, with generations of sexual abusers and victims, men and women, taking on both roles. The families poverty had been spread out over two rural roads with broken down trailers and roughhewn cabins, most of which had no running water and were heated with wood or kerosene heaters. The children who lived there were dirty and strange, almost feral. They existed on canned goods from food pantries and school lunch programs. The adult men seemed always to be working on rusted out trucks in the yard, small groups of them under the hood or searching for tools. The women were inside watching talk shows on small old televisions.
            LeeAnn had escaped. She’d graduated from high school and worked at Cornell in food service. She’d gotten her rotten teeth fixed and been presentable enough to become a supervisor. She met Dave when he made a delivery of paper goods for the restaurant supply company he worked for. They only dated a short time before they were living together and got married after she became pregnant. Somehow she was able to keep her cutting a secret for most of their early years together. She explained her dissociation as being “spaced out”. As a young mother she was able to juggle job and home as well as anyone. When her younger sister died she went off the rails. Her sister had tried to follow in LeeAnn’s footsteps and might have succeeded if she hadn’t gotten involved with a man who was like all the men in her family. He threatened and bullied and abused. LeeAnn’s sister found the only way out; she took her life.
            The death brought back all the feelings of fear and helplessness and guilt. “I go away! I just go away.” was what LeeAnn had told me when I asked her about what she described as “missing time” each day. “You know when you’re driving on the interstate, and you realize you’ve passed three exits you didn’t notice. It’s like that.” LeeAnn’s therapist had been working hard, using a variety of therapeutic approaches to help LeeAnn. I supervised treatment and we agreed that LeeAnn needed to retain a high level of functioning to be able to stay in her marriage and raise her child. It was difficult to tell how successful we were.
            I could hear the diesel engine of the ambulance as it pulled in front of the house. I went to the door and opened it. “You don’t need the gurney. I’ll walk her out.” LeeAnn continued to stare at the balled up paper towels. “LeeAnn, they’re here. Will you walk out with me?” She stood up and stared at me and I followed her out the door.

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.

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