There is an old schizophrenic woman sitting in the courtyard at my work. Her skinny legs cross over themselves. She hunches her body forward in the green plastic chair. No one else sits in this chair. The other residents know it is her favorite spot, and they do not want to make her angry. She has an explosive temper. She screams into the night air about sins against God, about rape and whores and stealing.
She calls the Holy Ghost, “Casper.” And she talks with God.
Her name is Linda. Her eyes are wide and milky, two blue-gray oblong orbs that stare into the world intently.
I was warned about this woman when I first started working here. My supervisor told me that she can be difficult, that she will call me a whore, that I have sinned against her god, and that she will often refuse to take her meds. During one of my first days of training I met her. I was shadowing my supervisor, watching how he handed out the meds and then logged it in the medication administration record book. The old schizophrenic woman walked in and stared at him. She did not notice me in the room, or if she did she paid no attention to me. She talked about her dreams in between the numerous orange, yellow and white pills she slipped into her mouth that my supervisor handed her. A sip of water from the small paper cup with each one. Meds ingested and she did not leave, but continued on about how god is here to punish us for our sins. “Honey!” she screamed in a voice that reminded me of tires skidding along crushed gravel, “Listen to me. You have to repent to god or you will die. REPENT TO GOD”! She screamed, her eyeballs shaking. I was thrown back into my flesh by her screaming, scared that she would begin to yell at me. The supervisor just nodded to her, hummed a little in agreement, and then Linda slowly rose, pushing herself out of the maroon plastic chair with her hands on the desk that separated employees from residents, and walked out the door, throwing words over her shoulder. “REPENT!” The screams continued, her loud voice leading her into the courtyard. She sat in her chair.
Two weeks have gone by since that day, and I’m still trying to act relaxed around her, to hide how nervous I feel that her voice will rise at me. I would not know what to do if a resident yelled at me. My coworkers do not help to ease my stress.
Every day during changeover, we check in about how the day has gone so far. Which clients had appointments, which ones have a new med to take. And each meeting ends with the question, How is Linda doing today? We sit in a circle on chairs and couches and stare at one another, passing information back and forth. One person says she is not doing well, that she has been screaming all day in the courtyard. Another says she refused to take her meds that morning. She is not doing well. This is not unusual.
The check-in makes me nervous about how my med pass will go that night when I have to find her to come and take her meds. She usually does not come down for her meds and I am forced into the task of finding her, disrupting whatever conversation she is having with god in the evening air. Sometimes she is in the cafeteria sitting alone in the dark. Sometimes she is in her room. She is in her room tonight. No one can come into her room. I have been informed about this by my coworkers, told that she will scream at me to get out if I step into her room.
I quietly tap on her door.
I speak to her in the way she speaks to me, reflect her words and hope that she will cooperate.
“Honey?” I tap on her door again. No response. “Honey?” I say a bit louder.
“Yeah?” A graveled voice response.
“Honey, do you want to come take your meds?” “In a minute honey.” Which means nothing to me, as I know an hour will pass and she still will not appear in my office.
“Okay honey.” I walk back downstairs, thankful this interaction did not become an incident. During my first week of training, she barely acknowledged that I was there, that I was handing her the meds. She took the pills without speaking to me, looked as if she was lost in her own world, like her body was running on auto-pilot as her mind wandered off.
But after my first week of training, Linda started to recognize my presence, by which I mean she at least started to look at me, to register that there was someone sitting across the desk from her. She did not talk with me, and thankfully did not yell at me, but I could hear her from my office late into the night as she sat in the courtyard and screamed into the frosty January dark. I did not tell her to quiet down, did not quite know yet how to navigate her and her temper. And while she had yet to yell at me, she had at least started to look blankly at me as I handed her her meds each night.
Within a few weeks I somehow gained her trust, or at least did not irritate her. She never yells directly at me. Instead, she will scream in my presence about doctors who are out to kill her. I will ask her what she needs instead of telling her to quiet down. This is what my coworkers do—try to force her with demands about what she cannot do, that she cannot yell. She does not like them. She screams louder at them when they try to quiet her down.
I try a different approach with Linda. I let her talk, I let her yell. I do not fight with her, I do not tell her to quiet down. And while the other residents say she is getting out of hand and that I need to do something about it, I just let her be. She eventually calms down. This approach has so far saved me from being called a whore. I have not offended her. And I know I’m not doing my job correctly by letting her rant and disrupt the other residents. But she eventually calms down, eventually lowers her voice in to a harsh whisper, and everyone breathes a little easier.
An hour after I knocked on Linda’s door asking for her to get her meds she is still not in my office. I again go into Linda’s room to encourage her to come out. I knock. She says nothing. I say “Honey?” She says nothing. Then I do what I have been instructed to do when a resident will not come down for meds. I take my master key, unlock her door and walk inside. There is a dim lamp on, the shade of which is pale pink and filters light throughout the room. I see clean, folded clothes in piles on the large wooden floor. I will soon learn that she does laundry every day, fulfilling her need to stay clean and pure. I have been told Linda does not want anyone in her room as she thinks the staff disrupts her possessions. She fears we are stealing things from her. But she is really just so lost in her mind that she never remembers where she puts her keys, which pile contains her favorite brown hoodie.
“Honey?” My voice whispers out.
I can see the small lump of her skinny body lying face down on her bed.
“Honey, do you want to come take your meds?” I am surprised by the fact that she does not yell at me to get out of her room. She simply stays in her bed, her face smashed into the pillow, and calmly says, “In a minute honey.”
“Okay.” I leave. I go downstairs. And thankfully within a few minutes she is in my office.
After I give her the meds, she says, “Honey, can I have a cigarette?” We are not supposed to do this, the workers are told to not give anything to the residents. But I know she needs this cigarette, will feel better once she smokes it, and so I reach into my coat pocket, pull out my pack of Camel Lights and hand her two of them.
“Oh honey. Thank you.”
Her eyes widen with her voice. She takes the cigarettes and stands up.
“You know what you are honey?”
“What’s that Linda?”
“You’re an angel from God.” And she nods her head at me, exits out of the office repeating “an angel from god,” and goes into the courtyard, into her chair.
I bend the rules and give Linda cigarettes. We all do. Though we only have to bend them at the end of the month. The residents get a meager stipend of $93 a month. By the last week, Linda runs out of money to buy cigarettes. This is a terrible situation. I do not know the validity of Linda’s belief that cigarettes help to calm down the symptoms of schizophrenia. But she believes that they do, though she also believes that cigarettes are not addictive if you keep switching brands. What I know is that she is calmer, happier when she has her cigarettes. She will talk to other residents, hug them even, and they will cheerfully respond to her, appreciative of the fact that she is in a good mood. Her cigarettes are really flavored cigars. All of the residents smoke these as they are only $1.50 a pack. I tried them once to see what it was they were smoking. They were absolutely disgusting. Strawberry flavored tobacco. Chocolate and vanilla, too.
Cherry is Linda’s favorite, though she puffs at her cigars without really smoking them. She sucks at the tip of them quickly, making a sharp popping noise with her mouth, then immediately exhales the smoke. I don’t think she really puts any nicotine into her body. But she’s convinced they help her with her mental illness, so I say nothing and let her continue to puff-pop away.
My coworkers told me about this, how she’s better when she has cigarettes. So we all bend the rules in order to lessen the effects of Linda’s nicotine withdrawal. We give her cigarettes at night along with her meds. We even buy a pack for her if she is doing really bad. The other residents are not jealous that we buy her cigarettes and none for them. Instead, they are thankful that we are helping to keep Linda calm.
A month after I meet Linda, she motions over to me every time I pass her in the courtyard.
“Honey. You work too hard. Come here. Have a cigarette.”
I start to join in her in the courtyard for my cigarette breaks. She is nice to me, welcomes me to stand next to her as she tells me about the orphanage she grew up in because her mother was a whore and accidentally got pregnant with her and didn’t want the burden of taking care of her. She tells me about the doctor who did not attend to a patient in the nursing home she used to live in, which caused one of her friends to die. Thus, women are whores and doctors kill.
I do not know if these things are true, and it doesn’t really matter because she believes them. And her rants start to make more sense. A real feeling of unjustified and harmful actions committed to her, including a rape, is what fuels her screams. I sympathize with her, believe that while she may be diagnosed with schizophrenia, she has had a hard life which has led her to scream at the world.
Another month passes by, and Linda and I continue to grow closer to each other. The other residents do not understand this; they are shocked that I have somehow managed to get Linda to not only trust me, but to like me. I quickly learn her routines. How she goes to the Dollar Store down the street and buys cleaning products and cans of beans. She shows them to me and says, “Honey, you have to go to the Dollar Store. It’s at 18th and Nicollete honey. Look at these beans. A dollar honey. A dollar.” She slowly shakes her head up and down and presses her lips together, widening her eyes into mine. “A dollar, honey.” I tell her that’s a great idea. She also goes to the church down the street every night and the nuns there give her free items—boxes of Jello-O, sweatshirts, and other random items donated by the community.
One night, Linda comes down for her meds without me having to prompt her.
“Oh honey,” her gravelly voice begins. “I have something for you.”
She is wearing her brown hoodie, as always, the hood tied tight around her head. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a scratched tube of lipstick. It is obviously used.
“I got it for you at the church, honey. You are so beautiful. You deserve this.”
“Oh honey, that is so kind! Thank you honey.” I repeat her words. I believe she likes me for this. I say thank you even though I know I will never wear this used lipstick, will actually throw it away once she leaves.
“Put it on, honey. Let’s see how beautiful you are.”
I open the tube, smear some bright red lipstick onto my lips, and smile at her.
“Oh honey. You are too beautiful.”
I give her the pills. She quickly pops them into her mouth and swallows. Then she tightens her hood around her face, stands up nodding her head, not taking her eyes off of my lips as she rises and leaves the room. And I realize I have never seen Linda’s hair. For a sixty-five year old woman, she has a good looking face, the wrinkles actually making her look wise. And those blue eyes that stick out in the world. I want to see her hair, and I wonder if she thinks she is beautiful, too.
I finally get to see her hair a month later. Now it is spring and the weather is warmer. With the sunshine heating up Minneapolis, I finally see her without that brown hood on. And I see her incredibly short hair, her head that is almost shaved, really. She cuts it herself, forever taking scissors to her short gray hair. She shows me it every day.
“Oh honey. Do you like my hair? I cut it today,” she says to me.
I wonder if she forgets that she cut her hair yesterday. I wonder if she forgets that she showed me her hair yesterday, too. So I just smile and say “Yes. It looks wonderful.” And she smiles and takes her meds without a fuss. And she returns to the courtyard to puff-pop at her flavored cigars.
On this particular day, I am feeling a bit off in my body. With the warmth approaching, I have to start wearing t-shirts. I do not like to do this, as my arms are full of scars I put there with a razor. I have my own mental illnesses. The patients do not know this, as the staff are not allowed to reveal their 8 mental health conditions to the residents. And so I worry about showing my arms, worry about the residents spotting them and getting into a conversation with me about them, or worse, refusing to take their meds from a “crazy” person.
Plus, the scars make me feel ugly. My skin, marred. My self-esteem about my beauty diminished with each white line.
A few minutes after Linda shows me her hair, I walk outside and stand next to her in order to smoke a cigarette. I cross my bare arms over my chest in order to not reveal the scars, in order to try and forget about them so I can feel better in my body. I stand near the planter box in the courtyard next to Linda’s small body that forever squats in her green chair. I stand not looking at her but rest my body against the planter box that is close enough to her so she will talk to me without screaming.
Linda says nothing to me. We just smoke in silence. As I put my cigarette out and begin to walk away, Linda calls out to me.
“Oh honey, you are too beautiful to sleep,” she says in her raspy voice. While I do not quite know what this phrase means, I am taken aback by it. How did she know this is what I needed to hear? How did she know that in this exact moment, I needed someone to tell me that I was beautiful? My skin tingles in the early evening air.
Linda looks up at me with her wide eyes. “Too beautiful to sleep honey.”
And then a few weeks later, she does it again, reads from my body what it is I need to hear. It is the beginning of April, and I sit twenty feet away from her smoking my own cigarette. She is silent right now, not muttering to herself or speaking to God. Then she turns her head to me and breaks the silence in that gravelly voice of hers I used to be scared of when I first started working here. “Oh honey, your body is perfect just the way it is.”
I need to hear this. I have been pacing around thoughts of my body lately, thinking I am too fat and berating myself every time I eat. It is driving me crazy. And so when she says these words to me, a little chill runs through my body. What can she see? What other layer of perception does she have? Linda senses something about me, and I open my heart up to her, wondering what else she knows about me.
“Your body is perfect honey.” And she nods her head at me. And I laugh and say thank you.
And again, the chill at her perception of what I need still runs down my body. She turns her head away from me, her signal that she wants to stop talking. I finish my cigarette in silence with her, and go back inside to try and finish up my work before it is med pass time.
During med pass that night, another patient does not come in for her diabetes medication, though at this point I still do not know what her medication is for. Because even though I have been here for four months, I still just hand the meds over to the residents, follow the directions in the medication administration book, not knowing what meds do what for them. This woman who needs this big white pill at 4pm is usually right on time, heaving her large body through my office door before dinner. But she is not here. By 5:30pm when I am done handing out meds to the other residents, I go looking for her. But first, I go down to the cafeteria and eat my dinner, trying to feel positive about feeding this body that feels too-big, trying to believe what Linda said to me earlier. The cafeteria closes and I go back to find the woman who missed her meds. She is in her room sleeping. She wakes up when I knock on her door and comes out of her room and instantly begins yelling at me, cursing at me because now she has missed dinner and she is a diabetic and what if she dies?
I have never been yelled at by this woman before, or any of the residents for that matter. I do not know how to respond to this woman’s shouts. Because the residents are always kind to me, always take their meds with smiles and strike up a conversation with me about such-and-such. They tell me I am their favorite. But now here is this woman yelling at me, her face reddening to a shade that is as dark as her auburn hair, and I cannot take it. Her anger surprises me as she is usually the nicest one of the bunch, the one who talks gleefully about her family and is always willing to help round up residents for med time if they are missing, or change the towel rack in the bathroom.
After she storms off down the hall to go have a cigarette, I return to my office, seeing that Linda is around the corner and heard the hollering. I sit in my chair, getting her meds ready with my hands shaking. I am on the verge of crying, but I cannot cry, cannot let a resident, let Linda see my own emotions come out.
She sits down across from me. “Oh honey,” she says, “your face is turning red. Are you okay?”
“Fine, just a little hot.”
She sits staring at me with her milky eyes as my hands shake. And then a tear rolls down my cheek.
Linda slowly gets up and closes the door.
“Oh honey, don’t worry. People can be mean here. It’s their mental illness honey. but you’re an angel. It’s okay to cry honey. Just let it out. It’s okay when we need to cry. God is here for you.”
I cry. I swipe away at my eyes. I cry. I hand her the meds she has come down for. And I cry. But with Linda’s words, her insistence that it’s alright to cry, I start to loosen up a bit, begin to exhale the breath that was coming out of me in short spurts. Linda does not give me a hug, she does not hold my hand. What she does is take her meds, then stands up and opens the door. Before she goes out, she looks back over her shoulder and says, “Honey, it is okay to cry.”
Later that night the woman who berated me comes up to me and apologizes. She says she was just angry, but that she still likes me and that she’s sorry for getting so worked up. She invites me to come and have a cigarette with her, so I do that, the boundaries of worker-client breaking away as I finally sit down in one of the green plastic chairs next to her. Linda is in her own chair in the courtyard, taking short puffs of her cherry cigars. She does not look at me. She does not nod her head at me as I walk by. I cannot feel her thinking about me, as she is probably lost in her own thoughts about god. She begins muttering about sins, and I step calmly by her, hoping she does not start yelling, that she won’t disturb the other clients. Because even though we have a good relationship, I still worry that this will not be the case anymore, that Linda will suddenly turn on me.
I sit down with the group of residents and smoke my cigarette in silence with them. One of them breaks this silence and asks me about my upcoming vacation. I am going away for a few days to see my boyfriend for my birthday. They want to know my schedule; they like to know who will be passing out their meds to them.
The old alcoholic ex-bartender says he won’t take his meds from anyone but me. I tell him he has to. He says he doesn’t trust anyone else. I tell him that all of the workers here are good, that we will not mess up his meds. He looks at me, the cloud of smoke drifting between us. I can see the fear in his eyes, and can feel it in these other residents. They put their lives and mental health in the workers’ hands, know that we workers have the power to mess with their mental health if we don’t get the right meds, the right dosage of them, and at the right time. But we have all been trained, we know our jobs, and I persuade him to trust us.
At the end of my shift, around 10:00pm, I go into this man’s room to rub ointment onto his back. I do this every night at 10pm. He is on anti-cancer medication, strong meds that make him break out into a rash. He strips off his shirt, his big belly and drooping nipples sticking out at me. He strips off his suspenders, and holds his dirty navy blue pants up with his hands. He stands at attention as I put on my latex gloves and begin to rub the thick white ointment into his chest and back. He does not make any rude comments, does not grab out to me like how I first expected a dirty old man to do. He is not a dirty old man. Instead he stands their patiently, always commenting on how cold the ointment is. When I am done I help him with his suspenders and pull his flannel shirt over his head.
“Thank you, Chelsey,” he always says.
“Always,” I always say.
I am here for my clients, here to make them feel at home when they feel so off in their minds.
Thirty minutes before I leave, Linda strolls into my office.
“It’s alright to cry, honey,” she rasps at me again, and walks away.
There is an old schizophrenic woman sitting in the courtyard at my work. Her skinny legs cross over themselves. She hunches her body forward in the green plastic chair. No one else sits in this chair. The other residents know it is her favorite spot, and they do not want to make her angry. She has an explosive temper. She screams into the night air about sins against God, about rape and whores and stealing. She does not scream at me, because I know that while she has a diagnosis, this does not make her insane. She is a wonderful woman just trying to figure out what to do with her pain.