Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Put Away

     A few years back I worked for our local Community Mental Health Center as a Transitional Services Counselor. We outreached folks who lived in the Licensed Psychiatric Boarding Homes in the area. Most of these homes housed people with mental illness who did not need locked facilities but needed assistance in living. Some of the clients were folks who had been institutionalized for many years . Julia was one such client. When I first met her she was  in her early 7os , a smallish white haired woman with a bit of a temper and a twinkle in her eyes. As I got to know her she told me her story.
    When Julia was a young woman she was walking in her city  pushing her young daughter in a baby stroller. A car hit both of them. The child was killed and Julia's legs were broken. During her hospitalization for injuries sustained in the accident, she became deeply depressed. Rather than being released from her medical treatment she was committed by her husband and doctors to Greystone, one of the nation's oldest public mental institutions. She spent the next twenty five years there. Her husband divorced her early in her commitment and re-married. Julia remained at Greystone. She had nowhere else to go.  She told me that it really wasn't all that bad there, that she worked in the kitchen and made herself "useful". I have seen Greystone. This is the place that acting governor Richard Cody called abysmal several years ago. It has a new section now, but it was notorious for  bad conditions and severe understaffing for a long time.  
             During the de-institutionalization movement Julia was released to the community with no money and no skills. Julia's only option was to move into a medicaid funded Boarding Home . The Boarding Homes that depend solely on medicaid funding are dismal places. The folks that run them are working with less funds than they need to provide their residents with anything more than the minimum in food and shelter. They are generally dingy places where folks sit around one flickering television and rely on outside agencies to provide them with any kind of therapeutic programs or entertainment.
     I ran a group at her home and also provided recreation. We went to places in the community and engaged in a number of activities. Julia complained about the conditions at this home (with good reason) but made friends and took part in any and all activities provided for her. She was always happy to go somewhere and it became obvious that she hadn't been to too many places.  
     One day stands out among others in my times with Julia. She had become friendly with another woman who had made arrangements to finally move in with a relative in a southern state.  I was providing that woman with a ride to the airport and Julia asked if she could come along " for the ride". It was my best trip to Newark Airport ever. After  we left the other woman at her flight gate Julia announced that she wanted to explore the airport because she had never been in one before. She was delighted by everything she saw there, especially the monorail that linked the terminals . We spent an entire afternoon riding back and forth while she marveled at it all. On the way home she talked freely about her past, her family and the miracle of aviation and airports in general. I asked her how she ever forgave her husband for committing her so many years ago. She stated that "There's nothing I can do about it so I just put it behind me and take every day as it comes". 
    If living well is the best revenge then Julia had a successful life. She expressed more joy in one day at what, to me, was just another ride to the airport than most folks feel in a month.  She was childlike in her appreciation for everything she got to see and do after years and years of being put away in the darkest and dankest of prisons .
     Eventually, due to budget cut backs, our program of servicing the Boarding Homes was terminated. It was deemed  "too recreational" and "not therapeutic" and we lost medicaid funding to continue servicing the Boarding Homes. Julia, was, as they say in the biz " lost to follow up". I have no idea what happened to her.
   I often wonder about the many other women of her generation, and previous generations, who became "inconvenient" and were neatly stashed in one facility or another. I have often thought that their stories should be told. I bristle with anger just thinking of  husbands who could dispose of their wives so easily. I know that Julia's story is just one of thousands. I also know that Julia ended up getting  back at all of  those thoughtless people by enjoying her life even after it was taken away from her. I wonder if those who were so able to just dispose of  her enjoyed their lives as much?  I rather doubt it. I certainly hope they did not.   


only a movie said...

Oh I love this story. I love that you see her life as a success, because you are so right. I have crossed paths with many people like this while traipsing through the mental health network. I should write some down too. :-)
Thanks for sharing!

Cristin said...

Loved this story! I pictured Grandma as Julia... One of my favorite residents' in Vermont was a Julia... she taught me how to swear in Italian.

crone51 said...

It's funny you should say that Cristin. After Grandma died I gave a lot of her clothes to "Julia"( whose name wasn't really Julia) . One day she showed up in a full my mother outfit. It kinda freaked me out. She was small and white haired and fit mom's clothes just fine. She was happy to get them.