Taming Uncle Johnny

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Photo by Mary Klein (2012). Hands untangling a mass of wires.Johnny has spent the last fifteen minutes telling me about the count of the sausages he had in the freezer. He can’t quite account for four of them, and he keeps going over and over the possibilities of the sausage disappearance. This conversation seems just about to end, when he realizes that he might be able to get more when they are on sale. After agonizing over the sausages, he considers his corn dogs. They got defrosted by accident. He could not find them in the freezer.

Johnny is staying with us this week because the electricity in his house was shut down. It seems that the upstairs tenant, who agreed to pay the electricity, had moved out and left a gigantic bill. This is just another of the string of difficulties that John has experienced in his life. These are all common occurrences for people with mental disabilities.

It has taken us a few years to piece together Johnny’s history. We think that the cause of his disability was a serious fall down a stairway when he was two years old. This may have damaged the right side of his brain and left him with a great difficulty in whole brain thinking. As his brother explains it, “John doesn’t get the whole picture. In fact, he doesn’t quite realize there IS a whole picture.” His father describes it as an utter lack of common sense.

Later in life, John developed a seizure disorder, which is mostly controlled by medication. But there is no drug for his thinking trouble. He compensates for his lack of coherence and his inability to understand human emotional interactions with an incredible memory for detail.

John remembers every school he ever attended. He told us the names of all the students in his fifth grade class. Beginning in sixth grade, he was in special education. He remembers the address of the high school he attended in Washington, DC. After high school, John attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, but he could not complete any courses. So he applied to and was accepted into the Air Force! One month and nine days later, he was discharged. No surprise.

John moved back to Washington, DC, and got his first and only full-time job in the mailroom of the Bureau of Prisons when he was twenty-two. He worked at that job for fifteen years. He was thirty-seven when a new mailroom supervisor decided, “John has mental and emotional problems,” and put him on disability retirement. The real reason for the forced retirement was that John was stubborn and butted heads with the supervisor. John knew exactly where every piece of mail ought to go, so he took each piece directly to the right office and delivered it to the right person. He did this in defiance of his order to deliver the mail to the addresses on the envelopes. John would still be a productive member of society today if his new supervisor had understood him. Unfortunately, the Disabilities Act was not adopted until 1990, so John could not fight for his job.

Before he moved from DC to live near our family in California, John lived in adult foster care. He never did well in adult foster care. He bought his own special toilet paper, and everyone else used it up! He argued with his caretaker constantly about the newspapers, books, and plastic cups he felt he needed to keep. In a final showdown, the police took him in handcuffs to Montgomery General Hospital because John had said, “If you won’t let me keep my souvenir cups, I might as well kill myself.”

John traveled by police car to our modern-day version of the mental asylum: the shiny halls of a hospital. But this was only a gateway into the actual modern mental asylum: the homeless shelter. After a short stay at the hospital where he had his medication adjusted, and a short stay at a halfway house, John arrived at the homeless shelter.

At first he was really excited to be there. When he learned that he would not have to pay rent, he went to the bank and withdrew two hundred dollars, which he kept in his back pocket. He promptly began collecting his usual set of two-liter soda bottles and plastic cups. He made his usual rounds of nearby trashcans. He stashed all kinds of junk outside the homeless shelter. It was lucky that it was July, when the shelter was not overcrowded. He was lucky that nobody stole the cash out of his back pocket. He was lucky that he had family.

Two weeks after moving into the homeless shelter, Johnny agreed to move out West to our small town in Northern California. His niece drove him to the airport. He arrived with no luggage.

We settled Johnny in a studio just four blocks from our house. Two weeks later, his stuff arrived, which his niece had packed and shipped. He was very disappointed that she had not sent his television. For the entire first year, he kept repeating, “When I go back to Washington DC, when I go back to Washington DC.” He missed his friends at the Shepherd’s kitchen, which served meals to the homeless. He missed his rooming house at Mrs. Snead’s. And he kept on and on about the television he’d had to leave behind.

One day, we inquired about that television. It turns out that John knew an owner of a hockey team in DC. The owner used to give him tickets to the games. One time, John had a seizure while attending a game, and the sports venue called an ambulance and packed him off to the emergency room. John recovered quickly, only upset about missing the game. A few weeks later, John received a bill from the ambulance company, and he refused to pay. A few weeks after that, a check arrived from the insurance company, to cover John’s bill for the ambulance. Then did John pay the bill? Nope. He bought himself a TV.

After John moved to Lakeport, he bought lots of sandwiches from Subway. He stockpiled them in the fridge for days. We cautioned him to make sure the sandwiches were still good before he ate them. He came back a few days later and said, “I thought about what you said about the sandwiches, so I smelled one. It smelled bad, so I threw away the bread and ate the meat.” Granddad was right. John just doesn’t have much common sense.

John was lucky enough to have a family who knew his whereabouts and was able to make a plan for his care when he became a homeless person. Not every homeless person has family connections. Many have become so paranoid and anti-social that their families cannot help them. Many of their families have been burned on many occasions by the erratic behaviors that cause the homeless to lose their benefits and placements. Other homeless people have such dysfunctional families that their relatives are also homeless or in jail. Still others would rather be living on the street with their pets than living in an institution. Homelessness is a complex issue. Many of our homeless neighbors have serious mental illnesses that cannot be easily overcome by family interventions. Not every family can make a difference, but we do as much as we can. Sometimes we are able to help just one person. ~~~

Mary Miche works as a therapist, a musician, and a guardian of souls in transition. She is a member of Lakeport Worship Group and Redwood Forest Monthly Meeting (PYM).

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