‘Tis the season to be jolly

I make a point on my blog not to enter the territory of Gloom because enough people get their fill of gloom from the professionals dealing with “serious mental illness.”

This week-end has been gloomy. The winter weather where I live would make even a cock-eyed optimist slit his wrists, but it’s actually loneliness I’m speaking of. I spent part of Saturday night in an ambulance accompanying an elderly friend to the hospital. On reflection and without knowing further medical details, I believe that her extreme loneliness caused neurological symptoms.  I found her sitting in a darkened apartment, her skin was flaming hot to the touch, and she had a look of shock on her face. She kept repeating that she didn’t feel well and that she was so sad. Well, she has every reason to be sad. Her beloved husband passed away three years ago last month, the Christmas season is fast approaching, and she lives completely alone.

This brings me to the next story. Chris visited a friend on Saturday night who he met at the day program he attended a few years ago. The friend is living with two cats in subsidized housing. I sent Chris off with a couple of good steaks to accompany their jamming session because his friend’s refrigerator is usually empty. Chris told me that his friend doesn’t understand why his family keeps him at a distance and that most people find him strange. He’s been living on an electrical apprentice stipend of $20 a day for the past five years. Since he lives far from the training site, occasionally he is forced to take a cab. The people who run this sheltered workshop type of arrangement criticize him for taking a cab when he’s paid so little. He’s thinking of quitting.

I suspect that this sheltered workshop arrangement is the final step of the program that they both attended. Chris was encouraged to try out furniture repair after the program ended. Chris never learned furniture repair. The whole experiment fizzled out through lack of interest on his part. Since he emerged from the “recovery” program in pretty marginal shape he didn’t enthusiastically embrace the work. He sat on a chair, sipping a coffee, watching the work, not doing it. The day program had the best of intentions, of course, but, as the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

This sheltered workshop is a “good idea” that doesn’t work for a lot of people, maybe because it’s stigmatizing. It says to the individual that something isn’t right with him while perhaps punishing the individual for living marginally, as was the case with Chris’s friend. Recovery does take a while and one wonders where would the person be if these programs weren’t available. In the absence of an encouraging family that person may well be on the streets.

Being separated from the family can be an outgrowth of the “good intention” approach. I maintain that more families would nurture their relatives if they weren’t put off by the gloomy diagnosis in the first place. Families need to be told that complete recovery is indeed expected and here’s what they can do to help. Instead, the doctors tell us that our children have brain diseases and will have to take medications their entire lives. Maybe they can live productively, but don’t count on it. The medical model encourages sheltered workshops and subsidized housing. The individual becomes a problem from the families’ perspective. People like Chris’s friend are the biggest victims in this way of thinking.

Extending the hand of friendship is a powerful influence on outcomes in people’s lives. Words and gestures can turn lives around.

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