Moments of Clarity
I arrived at Pathways at 1 pm. I figured people would still be eating at 12:30 so I wanted it to clear out before starting. I gave away the shampoo, conditioner and lotion I collected during my vacation. I also brought paperback novels, which disappeared in about 10 minutes. I’m going to wait awhile before buying more books because most took two or three books. I spied an L. Ron Hubbard book that was already there when I put the books on the shelf. “What the hell is that doing there?” I thought. L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology, an organization that is profusely anti-psychiatry.
“Did you bring me jeans?” Bonnie asked as I began putting Crayola markers on the table.
“I’m sorry. I forgot,” I said.
“Do you have something I can draw on?” asked a short, chubby woman I’d never seen before.
“Yes.” I gave her a sketch pad and 2B drawing pencil.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
A short, stumpy man asked, “What is this?”
Arts and crafts. I usually come by every Tuesday. You can color, draw or make a collage,” I said.
“What’s a collage?”
“You glue magazine pictures onto card board,” I told him.
“I love art, but I’m more musical.”
“Yeah. I love it when he plays piano. I could listen to him all day,” Grace commented. Pathways has an old piano in the foyer.
“Were you here for the re-opening?” I asked Grace.
“No. I was in the hospital for COPD when the TV room burned down. I had stashed my stuff there before I went in and now I’ve lost everything. Do you have clothes?”
“What size do you want?”
“Ten or twelve.”
“I have some, but they’re up in my attic. I don’t know when I can get to them, but I’ll try.”
Grace drew two doves. It was impressive.
“Do you mind if I take a picture of that and put it in a blog I write about Pathways?” I asked, hoping she’d let me do it.
“After you finish with the pencil, can you go over some of it with a marker so I can get a better shot?”
I gave Grace a box of Skittles.
“Do you want some?” Grace asked a man reading a National Geographic.
“No, that’s ok. I don’t like them,” he answered.
“I’m looking for a one man tent. Do you have that?” Grace asked me.
A large, imposing woman confronted Bonnie. “You cut in front of me. It’s my turn to use the phone.”
“Go home. I got here before you and you cut in front of me.”
“I did not. I was here before you.” The large woman stomped off.
“Bitch. Go home.” Bonnie said after the woman was out of ear shot.
”I’ll make a cat collage in 20 minutes after I use the phone and smoke a cigarette,” Bonnie told me while leafing through a “Cat Fancy” magazine. “This looks just like Goldie. He was run over 2 weeks ago,” she told me and pointed to a tabby. She put the magazine down and stood up.
After Bonnie left, the large woman came back to the table and asked Grace, “What’s going on?”
“I’m drawing. You did good by walking away.”
“Yeah.” The large woman said as she walked back toward the kitchen. I wondered if she intended to complain to the manager about Bonnie.
A man brought his meal over at the head of the table. He had curly hair. “There’s something I want to say but I won’t say it,” he said.
“Then don’t say it,” Grace said.
“What’s your name?” I asked the man.
“Kevin.” He pushed his plate of tuna casserole aside and picked up a National Geographic. He held up an ad for Rosetta Stone.
“This is awesome. The library had this. They cut funding so it messed me up.”
“I tried to learn Spanish with it when they had it,” I said.
“Yeah, so was I. I was hoping to be speaking Spanish in a month. It messed me up, funding cuts.”
“I’m gonna go out and smoke me a cigarette.” Grace said after finishing her drawing.
Bonnie returned. “My second husband died 2 days ago.”
“I’m sorry about that,” I said.
“He was in prison. I saw it coming. No one has the money to cremate him.”
“My son Jason’s going to jail for lack of child support,” Bonnie continued. “I have no pity for him. Now all 4 of my husbands have died in the past 4 years. Drugs and alcohol. Black widow. I’m not because I was with none of them.”
A man with a baseball cap and a piece of synthetic purple hair hanging over his left ear who sat by one of Pathways’ computers turned up the volume of Van Halen’s cover of “Dancing in the Street.”
“Turn the music down,” Bonnie said, raising her voice. “I can’t stand loud music.”
“I hate it too except when I’m drunk,” Grace said as she sat down and started a second drawing.
“Me too except now that I’m sober it gives me a headache.” Bonnie turned to me. “My daughter makes good money. She has a 2 year old son. She’ll talk to me, but I’ve never seen my grandson. I did too much damage when I drank. It’ll take a while. My son is in jail because he didn’t pay child support,” she repeated. “I have no sympathy for him. Don’t take it out on your kid even if he hates his ex. My daughter makes her son number one. She makes good money because she manages at a life insurance company.”
Bonnie once told me she has Bipolar Disorder. I wondered if she was taking her medications. A symptom of mania is jumping from subject to subject.
“My hand is having a spasm,” Grace said.
“Do you need water?” asked Kevin.
“No. I’ll be fine after a cigarette. Watch this for me Bonnie.”
Bonnie showed me a collage filled with pictures of both wild and domestic cats. She asked if she could keep an article on the seasons of grief. I told her she could, but I wasn’t sure what magazine she got it from. All I bring in is “National Geographic”, “Wired” and “In Style.” I brought in the “Cat Fancy” magazine because a few weeks before she asked for it.Then I noticed a bunch of “Ladies Home Journal” magazines perched on top of the board games piled up in the corner.
“One day vegetables will come from the sea, not dirt,” Kevin said, “We only know about one percent of the sea.”
“I’ve heard that before,” I said.
“The swimmer who swam from Cuba to Florida wore a dark suit to keep sharks away. They like bright colors.” Bonnie told him.
Grace gave her dove drawing to a skinny black girl. “Can you sharpen this for me?” she asked me as she held out a green colored pencil.
I sharpened it for her.
“Thank you baby.”
Theo, who had been silently working on a collage, held up his work to scrutinize it. I couldn’t recall when he joined us. I looked at Theo closely. I had always thought he was in his late twenties or early thirties, but after looking at him I realized he is balding and has deep furrows in his brow and around his eyes. Why didn’t I look closer at him before? I look closely at the women all the time. I can tell from looking at Bonnie that she was once beautiful. Her four husbands and all the drinking and smoking she did took a toll on her looks. Her teeth are stained and almost black around the edges of her front teeth. Beyond that, I can’t say more. I’ve probably said too much. I describe Pathways’ clients vaguely on purpose. I have to hide their identities.
Grace is chubby, wrinkled and has coarse brown hair that’s turning gray. Several people asked for her dove drawing before she gave it to the skinny black girl. Her second drawing depicted a butterfly sitting on a flower. I liked the doves. There was another woman who came in a few times before the fire that brought her own pencils. She usually came in right before I had to leave. She drew well too, but her style was different from Grace’s. She drew realistically and was formally trained to draw. Grace has natural talent, but very little training. Her drawings are simpler and more stylized. I know this because when I first went to college I majored in Fine Art until my junior year. I wonder why the other woman never drew what she saw at Pathways, but drew pictures from fashion magazines. You would think she could make quick, gestural drawings of Pathways’ surroundings. It would have been a better use of her talent, but now that I think of it, it’s probably against the rules.
Grace went outside for a smoke several times. Smoking helps mentally ill people think better for a short time. Smoking gives them a concentrated rush of nicotine. Many of Pathways’ clients smoke. They can’t afford it, but they buy it anyway. They can’t afford rent and there’s a three year wait on subsidized housing so why not smoke and think more clearly for a few minutes? I don’t think Grace has made the connection that a lot of her COPD is exacerbated by smoking, but maybe those few precious minutes of relief make it worthwhile. It’s hard to tell.
According to a New York Times article and several studies I looked at, smoking can increase concentration and attention for a short time, but mentally ill people who quit smoking often need lower doses of their medication after they quit. The mentally ill may be more genetically susceptible to addiction. Smokers with serious mental illnesses smoke more than mentally healthy smokers. I considered the fact that being exposed to others in their peer group who smoke may provide incentive to join in order to fit in. Up until a few years ago, patients in hospitals were given smoking breaks to reward compliance. There are plenty of environmental and cognitive incentives for mentally ill people to smoke. Smoking is higher in poor populations. That’s why the mentally ill who use the public mental health system die an average of 25 years earlier than the general population. For people at Pathways like Grace, who is homeless, mentally ill and has COPD, the short term reward of satisfying cravings and fleeting cognitive benefits outweighs the expense and destruction of her physical health.