Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Musings, 22 January 2011

Good morning,

The sun has climbed higher in the sky than I usually see as I write on Saturday mornings. I've slept a bit later; had coffee; eaten a Texas Ruby Red grapefruit, peeled; and read the Kansas City Star. I've traded idle pleasantries with my beloved, and kissed him goodbye as he headed for his 9:00 a.m. Board meeting. I washed and put away the breakfast dishes, and read a chapter of a pleasant novel by an Irish author whom I discovered at the public library yesterday. In short, I've done nothing at all, but the casual, first tasks of a day with few obligations other than laundry, and housework, and the running of errands.

I glance about the room, noting the chores to be done. I'm not an obsessive housekeeper. I make the beds; I put away the debris of weekly life; and I beat back the clutter that threatens to overtake my keeping shelf. Once a month, a college student comes for the heavy stuff, and every other week, I run a dust mop across the hardwood floors. Air filters hum between times, and the kitchen counters pine for a swipe at the end of the day.

I'm reflecting on mental illness today: the twist of thinking that drives a man to deep thoughts of self-harm; the jagged rush of chemicals that send a woman into hiding; the vile spread of gelatinous fear that overcomes a teenager just before she walks into a room filled with her chattering, sharp-eyed contemporaries. I have experienced sadness, and anger, and anxiousness; but I have been spared, I think, the kind of malaise that seeps into one's fiber or perhaps, exits within one's very genetic material.

Because I do not suffer genuine mental illness, I do not, truly, understand it.

Above the desk in my law office hangs a painting, intended to depict Venice. I can see it as I work; though more often, I am oblivious to it. The work has hung in every office that I have occupied since I received it from a client ten years or so ago.

Leah was her name. Intense, vibrant, driven; I see her sitting in my old office, an office from another decade, another century. I close my eyes; and her form solidifies. They did this to me, she urges. Make them pay. I gazed, without speaking, as she tried to explain. Then I glanced down at her intake form, where she had written the details of the matter that she wants me to handle. Military benefits.

I took in the gathering drops of sweat rising across the counters of her small face. I observed the tautness of her muscles. I listened as she talked, in rapid, jerky tones, about her time in service, and the young women who came to her, reporting sexual aggression by others. Leah had reported their allegations to her superiors. And they locked me up, and they gave me drugs to keep me from talking, and they made me like this.

The simplest analysis will serve this woman best,
I told myself, gently placing her intake form on my desk. You've got a diagnosis, and it says here, that your illness had nothing to do with your duties in the military. Our eyes met. We both understood the portent of that determination. I want to appeal, she proclaimed. I can pay. My aunt is helping me. She stood, and I could not help myself -- I moved back, rolling my chair a bit further from her as she paced around the large area beside the small conference table at which we sat. She did not notice. I can pay, she repeated. I cautioned her, explained the potential futility of the appeal, the number of hours that I might have to bill, the likelihood of a disappointing outcome. I don't care, she repeated. They did this to me. They did. I wasn't like this before.

The diagnosis appeared multiple times in the small packet of records that she had brought. Paranoid schizophrenia. In the next box, the offending appellation: Non-service connected. No benefits. Medical discharge, back to civilian life, apply for SSI if you can, thanks for giving us four years of your life, we can't use you anymore. But Leah told a wild story of hospitalization, experimental drugs, retribution for defending the women who sought her help, the sexual harassment of whom she protested. If her story could be confirmed, perhaps the determination could be successfully challenged, and she could receive full benefits for a service-connected illness. Perhaps. Perhaps.

I pushed the little pile of papers to one side, and handed her a copy of my standard hourly contract, only briefly wondering if she could be said to be competent to enter into a binding agreement. She signed her name in bold, precise letters, and so, our odyssey began.

I started in the usual way: I filed the appeal, and then requested documents. Leah went back to her apartment, somewhere east of Main, on Linwood, in a tall building where the sick and the old lived in flats that used to be occupied by rick folks with heavy Victorian furniture. Weeks passed; and months; and paperwork dribbled into my files, small little packets of records of Leah's many hospitalizations while in service.

I shuffled the papers, idly, flicking my eyes through the boxes. Suicidal ideation, check. Paranoid thoughts, check. I ran my finger down a list of medications.

Geez louise, I thought. This woman has taken drugs I've never heard of, and most of the ones that I have.

I paced around my office, looking at the two-inch file. There have to be more records than this, I thought. She was in the hospital for six months, maybe more.

I sat down at my computer, and wrote another request for documents to the military attorney handling the defense against my client's claims. I read it several times, changing a word or two, revising my phrasing -- first more snippy, then less; settling on what I decided came across as mildly threatening but not indefensible. Save, print, sign, mail.

A month elapsed. Leah called almost daily at first. I assured her that I would let her know if I got anything more, if any progress had been made. I tried to bear in mind that her diagnosis suggested that she might not believe me, but if her paranoia extended to me, she did not show signs of it. Our conversations consisted of a brief query on her side, a disavowal of progress on mine, and her quiet thanks.

After the second week, she stopped calling. Time passed. We waited.

At the end of the third month, our UPS delivery person came into the office with a dolly full of boxes. Where do you want them, he asked. My secretary pulled me out to the reception area. I counted. Three boxes. I could accommodate those in my office, I suggested. He laughed, then shook his head. There's more.

We co-opted the floor's communal conference room. We arranged six tables in a square around its perimeter, and filled them with the cartons hauled upstairs by the UPS guy, in his brown uniform, his tall, wiry frame straining as he lifted them from his two-wheeler. Who'd this person kill? he asked. I chuckled. Nobody, yet, I assured him.

Fifteen boxes in all. Fifteen boxes, that I had waited more than ninety days to receive, and the contents of which I would now have to review. I called Leah. Good, she said, softly. She had not doubted that the records would come. She had more faith in my letter-writing ability than I did, it seemed.

A day or two later, I got a notice that our hearing date had been set -- in two weeks' time. Two weeks? What's their hurry now, I asked myself. I went across the hall to the cold room where my assistant sat, inventorying the contents of the boxes, and broke the news to him. Can't be done, he announced. I can't inventory these documents in two weeks, and you can't read them in two weeks.

We asked for a postponement on the basis of the delay in providing Leah's medical records. We got it.

The first snow fell. Thanksgiving came, and Christmas. Leah called the office over the Christmas holiday, leaving a message: They've got me -- please help! She left a number, which turned out to be the patient line at a hospital psychiatric unit.

I went to see her just before the new year. Her brown skin streaked with ashy grey, her tight curls awry, wearing a faded flannel robe, she pleaded with me to get her out. I just want to go home. I talked with the doctor on duty. She's not a danger to herself, or to anyone else, he admitted, but we think she should stay. My eyebrows shot up. Why? He shook his head. He was not been the treating physician. He could not explain. My eyebrows went even higher. I'll get a writ, if I need to, I assured him. You'll have to, he said. Not his call.

I went a notch or two up the food chain, sitting in a dingy office, crammed away in the back corridor. The agitated administrator pushed piles of unread mail around on the scratched surface of his putty-colored steel desk, and snatched my client's chart from my hands. The doctor thinks she should stay, he grumbled. But he can't make the standard, I gently reminded, and she wants to leave. The doctor hovered in the background, arms tightly folded across his chest, wearing an expression that aroused my suspicion. Not concern -- not worry for his patient -- something else. Fear.

The two exchanged looks. I thought about the fact that no one knew where I was. Silence surrounded us, palpable, cloying. I did not relent. They did not speak.

After a few moments, during which more meaningful glances passed between the two of them, the doctor relented and signed a discharge order. I hurried out of the office, and found my client. Get your stuff, I told her. Before whoever told them to put you here finds out you're leaving. She changed into street clothes and we hastened to my car.

I parked on the silent, dirty city street where she lived. She fumbled with the damaged handle of the exterior door to her building, then led me past a small assemblage of residents sitting, wordless, in the lobby. Eyes averted, I stayed close to her, trying to ignore the smell of over-cooked coffee that permeated the hallway.

Leah's apartment surprised me. Simply, shabbily furnished, and small, nonetheless, light streamed in through large, clean windows and a floral scent clung to the fabric of the sofa and chair. But most surprising were the large canvasses everywhere: leaning against the walls, on wooden easels in the area that might otherwise be used for a dining table, in the hallway that must have led to a small bedroom.

I stopped, and stared. In vibrant colors, Leah had painted children of Africa. Not tragic, sympathetic poor children, but vibrant, alive, joyful little boys and girls -- with their mothers, with baskets of grain, with each other. In some pictures, she showed just the women, standing in small groups, seemingly engrossed in casual conversation, perhaps casting one disinterested eye over a shoulder at the watching artist. Her people of Africa did not beg for pennies, or bemoan their poverty. They simply lived, with no regard for anyone outside the happy circle of their existence.

On other easels, I saw a few darker works. A woman standing on a city street -- New York, perhaps, I told myself, from the sinister appearance of the alley behind her. Wide, staring eyes; tense body; an absence of peace. The contrast between Western poverty and African richness could not be ignored in Leah's work. Have you been there, I asked her. Have you seen these villages that you're painting? She shook her head. She gestured to a pile of magazines, from which, I presumed, she got some inspiration. Then she pointed to the picture of the woman on the streets of an American city, saying simply, But I've been there.

I left her, listening as she slid the brass chain into its slot. I walked more slowly down to the lobby than I had come up through it, and nodded, briefly, to the people sitting on plastic chairs. They did not return my greeting. I pulled my coat tight around me, and went home.

Over the next week, my assistant and I read the records. Entry after entry about Leah's illness -- its progression, its symptoms, its seriousness. We began to lose hope that we could prove anything of what she had told us. We found no mention of her having reported the other women's complaints of sexual impropriety by officers; we found no account of the experiments that she claimed had made her ill. We began to take a dimmer view of our attempts to have her mental state attributed to anything that happened to her while she was in service, which finding we would have to secure in order to get the benefits she wanted.

The new hearing date drew closer. I had spoken to Leah just a few times since her discharge from the hospital. She seemed to be doing well. She talked about taking classes at the local community college; she mentioned the possibility that her works might be shown. She asked if we had found anything. She did not get upset with my reply.

And then, just days before we were to have the hearing, as I read the last file, in the last box, I found what I had read through fifteen hundred reams of medical records to discover. One line, in one paragraph, on one page, of one month's reports. This patient would not be likely to have experienced any of these symptoms but for the medications given to her during the initial hospitalization. And the signature, legible, bold: A doctor in the branch of service in which my client had served.

I sat on hold while a clerk got the doctor's number for me. I sat on hold while a nurse looked for him. I sat on hold waiting for him to come to the phone, after he had been located. He spoke his name into the receiver. I identified myself, and explained the purpose of my call. A silence fell over the line. Finally, he said, calmly, I've been waiting for your call.

A few days later, I had official confirmation of what I had negotiated on the strength of the doctor's statements to me, which he put in writing. Full benefits. Permanent, full disability, service-connected. I called my client and let her know. She, too, met my words with silence; she, too, finally spoke in a gentle voice: Thank you.

Several months later, Leah called me. Her bill had been paid in full; her benefits had, presumably, had commenced. I had sent the fifteen boxes to storage, and restored the conference room to communal usability. Her case had receded into the history of my work as a solo practitioner -- one for the "W" column.

I've got something for you, Leah said. And I've gotten something for your son, too. I reflected, but only briefly. Come to my house for coffee on Sunday, I suggested. I had been to her house; it seemed only right that she should come to mine.

The doorbell summoned me that Sunday, promptly at the scheduled hour. Leah stood on my screen porch, with a large canvas covered in a sheet. She held a Tonka truck, still in its box but unwrapped. My son's eyes widened as she gave it to him. She pulled the canvas into the living room, and gently pulled the sheet down, revealing her painting of Venice.

On the back, she had written a simple sentence, thanking me for my work, and signing it, in red ink, with her full name.

The house has grown still. I've sat at this computer longer than I had planned. My legs have stiffened; my wrenched hip protests. The phone has rung but I have ignored it; I hope the caller did not take offense. I shake my head, and sniff the cup on my writing table, wrinkling my nose at the acrid smell of cold coffee. From downstairs, I hear the yowl of a cat urging me to come and turn on the water in the bathroom sink. I'll go and do her bidding, and then put on a kettle for tea. After a while, perhaps I'll start on the second chapter of my book.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.