The Schizophrenic Gatekeeper
Each day between 10am and noon I am approached by 100 adult schizophrenics asking me for cash. They might use the money to buy drugs and alcohol. They might use the money to bring prostitutes back to their single occupancy bedroom at the St. Francis residence home in Manhattan, or they might hoard the bills inside their sock drawer or underneath their mattress. It's my responsibility to read the faces, energy, and intentions of each of them in order to detect whether or not they will use the money for basic needs like food and clothing, or use the money to enhance a personal delusion that could lead to decompensation, hallucinations, panic attacks, command voices and hospitalization. Although not every day on the job is as intense of meaningful as this description, I still believe the Universe posted me at this job to learn something important. In the apprenticeship of life I consider myself to be something of a gatekeeper.
I have relatively little understanding of the global economy or the financial crisis. I never studied finance or economics. I have a hard time balancing my meager checkbook, and I don't even have a savings account. I live paycheck to paycheck and am immersed in student debt. I have no collateral, and I live in a rough black neighborhood in Brooklyn. The financial decisions I make each day only seem to effect the people I serve and the store keepers of a few city blocks surrounding the residence home in Chelsea. But the small lessons I am learning about money consistently seem bigger than the desk I sit behind. With Wall Street only a short mile away from me on the South end of the Island I can't help but wonder if my financial lessons aren't but a microcosm of the big story.
It was a year ago I sat in an Ayahuasca ceremony led by Don Guillermo at the Spirit of the Anaconda healing center in Iquitos, Peru. It was my fifth trip to the Amazon to work with Ayahuasca, each one of my trips funded by student loans and measly graduate assistantships. At home in the United States I was finishing my MFA thesis and preparing to graduate. I had applied to over 100 English teaching positions around the country but nothing panned out. Before Guillermo arrived into the mesa to begin the ceremony I talked to the man next to me in the circle: a psychiatrist from New York who was working on a medical research project in the USA with a team of doctors who would administer psycilocibic mushrooms to terminally ill cancer patients. The goal of the project, as Jeff explained to me, was to attempt to use mushrooms to lessen the fear and anxiety of death.
"It's not death I'm afraid of anymore," I replied. "At least I'm doing better with death during my ceremonies these days. It's more the fear of losing my sanity and never coming back. Like I will have a schizophrenic break."
"Have you ever known a schizophrenic?"
"No," I said.
"I work part-time at a residence home that houses 100 adult schizophrenics. It takes a lot of compassion to work with schizophrenics," Jeff said. "Ayahuasca has actually taught me a lot about being a good doctor for schizophrenics."
"I would love to do something like that," I said, romantically.
Jeff smiled. "It takes a lot of patience and hard work."
"Oh it must," I replied unknowingly.
When Guillermo poured my cup of Ayahuasca I asked the medicine to bring a vision regarding my professional future. What should I do next? Show me where to walk.
Throughout the ceremony I feared once again that I would lose my sanity and never return. I vomited and dry heaved and cried off and on throughout the night, wondering who I was. As I purged I heard the name of the residence home Jeff had spoken of: St. Francis Friends of the Poor. In my mind's eye I was taken back to my family cottage in Michigan. I had spent two years in my first masters degree living on 80 acres of dense woodland forest. In the garden behind the small cottage I saw the stone Statue of St. Francis. While withdrawing from a month long oxycotin binge I had crawled deliriously out of the cottage and to his stone feet. I had said a prayer: Please help me St. Francis. I am losing my mind. I feel so alone. Help me stay sober this time. As the colorful memory replayed in my head, feeling old drugs being cleaned from my body, the icaros trickling like water throughout the mesa, I heard Jeff whisper to me, "Adam. I just saw the perfect job for you in New York."
One year later I am the money manager and an art/activities therapist at St. Francis Friends of the Poor. On Tuesdays I lead a creative writing and photography group during the afternoon. On Thursdays I take the residents to the matinees, and every single day I manage the flux and flow of thousands of dollar bills worth of disability income: SSI, SSD, VA. I have come to understand many things through the nature of my work. Among them, three lessons seem universally relevant.
1. Money and Ownership are Concepts: for the lives of the people I serve, money and ownership are mostly concepts and defense mechanisms.
"Adam, good news! The Lord provides!" Deidra's pitch black faced beamed with the light of hope. "Father John says we have to spend our money, and Lord knows I need it, Adam. I need it."
Deidra's reaction to the Social Security spend-down was especially charismatic. In 1973 the government determined that people of this particular demographic are only allowed to possess $2,000 at any given time or they are not eligible for their SSI benefits. When I was given the news that a federal audit was taking place, I knew the spend-down was inevitable. People like Deidra who had saved a little extra over the years would have to be spent down right away.
"We have to spend the money slowly, Deidra," I said. "You can have $150 today, but I need receipts from you by this afternoon. If you spend the money wisely and show me all of your receipts, then we will spend your account down until it's at $2000 dollars. Each day we will spend a little more until you're finished. But if you buy alcohol again, then we'll just send the money back to the government, ok. Sound like a deal?"
"Thank you, Adam. God Bless you, Adam."
When I give Deidra her money, she purchases hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. She brings me the receipts and smiles like it's Christmas morning in Manhattan. Then she proceeds to take the groceries into her bedroom and throw them out her third story window into the back alley of 22nd street. The two Latino janitors collect the fresh deli wrapped packages of meat and take them home for their families.
"Deidra, why did you throw out your groceries? I can't give you money if you're going to waste your purchases."
"I love to shop, Adam. Lord knows I love to shop."
Deidra is cheerful for the rest of the week. She does not poop her pants. I don't have to tell her to change. She showers and puts on clean shoes and clothing. And her smile lasts all week. I think to myself, money is a concept for Deidra. I'm going to give her more. Who cares if she throws away her purchases? It's not the product; it's the process Deidra enjoys. Better that she spends her money than the government takes it from her and shoots dice at Wall Street.
"Here's another $150," I tell Deidra on a Friday afternoon.
"Should I bring you back the receipt, Adam?"
"No, I trust you, Deidra. Enjoy grocery shopping and have a good weekend. You can show me what you bought on Monday; if there's anything left." I smiled, but Deidra looked worried.
"You sure?" she asks me.
"I'm sure," I said. "Why not go to Whole Foods this time. Might as well support the good stuff." My coworkers laughed with me.
On Monday morning, Deidra is missing. The front desk diary over the weekend tells the story. Saturday night Deidra knocks on her neighbor's door. She's holding a picture of Jesus. The glass picture frame is broken and there is blood on her fingers. She asks her neighbor for help. She's trying to get Jesus out from behind the glass. She's drunk. Her neighbor thinks she wants help repairing the picture frame. She gets frustrated with her neighbor and she leaves the residence home in the middle of the night. She does not report for her medications Sunday morning. Two more days pass without any trace of Deidra. At the residence home we contact local hospitals and shelters without any luck.
Deidra returns early Wednesday morning smelling like poop and urine. The front desk logs her return into the diary. She runs her hands through her hair when she sees me for her daily money.
"I'm sorry, Adam," she says.
"Where were you, Deidra? We were worried about you."
"I'm sorry Adam. I didn't spend the money on booze. I promise." She lies to me.
"I'm sorry I gave the money to you, Deidra. Where were you?"
"Everywhere," she says with a look of terror and amazement in her eyes.
"How did you find your way back?" I ask.
"Almighty God," she says. "I'm not gunna buy things no more, Adam," she says. "I'll just grocery shop from now on. How's my balance?"
"Better," I said. "You're doing good."
To Deidra, it seems to me anyway, spending money correctly means shopping without holding onto a product. And for Deidra consuming a product means wasting her money on a drug and losing her mind as a result. To some extent I am just like Deidra. When I find something that makes me happy it generally does not feel as though anything is lost or any debt incurred. And if I do accrue any debt it's only by the grace of something surpassing my understanding that I find a healthy balance again.
2. I Can Afford an Exorcism: for the lives of the people I serve, having imaginary money hoarded away is a last line of defense against insanity.
One of my residents, named Eduardo, returned from the hospital this week after decompensating so badly with command voices that he gave us his last will and testament one morning. He was sure he would soon lose the battle to what he calls his "demonic entity." When he finally returned from a month long stay at the psych ward, he looked defeated and collapsed inside and out. His body was weak, his eyes half closed, his jowly mouth sagged, and he could barely speak. When he came back to the resident home he was so drugged up on anti-psychotics and anti-depressants he could barely speak.
"It's good to see you, Eduardo," I said. "How are you doing?"
A look of panic crossed Eduardo's face and he began laughing. His coke bottle glasses shook and he started to cry. Then he stopped abruptly and sighed. He didn't respond.
"How much money do I have left in my account?"
"You have around $5000 dollars, Eduardo," I said. I made sure not to remind him of the spend down for the moment.
"I might," he paused. Then he lost his train of thought and stared off into space.
"You might what, Eduardo?"
"Just as long as the money is in there, ok," he said.
"Did you want to get something?" I asked.
"An exorcism, if I can afford it," he replied. "Someday," he added.
Since I have known Eduardo, before he was forced to take medications even, Eduardo has spoken of saving his money for an exorcism. When his psychiatrists have attempted to contact local shamans or holy men to perform the miracle for Eduardo, Eduardo has refused their offers. When it comes down to it, even if I tell Eduardo the exorcism will be free of charge, Eduardo will not go forward with an exorcism. At the very last moment he will say things like, "I'll use the money to join the YMCA instead," or "I will get a computer and write my book. I can't afford the exorcism yet. I can beat this thing." Of course Eduardo never joins the YMCA and never buys a computer either. Being able to "afford healing" is the pathological medication Eduardo uses to convince himself that someday he will fit back into the modern life he lived before he was taken hostage by his entity in his mid twenties (what is often called a schizophrenic break).
This is how it goes for most of my residents. If they don't waste their money or use it on drugs, it's common for them to use the idea of money as the far away hope of return to a "normal" life. To some extent I know that I am just like Eduardo. The hopes and dreams that I have of publishing books or becoming a great professor. Or the way in which I will buy myself things I do not need with money I do not have to spend in order to create an image of myself that is not real. Metaphorically I end up paying back debts all of the time, always saying to myself in one form or another, "Yes. Someday I will pay for the exorcism. Someday I will take care of that entity. I can afford to do it later."
3. Not Surprisingly, Love is All You Need: for the lives of my residents, the smallest tokens of love are the most renewable and healing resources I have to give them.
A woman named Henrietta in my writing group has started to smile a bit more since writing about her childhood sharecropping days in rural Georgia.
A Vietnam veteran named Leon stopped purchasing flowers for the office when his favorite nurse retired from the residence home. He started writing dark poetry about demons and "the rich white man of New York." I shared with him what love I saw in his dark poetry, and his poetry changed. Leon bought orange roses for the new nurse and is smiling again.
I apologized in private to Deidra about not watching her more carefully and said that I was sorry I didn't take better care of her. Very sincerely, like a Grandmother, she said to me, "I forgive you, Adam. But don't let it happen again, ok?"
Another one of my residents named Mark purchased a flat screen television with his social security money. He was angry that the government forced him to spend his extra money, but after I took him to the store and helped him pick the "coolest" television we could find together, and after I helped him learn the remote control and dvd player, Mark is smiling again. "I don't know how to work that thing," he says, waving his hands around the way he always does. "I don't even watch it," he says. His fingers dance in the air. "Maybe you could help me again, though?" His hands calm and his shoulders drop.
"Help you with what?" I ask.
"I don't know, anything," Mark says.
Eduardo comes to writing group drugged out of his mind and asks me to edit his book for him. It's a 75-page memoir he wrote called, One Soul's Journey Toward God. The essay chronicles a life more difficult than mine has ever been and will probably ever be.
"How did you write this?" I ask Eduardo.
"I wrote it five years ago," he says. "On my computer."
"So why do you keep saying you're going to buy a new computer if you already have one?"
"I threw the old one out when I was finished my memoir. But now I think I might write a sequel."
I had not believed Eduardo could ever use the money for something real. I thought that his money was just a security device, but not something he could ever use constructively. Maybe he had it in him to pay for the exorcism someday after all.
"I'm happy to look at this book for you," I say. I write Eduardo pages of feedback from the deepest place of compassion I can find within my heart. When I see him again I say, "What will your sequel be about?"
"Well, I want to add more to the first story," he says. "Things are trickier now because I'm on medications, and I can't think clearly. It makes it harder to deal with my demon."
A resident named Frank sits and reads about the financial crisis in the New York Times every single day. During my photography group I ask him, "What do you suppose will happen with all these money problems in the world?"
"We'll learn whatever lesson we need to learn I suppose," he says.
"That's very wise of you," I say, quite knowingly, as if wisdom should be rare for an elderly schizophrenic man.
"Well, you tell me," he answers swiftly. "You're the money man."
"I have no idea," I say, honestly. I take a deep breath. "I promise you I don't."
Although I admittedly have little understanding of Wall Street or the depth of what the financial crisis means or what the future holds for our society, I suppose I'm doing the best I can by the position appointed to me. I believe the Universe gave me this post at St. Francis, and I am learning how to love and serve the people bound to my duty. I choose to see myself as a very imperfect gatekeeper between strange dimensions for 100 people of a kind I used to fear the most, a people I used to see myself as separate from. Now more than ever, I realize that while I am blessed for much of my health and the relatively small size of my personal growth issues, I am not so different in spirit from my schizophrenic residents.
In the end, each one of us has a gate to keep and a position in life to learn from. Perhaps our societal money crisis has placed each one of us into a similar position, each one of us having to make value judgments with little real understanding of the future or the big picture. I will keep working humbly at this troubling gate until I've learned its wisdom.
(This story is based on true events, but names and places have been changed to protect the privacy of people involved)