This is going to come under the category of “one of those blog posts that is hard to write.” It’s one where you have to dig deep to feel the rhythm of your own heart beating, glimpse your soul in the mirror, and somehow make the two connect with your fingertips as you type on your ash-laden keyboard.
I would first like to give credit to some bloke I don’t even know, and his own piece, WHY! Do you really want know why a psychiatric patient would shoot at his case manager and doctor? It takes courage to write about love and things that matter with honesty.
To understand my own story, I’ll have to quickly repeat and summarize a bit of my background that I’ve shared in prior posts. I inherited my beloved father’s eye condition, and so I’m considered by ophthalmologists, and thankfully, the United States federal government, to be “legally blind.” My daddy died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 5 years old, leaving me an only child to be raised by my mother, who was also disabled.
By age 7 or 8, I had been sexually abused by my mother’s boyfriend. She didn’t protect me. I attended the state school for the blind where I grew up. When I reached adolescence, it dawned on me that I had no interest in boys. I didn’t even know the word “lesbian,” but finally put two and two together, and figured this word must describe “me.” But this realization only papered over my secret knowledge, flickering across my mindscape when I was about 3 or 4 years old — I’m playing with my little olive-colored plastic toy soldiers, and it strikes me that something is wrong. I have a girl’s body and everyone thinks I’m a girl, but I feel like a boy.
So adolescence comes stampeding, and I get labeled a lesbian. I am ostracized by everyone, and halfway through 9th grade, I’m forced to leave the school for the blind and enter public school. Me, and hideously thick glasses which made me an automatic target for relentless bullying.
I’d had so much pain, I decided that I wanted to become a therapist, and help other people know love. I wanted to fight for the underdogs and make the world a more just and kind place. During this period of despair was when I made several serious but silly suicide attempts which I’ve written about in previous blog posts. Failed attempts only because I didn’t know what would “work” and what wouldn’t work.
God only knows how i survived high school, but when I entered college, there was no doubt whatsoever that I would major in psychology. Now, the problem was that I came from a very working class family, and i was the first person in my extended clan to attend university. I was blessed with good intelligence, and my final GPA was 3.78.
A side note about intelligence… When I was a kid, it was a curse. I won awards and came out at the top of every spelling bee. This only made me feel different, and garnered me more childish ridicule. Apparently, when I’d started kindergarten, I’d been given an IQ test. No one bothered to tell me. I don’t know what my IQ is and I don’t care. I was in my 30’s when a family friend happened to mention the intelligence test and that I’d scored in the “genius” range. Couldn’t believe it!! I asked my mother why she hadn’t told me, and her reply was, “I didn’t want you to get big-headed.” So, I’m not bragging — exactly the opposite. If I’d been told, I would have had some means of understanding why there was one more reason why I was different from every other kid.
Anyway, I was in college, studying psychology, and I absorbed everything like a sponge. But it wasn’t until my junior year I discovered that to make a career of being a therapist, one had to complete something called “graduate school.” I’d never even heard of graduate school — most of my relatives hadn’t even completed their high school diplomas.
Well, my academic adviser was a guy named Ralph. I had not only a “dual” relationship with him, but a “triple” relationship with Ralph. He was my academic adviser, and since I worked for him doing work-study at the counseling center, Ralph was my boss. And I attended a “rap group” he led, which meant that he was also my “therapist.” One day, there will have to be a whole post devoted to Ralph, but the long and the short of it was that he discouraged me from applying to master’s programs in psychology because it was “hard for women to get admitted.”
Even against Ralph’s encouragement, I applied to the graduate program in social work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. And was accepted. However, four forces worked against me.
- My partner and I had to move from Arkansas to Tennessee, and both of us were homesick.
- My eye problems were neverending, and I was continuing to require one surgery after another.
- Almost all of the field placements involved traveling into the Smoky Mountains to serve the poverty-stricken families there, and since I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t find transportation into the mountains.
- My mother had demanded that I attend college — a goal I already had set for myself — but she seemed to think that once I’d finished my bachelor’s degree, that I should be working instead of “going to school forever.”
The transportation hurdle was the deal-breaker. So I had to quit the program, and I got a job on campus as a clerk-typist at the university — and lucky for me, it was in the college’s Department of Computer Services. That’s where I first learned about computers and began my love affair with them. But being homesick and no longer taking classes, my partner and I moved back to Arkansas after 6 months.
I took a job as an accounting clerk at my alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, sometimes not-so-affectionately known as the University of Last Resort. Times were good, but the work was tedious. I thought I could and should do more. After a couple of years, I decided to try again for my master’s degree in social work, and was accepted into the MSSW program at my alma mater.
It was a fast track program designed to be completed in 18 months. I completed the first half of the program with great success. My initial field placement was at the Mid-South Center on Alcohol Problems. It was the second field placement that was important for our career planls. I selected the Arkansas State Hospital — the government run facility which treated the kinds of patients I wanted to help. Three other students chose this placement along with me.
Unfortunately for all of us, the field supervisor who was to oversee our training resigned at the last minute. The school of social work was in a real bind, and so we were all placed at Rogers Hall instead. Rogers Hall was the forensic unit of the Arkansas State Hospital, the place that housed the criminally insane. At the time of our placement there, the facility was under investigation and intense press scrutiny for some sort of malfeasance. The staff was demoralized. Our field instructor was a zombie. The conditions were deplorable. And there is nothing quite like walking into a building and hearing a heavy metal door clank locked behind you…
Our “job” as social work students was to take psychosocial histories of inmates sent by the court to determine whether they were “sane” enough to go to trial. We were one little cog in the wheel. The staff social workers, the psychologists, and the psychiatrists all did their part in completing the court-ordered evaluations. We gathered weekly for team meetings to discuss cases and present our findings.
The hallways were institutional and dimly lit. One day I was given a little tour by a staff social worker. He pointed out the door behind which the most notorious inmates were entombed, and began to describe some of the “patients.” There was a long-time inmate, the social worker told me, who had hacked off his mother’s head and left it on a church altar.
In taking the psychosocial histories, we students entered a locked room which held nothing but a metal table and two chairs. The inmate was brought inside, and sat across from us. The inmate was not in handcuffs or restrained in any way. We were told to yell if we had any problems, but not to count on a guard being present to unlock the door. The questions we had to ask for the evaluation were long and detailed.
Two cases stand out in my memory. In the first, the inmate was accused of incest with his young daughter. He was floridly psychotic, and I could do nothing to get him to answer my questions succinctly or on topic. Hours with the man and triggered the whole time.
The second case involved a young man who was accused of armed robbery. He was cooperative and I listened to his story intently. As it unfolded, he talked about cross-dressing. I assumed he might be transgendered, and / or that he might have a personality disorder. After I’d spent my time with him doing the evaluation, the next day, the students were given a stroll past the cells where the inmates we were evaluating were held. As I walked past the young man’s cell, he hollered with delight, “There’s my social worker!”
Once, we were given the opportunity to observe a psychiatrist interview a patient on the “normal” wards — i.e., not in the forensic unit. The psychiatrist was in his white coat, and the patient was a man who was perhaps 30 years old with a neatly trimmed beard. The psychiatrist engaged the patient in conversation, and he was lucid, friendly, and well-spoken. Until the psychiatrist began asking the man about his Navy career… Turned out, the patient had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, thought he was being monitored by the government through a filling in his tooth, and that his father was in a conspiracy to get him black-balled from the Navy. I make no judgment — I only listened.
The team meetings at Rogers Hall were macabre. For some reason, they were scheduled when the inmates were required to have their morning showers. We’d sit in a room — the students, the staff social workers, the psychologists, and the psychiatrists — discussing each case and presenting our findings. There was one inmate who believed he was incarcerated in a German concentration camp, and so every time he was taken to shower, his shrieks of horror would bounce off the concrete walls.
As I mentioned, our field instructor was a zombie. She gave us no guidance on how to take the psychosocial histories, nor asked us about our own feelings in dealing with the inmates. She was as useless as a piece of dried cabbage. Me, as I am today, I would have dived into this environment with gusto, learned all I could, and tried to see what I could do to make a difference. But back then, I was nothing short of terrified. I felt like I was enduring my own concentration camp shower. It was all too much… My vision impairment, still in my petite female body, dealing with people who might have committed all sorts of crimes, and being locked in a room with them unrestrained… Too much!!
I stuck it out as long as I could, and then I went and had a talk with the dean of the school of social work. I told the dean what was happening at the placement, and that I just couldn’t do it any more. She graciously and sympathetically accepted my resignation. She explained that it was too late to switch me to a different placement, but that I would be automatically accepted if I wanted to return the following year. I didn’t.
Later on, I completed my bachelor of science degree in computer science and worked as a systems engineer. Life took its own course, with my various relationships, my experience of being on the other side of the coin at St. Elizabeth’s, and my transitioning from female to male. More eye surgeries, and then no longer able to work, etc, etc.
Just before I met my wife, things were getting on track again. I still held close that dream of being a therapist and helping people and making a difference. I would have to go back and look at my records, but I guess I was about 50 years old by then. I took the GRE again, applied to the graduate school of social work at Catholic University of America, and was accepted. This was one of the top 15 such programs in the nation.
I was offered a full scholarship, but then I had my next curve ball. As a Catholic institution, I knew that the school was very conservative. I had talked to several graduates who happened to be gay. Over all, they were mostly positive. Many of them had gotten through the program while being openly gay. But I was transgendered, and as far as I could assess, that was new territory.
When I was awarded financial aid, the school needed my old financial records from the University of Arkansas. But I’d had my female name back then, and the financial aid office couldn’t match the records. To sort out the bureaucratic nightmare, I would have had to disclose that I was transgendered. I did attempt to get copies of my old financial aid records from Arkansas, but they had been stored away in dust-covered boxes that couldn’t be found. I didn’t feel like being the guinea pig transgendered student. I was tired of being different. My only other option would have been to take out a $40,000 loan to pay for my tuition, and at 50 years of age, that was a risky venture I wasn’t willing to take. And so I declined the offer of acceptance into the program, and my last feather of hope flew away.
I note with some irony that my former partner, Kim, earned her PhD in social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After we broke up, she eventually found a new love, and the last I heard of her, she’d moved to Manchester, England, to be with her partner and is practicing social work there. Me, I met my British wife-to-be and ended up learning a little more about psychopaths and psychopathy than I ever wanted to know, certainly more than I learned at Rogers Hall or St. Elizabeth’s. I don’t begin to understand the twists and turns of life, but ain’t it strange?
Mental illness is a complex domain, and the missing ingredient is love. I tend to side with R. D. Laing, and Thomas Szasz. We’ve created categories for things that don’t exist, or for things that might exist, but not in the way society defines them. The real mental illness is when someone chooses to do wrong, to hurt others, when they know better and can do better.
Buried between the pain and disappointment, I still want to help people. I hope my blog is adding some light to this world in a small way.
Thank you, Mr. TAKINGTHEMASKOFF, for helping me share my story! Keep on doing what you are doing.
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