Shield Man

Not far from one of the bridges where I work is an abandoned building covered with graffiti. A homeless guy is squatting in one of the sheds on the property. He likes to carry a bright pink shield that he seems to have fashioned out of scrap wood, duct tape and a plastic bag. He isn’t doing anyone any harm. He’s a lot safer there than he would be squatting under some overpass like the majority of the mentally ill in Seattle seem to do.

But the other day I saw four teenage boys descend on the place. They were probably only looking for someplace out of the rain to smoke weed. They went into the dark building and disappeared. This rousted shield man from his shed, and he started patrolling the perimeter of the property, brandishing his pink shield. He paced back and forth, back and forth, for about 15 minutes. I was actually kind of scared for him, because these four young men could have easily taken him out if they wanted to, in spite of his protection, or perhaps because of it.

Finally the boys left the building and watched shield man pace for a minute or two. They were obviously thinking. I contemplated calling the police before someone got hurt, but they would have kicked shield man out of his shed, too, and he’d be a lot worse off. So I simply watched nervously. First sign of trouble I was going to get on the phone.

Finally the boys left, and shield man went to where they had been standing and indignantly tamped out their reefer butts. Clearly he has some form of pride of place. He then went back into his shed. Crisis averted.

I can’t even imagine what this man’s life is like. He’s all alone in his damp metal shed with only his shield to keep him company. But he’s doing the best he can. Aren’t we all? Or are we? We should be able to do better for men like him.


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Important Story, but Wrong Angle

It seems that a man in Oklahoma beheaded a former coworker. When you read about this, much is made of the fact that this guy had recently converted to Islam, and was trying to convert others as well. Apparently authorities are investigating his background.

When you read about this story from a variety of sources, several words and phrases jump to the forefront. “Muslim”, “Islam”, “Sharia Law”. What you aren’t seeing, and what seems blatantly obvious to me, is “Mentally Ill” and “Untreated”. Why is no one talking about this? This guy is a nut job. He needs help. Pure and simple.

The fact that his particular brand of crazy was focused on twisting a religion and taking it to a violent extreme is not, repeat, NOT an indictment of that religion. Yes, he spouted a lot of religious stupidity on his Facebook page. He could have just as easily decided he was the next messiah and that the rapture (another twisting of a religion, not mentioned even once in the Bible) had to be brought on through his own personal actions. He could have decided that he was an alien from outer space, and that it was his job to turn us all into the Venusian version of chicken pot pie.

The real story here is that he is yet another mentally ill individual who was showing all kinds of warning signs, and yet nothing was done to help him, with horrifying, tragic results. This could be an opportunity for the media to delve into the problem of mental illness in this country, ways to increase security in the workplace, and come up with a more effective system to get people the help they so desperately need.

Instead, this horrible story has been twisted into an attention grabbing sound bite about the evils of Islam. More and more, news is taken into this strange corporate machine, is twisted, bent, embellished and turned into a product that will draw attention, incite fear, and further an agenda. I long for the days of responsible journalism. If they ever really existed.


When No One Wants to Take a Stand: A Story of Neglect

I was 17 years old and a freshman in college, and I witnessed something that to this day I don’t fully understand. I’m sure there is much more to this story than I’ll be able to tell you, so I apologize in advance.

Among my fellow freshmen was a girl whom I’ll call T. To be brutally honest, she scared me. She was clearly quite severely mentally ill. I’m not just saying I could sense this, or that something was not quite right with her. I mean she was obviously and completely not there. Not even partially. Everyone knew it.

She ran everywhere she went, head down, arms kind of forward, panting, seemingly terrified. She had puppets. Quite often she’d only talk through them. I remember that one was a witch that had a creepy voice that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention.

She’d put on impromptu puppet shows which were incoherent cries for help. I’m fairly sure that she heard voices. But at the very least she was trying to communicate in the only way she knew how.

She should have been institutionalized, and yet there she was, with us, at a high-end private college in the Appalachian Mountains.

Even a rank amateur could tell that this girl was schizophrenic, or, uh, something, and there is no way on earth she could have possibly kept up with her studies. Any writing assignments must have been bizarre in the extreme. There couldn’t have been a question in any professor’s mind that there was a problem. T needed help.

The girl that had the misfortune of being T‘s roommate begged to be reassigned elsewhere, anywhere, but the administration refused, which is another big part of the mystery as far as I’m concerned. That girl spent the entire school year hopping from dorm room to dorm room, sleeping on our floors, essentially homeless. No one could have possibly felt safe sharing a room with T. How could you turn out the lights and sleep comfortably with someone whose only substantive relationships were her puppets? For Pete’s sake, I got the willies just passing T in the hallway.

I used to watch her running agitatedly across campus, completely disconnected from reality, and wonder why her parents had sent her there. They must have been rich. No way could she possibly have gotten scholarships. They had to have known she had a mental illness. There was no hiding it. What could they possibly hope to accomplish by foisting her off on academia? She needed help, and this wasn’t helping her.

Finally one day I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the Dean of Students. I told her all I knew and all I had observed about T. I could tell none of this was coming as a big surprise to her. There were only 500 students at the entire school. She knew what was up. I was hoping that someone in a position of authority would do something about this situation, but all I got from this woman was that there was nothing that could be done. I was in shock, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I’m ashamed to admit that I gave up on the whole thing right then and there.

But I would watch T, from a safe distance, running to and fro, and it always made me sad.

At the end of my freshman year I transferred from that school for unrelated reasons. I have no idea what became of T. Did she return the following year? Did she graduate? Did she ever get the help she needed? Where is she now? I don’t know.

But looking back from an adult perspective I can’t help but think that T was the victim of an institution-wide form of neglect. Obviously her parents had influence or she’d have never been there in the first place. But they didn’t care about her. Every one of her professors looked the other way as well. The administration chose to do nothing but take that tuition, which is rather sickening in retrospect.

And the girl in the center of this storm of indifference? She was just left to battle her demons by herself. And what a terrifying and lonely place that must be, emotionally and mentally speaking.

It’s so easy to just look the other way and assume that someone else will handle difficult situations. But when every adult, every single one, stands by and does nothing when a child is suffering, as far as I’m concerned that’s criminal behavior.

This, of all the stories that make up my life experience, is the one which cries out for the closure which I know I’ll never get.

T, if you’re out there, I want you to know that someone cared. I wish I could have helped you. I really do.


8/22/13  Perhaps a little bit of closure after all! I just heard from T’s former roommate. She did want me to specify that these are vague recollections and not hard facts, but this is what she said:

“Hey, I read your story. I hadn’t thought about all that in a long time! I really only lived with her a few weeks. Then I went to the Dean of Students and asked if I could move to the room next door with M (who’s roommate didn’t show up). She grudgingly said yes. So I did. I lived with M the rest of the four years. I don’t remember if T came back the next year or not, but I don’t think so. I just can’t remember. Last I knew she was at a farm for mentally disabled people. I think she’s been there a long time. Hope that helps!”


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My Friend the Psychopath

Recently I saw an interview with a psychologist. I wish I could remember her name so I could give her due credit, but after hearing what she had to say it was like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over me, so I hope I can be forgiven if her name escapes me.

She was discussing psychopathy. When most people imagine a psychopath, “serial killer” is what springs to mind. That’s not necessarily incorrect. The vast majority of serial killers are indeed psychopaths. But the concept that this psychologist put forth, the one that hit me like a very large brick, is that you can be a psychopath without being a killer. You don’t even have to be violent. She stated that 1 percent of the general population is psychopathic, and many of them are quite functional within society. In fact, in some ways having this disorder can set you up for a certain level of success. When a psychopath says “It’s not personal, it’s business,” he’s not kidding. Not even a little bit.

Please realize that I’m not a mental health professional, but from what I’m reading, psychopathy consists of several traits. The main indicators of this disorder are antisocial behavior, a lack of remorse, and poor self-control. If you want more details, I suggest you take the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.

Psychopaths can be very charming, cunning and manipulative, and are often pathological liars. They demonstrate a shortage of empathy and fail to accept responsibility for their own actions. They are easily bored and often impulsive. They also have a hard time maintaining relationships, and can be sexually promiscuous. There’s a good chance you know a psychopath. I actually think I may know a couple of them.

That’s what gave me the chills. When this mental health professional was discussing the various traits of a psychopath, I immediately thought of someone whom I had considered to be my best friend for over 20 years. I still have fond memories of her, frankly, but there were always these strange little red flags that I ignored for as long as I could, until one day I was overwhelmed by the enormity of, well, her brand of reality, I suppose. None of these things, individually, scream certifiable nutcase, mind you, but when you add them all up, the picture painted is not a pretty one.

  • One time we were talking on the phone and I hit my head on something and began bleeding profusely. I mentioned that fact and she didn’t even pause in her conversation. She didn’t ask if I was all right. It was as if it hadn’t happened. I even remember asking if she cared, and she laughed it off.
  • As long as I knew her, she never had pets, and absolutely hated mine.
  • She would do impulsive things like buy plane tickets on a day’s notice even though she couldn’t afford them.
  • None of her relationships ever lasted, and THEY were always the crazy ones, according to her. It sort of became a running joke between us. I used to tell her she needed to figure out why she was attracted to lunatics.
  • Long after she broke up with people she would insert herself into their lives again, often creating a great deal of havoc and confusion. It kind of reminded me of a cat batting a mouse around until it finally died.
  • She treated waitresses and shop clerks like they were garbage.
  • She used to see a therapist, but she delighted in lying to her. That seemed counterproductive to me at the time, but now it makes sense.
  • At one point she worked in Washington DC, and said she liked it there because all people cared about was the pursuit of power.
  • When we were in college together there was one class that I was struggling with. She had taken the class already, so she helped me study for the mid term. Thanks to her help, I got an A on it. She promised me she’d help me study for the final, and I was counting on it. We discussed it often. At the last minute she said she didn’t feel like coming over. I did so poorly on the final that I got a C for the semester. I had a 4.0 grade point average up until that point. What struck me about that situation was that she didn’t even feel the need to make up an excuse. She didn’t feel like it, and that was that. And she felt no remorse about it, even when I told her how much it hurt me.
  • She once told me about a time when she and one of her boyfriends played Russian roulette. They took turns holding the gun to each other’s head and pulling the trigger, because, she said, they “wanted to see what it would feel like.” Seriously, who does that?
  • One time she came to visit me and we had a full day planned. About half way through I told her I wasn’t feeling well. (It turned out to be heat exhaustion.) But she insisted that we keep going, and I did until I turned purple and started vomiting. Again, she acted as if nothing at all had happened. In fact, she took a picture of me all bloated and in tears. It was weird.
  • Toward the end of our friendship, she admitted to me that when she was younger she used to beat her little sister with a metal hanger. Just because she could. That horrified me.
  • She would sometimes get “interested” in things to an extreme degree. Like religion. But it always seemed forced, like she was trying on various masks to see which one would make her more acceptable to society.

The final straw, though, was when I was planning a trip to her side of the country, and told her I’d like to stay with her for a day or two while I was there. I thought she’d be as excited as I always was when she came to visit me. But she said I couldn’t stay with her because she wouldn’t trust me in her house. After 23 years. Suddenly I had a rare moment of clarity. When we would see each other, it was always her coming to me. I thought it was simply because she always earned much more money than I did. But all along it was a trust issue and I had never realized it. That, combined with all of the above, was the death knell of our friendship. I was done.

It took me a long time to get over the fact that I had been an utter fool for so many years. Why was I ever friends with her in the first place? Good question. I must say there were just as many good times as there were bad. She has that psychopathic charm, for sure. And when you couple that with my amazing ability to overlook things that I would rather not see, and my intense desire to think the best of people whether they deserve it or not, you get rather a toxic cocktail.

I had finally gotten past the point where I was licking my wounds on a daily basis when suddenly one day I received a letter from her. In it was a ticket to hear her be the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony at our alma mater. I was, frankly, stunned. But then I realized that that was her pattern: she was attempting to insert herself back into my life after causing me so much pain. But this was one mouse that that cat was not going to play with anymore. I didn’t go, and I sent her an e-mail after the fact explaining exactly why not, and telling her that if she had even the slightest regard for me she would never make contact again.

It’s been 5 years and so far she has respected my wishes. But every once in a while I think about her out there, uncaring, unfeeling, and completely devoid of compassion and the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up.

And what’s even scarier is that I can think of a few other people in my life who show symptoms of this disorder, albeit to a lesser degree. I have a relative who delights in discovering a person’s weakness, saving that information until such time as that person is in a moment of conflict with her, and then when you least expect it, she uses that weakness to eviscerate you verbally. Many’s the time when I’ve looked down to see my emotional entrails scattered about her feet, and looked back up to see a look of triumph in her eyes.

And then there’s the coworker who just walked in the door as I was typing this who…oh lord, I can’t think about it. My goose bumps might arouse his killer instinct.

Once you start looking at people through the lens of potential psychopathy, you begin to feel as if you sometimes have to whistle your way past a junkyard dog.


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