he ain’t heavy

Peter called me while I was on vacation.  I felt guilty as soon as I heard his voice.  I’m not even sure why.  I just did.  Something about me being able to vacation and him, well, him being him.  And he sounded so downtrodden.  He was calling to tell me that he was in the hospital.  He wasn’t exactly sure why, or even how he’d gotten there.  All he could tell me was that he was having trouble breathing and thought he either had pneumonia or bronchitis.  There was nothing I could do, he just wanted me to know where he was.  I resumed my vacation with a slightly heavier heart.

10 days later he was still in the hospital.  And he still didn’t know why.  The hospital is one for homeless individuals.  They are extremely strict in terms of sharing information (as in they don’t give any out) and the visiting hours are Wednesdays and Fridays from 1:00-2:00.  Hardly convenient (at least for me).  I finally got frustrated with not knowing anything and demanded to speak with his case manager.  Before the operator could say, “I’m sorry, we can’t tell you whether he is even a patient here.” for the millionth time, I said (with all the entitlement I could muster), “I am his next of kin.  Put me on the phone with either his case manager or your supervisor.”

Peter’s case manager was floundering, paused for uncomfortable lengths of time in between answers and said, “Ahhh” so many times I thought someone was sticking that long Q-tip down her throat to check for strep.  She finally acknowledged the awkwardness and confessed that while she hadn’t been in her job very long, she had been working with the homeless population long enough and she had NEVER spoken to a family member.  She was, quite frankly, stunned.

With Peter’s permission, she shared his records with me.  His history of showing up at Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless offices not clearly knowing what he was looking for, losing paperwork, not fulfilling his end of agreements and disappearing was practically legendary.  They had, unfortunately, very little information of any worth on him even though they had this long history with him.  He never stayed in relationship with any of  them long enough to get any real help.  The burnout and turnover in staffing there didn’t help matters.  She offered to do a little digging to see if she could find anything to work with, and get back to me.

Her first bit of information was that Peter was in the hospital for COPD.  This was not great news, but neither was it surprising.  The guy lives on the street, picking used cigarette butts off the ground and smoking whatever is left of them until the filter is melting between his lips.  It would be more surprising if he didn’t have pulminary disease.

Her other information was that he is, indeed, being reviewed by social security and will likely be getting money from them monthly.  Along with a substantial lump of money retroactively.  The catch being that he needs a payee.  Understandably, the social security administration has decided that writing checks directly to Peter isn’t a good idea.  The question was, would I be willing to be the payee?

You know that kids’ game – would you rather?  Would I rather have a sewer rat crawl up through my toilet and bite me on the ass or would I rather stick a hot knitting needle in my eye?  Or would I rather be responsible for Peter’s money?

I got a call from Peter a few days later.  Still in the hospital and still sounding rather groggy.  He opened his end of the conversation with an accusatory edge to his voice, asking whether I was going to be his payee or not.  I said I was thinking about it and wanted to discuss it with him.  A disgruntled sigh was his response.  But before I could say anything else he was snapping that he hoped I knew that he didn’t, quote, “need a babysitter”.  He followed up by telling me how simply he was going to manage his own money as easy as pie and how he didn’t need anyone, including me, interfering.  His plans included getting himself a one-bedroom apartment in a nice section of town, furnishing it with all new furniture (because he was sick and tired of having to suffer everyone else’s sloppy seconds) and ended with him kicking back and living the good life.  I asked a few questions about how he was going to afford things like furniture, gas, electric, etc and he answered with the idiotic assurance and logic of a tantruming 3 year old.  He could probably get an entire living-room set for about 150 dollars he thought.  Electric and gas would be about, what, 10 bucks a month each?  Outfitting his kitchen along with table and chairs (real wood, none of that pressboard crap) he figured he would splurge to roughly 200 dollars since he enjoys cooking so much (?) and since he was counting on getting ten grand up front.  Not able to stand this line of conversation any longer, I changed the subject, asking him about his health.  As if he’d forgotten he was in the hospital he responded with an exasperated “what are you talking about?!”  I said I’d heard he had COPD, but he had no idea what my point was.  Those stupid so-called doctors at this poor-excuse for a hospital had no idea what they were doing.

Got it.  In essence: he is the only one who knows his ass from his elbow.  If everyone else would just leave him alone (and keep him supplied with endless amounts of cash money) he’d be, in his own words, living the good life (who wouldn’t?).  I sat silent on the phone, irritation blooming.  He finally asked why I was so grumpy and quiet.  I tried to reach beyond my frustration and remember that I was dealing with someone with significant mental health problems in addition to whatever medical issues were going on.  I took a deep steadying breath and said, “Peter, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but the world you are describing simply doesn’t exist.  First of all, no landlord in their right mind, never mind the nice section of the city, is going to rent you an apartment.”  It was painful to hear the distinct note of hurt in his voice when he asked why.  I tried as gently as I could to explain.  For him it has been the blink of an eye.  But the reality is that he is almost 47 years old and has never held a job (with the exception of a few stints of telemarketing).  He’s been homeless for at least 10 years.  He has a criminal record and a long history of serious drug addiction.  He has never had a bank account of any kind.  Neither has he ever had a credit card or a utility bill in his name.  He dropped out of society as most people know it, before the proliferation of computers or the internet.  “Ok Hali, if I wanted a downer I’d call mom”, he interrupted.  So much for my gentle explanation.  Regardless, he didn’t want to hear any of it.

Since he’d mentioned mommie dearest, changing the subject again, I asked if he’d been in touch with her.  At first he said no.  Then he said yes.  He couldn’t actually remember, but he thought he called her from the hospital in an attempt to make her feel bad for him, maybe scare her into *helping* him {read that: sending him money}.  Her response (predictable to me) was to threaten to kill herself, fall completely hysterically apart and drop the phone clattering loudly, leaving it on the bathroom floor while she narrated her (unsuccessful) attempt to slit her wrists, sobbing, screaming, crying, gasping, gagging, choking until he couldn’t stand listening anymore and hung up on her.  A litany of mean, vulgar, derogatory commentary followed his account of his contact with momster.  I tell you, the people on Jerry Springer are real.  You cannot make this shit up folks.  By this point in our conversation I was basically in a cataleptic stupor bordering on hebetudinous insanity.  I was distractedly considering my time on the phone, the minutes of my life I would never get back, not counting them at all well-spent.  I’d exhausted my patience, my compassion, my attention, my good graces, sense of humor and my good will.  In fact, my skin was crawling violently and I was in desperate need to just get off the phone.

But, he wanted to know before we hung up, when was I going to go downtown and meet with his caseworker, fill out and sign the batch of forms, gather my own previous tax forms and other information needed and then go to the social security office to file the paperwork to become his payee so I could then cash whatever checks were sent to me and drive the cash to whatever corner he would be standing on to deliver his money?  Could there be a worse job?  I think I’d rather be Donald Trump’s running mate.

I asked Peter’s case manager to tell him a small lie.  I asked her to tell Peter that although I was willing to be his payee, that I was denied (ok, two lies).  She loved the idea.  I could maintain my relationship with him and he would have someone in his corner.  But I wouldn’t have to be his payee.  I wouldn’t have to take on the role of overseer, a role so onerous, she told me, that every single person with a payee ends up hating that payee.  Because technically the payee is not allowed to simply cash the check and give the recipient the money.  Which always leads to begging, pleading, threatening, and general harassment.  But none of this was relevant because an administrator at Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless refused to engage in lying.  Even after the situation had been laid out for her and the pros and cons explained.  Even at the risk of a relationship; Peter’s only relationship.  She simply said no.

So the choice was still mine.  I could agree to be his payee and hate myself and ultimately he would hate me too.  Or I could say no and only he would hate me.  Just more immediately.  I chose the latter.  He told me he was going to either strap a bomb to his chest and detonate in the social security office or else find some other way to kill himself.  He said, “Thanks Hali.  You were my last hope.  My only hope.  And you let me down.”  And then he hung up.  Another winning decision by a paper-pushing administrator.  Maybe she’d like to be Trump’s running-mate?


About halitentwo

i am. god is. we are. as soon as i write something about me i change, am different, evolving. i am trans. i am a parent. i am a partner. i am a human. i am attempting to live a well-lived life in the spaces in between, beyond definition, fluid, dynamic, omnifarious and always changing. hopefully growing.
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4 Responses to he ain’t heavy

  1. Kris says:

    Somewhat comforting to know I am not the only one with family with mental health issues and the gift to make you feel guilty for tough love. Take care, Hali.

  2. halitentwo says:

    Another reason I love sharing this journey with you Kris. We’ve got this.

  3. Jamie Ray says:

    It is all too believable that there is no court appointed (neutral) payee – i.e. a paid case manager to handle the money for a cut of it. That there isn’t some kind of a flop house that can get the rent direct from the state, and dole out whatever is left to him on a weekly allowance. It seems like not too much to ask of the system to create that.

  4. halitentwo says:

    They are, in fact, looking for a court-appointed payee. But you are absolutely right Jamie, the system is so tangled up that they can’t get out of their own way to solve what could be fairly simple problems. One at a time. Sigh.

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