For a number of years after graduating college, I held various positions working in the mental health field. Although the pay was miserable, it was fascinating to work with “individuals living with mental health issues.” That’s what we had to call them. They were not “mentally ill” or “patients” or even “clients.” They were to be referred to as either “individuals living with mental health issues” or “consumers.” I don’t know if that’s still how it is, but about 20-25 years ago, that was the standard.
A favorite “consumer” of mine was named Mel — short for Melvin. Mel was a slight, borderline feeble (yet somehow also exceedingly neurotic) man in his 50’s who suffered from a number of diagnoses, the most prevalent being Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When asked how he was doing, his answer was unwaveringly “ummm… best I could?” He came under my charge when he was living in Supported Housing, which was set up for consumers who were competent enough to live on their own, and didn’t require a group setting or 24-hour supervision. Mel had his own one room apartment with an attached kitchenette and a bathroom shared with other boarders. As Mel’s caseworker, my job was to check in with him several times a week to assist him with shopping and paying bills, make sure he was taking his medications, monitor the cleanliness of his apartment, take him to appointments, and generally assess his mental health. To give you a small glimpse into Mel’s tortured world, I will explain his method of vacuuming his one room apartment. The first step was to put on a pair of rubber, dish-washing gloves (the thick, yellow, 50’s-housewives kind – not the thin, opaque, doctor’s office ones.) After plugging in his small upright vacuum cleaner, which was not much more than an electric rug sweeper, he would spend at least thirty minutes going over and over and over the short pile, sisal carpet in his one 15′ x 15′ room. Once he was convinced each and every molecule of dirt and dust had been picked up, Mel would get a thirteen gallon kitchen trash bag, empty the meager contents of the vacuum’s dirt receptacle into it, and tie several knots at the top to ensure it was tightly closed. He would then get a second thirteen gallon trash bag, place the first trash bag into it along with the rubber gloves (turning them inside out as he takes them off), and tie several knots to secure that second bag. He then had to go down the stairs to the outside trash bin to throw it all in the garbage. This was Mel’s world.
One day Mel called me to tell me he needed a new lamp. He had been to the eye doctor, who recommended the appropriate lighting for reading. Mel was concerned that what he had was inadequate, so I picked him up and drove him to a local chain store to buy a new floor lamp. There was a good-sized assortment of lamps set on a platform raised a few inches off the floor. Mel went through every single lamp several times checking for… well, I really have no idea what he was checking for. I’m not even sure he knew what he was checking for because after forty minutes of his subtle pacing and nervously rubbing the stubble on the lower half of his face, he still couldn’t explain to me what exactly he specifically needed. FINALLY, he took a lamp off the platform and I was relieved that we were nearing the end. Then he took another lamp off the platform. Then he started taking another identical lamp off the platform before I stopped him to ask what he was doing. He explained that he wanted this particular lamp, but he was getting a fresher one from the back. “A fresher one from the back.” He picked out the freshest lamp he could get his nervous little hands on and we headed to the checkout counter to pay. At the counter, the cashier tells us that this particular lampshade does not match this particular lamp and I just about lose any composure I may have been able to miraculously keep together at this point. I run back, grab a coordinating lamp shade (not the whole lamp, just the shade!!) and get back to the register before Mel has time to reassess the entire purchase. We are in the car and I’m relieved that this lamp excursion is finally complete until Mel tells me he needs a light bulb. We stop at another smaller store and I let him make this trip on his own because, really, how long can it take? Apparently, it can take at least twenty minutes because that’s how long I waited in the car for Mel before going in to search for him. I find him in one of the aisles standing in front of the light bulbs, clearly anxious over which one to buy. Should he get a three way bulb that would be adjustable for 50, 100, and 150 watts? But the doctor recommended a 60 watt bulb. And it should have soft white glass, not clear. After what to Mel is much necessary contemplation, we find what he deems an acceptable bulb (he went with soft, white, 60 watts because he was nervous using a three way bulb on 10 less or 40 more watts than what the doctor recommended) and I go with him to pay to make sure there are no more issues/delays. Which there aren’t.
We get back to Mel’s apartment and he needs me to come upstairs to help him set up this new lamp. We plug it in, bulb in place, turn it on, and it doesn’t work. (And inside my head I’m going through every expletive I can think of while keeping it together enough to be a calming influence on poor, distraught Mel.) Unfortunately for Mel, he didn’t get the fresher light bulb from the back and this one is broken. He tells me it’s important that we return the bulb for a new one right now and I tell him that my shift had actually ended an hour and a half ago, but I’d be happy to take him the following day (which was a lie because, although I would absolutely take him the next day, I would absolutely not be happy to do it, but the poor guy doesn’t need to know that.) So Mel spent the night reading by substandard light wattage and I went home to reassess how I prioritize things in my life.