Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dorothy in the Witch's Castle

I went to see Dorothy at the nursing home today. It's the Witch's Castle all right--she's not even allowed to go outside for the first ten days. Today was day 3. And it's not a place you want to spend much time inside. The first floor lobby is full of dirty, smelly, mostly men sitting around arguing and watching TV. Not many of these people are old--just worn down by life, on SSI, with no other place to go.

Dorothy pointed out a few people in the throng she's made friends with already--to her credit, they generally seemed to be among the saner and more solid citizens in the joint. She also pointed out a security guard--a tall, thin man in a uniform joking around with a couple of residents--saying, "That's security," with more than a hint of disgust in her voice.

"People are getting high in here," Dorothy told me while we waited for the elevator. A seriously crazy guy came up to her and whispered something in her ear. She turned him down forcefully; it was a request for either money or sexual favors, I'm not sure which.

There are two elevators. One of them is broken. Fourteen of us piled in the one that works when it eventually made its appearance. The crowd got ugly when the fifteenth guy tried to get in, blocked the door, but wouldn't get out. He finally left. I got a spot against the back wall and kept my hands in my coat to deter pickpockets. It smelled. I was glad I had a very big coat on because I was more worried somebody would try to cop a feel in the elevator than I was about getting something stolen.

Dorothy is on the fifth floor. It doesn't look so bad up there--pretty traditional nursing home, usually two to a room. (She told me some are three.) The floor was shiny and there was an attendant at the station by the day room where people can watch TV. Dorothy's roommate seemed pretty well-put-together; she was neatly groomed, had clearly showered that day and was reading the Bible when we got there. The room was clean, orderly and nicely decorated with plastic flowers and such. Dorothy introduced me as her sister-in-law and her roommate said, "If I'd known she was having family come I would have made the bed." I told her next time we'd give her advance notice.

Dorothy had many complaints. First off, nobody told her where she was being taken when she left the treatment center. Supposedly this is a temporary placement while they try to find her a spot in a long-term recovery home, but who knows how long that will take. One of the aides who gives her her meds follows her medication schedule; the other one doesn't. They are supposed to be keeping her meds in strict confidence since some of them are for HIV, but they aren't doing that. They have them out in public and they talk to her in public about them. She says she saw a woman argue with staff and the staff gave her tranquilizers against her will just to shut her up. That seemed pretty plausible just from spending half an hour in there.

The attendant at the front desk on Dorothy's floor did a double-take when she saw me and heard Dorothy explaining to me how the women's shower doesn't work, so both the men and the women use the same tub and shower station on her floor, which means the guys are walking in while the women are taking showers. I walked us away discreetly before she had time to really freak out about me being there.

We stood in the back stairwell so I could ask her how she likes her roommate. Dorothy does like her. Then the same crazy guy from down on the first floor came down the stairs and started bugging Dorothy for 75 cents. "You don't know me! How come you asking for money?" she said to him. This started an argument that I was afraid might turn physical, until Dorothy said, "Besides, I don't have any!"

"Oh, OK," said the guy. He turned away and walked downstairs. A woman had joined us in the stairwell; she and Dorothy marveled over the looney tunes they were having to deal with in this joint. Clearly the other woman was pretty new, too. "I can't wait until my daughter gets me out of here," she said.

I got the numbers for her probation officer and her counselor back at drug treatment and promised her I would call them Monday to find out what is going on. I'll probably call the social worker in the building there, too, just to let someone on staff know someone is looking out for Dorothy. I also promised I would call her every day until the 10 days are up and she can get the heck out of there during the day. They don't have meetings in the building either, so she can't even go to a meeting for 10 days. That's crazy!!

Dorothy insisted on walking me down the stairs when it was time for me to go. "No way am I letting you walk down these stairs by yourself," she said.

She had just told me she doesn't walk up the stairs; I didn't want her waiting for the elevator again. "Girl, don't you know I used to do karate?" I told her. We both started laughing.

"Karate, judo, I don't care, I'm walking you down these stairs," she said. When we got back to the front desk, we said good-bye and she nagged me. "Put on your hat-it's cold outside."

"Yes ma'am," I said. When she gets out of there, I'm going to name the place, but not before. I looked it up on line before I went and it seemed like it wouldn't be too bad. Guess I was wrong.

P.S. On the bus after I left, I was trying to think of the reading from The Velveteen Rabbit my sister had me read at her wedding. It seemed rather appropriate to the circumstances. You can see it here.


RevlonJunkie said...

Maritza, I would like to tell you that this nursing home is the at the abysmal end of the spectrum, but your description of the place triggered many memories (mostly olfactory ones!) of my years doing outreach work. It is standard practice for these places to keep all but $30 of a resident's disability check, and de facto standard for confidentiality to join all those scavenged cigarette butts flying out the window.

Very few drug treatment facilities follow the "dry housing/zero tolerance" model anymore; it is now understood that relapse is a natural part of recovery. But there is a huge difference between a structured program where staff planfully engage with active drug users, and the anarchic "warehousing" situation you saw-- sadly, the VAST majority of substance-dependent low-income people end up in just that sort of situation.
One of the first things a new 12-stepper hears is, "Change your environment." Yet all too often, a short stay in a treatment center is followed by placement in a nursing home or hotel in a drug-infested neighborhood.If someone told me to quit eating ice cream but then locked me inside a Dairy Queen for 6 months, you bet I'd be up to my eyeballs in lactose!

Anyway, my beret's off to ya for doing for free what I earn a salary for! And I think it's a great idea to set limits with Dorothy early and often; that is also an expression of caring as it prevents you from burning out. The gap is just too yawning for us to be able to stand in it, anyway.

Maritza said...

Thanks, RevlonJunkie, for your words of wisdom. My hat's off to you, because God knows you could not pay me to do this!

By the way, while we were standing waiting for the elevator, Dorothy also said, "I might as well be on the street." Just a half-hour in there was enough to remind me how important is the personal freedom I usually take for granted. I could see where it might be worth not having a steady roof over one's head.

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