Over the last month I’ve developed what should be called Post Traumatic Cockroach disorder.
I’m not going to say this is on par with the trauma that the battlefields of the Middle East bring out in some people. But over the past month I have found myself in an ongoing situation where the sheer number… we’re talking about thousands of various sizes of cockroaches seemingly exploding out from behind and beneath things, fleeing from me, falling on me, crawling on me and otherwise inhabiting my physical and mental space has become almost commonplace and yet no less disturbing.
These days I actually find myself bracing before I pick up an object – any object for fear that moving it will release a swarm of bugs. I have dreams about bugs. I survey a room, especially a dark room, a table or a counter, even a pile of clothes tossed on the floor differently now.
Last month I was told in no uncertain terms that my father-in-law needed my help. A great soul but a defiant guy, Ed has spent the last twenty years since his wife’s much-too-early death flipping off the world from his front porch. My wife (his daughter) and I have tried to intervene on his behalf many times over the last twenty years. We’ve tried to limit his drinking, his prescription drug use, his allowing complete strangers to come into his home (which he impulsively bought directly across the street from our family’s home) and sleep on his sofas, deal drugs from his back door and fight shirtless on his front lawn. We’ve tried reasoning with him to no avail. We’ve resorted to calling the police and the City housing inspectors to address the illegal activities and code violations that are pumped out of his property and onto our block like a menacing toxin.
And one thing I’ve learned from trying to put some limits on the damage that Ed can do to himself and our neighborhood over the last twenty years is that in America people have rights. They have the right to destroy their minds and bodies with pharmaceuticals. And doctors have the right to distribute the pills with impunity. People have the right to not be questioned about what goes on within their four walls but surprisingly even what happens in plain view in their front yard seems invisible to those who are supposed to stop or at least question irregularities. In fact the police, social workers, city inspectors and probably even probably Catholic Exorcists will quickly be turned away, shrugging their shoulders all the way back to their assigned vehicle when the owner of the home peers around his curtain and tells the person that there’s nothing to see, everything’s fine, please move along.
But several weeks ago Mike, an investigator from Adult Family Services, contacted me. He ran down his take on Ed’s situation which I agreed was completely out of control and yet entirely accurate. Ed was having his entire retirement income (a respectable sum) stolen from him the moment the bank opened on the days his direct deposits arrived. Mike told me that the house was full of people sitting in the dark shadows and it was infested with bugs and rodents. Mike described Ed as living in a state of perpetual drunkenness and drug haze from the cheap beer and vodka he was fed by those living there. Ed’s health was terribly deteriorated and he visited the Emergency Room about twice a week in hopes that he could be prescribed something after his pills had been stolen and there was no money left for cheap booze. Ed had bruises and sores, a chronic cough, labored breathing and hadn’t bathed in what appeared to be weeks. Mike described how there was no food in the house except for what had been sitting out on the counters and floors covered by bugs. Yes, I knew this was happening. I told him my wife and I had been trying to intervene for about 20 years. But what it finally came down to was that Ed could demonstrate that he freely and consciously was allowing all of this to happen and that there was nothing we or anyone else could do to stop him. And so it continued and worsened.
After my conversation with Mike I thanked him and wholeheartedly agreed with his dismay at the situation. It is insane, I agreed. But I keep being told that it’s all perfectly legal. The City tells me to call the police. The police tell me to call the City. The doctors tell me to call the social workers. The social workers tell me the problem is the doctors. Each and every one of the people on his couch would make a trip across the street to tell me and my wife about how badly everyone else in the house was treating him. It seemed that everyone was very concerned, very frustrated and yet no one could do anything but shake our heads and watch it continue. My wife and I have told him that we want to help him but he refuses to help himself. In fact, any help we offer always backfires and seems to make the problems worse.
Mike thanked me and we hung up. But, then he called me back a few days later. “I think he might take your help this time,” he told me.
And so, over the last month I’ve been trying to help and we’ve made some progress.
First we went to the Dr.’s appointment that he begged me to take him to. No surprise there because Ed loves his pharmaceuticals. But, this time I went in with him and informed the Dr. of what Ed’s living situation was like. Despite Ed’s denials, I informed the doctor that often times his pills are stolen and that during the brief periods when he is on his medicine he is washing his pills down with cheap beer. Like myself, my wife, the police, the city and everyone else who entered Ed’s life, the Doctor was only seeing his little interaction with Ed and not realizing how it played into Ed’s greater picture.
What was different was that the Dr. now now understood that I was going to be there, at Ed’s side, to tell the truth and to ask hard questions. We established during that checkup that the pills should be stored at my house and distributed daily. I wasn’t looking forward to that because Ed will break down a brick wall if he thinks pills are on the other side of it. But the Dr. and I agreed that we needed to put the brakes on the drinking and that we needed to follow back up in one month.
Next stop, the bank.
We spoke to the manager, Ed and I. She confirmed with printouts of Ed’s account statements and teller notes that on the morning after every direct deposit, Ed was driven to the bank in one of many crowded cars and every available penny was withdrawn with Ed’s signature.
No, there was no way they could deny him the right to withdraw his money. After all, it was his money to do with what he wanted. Though, at least the tellers were beginning to question what was really going on in Ed’s life. The printouts had handwritten notes describing the familiar cast of characters who had taken up residence across the street. And the manager called me after our meeting and offered a suggestion. We can’t keep his money from him, she said. But why couldn’t you be the one to bring Ed to the bank every payday? Why not just beat everyone else to the bank? I liked the way she thought. Now, I would be controlling Ed’s money (with his approval) along with his medicine.
And so the past few weeks have gone. We’ve cut Ed down to less than a twelve-pack a day. He still insists on two packs of menthols per day but not a day has gone by where his cigarettes have been stolen. He gets his prescription delivered to him every morning by me. Every day I deliver to him on his front porch his first 5 beers, his daily dose of clonazepam (for nerves) and not supposed to be mixed with alcohol… but, baby steps. He gets his two antibiotics which I watch him take because he only voluntarily takes medicine that gives him a buzz. He likes 5 raw eggs in a cup which I coach him to drink slowly rather than in one gulp like Stallone did in Rocky because otherwise they run down his beard and t-shirt. A large glass of milk. And a monster-sized mug of decaf coffee which I tell him is “regular.” Every morning, noon and night I bring him a sandwich or
Over the past two weeks I’ve helped him take his bath and shaved off his unkempt and nicotine-discolored beard. I’ve cut his curled finger and toenails for the first time in god knows how long. I’ve emptied everything perishable and non-perishable (but still roach-infested) out of most of his cabinets. Scheduling the exterminator and home health care is next. I’ve makeshift repaired his demolished front door, kicked in months ago by some drunken couch-surfer so that he doesn’t have to walk all the way around his own house just to use the bathroom.
I’ve negotiated with the last few people who remained in the house the money stopped bleeding. I loaded them into my wife’s van and physically relocated them to a cheap but nice motel a few miles away. Ed agreed to pay their rent for one month. And so, for the past two nights Ed has told me that he has slept better than he can remember.
It hasn’t been a smooth month. My wife and I both acknowledged that this would be stressful on our marriage and we’ve been right. We’ve had several fatique-fired bitch sessions.
My father-in-law had deteriorated both mentally and physically to the point where he now drags around a bag full of pee hooked to a permanent catheter. Of course this means that he stands on it, punctures it, forgets to close it and every other terrible thing that you can do to a plastic bag full of urine. And now, because he’s not just laying in the fetal position in his dark room he sits on his front porch, chain smoking and barking orders across the street, elevating my normally mellow wife’s blood pressure with each demand.
But, here’s the thing. It’s been hard but incrementally rewarding work.
Yes, it’s taken me away from my daily work and I haven’t been hustling up new business like I should. But in a way it provided me something that I was craving but hadn’t been getting through my work for quite a while – personal connection and reward.
I think the most important thing I’ve been able to do for my father-in-law is to sit on his front porch with him for a few minutes while he eats his TV Dinner or smokes his twentieth cigarette and talk to him. I think we all need meaningful, sober conversation. We all need connection and I think it has been this connection that is slowly re-igniting his mind even more than the nutrition from regular meals and the regulation of drugs and alcohol. And, truth be told, the connection has been good for me too. It has rallied me for what will surely be a daily struggle, a fight on behalf of someone we love. It has awakened me from a kind of slumber of just letting things go.
They call us the Sandwich Generation and I guess this is what it means to me. It means flinching a little bit when a bird flies by my window because my mind is sure it’s the movement of a large cockroach scuttling across a window shade. It means making more large cups of cheap, decaf coffee than should ever be made and hand delivering them only to be greeted with yet another demand and learning not to take it personally.
Without a doubt it is the right thing to do. I know because it feels right. As I get ready to put the period on the end of this sentence and get up to deliver another cup of coffee I think to myself how good it feels not to be confined in some cubicle away from those who need me and who I need in return and to live and to give and to be able to write about it.