money cannot buy

credit - paulo zerbato

credit – paulo zerbato

What if I had just won $1 billion on the local lottery, no taxes? What would I do with the money? This is today’s Daily Post challenge from WordPress.

Four years of writing with incarcerated women has shown me an increasing and alarming percentage of serious mental dysfunction. While ‘inside,’ isolation has been the ‘treatment’ of choice. Isolation meaning solitary confinement without clothes, bedding, books or communication. Isolation also meaning denial of psychiatric treatment for those clearly in need. Suicidal? Isolate. Confrontational? Isolate. Desperate for companionship? Isolate.

I am no mental health expert. But I do believe there is one simple act that can be far more effective in stemming feelings of terror, vulnerability, and desire to do self-harm. It is the simple human act of listening.

Last night I sat with a woman with severe mental dysfunction who has been in and out of jail for decades. Out since late summer, she was placed in an apartment alone. She is a tireless advocate for her needs, but even the mental health ‘professionals’ have tired of her. They have demanded she differentiate between need and want. They have refused to take seriously her cries for help because they are constant.

What I have learned over the months of responding to her cries is that her needs for companionship trump all else. She feels unsafe at all times. Even when there is some one nearby, she can unreel her old tapes of abuse and unsafety to the point that only one thing will calm her: the familiar walls of hospital or jail cell.

In the weeks leading up to her arrest last night, I heard the heartfelt pleas of someone missing the simple holiday rituals we all hold dear: baking cookies in a family kitchen; a string of lights across her window; a bit of music, a scrap of red ribbon, a meal that would feed her not just fill her with starch.

In responding to as many of her needs as I could, I realized the limits of my own resources. I also witnessed firsthand her own inability – both physical and emotional – to develop functional skills for living. The pat response of the mental health safety net to her cries has been a rote “Go home and take care of yourself.” What can that possibly mean to someone with the kind of abusive disconnected life women like this have experienced across multiple decades?

As she sat in my car, her despair running off her like the beads of sweat that caused us to sit in single-digit air with the car door open, I watched her give up on everything we had worked so hard to get for her. An apartment with heat. A live-in caregiver to be with her overnight. Enough food to get through the month. Some Christmas cheer. Opportunities to run art groups for peers. Training for a warm line job.

The one thing we could not buy her was peace of mind.

15 thoughts on “money cannot buy

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