Frequently in recent days I find myself thanking God I chose not to participate in the American Dream hierarchy, the climb for money, position, influence, power. I wanted to live my life outside that belief system. My friend Jean told me, and accurately, that I live like a perpetual student, like my home is my dorm room and what I do is study. I took that for a good call. I liked Jean's insights. She was a nurturing spirit whose nurturing was abused all her life. When it was used and tossed aside, she would be punished for being so vulnerable. She was the bottom of the pecking order, pecked at by her sister, her daughter, her grandkids. Everybody in her family looked down on her and used her like she was their slave. She fell for it. It was the only role she knew. I met her in her early 50s. By then she'd been through mental institutions, tossed around as a willing guinea pig. They want to test a new drug, use Jean, she can't say no. She was taking drugs for schizophrenia, which she did not have, and other bizarre things she did not have. She was a neighbor and friend of Jr Maxwell when I started going by to see him after work. Jr was in his shop when I stopped by this one evening. I stopped and sat with him in a wooden chair facing the open garage door that looked onto the highway of cars and trucks passing by. Jean appeared. She had walked from her house maybe two tenths of a mile down the road. She was a little hazy in the head, shy, even backward seeming. Yet, when she spoke, I thought this woman is awake. She sat in a wooden chair and picked up the local paper from the floor next to Jr. She knew I wrote the weekly column on the editorial page. She read it while Jr and I talked. She spoke of what she'd read when she was finished in such an insightful way, I became curious what was going on with this woman I'd only seen walking beside the highway between her house and Jr's. He suggested we go to the house and have a drink. Jean made coffee for herself while Jr and I had some delicious white liquor.
The three of us sat at the table and talked for two hours. I wanted to learn more about Jean. She came across meek and beaten down, while her spirit was radiant. She was like a dog that goes around with its tail between its legs, friendly and charming while suffering inside. We all three learned each other's stories over the next weeks, months and years, sitting at the table in the evening over liquor and coffee. Sometimes Jean would cook us a meal just because she wanted to. Jr, it turned out, was the only friend she had, the only person she knew who did not judge her. She was called the Crazy Woman of Whitehead. She liked to walk. The side of the highway was the only way she could walk to Jr's, so everybody saw her and took it for proof she was every bit as nutty as they'd heard. First thing when we met in Jr's shop, she said, "I'm bi-polar." She told me later that she would know somebody and be friendly, then she mentioned she was bi-polar and they abandoned her. She started telling everybody she met, up front, "I'm bi-polar." She also told me later that what struck her about me was I had no reaction, she never saw that it mattered to me. I told her what I was thinking at the time she said it: Who isn't? We're in duality. Everything about our existence wavers between two poles. Jr didn't hold it against her either. Out of the blue, she had two people in her life who did not look down on her and did not talk down to her. She sat at the table with two men older than herself listening to her and not judging her, not abusive in any way, nor dismissive in any way. The three of us were, each, one of us. Jr and I regarded Jean with the same basic human respect we gave one another. Jean was a valid individual, and an interesting one,
She'd lived in mental institutions since she was about fifteen. Age 14 she married a guy in the Army, home on leave, to get out of the house, away from her mother and sister. She was taken to Army housing in Georgia and he went off to Nam, leaving her pregnant. At the base, she was a pregnant hillbilly kid and an outsider. She fell into a deep depression after the baby was born, was put in an institution, baby turned over to sister to raise. Periodically, they let her out and she had something of a life in puzzle pieces. Another husband who beat her and treated her like shit. He was a mean bastard. Then another version of same, even worse, and she gave up getting married. She had three kids that grew up with her off in institutions much of the time, and going about zombified by medications at home. Her oldest boy was on death row in Florida, the next boy had been murdered by way of something to do with the drug trade, the daughter was a Fundamentalist preacher with a gang of kids and a husband, all of them disrespecting Jean like she was their slave. I became appalled at what I saw happening to Jean as I came to know her better. One evening at the table she was singing the blues about what they were doing to her at the moment. It was without conscience, and she understated rather than exaggerated. I found a piece of paper and pencil, wrote "Just Say No." I pushed it to her across the table while she was talking, like passing a note in school. She looked at it, double-took, and said, "I can't." I said, "Yes, you can." She said, "I can't." I said, "It's the first word you learned, the easiest word in the English language, only two letters, one syllable." She maintained she is unable to say no. I said, "You have a problem and No is the solution. Just say No and the problem goes away." She thought it over for a few days and said No. It worked. Her daughter suddenly had issues with hate where TJ was concerned.
I stood by Jean in her decisions, supported her. In the past, daughter called the authorities and had her institutionalized whenever she said no. Talking about what she'd done, the line she'd crossed when she said no, she said, "Next time they send me off...." I interrupted her and said, "There won't be a next time." I meant it as to say I'd lie down in front of the bulldozer; they'll have to go through me. She took it that I saw it psychically. Her interpretation of how I meant it gave her vision into the future with no more returns to the Thorazine shuffle. She wrote it off as done and never again worried about going back. By then, I knew Jean was the sane one in the whole bunch. In a time of trimming her budget, she decided to change car insurance for a few dollars less. She was required to have a form filled out by the director of mental health at the local facility. When she picked it up to return it to the insurance office, she saw under Diagnosis, Unknown. She came straight to me at my store, showed me the paper in an impotent rage that she was on drugs for schizophrenia and bi-polar and others, a guinea pig, and all along the diagnosis was Unknown. She was furious. All she had been through and all the horrors she'd been told she had and was medicated for did not exist. She was all right and had been all right all along. They'd used her for a guinea pig. She wanted to stop taking the medications, but I suggested she do it through Dr Cahn, who could bring her out of the dependency slowly. She was a short time shaking those drugs that kept her woozy of mind all the time. When her self came forward, she was the happiest she'd ever been. She put an end to the ongoing abuse from family under her own power, and she lived her life. She and my friend Carole became friends. She had support all around her. She only lived a couple more years and they were happy for her. She was, for the first time in her life, among people who appreciated her for herself. And she flowered.
photos by tj worthington