17 November 2008

Fall Down Go Boom

Selma, with her exhausted eyes. Her tedious recounting, to anybody who is masochistic enough to listen, of the tragedies and cosmic indifference visited upon her. And the brave, half-smile as she recalls muggings and car accidents and plane crashes. She has problems sometimes with balance: her brain does not always orient itself to the horizon properly. And her surly invidia sometimes provokes the odd punch in the face. She incites negative emotions, then mourns the burden of always being around negative emotions. Tonight, a police car's tires chirp as it turns off Vine onto West 12th. At Haven Hall, across from where Republic terminates at 12th, the officer whips his patrol car into an available space at the curb. He and his partner emerge from the front seats. Very solicitously he assists an exhausted looking lady in her fifties from the back seat. It's Selma. She is holding a glove over her eye. "I fell down," she chuckles ruefully, putting on a brave face against such a hostile world. "I hit my face on the pavement." Somebody's wry, inquiring look is returned by the young cop who escorts Selma to the front door. The cop rolls his eyes. "She hasn't been knocking over any convenient stores, has she?" somebody asks. The young policeman and his partner try not to laugh too hard. "Oh no, sir. Nothing like that. Just make sure somebody watches her for an hour or so." And so an RSW at the Haven Hall desk takes a second to chat with Selma, Our Lady of Many Bruises, and the conversation between the two officers can be heard as they walk back to their patrol car. "Man, I can't believe the way she talks. It's like she wants something bad to happen to her." "Oh, it's a miracle she doesn't get bashed more often. You'll have more encounters with her, believe me." Of all the case managers, psych R.N.s and Social Security clerks who deal with Selma recently, it was probably those two Cincinnati police officers who were most patient with her. There was nothing legally binding in their request that somebody watch Selma for an hour, but the request was carried out. As young as they were, the two cops seemed to have an intuition about what made Selma tick that many mental health workers lack. Selma alienates the very people whose job it is to treat her mental illness. It's also true that in the past, there have been cases of mentally ill people being beaten or even killed during encounters with law enforcement. Cincinnati has made an effort to improve their officers' training in how to deal with the mentally ill. The ability to work with mentally ill people, especially those who have self-destructive behavior, depends partly on training, but also on individual temperament. Any human encounter Selma has may engender misunderstanding, but she remains serenely confident that what happens around her must correspond exactly to what happens in her head. Selma believes her problem is that everybody else has a problem. And she never feels more comforted, more validated, than when some irate drunk whom she has insulted hauls off and catches her face with a haymaker.

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All original text (C) 2007, 2008 David J. Carney. All rights reserved.

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