Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Exercises

I had the good fortune of having a photographer for a roommate many years ago.  It was 1970, the beginning of my life away from home.  After a year in Houston, Texas, as a VISTA Volunteer I wound up in the Bay Area.  Seeking draft counseling and the opportunity to hone my social justice skills I ended up working in a care and treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenage boys. Because there were so many conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, the place was approved for alternative service.  We were non-violent young men working with very violent youth.  The Feeral Selective Service (draft) law said that approved service had to "dispute your life and involve sacrifice")  This did.  That's why we worked 3 day live-in shifts and got $50.00 a month plus room/board.  Thought these homes were privately owned houses, it was an institutional setting.  The training and support we received was questionable, at best, ineffective at worst, but the experiences and stories that remain from that time are indelible.
The photo here is taken from one of my colleagues' Instagram page.  He recently decided to scan and preserve much of his work from the last four decades.  I have his permission to use this picture and I'm delighted because it is worth at least 2,000 words.
His name was Brent and he lived in the home that had the most mentally disturbed boys.  I say that with a grain of salt because while his roommates had mental illnesses they were deemed less violent or angry as another home with more emotionally, physically, and developmentally mature kids.  While Brent and his roommates certainly were not exempt from some forms of abuse, they were severely limited in their ability to make and flourish with social relationships.  Sometimes people confuse the term "crazy" with the person and not the behavior.  The kids could be funny, entertaining, even lovable, but they were loaded with "crazy" behavior.
Brent had, among other things, a large dose of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior.  His OCD, however didn't involve hand washing or counting, or cleanliness, but rather an obsession with huge disasters.  He was fascinated with natural disasters like tidal waves and volcanic eruptions, but especially enthralled with the disaster of Hiroshima.  In a low almost whisper, he'd say, "Bruce...Bruce... Fifty thousand people killed in Hiroshima."  Then he proceeded to extend both arms forward and violently shake his fingers.  Creepy, yes, but also eerie and somewhat fascinating.
Brent and his roommates were also going through puberty.  They didn't have the skills to discuss sex and their sexual awakening in a mature way, so they were often shunned by the boys in the other 3 houses, who were just beginning to act on their urges and certainly didn't want to be associated with these "crazy" ones.
Brent had a crush on the actress Marlo Thomas.  It was the 1970s and she was a big TV star.  He build huge fantasies around how he would meet her and how they would "get together."  He used to show me long, long short stories he'd written.  Always there was a scene where something happened to Marlo Thomas, and he just happened to be nearby.  She sometimes was in an ambulance after being hit by a car, or perhaps the victim of some sort of misfortunate and he suddenly be there and she would fall in love with him right there on the spot.  He got much pleasure from these stories.
Working in these homes as a 22 year old conscientious objector I learned much about both mental illness and my own threshhold for keeping my cool.  Often, the worst times were waking the kids up and getting them to settle into bed at night.  One of the therapists employed by the facility used to tell us that unlike most people, they felt they had no reason to get up in the morning.  Often, the first hour of the day was fraught with anger that erupted into fights and resistance of all sorts.  As for Brent, the end of the day was the biggest challenge with him.  He used to ask one of the other boys, Charles, who happened to be Japanese, if he was Chinese or Japanese for hours.  "Charles...Charles...are you Chinese or Japanese."  Imagine that in a raspy voice for a couple of hours.  It was always followed with a sniveling little laugh.  I conclude this memory of Brent with one of his evening surprises.  If a woman houseparent was on duty he was likely to do this one.  Slipping off his pajamas, he's suddenly burst out of bed and announce, "Exercises in the nude."  Whereupon he commence doing jumping jacks and encourage all within earshot to do the same.  More about Brent and his roommates in my next post.

No comments: