Liz drives about 50 miles to come and see me. Today she almost made it on time, which is an improvement for her. She lives on the farthest edge of the farthest county in my jurisdiction. Soon she will move across the line back into another jurisdiction, but even then she will travel to see me.
I've transferred her case to that jurisdiction once before and it did not end well. The poor guy working those counties is also a one man dog and pony show, just like me. However, he has to do both adult and juvenile probation. There is not enough tea in China to pay me to do that. No ma'am! Therefore, I try to be a little more understanding of him than I might otherwise be.
The problem is his method of coping is to be a sticker for detail and a fanatic devotee of rules. All rules. Any rules. Liz doesn't work well inside strict parameters. Her existence is more lateral than logical.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't get along with the guy any better than Liz did. I'd rather keep her case and not be paid for it than to have to deal with him again. But that's not the story I'm gonna tell you.
Last time I saw Liz, we finally got busy and completed the state's newest, shiniest assessment tool for her case. I was months late doing it, but we'd had other more pressing concerns on her previous visits. The state won't like this, but that's ok. It'll give them something to pad their reports with and we'll all go home feeling fulfilled. (Perhaps you can see why Mr. Rule Book and I didn't get along so well?)
The assessment tool is as fabulously un-useful as any such mandated instrument, but it is a great interview starter. It helps to aggregate information into a single interview that might take me months to cover without it's guided questioning.
We spent a lot of the interview talking about the depression that Liz suffers from to a debilitating degree. Today she looked better than she has in a long time. Her hair and her clothes were clean. Her eyes had not a spark, but at least a dull gleam. And she sort of ghosted a smile as she came in the door. It was a good day to talk about why she's depressed.
Liz is an educated woman. Not liberal arts, but she's had a Certified Nurse's Aide license and completed a 2-year associate's degree in office management, with a minor in accounting. She's worked in several offices as well as a lengthy stint doing purchasing for a state prison.
Despite her education, Liz is desperately poor. And she married a poor man, in pretty much every sense of the word. She knows he's worthless, but they stick it out. They've been together a long time.
Their first child was a son. He was born without any major incident and pronounced acceptably viable before being sent home for cuddling and coddling.
Once safely ensconced, he promptly stopped breathing. Luckily Liz's mom was there and knew just what to do. She remembered Liz had done the same thing as a baby. It was sleep apnea. The doctor confirmed Grandma's diagnosis and told Liz all her children would need to be monitored for it when born. She was never to have a baby sent home from the hospital without a breathing monitor.
Liz had a second child, also born healthy and normal. The breathing monitor showed no signs of apnea and all was well.
Liz had third child, a daughter.
You know where this is going.
Liz did all the right things, the things that my chronically poor people are seldom able to do. She got prenatal care. She kept the same doctor who'd treated her other two babies. She was ready to have this baby.
The baby was ready, too. Her daughter was born while the doctor was away on vacation. A teenager in scrubs delivered her, according to Liz.
All went well and they were both released from the hospital at the earliest possible opportunity. Except there was no breathing monitor. Liz told the teenager the baby was supposed to have the monitor - just in case.
Dr. Howser assured Liz that she was just being an over-protective, overly-worried new mother. God had given her the gift of a perfectly healthy baby girl and she needed to take the baby home and enjoy her. He wouldn't listen to Liz's protestations, probably dubious of what a Medicaid mother could possibly have to tell him about medical care.
When Liz got home she still tried to do the right things. She called her doctor's office and made an appointment for as soon as he got back into town.
Things went well and there were no problems with the baby. On the morning of the appointment, Liz went into the bedroom to awaken her daughter and get her dressed for the trip to the doctor.
You know what happened.
All the doctor could do for Liz at that point was to help dull the pain. "The drugs turned me into a potato," she said. Her emotions were so flattened she couldn't even cry at her daughter's funeral. She tried to read a poem during the service but could only stand and stare bleakly out over the audience until someone helped her down off the stage.
Liz stayed medicated for months, but could never function on the meds. She wasn't interested in the "vegetable lifestyle". She had two other children who needed a mother, not a potato. So she stopped taking the drugs.
The legal ones, anyway.
Now Liz cycles back and forth from deep depression to exhausting mania. She has waking nightmares of finding that bloated purple face staring up a her from the crib.
Her living situation has not improved. She's been practically homeless twice in the short time I've known her. She can't find a job - there are none to be had in the community of 150 people where she lives. She has no transportation of her own, so she can't get a job out of town. The minor support she receives from family members would evaporate if she moved somewhere else. She at least has a roof over her head where she is. Her husband just got felony probation in another county due to a dumb mistake. She owes me all kinds of money.
Liz recognizes that she probably needs treatment for bipolar disorder, at the very least, but her husband's aunt was diagnosed with that disorder after the aunt tried to kill their grandmother while searching for some sort of imaginary treasure she was sure the grandmother had hidden from her. Liz thinks she cannot afford to get the same diagnosis, given the complicated family dynamics and the fact that she is dependent on that family for food and shelter.
And there I sit, behind my desk, staring at the next question on the assessment form.
"Do you belong to any groups or clubs?"
She just snorted.
Next question: "Do you belong to a church?"
My face probably betrayed my skepticism about that question because Liz laughed. "No," she said. "I didn't think it would really help me to have a bunch of people telling me that this was God's will and part of his plan. I always assumed God wasn't that much of a shit."
It was my turn to laugh. "Ohh, you are so smart," I said. "Yeah, God is not a dick."
I don't like to follow rules, just for the sake of following rules. I need reasons for rules. Otherwise, I tend to ignore them. Sometimes that gets me in trouble. Sometimes it doesn't. When I was young I was quite complaint and conscientious but the older I got, the more I realized that everyone else is making it up as they go along, just like me. Experience has taught me a lot and I do have some hard and fast rules that I've set for myself.
I never ride a motorcycle without a helmet.
I turn my socks right side out before putting them in the hamper.
I don't complain about paying my taxes.
I don't wear anything pink.
And I never start discussions of religion or spiritual beliefs in my official capacity.
Despite my adherence to that last rule, there is seldom a work day that doesn't involve some sort of spiritual discussion with one or more of my people. They bring it up, not me. There were many times, when I worked in a larger department, that I and the other officers would marvel at the frequency and occasional depth of these discussions.
Some people who want to talk 'bout Jeezus do it in a smarmy attempt at manipulation. 'Look - I go to church. We cool. I'm a good person, so you can't treat me like all those other people.'
The majority though, are seeking. They want comfort and answers. And they want to talk. Sadly, many of these conversations end up being an attempt on my part to push back against the prosperity gospel bullshit.
The poor and the magical thinkers among us are prime targets for that type of teaching. The rich person is not only going to stay out of needle eyes and other places, they're not going to 'buy' into the practice of 'blessing' the pastor/prophet/teacher, either directly or indirectly, with money and expensive gifts as a means to securing a financial blessing of their own.
The poor person is going to think it's worth a shot and they will give all they've got left to the church. All they've got left after picking up a few scratch-offs, that is.
Liz is not a victim of the prosperity gospel. Neither does she have patience for the sort oftheology that tries to force encouragement by assuring her that tragedy is God's horrible, horrible will. Unfortunately, her experience has been that those are her only two choices when it comes to religion. Given where she lives, there aren't any other options, really.
And yet, even with all the stuff she deals with, she could still make jokes about how thoroughly unhelpful sanitized, white-bread religion is to her down and dirty daily life.
And that's the point. (You knew there had to be one somewhere, didn't you?) Despite the cesspool of her existence, she can still make a joke. She can still smile. Liz is not some Norman Vincent Peale success story. She's just human. And humans are fantastically resilient. That's why we have to take an interest in one another. That's why we have to listen to one another. It doesn't take much to make someone's life a little better.
Will Liz find a job? Get her mental illness under control? Pay the water bill and the electric bill both in the same month? Nope, not anytime soon. Possibly not ever. She's not going to join a church or the PTA or the athletic booster club.
But she will survive. And she'll keep a roof over her family's heads. And she won't join those groups or churches, but she also won't join the KKK or whatever passes for a gang in these parts. And maybe her kids will get an education and have a better life. I'll do whatever I can to keep her out of jail. That's about it.
Too bad there is not a cool punchline here. The truth is life is pretty precarious for a lot of people. Do whatever you can to help them move away from the precipice. Sometimes there's not much you can do.
Sometimes, it doesn't take much.