Correna is full of simplistic Henny Youngman-type one-liners (many of you readers, I understand, may never have heard of the comic, Henny Youngman, but no matter). But her one-liners are not particularly funny.
She might say as we drive along, “I am SOB,” (Stuck or broke) or “CRS,” (can’t remember shit), or “SOS,” Stuck on Stupid, and her favorite one, which has no initials is “The world is full of idiots, and all of them with licenses.”
If she has used that one with me once, I have heard it at least 50 times. Another of her favorites is the one she has for her psychiatrist.
“He asks three dumb questions every three months.”
“And what are those?” I ask, as if I have not heard this before.
Do you want to harm others?
“‘Not if they don’t want to harm me,’ I tell him.”
Do you want to harm yourself?
(She doesn’t comment on that one),
Do you hear voices?
“No,” she says.
I remind her that her frequent outbursts of anger, often over nothing, can’t be good for her heart and blood pressure.
She treats both for high blood pressure and heart disease. She is stout and about 45-years-old. She is also a recovering alcoholic and a drug addict. She hasn’t had a drink in eight years, she tells me. She likes to say (over and over again, of course) how she has only two brain cells left, but I don’t allow that statement to go unchallenged.
“No, Correna,” I say, “you’re smarter than that. Smarter than you give yourself credit for.” And she is. But she is so used to getting away with saying how dumb she is; she is not sure how to respond to my compliments. She reacts by not reacting, just silence when I speak about her capabilities.
Every day she goes at 3 p.m. to a place called the “Ice House.” It is a gathering spot for recovering alcoholics, as well as those drug-dependent and with mental issues. She takes a bus. I volunteer to take her there on Monday’s. So going to the Ice House becomes a regular Monday event for us.
I now know I have become, in a small way, a useful person in her life, which has been my goal from the beginning. That gives me sort of an edge. These days she listens to what I have to say.
I can speak candidly about how she deals with the world (not well), her anger, her rudeness, impatience, and more.
I sort of preach to her when she is in my car and get away with it. She may pretend she is not hearing my words over those earphones she wears everywhere, but I know she does.
Recently I took her to the food stamp office at the L&N Building downtown. She couldn’t go alone. She would not be able to manage such a trip, she says.
It is about 2 p.m., and the office is empty. Still, we have to wait about 45 minutes, a lifetime for Correna. After about 15 minutes, she is fit to be tied.
“Look, nobody is here, and we’re still waiting! I’m going to go.”
She gets up to leave, but of course, I have driven her to this office, so she doesn’t plan to leave without me, and I make it clear I am going nowhere, not yet.
“Why don’t you go out for a smoke?” I suggest.
“OK,” she says. “But if we are not seen by the time I get back, I’m out of here.”
“Go,” I say, gesturing with my hand. And so in 15 minutes, she is back and just as insistent as ever that we leave immediately.
“Let’s give them a little more time,” I say. “Hang on. They will see us soon, I am certain.” Then I ask her about her early life.
She likes to talk about herself — most people do — and she tells me how she lived in terrible surroundings as a child growing up.
Next, she speaks about a job she once had out West fighting forest fires. It is difficult to picture Correna on fire duty someplace, but I guess it is possible. It is not easy to imagine her employed anywhere, what with that explosive personality, but maybe in the past, when she was not so ill.
We are soon called back to see a food stamp specialist, Mr. Gonzalez, and before he can say a word, I identify myself and whom I work for, thereby alerting him that he is about to deal with — my client — has mental problems.
Our agency name is synonymous with mental illness.
Of course, Correna gives him hell immediately for making us wait, though it has not really been a long wait. Mr. Gonzalez comes across as easygoing, and the criticism washes off him, and he says softly to Correna, “We are all here now, and that is what matters.” And of course, that is the truth.
The man is thorough and quick and explains well the food stamp benefit. He tells her she is eligible for $78 a month in food stamps, and a bit more than that the first month. She is incredulous, nearly speechless, and delighted.
He explains how to use the food stamp card they will send her in the mail. She immediately goes into her two-brain cell routine, and I immediately interrupt her and tell her firmly that she is capable of learning how to use the food stamp card. She doesn’t argue with me. Besides, I tell her, “I will help you if there is a problem.” There never is a problem.
On the way home in the car, I cannot resist making the obvious point — the lesson learned here — and that is that a little patience results in a big gain. A willingness to wait for a half-hour got her almost 80 bucks a month in food stamps.
“Nothing to sneeze at,” I remind her. She hears my message loud and clear. Be a little patient with people, and the rewards can be significant. Probably I repeat this lesson many too many times in the days which follow, but for today Correna sits there and hears me out (and without those blasted earphones).
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.
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