Grief, Racism, Uncategorized

High elopement risk

IMG_2880.JPGMy mother spent the better part of March of this year living on the geriatric psychiatry floor of a hospital near my home. To get into this wing, I had to pick up a phone, sign in and surrender my purse. Signs at the doors warned of “high elopement risk.”

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

My mother was the most ill patient in the psychiatry ward. She did not speak coherently, her only words short riffs of old phrases thrown together. She made no connections with her fellow patients and she never slept. My visits were spent in the common area of the wing. This space brought together a small crowd of regulars, folks whose faces became familiar to me. There was Mary, lucid enough to once say “I haven’t seen you here before,” but always disheveled and melancholy. I noticed an inscrutable woman who played cards without playing cards, deploying all the motions and none of the method of a card game. And then there was Ethel, loud and urgent, yelping “Heeeelp!” but sometimes losing interest before anyone came to her aid. She was my favorite, full of drama in a pink nightgown.

It seemed like a tough gig, working behind those locked doors. Decisions requiring a certain nuance would arise in chronic rhythm. Ignore the latest wail from Ethel or go to her?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

Among the staff members dressed in scrubs was a young African American man. He was a bright eyed twentysomething with a ready grin, his hair long and in dreadlocks. He was friendly, freely commenting to me about the newspaper I could no longer share meaningfully with my mom. He filled me in on her preceding hours, which generally consisted of my terminally ill mom refusing and struggling. He betrayed not a moment’s frustration with her. In fact, the two of them always managed it all, making it through my mom’s showers, her garment changes and her meals.

Research in social psychology has long provided insight into the impact of bias. We’re biased to favor our own viewpoints. The “false consensus effect” is a classic observation, in which we believe our knowledge and beliefs are shared by a majority of others.

A related phenomenon is known as naive realism. This is the belief that one’s private experience, which is inherently subjective, is a universal reality. A clever way of demonstrating this, first undertaken by a psychology graduate student in the 1990’s, is to ask individuals to tap out a song on a table. While a tune in your head might seem well conveyed via those taps, the tempo and melody both clear, the effect tends to sound like just so many random knocks to a listener. Still, subjects overestimate the likelihood of a partner’s success in discerning the tune.

So we tend to think that our views and our experiences are shared by others. And we are inclined to think that our own ways of being are objective, unvarnished and universal.

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I liked my mother’s young care provider and admired his ease. There were things to be done, and he did them. I would have had a harder time in his role, even with my own mother — or perhaps especially with my own mother. I might stop to lament, or I might hesitate, or I might impatiently murmur why can’t you. My frail, confused mother moaned and groused her way through the acts of caregiving this man provided, and she was met with only his gentle face and firm instruction.

Now that months have passed and my mother has died, I still think about that man. I’m aware that although I found all the staff members’ jobs intriguing, my attention was so focused on him because he did not fit my stereotype of a professional in geriatric medicine. I couldn’t help but wonder why a young black man would choose a position of caring for elderly, mostly white individuals with serious psychiatric illnesses. Moments of connection would be less than in other medical specialties, the tasks of caregiving especially fraught with awkwardness for those of us observing. Moreover, patients with psychiatric illness — like my own mother — can be noncompliant at best and aggressive at worst. And I feared what I knew was possible: this man’s own patients could very well be biased against him. So why choose them?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I know that I made certain predictions about my mother’s care provider based on his appearance: his long hair, his thin frame, his young age, and, I don’t doubt, the color of his skin.

Even if my predictions were as benign as expecting him to like hip-hop, they could have impact. We are all repeatedly generating, and repeatedly subjected to, biases. For me, a middle aged white woman who drives an old minivan and could stand to lose a few pounds, these biases may often be favorable or at least neutral: I probably have children, or am friendly toward kids. I probably speak English fluently. I probably enjoy the company of other women my age, am not filthy rich, am not a marathoner, and am trustworthy.

That last one is a big one. Does my mother’s care provider enjoy the same assumption in his favor? Mike Ditka, former NFL coach, commented in response to the recent silent protests of professional and amateur athletes that, “I just don’t see the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” Lacking particular insight or empathy, Ditka and those with similar attitudes remain naive realists. A masculine white man in a male-dominated high-income career like Ditka’s may be relatively unlikely to encounter biases against him that undercut his sense of freedom, that question his dignity, or that impede his progress. Ditka’s movement through the world is his perceived reality, which he — like all of us — mistakes for an objective truth. Lifting oneself out of one’s own veil requires effort. It requires pause. It may represent an elopement of sorts: a willful movement out of a safe space. Most of us, most of the time, choose the well-greased path instead and allow our own perspectives to dominate our beliefs about and responses to others.

My mother had a career as a school librarian. She was a skilled researcher, adept at connecting with both students and faculty. She was well liked and well informed. At the end of her life, she had lost virtually everything: profoundly disabled, she required nearly constant care to make it through the day. It was an elopement of body and brain away from the safe spaces of ability and achievement to the modest floor of pronounced, unremitting need. Once pushed away from her safe spaces, she was tended to by a man whose place at her side may have represented a further elopement, his own: defying the likeliest expectations of him, despite challenges both shared by others in that role and unique to him, there he was.

For the sake of both of them, the dying white woman and the young black man, may we all elope more. May we accept that there is no one reality apart from each of our minds, and that the fears, beliefs, and even the joys of others ought not be dismissed simply because they are not our own.

My mother was fortunate in her final weeks to have that gentleman at her side. I wish now that I had learned his name. There they were, at that moment in time, existing within a practical safe space but both far from anything so describable. Life crosses paths of souls, and we are all at turns both powerful and at each other’s mercy. Let us all elope together.

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2 thoughts on “High elopement risk

  1. Jeanne Birnkrant says:

    Nicely done!

    On Oct 6, 2016 1:01 PM, “Tank Fixed to Place Do Not Move” wrote:

    > Rachel Stewart Johnson posted: “My mother spent the better part of March > of this year living on the geriatric psychiatry floor of a hospital near my > home. To get into this wing, I had to pick up a phone, sign in and > surrender my purse. Signs at the doors warned of “high elopement risk.”” >

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