Well, I did not burst into flame

Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people.  What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive.  We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.

Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.

I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.

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Helping Milwaukee County Make Decisions

A few years ago the Republican controlled state legislature passed a law taking decision-making authority for mental health away from the elected county supervisors and replaced them with a group of volunteers from the community. The board includes mental health consumers, attorneys, advocates and mental health professionals. There are a lot of big decisions to be made regarding Milwaukee County mental health. The county is moving away from the model of maintaining a large mental health facility which they have been downsizing over the years by closing wards and shifting the people who lived there to community based facilities. Case management, which helps people live in the community, has already been contracted out to various agencies. These agencies help engage with consumers and connect them to services with the aim of reducing their dependence on in patient treatment, which is expensive and often very traumatic.

However, there are no guarantees in this system. We all know people in community programs who died but we can try to reduce the number of preventable deaths. We can ensure that case management provides necessary services. We can increase the number of affordable housing units. We can offer physical and mental health in a coordinated fashion and make certain that people are getting regular check ups. We can have clinics where we would want to be treated. These are very easy steps we can take in our own agencies

But what we do to guide the process of system wide reform? One way is by joining the mental health board. Imagine my surprise when a former co-worker asked me to apply to join the board, which is appointed by the county executive. I will be tossing my hat into the ring tonight to see if I can add my experience to this group. I am excited, interested and curious all at the same time. I will post some more as the process goes along.

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Drawn to Secularism

I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.

I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.

Shot while in the hospital

I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.

Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion  that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.

His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by  police who have little or no training in dealing with them.

There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.

This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff  you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?

Farewell, old friends

black women friends

A friend is feeling sad these days because of the loss of her long time companions. People who know you from 30 or more years ago are really special. The people who were there through different hair colors, relationships, songs, concerts, having children and having grandchildren and stuff in between. The ones who you could tell anything. People who know what to bring and what not to say.

We meet these people at a certain stage, maybe when we have just arrived in the city and are wondering what will happen. Or maybe we meet them when they move into our neighborhood at a potluck and ask, who made that dish. And before weknow it we are sitting down and talking together.

A lot of this is theory for me because I have difficulty maintaining close friendships. I remember an old girl friend asking me about who were my close friends and not being able to figure that out. But for people who do remain close over a long time, letting go is so painful. But at some point our bodies give way. It can be sudden, in an accident or it could be the gradual wearing away due to diseases. And then there is sadness.

You will always have those many years of memories but you won’t always have those friends. This is the circle of life. Farewell, old friends. Know that you are loved and will be in one another’s dreams.

 

Old Friends

by Simon and Garfunkel, who ironically, were not friends

Old friends, old friends,
Sat on their parkbench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears

The Valentine’s day stomach flu

love

I have been home with a lot of intestinal nasties the past two days. I slept most of yesterday while my sweetheart used the car. When she asked if I needed her to pick up something from the store I asked for some homemade chicken soup and ginger ale.

She let me know she was on the way home and I slipped out to get her a Valentines Day gift. Conviently there are a bakery and a chocolate shop around the corner. I checked the bakery but they had closed so off to the chocalate shop I went with most of the black men in the neighborhood. I found my trusty debit card and got a nice pair of hearts. I slowly walked home and got back on the futon where I had been all day.

I gave her my gift and was somewhat surprised to learn that the Valentines day card I had seen over the weekend was for her grandson. I went to bed feeling a little sad. However this morning she showed me the card she had made for me saying I was loved. It was like what they say chicken soup for the heart.

I have struggled over the years with Valentines day including having a woman break up with me. Some small things lime this mean more as I grow older. I am listening to jazz, my intestines are returning to nrmal and thinking about being loved.

The poor ask, who will care for us?

80850-walker-evans-depression-era-portraits

In the Sunday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the front page story asks, are health systems failing a moral test? My question is simpler, who will care for the poor? I have worked in several levels of mental health including apartment programs, the crisis resource center, the mental hospital and case management, for more than 10 years.  And much has changed during that time. The most dramatic is the downsizing of the mental hospital which now sites half empty. At the same time resources have been shifted towards improving people’s access to resources in the community. There are more organizations dedicated to ensuring that people don’t need the things that inpatient care provides.

When I worked at the hospital, nursing staff morale was low because they saw where it was going. I saw former nurses at a recent listening session held by the Milwaukee Mental Health Board. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they talked about the end of their careers while in their 50s and early 60s.

There are multiple sides to this story. There are tragic stories of people who died at the mental health complex. There are people who did not need to be housed in the long term care units who were assisted in transitioning into the community. There are some acutely ill people being turned away from the mental hospital because there are not enough beds and not enough staff to care for them.

The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex has always served as the safety net for the sickest and poorest of our residents. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asks which of the profitable existing private hospitals will take it over and serve their patients. People who had no insurance always knew the the county was there for them. But those days are rapidly coming to a close. They asked the advocates what they hoped for but I don’t recall anyone asking the people who sometimes become too ill in the community what they would like to see.  If I was a poor person looking at these choices, I would be afraid. And the nights are still cold.