the devil on my back

when RB wakes in the night, he asks me, go pee-pee? & says, i’m thirsty; thirsty boy, a child wearing a fifty-four-year-old man’s body, his shoulders shrugged close to his ears.  i keep a cup in the bathroom for him, allow him to drink until the unrelenting thirst, a side effect of the lithium he takes, momentarily subsides.  on his way back to bed, his hands folded neatly in front of his chest, his pants hanging low on his hips, he looks me in the eye & says, smiling, i love you.

over & over i say, thank you.  you did a good job, RB; thank you.  when he lays down in his bed, i pull his blanket to his chin.  thank you, pal, i say. goodnight.

this is my work.

this is the job that i do.


some mornings, when RB is assigned to one of my co-workers to wake & bathe, he is agitated, his fingers pinching spit to fling from his mouth at the ceiling & my co-workers.  RB smashes his hands against the table, slamming his coffee cup again, again, again.  from the back of the house, where i lift men with a palsied bodies from their beds & into their wheelchairs, i hear him saying more–more coffee, more water, a ham sandwich & stack of american cheese slices.  my co-workers repeat, no–you have had enough.  always, in the two & a half years that i have been at this job, they are the people who determine when enough is enough.


on one of the mornings when RB is assigned to me, i find a string of finger-sized bruises fading on his upper arms.  he grits his teeth & claps his hands in the bathtub, muttering, wink, honey–you wink at your brother; smile, honey, or the doctor’s going to give you a spanking; take down your pants, RB, while his eyes dart & flash.  i say, where are you?  what are you doing right now?  are you taking a bath? as i try to pull his mind back into the room, the present moment, his body.  to quiet him, i sing m-i-c, k-e-y very softly, slowly, until he joins me: m-o-uuuu-s-e.  mickey mouse, mickey mouse.


tuesday morning at 7:30 AM, i hear RB pacing the hallway.  a co-worker says, get back to your room.  in a voice that shakes, RB says, no, no, i’ll be good, i’ll be a good boy.  i find him smashing his hand against a framed photograph of a flower near the doorway to his bedroom.  i say, come sit next to me; let’s take deep breaths.  he gets louder & rushes toward me, bashing the picture until it comes loose from the wall, dangles, then he rips at his window blinds.  useless, my head fuzzy from the violence & noise, i leave the room.  i wake my next resident, DS, & take him into the shower room.  most mornings i hum “leaving on a jet plane” or the only barbra streisand song that i know to keep him calm, collected, his hands busy soaking the sensation of the water spray against his fingers instead of slapping repeatedly at his head.  this morning, as a soap & scrub DS’s body, i am silent.  i keep my face & its tears turned away & hung low.


by 8:15 AM, RB has wailed on a framed picture in the living room hard enough, long enough, that the glass shatters.  after half the residents have been shuffled off to their day programs, after everyone has been bathed & fed, i isolate myself folding laundry in the back of the house.  our supervisor arrives a handful of minutes before my shift ends, & my co-worker casually says, RB broke a picture this morning.  the supervisor doesn’t say, what brought that about? he doesn’t ask, is he OK?  instead, he says, all right.  a shrug, a dismissal.  no investigation, no interrogation.  he tells me i am no longer able to keep a cup for RB in the bathroom at night.  particles from the toilet can get into it, he says.  health code.  i feel my face harden, my body stiffen.  i disengage, shut down.


when i get home that morning, my mind is raucous with frantic birds. to tire them & to forget, i pour two beers into a large glass & add two slices of lemon. i strip off my clothes, the germs & waste of eight other people’s piss & shit that cover me, & lie down on the couch.  over the next three hours, half-naked & sobbing, i try to wish myself out of existence as each bird in my brain wails, again & again, i’ll be a good boy; i’ll be good.


shame, disgust, despair.  i cannot stand to look at myself in the mirror.  when i eat, laugh, or accept love or kindness from the important people in my life, i tell myself, you are a coward & a liar, & you don’t deserve this.  voiceless, powerless, insignificant.  each day at my job, when i try to be an adult who is a brave & capable advocate, the agency & its culture reduces me to a child just learning to know her place in the world, & i remember fear.  i remember stillness & isolation, sickness & dissociation.  i remember father.




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