Client Story- Robert

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In Memory of an ‘Unknown’ Gentle Man

by Melanie Lapierre

“Are you sure you want to be alone in the room with him?” I am often asked if I am afraid to do my job and find myself baffled at the question, particularly when it comes from a health care professional. I was particularly frustrated by this question on a recent Friday afternoon when I was visiting my client Robert in the hospital.

What was there to be afraid of? Clearly, their concern was because he has schizophrenia—and yet these are health care professionals trained to work with mentally ill patients. As Robert’s social worker for the past two and half years, and having worked with adults with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses for many years, I have become sensitive to the unfair assumptions that so often plague such individuals. The stigma of this and other complex brain disorders often leads to isolation and disconnectedness, and Robert’s situation was no exception.

A man in his ‘50’s, Robert had been living on the streets by his own choice for the few weeks before he was hospitalized, as he hated to be boxed into a system he felt was unfair. He had very strong beliefs about religion, family and rock and roll. He never spoke positively about himself and was distrustful about living in a home where he didn’t always feel safe. Robert’s connections with his siblings, who tried their best under the difficult strain of having a mentally ill family member, had been tenuous for most of his adult life. I was his social worker, hired by his family because they recognized that they were no longer able to be there for Robert in a way that they once could.

In the two months Robert had spent in the hospital dealing with medical trauma, this was the first visit that I saw a smile on his face, heard him laugh and joke around. Robert asked if his restraints could be removed, so I pleaded on Robert’s behalf for them to release the restraints on his legs during our visit. With much hesitation, they complied. We spent a great deal of time talking—and even reminisced about rock bands he loved, especially the Beatles, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. I left the hospital feeling hopeful for Robert’s recovery. He appeared to have finally turned the corner with his medical issues. But fate had other plans. Robert passed away the next morning. I was shocked when I received the news from his sister and found myself filled with sadness. This sadness was magnified on the day of the funeral, when the officiating priest asked attendees to share what they knew about Robert so he could gain a better understanding of who Robert was.

No one spoke.

How sad that a man could live 50 years with so few truly knowing him. In that moment of odd silence, I became keenly aware that I was the primary connection to Robert. Because of the nature of his illness, I was the person who was closest to him in recent years and was fortunate enough to have known who Robert was as a whole person, not just the Robert who was labeled schizophrenic. I set aside any fear that I had about speaking and quietly walked to the front of the service to paint a full picture of Robert. I shared a statement he made during our final visit, which I later realized was his way of coming to terms with his family and himself: “Melanie,” he said, “there comes a time in your life when you’ve done everything you’ve wanted to do. And I think I’m at that point.” While he may not have understood it to be this way, it was clear to me, on that final Friday visit, that Robert had made peace with some of his conflicting feelings about his family. And, he finally recognized their support.

Speaking at his graveside ceremony was the hardest thing I have ever done, not only during my five years as a Care Manager at PLAN of PA but in my 10-year career as a social worker. However, I was grateful to be able to help his family carry memories of the whole Robert, not just the Robert who was regarded as an unstable homeless man with mental illness. Rest in peace, Robert. You are missed more than you know.

Robert’s name was changed for privacy purposes.