Nov 14, 2018

Oh, James

I scanned the intake sheet: James Kolacki (not his real name), 24, unemployed. Wants to appeal a denial of social security disability (SSD).  One of the other lawyers or paralegals in my legal aid office must have been on vacation or overloaded, as I rarely handled that type of case.  Ok, time to learn something new.

James had pale white skin, blond, almost white, hair, and pale blue eyes. Very thin, he looked about 18. His father, Mr. Kolacki, was with him. Mr. K was graying and looked older than his age (50). I soon learned why.

It is difficult to get SSD, and very difficult when you are young. Before the government will agree to pay, you must meet the definition of disability in the social security laws. The older we get, the easier it is to meet that test -- back problems, arthritis, cancer etc. all become much more common as we age. At 24, however, the odds were not in James' favor.

Before I could introduce myself, I noticed James reading my framed licenses and certificates quite closely. So, after I told them my name, I made a point of mentioning that I was "the attorney" assigned to James. Since I was 27 and a woman, it was often necessary for me to remind my clients that I was a "real" lawyer.  Sometimes I needed to remind myself as well.....

Right from the start, Mr. K took over the appointment and explained that James lived in supported housing, ran by a local non profit, for adults with developmental or serious mental health issues.  Mr. K handed me the paperwork denying SSD for his son, and said he wanted to appeal.

It's tricky when an adult comes in with a parent, child, or other adult who is answering all the questions. So I went out of my way to explain to James that I was his attorney, not his father's, and that I wanted to speak privately with James.  Mr. K got up to leave, but James immediately said it was ok for his father to stay.

Mr. K sat down and I looked at James and asked him why he thought he couldn't work. His father immediately answered for him. "James has schizophrenia** and cannot hold a job." He then handed me a one inch thick medical file.

I needed to hear from James, if for no other reason that James would need to testify and I had to assess his ability to do so. So I sat back and said to James, "Tell me about your life. I know your Dad can explain it but I want to hear it from you." And then I said to Mr. K, "If it's ok, I'd like you to sit back and just listen for a bit." Mr. K nodded.

Without looking at me, James said, "I live with my parents and I got fired from my job at Taco Bell."

"What reason did Taco Bell give you for firing you?"

"I got upset. I couldn't stay there at the cash register so I left in the middle of my shift and they fired me."

James looked a little agitated and kept staring at my certificates, so I decided to change the subject and ask something simple.

"Did you graduate from high school?"

I caught a look of immense sadness come over Mr. K's face. Before James could respond, Mr, K said: "Yes, James graduated 3rd in his class. And then he went to the University of Virginia for 2 years. When he was a junior at UVA, he had his first psychotic break and moved back home."

In the 3 years that I had been practicing as a legal aid lawyer, I had a lot of clients with serious mental health issues. Although they were a small portion of my practice, they took up a lot of my time. Sometimes their issues seemed comical, even though underneath they were deadly serious and tragic. Nevertheless, it seemed I connected with them better than with my "healthy" clients.

For example, Gail (not her real name) kept filing lawsuits against Picasso (his real name), even though Picasso was dead and Gail had no connection to Picasso. I had learned the hard way not to argue with Gail about those facts. Rather, I convinced Gail to stop filing suits against Picasso because Picasso wasn't in the US and the US courts didn't have jurisdiction over him.

I was representing Bill, (not his real name either) a cab driver, in a routine divorce. Things got interesting because Bill believed that Walter Mondale had beaten Ronald Reagan in the 1984 Presidential election. Bill wasn't claiming voter fraud -- rather, he was convinced that Mondale had won. Bill "saw" the victory celebration for Mondale on TV and drove up from Florida to Northern Virginia in anticipation of working for Mondale. While waiting to start work at the White House, Bill's wife sued him for divorce. On the day after Mondale's "Inauguration Day," Bill went to the White House to report for work. (The Secret Service called me because I was listed as his lawyer on the divorce papers Bill was carrying around.)

So, I had a little experience dealing with people suffering from schizophrenia and, tremendous sympathy. Schizophrenia is one of life's cruelties. I was powerless to address the schizophrenia -- all I could do was work around it and help my clients get what they deserved.

In any event, I understood why Mr. K was answering the questions for James and I was beginning to understand why Mr. K looked older than 50. But, before I could respond, James stood up and stated: "I don't want a woman lawyer. I want a man. I don't like being near women."

Mr. K explained, "James is afraid of women. He thinks they have powers to kill him. He couldn't handle working with or serving any women at Taco Bell and that is why he left in the middle of the shift. Please don't be offended. It's part of his illness."

We had a policy in our office that we would not respond to clients' prejudices -- if you didn't want the Jewish lawyer or the woman lawyer or the guy with red hair, you were out of luck. But James was different. This wasn't stupidity or prejudice; this was part of James' illness.

"Well, give me a moment. I want to talk to one of my colleagues."

But before I got to the door, James also stood up, walked over to my law school graduation certificate and, pointing at it, said, "Well, I see you went to a Catholic law school. I will take you as my lawyer because you are Catholic."

I decided not to share with James that I was not a practicing Catholic.

"Well, good. Let me look through the file your Dad brought."

I scanned the papers and silently fumed. James was clearly suffering from schizophrenia and had made multiple attempts at working, all of which failed. His permanent disability was documented by many psychiatrists. I knew that Social Security had denied James because the Reagan Administration had a policy of denying all SSD claims and forcing everyone to file an appeal. As a result, the appeals process was overwhelmed with claims. Even worse, many people didn't understand how to appeal and didn't go forward. This was especially cruel because SSD comes with eligibility for Medicare (after a waiting period). No SSD, and often no health care for the most vulnerable.

I explained this to James and his Dad but also told them that our office had a pretty good track record for winning at the hearing officer stage. In the event we lost, we could file in Federal Court.

The hearing officer was a kind man. He listened to my presentation, chatted with James for a few minutes, and took my binder of documents supporting James' claim. While he was reading the doctors' statements, James blurted out that if the hearing officer thought he should try and work, James would try again. It was heartbreaking. I saw the empathy in the hearing officer's eyes. After a moment, he put down the file, looked at me, and asked if the SSD checks should be made out directly to James or to Mr. K as his guardian. James agreed to let his father get the checks.

So James got SSD and the health insurance (Medicare) that goes with it. I was thrilled. It was a small victory against the disease and the system that tried to rob James of his chance at a decent life. I wasn't sure what the future held for James, but I imagined a relatively stable life, living near his family and doing as well as could be expected. Mr. K was hugely relieved and thanked me over and over. James looked away and didn't say anything.

I never saw James or Mr. K again. But about 10 years later, I noticed a short article in the Washington Post. Apparently James had moved to Staunton, Virginia and had been living in a boarding house. A fellow resident had shot and killed him. James was survived by Mr. and Mrs. K and 2 siblings. The police were investigating.

Oh, James, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. 

** James wasn't "a schizophrenic." Just like I'm not a heart disease and others are not cancer. James was a human with a disease.

Although research continues, treatments have not changed much since James died. You can find more information on schizophrenia here.


Starla said...

I am very impressed with your wisdom in dealing with those who suffer from mental diseases at such a young age.

Lezlee said...

Fabulous story, miss - thank you for sharing! As a mother of a 14 y.o who had her own mental breakdown this year, you got me - you just never know when, do you. And welcome back to your writing! Glad you're feeling well enough and settled enough to get back in the swing! You tell a good tale - always a pleasure to read!

Janet said...

Thanks you for sharing your experience with James and his family. I have a 29 year old daughter with cognitive impairment, hearing impairment and ADHD. We recently moved from a state with good services to one that is WAY behind in this area. It is so frustrating to try and figure out how to get all the services that are available for her. No one agency handles all of it and you have to research on your own. When you are dealing with a new home, new town, new everything it is overwhelming. We finally got some services for her but there is a 5-7 year waiting list for additional funding from the state. SO we wait and pray that we can manage until she gets the extra funds or we move AGAIN. This is just WRONG! Thanks again for sharing how frustrating it can be when you have a loved one that is not "typical". That being said I hate to end on a sad note so I will tell you that Voc Rehab has been great here and my daughter will start her first "real" job ever in a week at Walgreens. It will only be 4 hours a week, but it is a start for which we are truly thankful. :D

Joan B said...

I am so sorry. Which State, and sometimes locality, we live in makes a huge difference. Huge! Best of luck to you and your daughter as she starts her first job. Very exciting.

Joan B said...

Mental health issues are everywhere, in every family. I am so sorry about your daughter and hope she improves and has the help she needs!!!

Joan B said...

I found that treating my clients as humans wasn't all that hard! But thank you!

Nancy said...

Dear Joan: Thank you so much for your compassionate and insightful writing. You "nailed it" and captured the suffering and sorrow that comes with mental illness. It is heartbreaking but there can be recovery and as you said, a chance at a decent life. My son had his first terrible break at sixteen years old. After many years of continued struggle and hospitalizations, he is living a good life and such an important part of our family. I want to suggest any reader to also connect with their local NAMI, which offers significant hope and tools for family members. We are all in this together! Thank you again for your beautiful writing.

Diana K said...

Life is tough and mostly heartbreaking. I really believe that. I basically understand nothing about anything.

Leslie Miller said...

You have the most interesting stories about your clients, but it's the way you tell them that holds me spellbound. I wondered if I had time to read it this morning... silly me. I couldn't walk away. I knew a boy in high school and my hometown group of friends who was the sweetest, most gentle in our group. He married young into my in law's family, had two kids and a good job. My brother-in-law worked with him. Then odd things started happening little by little. Voices and listening devices in the trees and that sort of thing. He'd reached the age when it became apparent he'd inherited his mother's illness. It was the saddest thing I ever saw as he became irretrievably lost to his family.

Diane McVey said...

What a great story, but I’m so sad he died. We have no guarantees with life, but you gave him a better life. You are awesome. I love your stories, and you have a gift for telling them. Thank you for sharing with us.

Andrew and Bertha Pilgrim said...

You are a true storyteller. Your story certainly urges us all to think a lot more about the people behind the tragic articles we read. Where I live, the treatment of people with mental illness is so backwards, it is heart wrenching. Thanks for sharing.

Janelle said...

Joan, you write with a dignity that is so lovely to read. I too have my own experience with mental illness when my dad was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 71. To say it tore the family apart is an understatement! My mum had to leave the family home if he was going to be allowed release from hospital or he found accommodation in a half way house. It was easier for her to leave and live with us as he still had his business based at the house. Since then he has been medicated, but later stopped it when he became a "voluntary "patient - he thought he was cured (but his illness is caused by physical damage to the brain so will never be right). This year he went off the rails again and we were forced to see permission from the court to have him readmitted to the care of the Mental Health unit. Since then he has tried to cut off contact with the family because we're all conspiring against him to kill him. (Not that he knows that we applied for the EO it just fitted in with his fantasies.) It's so hard not to blame the person when they are saying hateful things to you or doing stuff that is harmful to the family. When you know it's the illness and I'm trying to explain to mum why she had to leave (because she's since suffered short term memory loss due to a stroke
). When Christmas is coming up and you don't know if he's even interested in coming over or if you even want him there! Life is so difficult for the whole family, even without bureaucratic red tape that you have to go through to get them the help they need. Thank Goodness we live in Australia where it's so much easier, but things are getting more difficult to be assessed as qualified to need it. I'm sorry if I've laid this at your feet but you show such a caring attitude that I couldn't help myself. It's a life I have to live and a burden I have to deal with, but I struggle and then vent to whoever is around at the time. Just don't get me started on the trials I'm going through caring for my mum. That's another whole story! 😊 I hope you're keeping well and as has been said, it's great to see you again. Hugs.