Walking up to Bobby’s door, one can easily be deceived. A deep green fern hangs from a hook beside the door. A small well-tended garden bears evidence of a devoted owner. Tomatoes ripening on the vines, delicate ground cover, and vibrantly colored flowers welcome visitors to Bobby’s apartment.
A handsome fellow at first glance, Bobby is both provocative and prosaic. His hair is short and never the same color for more than a few days. Skimming down his face you will find that four silver rings grace his left eyebrow and steel blue eyes pierce the sad foggy landscape of his face. Talking with him, even briefly, reveals a hazy brain that tries to force slurred words from a drooling mouth.
In the summer you will most often find him baring a shirtless tattooed chest, stained baggy shorts, and flip flops stuffed with filthy toes. What skin is visible beneath the gray filth is tanned from his daily wanderings around town. No job, no family, nowhere to go, and few friends to go with.
Everyday is a monotonous repetition of the previous one. Each morning Bobby can be found passed out in his apartment amidst the cat piss, dog crap, and sticky tipped over Speedway cups. Great effort is needed to rouse him from his stupor.
The first day I went to see Bobby I admired his garden and assumed, incorrectly, that he must have his act together. I knocked on his door and waited. After several minutes I knocked a little louder. The neighbor opened his door and looked at me shaking his head. “You’ll never wake him knocking like a girl. You need to pound like this,” he said as he began pounding loudly with both fists. After repeating this several times, Bobby finally opened the door.
As I walked into his apartment, the stench, not just from cigarettes and beer, slapped me in the face. Bowls of rotten food sit on the coffee table. Moldy half eaten pieces of pizza, cigarette butts, chunks of meat, fries, pickles, and some unidentifiable foods were strewn across the floor. As I looked around the apartment, I thought how ironic his well-tended garden now seemed to be.
I learned quickly that Bobby had a morning ritual that not even his nurse, bringing his much desired medications, could break. Each move is slow and deliberate, yet jerky. First he grabs a huge bag of tobacco and clumsily rolls a cigarette, then heads into the kitchen and lights his electric stove. This adds smoke and the smell of burning food to the already overbearing stench. Bobby talks to the stove as he paces, “Heat up already. Come on.” Once the stove is hot enough he lights his cigarette and then searches the half full cups of liquid until he finds one that suits him.
Next step: Bobby needs his meds. I pour his meds into his hand and he looks through the pile. Four orange Haldol, two white Lithium, three purple Stelazine, two Cymbalta, and on he goes. There are 22 pills in all; I know this because I prepare his meds, but it is reinforced as Bobby counts and recounts them several times each morning. He knows each medication by sight and what each one does. He can recite every pill he has ever been on and why he no longer takes them.
Finally, after Bobby takes all his meds in one gulp, I am able to do the daily assessment: blood pressure, pulse, respirations, and checking his smoke filled lungs. We talk about how he feels; “Tomorrow is my Haldol shot day, don’t forget to bring it,” Bobby reminds me one more time. “I haven’t been up long enough to feel depressed or anxious, call me and ask me later.” Between laughs he adds, “And don’t ask, I shit and piss just fine.” I just smile and thank him for his frank answers.
Everyday I learn new things about Bobby. One day after I arrived, while Bobby was in the kitchen trying to light his cigarette, he held up a large kitchen knife. “How’s this one look?” he asked, looking me square in the eyes. “Look at this one. How do you think this one would work,” he adds holding up yet another huge knife. The word schizophrenic and all of its accompanying images flashed through my mind, reminding me exactly why it is that I always stay where there is easy, unblocked access to the door.
I look from the knives, which are covered with a dark substance, to his face. “Do you like to cook?” I calmly asked him, hoping to cut through the tension that hangs thickly in the air. Bobby sets the knives back into the sink and walks into the living room. “Yes, I do,” he said with a glimmer in his eye I had never seen before. “Now cakes, I’m really good at baking cakes. Ask my friend.” How about that, I thought to myself, Bobby likes to cook and bake cakes.
As I was taking Bobby’s blood pressure, I was all but knocked over when the door flung open. An old man with a long scraggly gray beard, wearing several layers of dirty clothes, walked in without speaking and sat down on a trash covered chair. He sat with his head hanging down and his hands in his lap. An awkward silence filled the room as Bobby looked at him and then back at me.
Acting as if nothing had happened, Bobby started talking about cooking again. I finished my assessment and prepared to leave. As I opened the door, I glance back at the old man who hadn’t moved since he sat down. “Will you bring me coffee tomorrow?” Bobby asked. I promised I would as I walked out the door. I hesitated for just a moment at the garden.
* * * *
Each house is different, yet they are all the same. From the outside their stories are hidden. Few will have the opportunity to step into their realities. This is their life. Bad choices or no fault of their own; deliberate actions or faulty genes; torment and agony no one should have to suffer. Schizophrenia, bi-polar, depression, anxiety, borderline personality, dementia, drug/alcohol dependence, psychosis; each one leaving behind deeply scarred lives.
House to house, more stories. I walk up to the door, dreading what I might find. Knock, the door is opened, and slowly I step into their nightmare.