This week, in lieu of a blog entry about writing, I’m releasing another excerpt from my first novel, “Crashing Through the Underbrush.” From the chapter “Hamburger Therapy, Helicopters and Crooks.”
. . . . reminiscing about the past was interrupted by the sound of the Coast Guard helicopter that flew over the nearby federal courthouse about this time each day. The whap-whap-whap of rotors always caught my attention and made me look up. Sometimes it made me feel more secure. More often, it made me think about all the mental health services for poor people, and food for the hungry, one could buy with the money it cost the government to fly those birds above cities all over America, searching for terrorists. I shaded my eyes and glanced at the familiar white and orange craft. Then I thought about Fred and Juniper. Fred because of the helicopter and Juniper because of the orange and white.I often thought about Fred when I saw a helicopter. Fred was one of my first clients at Clackamas County. He was a tall, thin, athletic sort of guy, schizophrenic, who had been a star basketball player in high school before mental illness captured his brain. He would have been nice-looking when I first met him, but for his rotten teeth. It was in the days before Medicaid included any dental coverage — heck, it was so long ago it was before Medicaid was known as the Oregon Health Plan. People on 350 bucks a month of SSI — a government subsidy for poor, disabled people — certainly couldn’t afford dental work, even if they wanted it.
Fred had his ups and downs and when he was down, he could be pretty depressed. One day, alternating between agitation and depression, he told me he was going to kill himself. I did what mental health professionals do: I asked him if he had a plan.
“Damn straight I got a plan,” Fred had said. “I’m going to walk to the airport (20 miles), find out where they got helicopters, and hijack one. I’m going to make the pilot fly me to the top of the Fremont Bridge (the tallest bridge in Portland). Then I’m gonna make him land on top of the bridge, the top of that big arch, and I’m gonna get out, and jump off!” He was “dead” serious.
Step two in assessing someone for suicidality is to determine if the plan is realistic. Fred barely knew up from down most of the time, let alone the way to Portland International Airport. I had a hard time imagining him walking 20 miles, even if he knew the way. He didn’t have the weapon he would need to successfully kidnap a pilot and hijack an aircraft, and had no realistic hope of getting one.
I concluded it wasn’t a realistic plan. “I got a better idea, Bud,” I told him. “Let’s shoot some hoops over at the park, then I’ll take you out for a burger.” Over lunch — “hamburger therapy” we called it — with prompting, Fred admitted he was angry and agitated because he believed his neighbor at the rundown apartment complex where he lived was telling the other residents negative, untrue things about him. He was certain his neighbors were looking at him in disgust whenever he was in the parking lot. We talked it over and I convinced Fred, at least for a day or two, that his neighbor wasn’t out to smear him. When things like this happened repeatedly, I’d consider arranging for him to see one of our docs, Jim Stewart or Margie Osborne, and see about a medication change. On this occasion, I skipped the burger, but had one of Burgerville USA’s great hazelnut milkshakes. Fred felt better.