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Of the human suffering all around us each day, Tolstoy asks, “What then must we do?”
We do something about the suffering that we see in front of us.
I want to talk to you about a neighbor of mine.
He’s a black man from New Orleans, about sixty years old, and has the symptoms of a mental illness.
He’s also a recovering alcoholic with more than two years of continuous sobriety.
Well, sort of.
Several years ago, in an alcoholic stupor, he accidentally set himself on fire and all but destroyed several fingers on his right hand.
Did I mention that he plays the trumpet?
This was a wake-up call for him, so he set about changing his life.
He checked himself into rehab, where he received counseling for his alcoholism, as well as psychiatric treatment and a prescription for psychotropic medication. Soon he was earning a living on the streets of Old Town Pasadena, dressed in wild costume, dazzling tourists with his colorful running patter between wild bursts of music from his horn, a delightful dash of Old New Orleans spice right here in Southern California.
He has problems with his medication, however. It causes insomnia, vertigo, and lack of appetite, and he often feels torpid, listless and depressed. When he tinkers with the prescribed dosage, he gets worse.
Not long ago, he began using medical marijuana without consulting his physician. He grew unstable, alternating between bouts of paranoia and grandiosity. He boasts of his transcendent state of being, one that he believes no doctor is enlightened enough to treat.
He’s grown alarmingly thin, never bathes, and now, he’s become incontinent. His bodily waste in public areas of our building pose a health hazard to us, his neighbors, but he is adamant in his refusal to admit that anything is wrong.
The problem, he says, is all of us.
He can’t see that he’s destabilized himself, or that he’s in any danger.
My wife and I asked our landlord to call in the city’s psychiatric evaluation squad (known as the HOPE Team) to speak with him about finding assisted-living somewhere more appropriate.
They spoke with him, tried to help him, but he resists all efforts at relocation in transitional housing or a homeless shelter.
The man seems determined to die from an excess of pride.
There needs to be a place for this man and those like him, a place to be stabilized, where medications might be managed and serious health issues addressed.
Because returning to the streets is really no plan at all.
Billy Bang Douglas is a singer and freelance writer/editor from New York City where he was member of the editorial research staff of Newsweek magazine for five years. After two years singing and recording in London, he relocated to LA in 1990, and as a singer/songwriter, he toured the US, Canada, UK, and Japan. A recovering heroin addict with seven years clean & sober, he is currently an experiential counselor at Bel Air Treatment by Evolve as well as the editor-in-chief of Painted Brain’s online newspaper, Painted Brain News. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Naomi, the Painted Brain artist-in-residence known as Bugk23609.