Mornings are always busy around here. By seven, the guys are filtering into my office to get their first round of meds. A lot of them need to be woken up so they can get their meds on time--they have to take them, and they have to take them at the right times; it’s part of the contract they signed to get into the halfway house program. When I go into their rooms, I always knock and make a big show of warning them that I’m coming in; but they're always just sleeping.
Back in the office, I take up my customary position behind a counter near the med cabinet. Steven comes in doing broad, sloppy boxing moves. He’s trying to get in shape, he tells me.
I begin popping pills out from a stack of boards thicker than five volumes of an encyclopedia. I have the paperwork next to me--a grid of tiny boxes for every medication on every day. I put my initials down for each pill that goes in the cup. It takes a while, so Steven jogs in place for a bit and then goes back to punching.
Russell comes and stands in the doorway. These two argue sometimes because it takes so long for Steven to get his pills and Russell has to wait. Russell eyeballs Steven for a few seconds then says, “You’re doing it all wrong.”
Steven turns and looks Russell up and down, incredulous.
This is just what I need this morning. Steven’s been spiralling out of control lately, getting more and more agitated, short-fused. He goes on these long tirades filled with violent imagery and I have to tell him to leave the house and walk around the block to cool down; but that hasn’t been working lately. I keep warning my superiors that he’s decomping--that he needs his meds adjusted or something. They just tell me to document everything.
“What do you know about it?” Steven says, puffing out his chest.
Russell shrugs. “I used to be a boxer.”
“OK,” I say and push a dixie cup full of pills across the counter.
Steven turns on me like an angry dog turning on his master.
“Don’t say that! I hate it when you say that! It sounds like you’re saying ‘Oh gay’ and I’m not gay!”
I use my fake calm voice, “I’m just telling you that your pills are ready.”
He pours the cup into his mouth, then walks over to the water cooler and fills it up.
“You’re the gay one. You’re a fucking faggot,” he says through a mouth full of pills. He drinks the water, crumples the cup and drops it on the ground.
“Go for a walk,” I tell him, trying to sound authoritative, as if there were anything I could do to compel him to obey.
He huffs and shoulders past Russell.
“What’s his problem?” Russell says, moving in to take his place in front of the counter.
“You didn’t have to provoke him.”
“I used to be a boxer,” he says, raising his voice an octave to show that he’s being defensive. “I was just trying to help.”
Russell is all matted hair, and whiskers and food stains on his clothes. He wouldn’t look at all out of place sleeping under a doorway somewhere downtown.
I get to work on his meds.
“When were you a boxer?” I say, just short of calling him a liar.
He pretends not to notice my tone.
“Oh, when I was younger. But I didn’t like it. I just can’t hurt people.”
I nod as if I agree. But I read his file. I know what he’s done. It’s not fair to judge because he was psychotic at the time. No one could seem further from that man I read about than the man standing in front of me now, though. But isn’t psychosis just that moment when the cork pops off and everything seething inside you comes spilling out?
Russell swallows his pills and says, “can I get a sharp knife?”
Staff keeps the kitchen knives in the office so the guys have to ask when they want to use one. They’re supposed to be practicing life skills, learning to be independent. This means, every now and then, they need a knife. But I still feel nervous whenever I give one out.
“I’m going to chop up some vegetables for an omelette,” Russell explains.
I retrieve the knife and hand it over. “Don’t forget to bring it back.”
“I won’t,” he says, but I know he will. I’ll most likely find it lying on the kitchen counter later this afternoon.