Diane was probably the most mentally disabled person I ever met. She was a regular customer in my first Social Security office. She was aggressively hostile and exceptionally suspicious, both of which made her very difficult to communicate with. She was very loud, too. She didn’t seem to fully comprehend a lot of what was told to her, but whether this was due to scrambled input or outright rage was not clear. She did seem to have her own world and to see reality through its filters.
There were some close runners-up to Diane. There was a woman who was convinced she was horribly disfigured who spread a thick layer of Crisco (or lard) all over her face to hide the imaginary scars. There was the guy who came in to file for disability who was living with his parents, who did all the talking. He just leaned back in his chair, arms folded, and glared at me throughout the entire interview. He virtually never blinked. Or the guy who was an emotional volcano. He had about five things that had occurred to him in his life, about which he was unceasingly obsessed, angry, and bitter. To me they seemed somewhat imaginary. About every third question I’d ask him, he would divert the topic to one of his grievances and begin shrieking about the terrible injustice he had suffered and sobbing simultaneously. He was exceptionally noisy. Even the District Manager came out of his office and looked over for a minute or two, shook his head, and went back inside, shutting the door behind him. But Diane was tops.
We all knew her, and felt very sorry for her. She picked up her SSI check at the office every month. There was no other way we could insure she got it. I don’t know what the procedures are now with these new debit cards, but I suspect that Diane would have trouble keeping hers safe and in her possession. Diane was homeless. She lived in a nearby park. She would pick up her check, cash it, and more often than not, get beaten up and robbed, and sometimes raped. She would then come back to the office for another check, which we could not do. SSA had no procedures for replacing cash to a person who had received their check and cashed it, and then lost the cash or had it stolen. It was strictly a police matter. What Diane needed was a representative payee, someone who could receive her check for her, pay for her food, shelter (if any,) and clothing, and dole out a little cash to her as an allowance for small purchases. The problem was that there was no one was available who could do this. She had no family that we were aware of, private social agencies would have nothing to do with her, and her friends were nearly as bad as she was. Even the County Public Guardian’s office, after one stint as her court appointed representative, refused to deal with her any more.
Diane was about four years older than me. She was in her early thirties when I knew her. She was average height and rather thin. She usually was either sunburned or suntanned. She had dull blonde hair, which hung lankly down. She never smiled. The first time I interviewed Diane, I was still a service representative, one of those folks you see at the windows when you first enter the office. Back in 1981 or 1982, when I was doing this, SSA didn’t have windows. All employees interviewed at their desks. We were advised to keep small objects, such as staplers, potted plants, and the like, anything that could be thrown, out of our customer’s reach.
She was there on the 26th of the month to pick up her check, which wasn’t due until the first of the following month. I told her that she was early; that it was only the 26th. She raised her voice and told me that I was lying. I thought for a second and glanced to my left. Through the window, I could see a newspaper box that still had some copies in it. I told her to go outside and look at the paper through the cover of the box and see for herself that it was indeed the 26th. She shouted, “F*** you!” as loudly as she could, stood up abruptly (I leaned back just as abruptly,) and stormed out of the office. I looked around at the nearby desks. Everyone was looking at me, customers and employees alike. That was Diane.
The next time I interviewed her was a couple of years later. She had just finished spending several months at Camarillo State Hospital, which was a notorious mental hospital, and which was closed in 1997. (It has since been refurbished and is now California State University, Channel Islands. I bet they have ghosts.) Anyway, Diane was at my desk, clean, wearing clean clothes, and on heavy psychiatric medication. She seemed like she was electrified, almost like she was vibrating. She was very tense. To me, it seemed that, despite the medication, she was just barely holding it together. She was lucid and gave appropriate answers to my questions. As I recall she had a place to stay. I hoped she would really stay there, but I didn’t feel too sure about it.
I never interviewed her again, but I saw her in the office from time to time. It was clear that she was once again homeless. It was during this period that the LA Public Guardian took her case and became her representative payee. Eventually, the Public Guardian ended their guardianship and notified her they would no longer serve as her payee. She came into the office to fix this. When a person has a payee who is unwilling or unable to continue, and no other payee can be found, SSA is required to pay the person directly. The person has to fill out part of Form SSA-11 to request direct payment.
The last time I saw Diane was when she came into the office after the Public Guardian incident. This was about 1987. She was interviewed by an SSI claims representative who filled out the form for Diane. All she would need to do was sign it. I was across the room, but like a lot of the office, was watching out of the corner of my eye while I did my own work. Diane wouldn’t sign the form. She felt that what she was being asked to sign was an agreement to be recommitted to Camarillo State Hospital. The CR explained what the form was and that she had to sign it if she wanted her checks. Diane continued to object, loudly and profanely.
The supervisor, Lindsey, was on the phone, but watching closely from about three desks away. She got off the phone and went over to the CR’s desk to help out. She explained the same thing to Diane. At first, it was to no avail, but eventually Lindsey prevailed and Diane signed the form. At almost that exact moment, the county Psychiatric Emergency Team, whom Lindsey had been talking to on the phone just before interceding in the interview, came in and removed Diane from the office. They took her to their vehicle, presumably an ambulance, to take her to a local county hospital which can hold mentally disturbed people involuntarily for short periods of time, during which the staff can get them before a judge and recommitted to the State Hospital.
A little later, I was talking to the Assistant District Manager (my supervisor and Lindsey’s) in his office and Lindsey came in. She told us what had happened, in considerable detail. The assistant manager was quiet until Lindsey finished, then he said, in a very cheerful voice,”She was right! She signed the paper and by God she was taken to the mental hospital. She’ll never trust us again!”
Not that she would have anyway.
I never saw her again. I did a little internet searching a couple of years ago and found out that Diane died July 6, 1998 in a nearby neighborhood. She was 49. According to the coroner’s office, she was indigent and no one claimed her body. There has to be a better way of dealing with mentally disabled or homeless people. The measure of a society’s worth is how well it takes care of its weakest members. Diane was never able to take care of herself, so society owed her a lot more than than thirty years or so of brutalization, followed by a lonely death.