Based on the first few minutes, it seemed like Schizophrenia joined my client during our initial session. I had already been told that she wasn’t comfortable having the door to the office closed, that she stared extra carefully at everything in the room, and that “something isn’t quite right.”
I find her across the parking lot smoking a cigarette during the few minutes between when she had been seen for initial paperwork, and when I called for her to come in for an initial assessment and conversation. Perhaps, I thought as I walked slowly across the parking lot working hard to come across safely and respectfully, she gets anxious in waiting rooms with many other people, so a cigarette provides a space of solace while waiting for whoever has more power than her in the next meeting she will sit through.
My name’s Donald, and if it’s okay with you, I’m privileged to be the clinician who gets to talk to you today.
Nod. Cigarette thrown in the bushes. Handshake. Steady stare into my eyes.
“Nice to meet you, Sir.”
Call me Donald.
We get into my office, and after pleasantries and explanations, she is gracious enough to sit through an hour of the kinds of personal questions I would walk out on were someone else to meet me and begin asking me within a few minutes.
Pages after pages of computer-driven questions that are shaped in the form of inquiries about the client but ultimately are answering questions for insurance companies, attorneys, liability assessment tools, and commissioners from all kinds of offices were completed.
“How are we doing so far? Is this okay for you? Are these questions bothering you? Are you okay still being here?”
Nod. Steady stare into my eyes.
We finished all the initial questions.
Mid forties now, and in and out of prison since the age of 18.
Out of lockup for six months, and scared to death that she will get sent back.
Sexually and physically abused by family members around the age of six and seven.
At the mercy now of probation officers, poorly-run treatment center directors, and the goodwill of others, like me, who she’s been told she has to talk to before she can be “better.”
I go through my spiel that has become quite common, and more true each time I say it, about the respect I have for women and men who make it through prison and work their damnedest to stay out of prison.
“I need to be free. I can’t go back. To go back is to die, and I don’t want to die.”
And after the entire conversation, it’s her turn to sign the freaky little plastic pad with the awkward little plastic pen that shows up on the computer as a weird version of a signature.
One more blow to whatever identity she has left to fight for.
I watch the screen as she watches the electronic signature pad. She writes her last name, the first letter of her first, and then a five digit number.
“What’s that number?”
That’s my number. That’s who I am. It has to be with my signature.
Inmate number, now stuck to a signature.
I looked her in the eyes, shook her hand, and stared longer than feels normal.
“When we are done meeting, my hope for you is that you don’t think to sign that inmate number to your name anymore.”
“Why’s that? It’s my number.”
Our work in the days ahead will be an uphill climb that deals with responsibility and childhood abuse and complex trauma and depression and anxiety and agoraphobia. But if I have any respect for her, our work will include a deep and thick reminder that she is not identified and will not leave her mark in ways that reflect her inmate number.
If she is capable of more that I can think or imagine, and more than she can think or imagine, than she is, right now whether she agrees to it or not, more than a number.
She has a name. And that’s that.
And to find her true name, we have to learn to drop the number.
Pine Tree Dr.
Image from this article on Slate.com: “Trapped: The Mentally Ill in Prison.”