It’s “Yellow Pig Day”

Okie dokie. I had to look this up because I’ve never heard of a yellow pig, let alone celebrate its National holiday. Here’s what I found:

The Yellow Pig was the brainstorm of mathematicians Michael Spivak and David C. Kelly in the early 1960’s. They were students at Princeton University, studying mathematics. History was made as they were listing interesting properties of the number 17 (can you imagine the interesting properties!?). During this thought wave, the yellow pig was born. Most likely, it had 17 toes, 17 teeth, 17 eyelashes, etc. The yellow pig and the number 17 have been linked ever since.

It still means nothing to me. But I’m reminded of my years at Ohio University and how I avoided at all costs any sort of math class. I had to take a couple of math courses just to fulfill basic requirements but I put it off until my fifth year. Yes, I enjoyed school so much I extended my studies an extra year. Just kidding. That extra year is what happens to a kid who starts out as a photography major and switches to social work right in the middle of everything. I never said I was decisive.

Yellow pigs. I’m just not coming up with anything. So I guess I’ll just talk about social work instead. I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1991 and got a job working for one of the mental health facilities in downtown Columbus, Ohio. I was a caseworker for the extended care treatment team, which meant the clients I was working with had been institutionalized for many years. Nearly all of them were schizophrenic. My job was to work with these people while they were in the hospital, help them learn basic living skills, find them a place to live in the community, and then follow up – either with daily medication, doctors visits, or whatever they needed. I thought I was quite the expert on mental illness at my tender age of 22 thanks to my family history, but I had no idea what I’d be up against. And just how much I would learn over the next two years.

My first week on the job was spent shadowing an incredible woman named Joetta. I love this woman. Actually, she is the person I most admire in this whole wide world. She was my mentor then and continues to be to this day – even though I don’t talk with her as much as I’d like. Anyway, she introduced me to many of her clients during my first week on the job. We went over case notes, histories of patients, things I just never even began to learn about at Ohio University. We talked about which clients would eventually be transferred to me – and how they would most likely react to this change. Many of them were just fine with their freshly-minted case worker, while others were less than excited to deal with someone as “green” as I was.

My second week on the job, one of my team members called off sick. During our regularly scheduled morning meeting I was waiting to be assigned to shadow someone. When nobody grabbed me to join them on their rounds I asked what I was supposed to do. Filing? Reviewing Notes? Signing up for employee benefits? Um, no. They threw me to the wolves. I had to take over for my ailing colleague.

As I was mapping out directions to the clients’ houses, (these were the days before Mapquest and Google) one of my co-workers looked over my list. He looked at the first name and said “Your first visit is a lady who needs to come to the downtown office for a doctor’s appointment. Pick her up and bring her in.” Easy enough, I thought to myself. I grabbed my briefcase, my company issued car phone (which was nearly as big as a yellow pig – this was 1991 after all) and listened to the faint mumblings of my co-workers as I was leaving the building. I thought I heard one of them say “She won’t be “green” after dealing with Milly*.” Whatever. I was educated. I knew what I was doing. Get out of my way. (*Name changed to protect patient confidentiality.)

I arrived at Milly’s house about a 1/2 hour later. I had to psych myself up. “Just go pick her up. No big deal. Introduce yourself, tell her you’ll take her to the appointment, make some small talk! Get to know her a little bit! You can do this!” I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked harder. Still no answer. I knocked again. I heard a booming voice saying “get the H*LL off my property”. Ummm, Ok. Not what I was expecting. So I said through the door, “Milly. I’m the new caseworker. I’m here to take you to your appointment.” I heard some locks clicking… not sure if they were locking or unlocking… but I pasted a smile on my face and was ready to meet Milly. She opened the door. And much to my utter surprise, she was completely naked. Ummmm, Ok. Again, not what I was expecting. She didn’t exactly invite me in and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go in. But I kept that silly smile pasted to my face as I scrambled for something to say. “I see your not quite ready for today’s appointment,” I said through my thin smile. She then told me that she wasn’t going and I couldn’t make her. Fair enough.

I stepped outside of her apartment and called for backup. After what seemed to be only 1/2 a ring, my supervisor back at the office picked up. I could swear they were choking back laughter in the background. It seemed that they were expecting my call and before I could squeek out what my issue was, they asked “is she naked?” STINKERS!  So not funny. It’s not that they were making fun of Milly – the people I worked with were some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. But they were teaching me that there is no “routine” to this particular job and that even though they could usually count on Milly being completely naked when answering her door, I had to learn to roll with whatever came my way. Boy, did I ever learn. After about an hour of pleading with naked Milly – and finally helping her into some clothes – we got her to her appointment.

Over the next couple of years, I dealt with some interesting stuff.  I was called names. I was hit on the head. I was argued with and cursed at and called out in the middle of the night when a client was having a tough time dealing. I cleaned up after bar fights. I taught one guy how to make sloppy joes. Some of my clients died. One was hit by a car. One overdosed. One was murdered. It was anything but an easy job. And it paid about $9 an hour. Plus mileage.

This population was extremely challenging to deal with but I learned so much. I learned a lot about compassion. I learned an incredible amount about myself. I am blessed, because I don’t have to contend with hearing voices in my head or experiencing terrifying visual hallucinations on a daily – even hourly – basis. I’m accepted. I’m loved. Often times, these people are not. And I believe that being accepted and loved no matter what is a basic human right.

My clients came to enjoy their time with me. It wasn’t all work, we would do fun activities as well (I wouldn’t recommend taking more than three schizophrenics to a movie theater though – another story for another time). And when I was diagnosed with cancer in 1993 and had to leave my job for treatment, my clients cried right along with me.

I look back on my time as a social worker with great fondness. I do miss my clients. Sometimes I still cry for some of them – especially those who just never seemed to catch a break. They taught me so much and I’m eternally grateful to them. But it was such a difficult job.

Would I ever go back to being a social worker again? Perhaps. When Yellow Pigs fly.

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