Working With Wackos, Part I

July 2, 2012

Shaun Of The Dead (2004) poster, August 22, 2011. (Quentin X via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of poster’s low resolution.

I don’t mean this in a literal sense, although in this particular case, it’s pretty close to true. In the case of my last summer working for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health at its Mount Vernon clinic on 9 East First Street, it’s ironic that the least sane folks around were my bosses and colleagues. The amount of drama generated from such a small office was enough to start a nuclear fusion reaction, providing power for Mount Vernon’s residents for years on end.

Unlike the summer of ’89, the summer of ’92 wasn’t just about the dreaded Valerie Johnstone (see my post “Fried Green Toenails”  from February ’11). This summer involved the head of the clinic, a Dr. Ralph Williams. From my first day there, it was obvious that there was a strange and sordid dynamic at the clinic, one that had little to do with the patients who showed up with everything from associative disorder to schizophrenia, for drugs from Dilantin to Xanax. I got a dressing down from Johnstone about having earned my master’s degree two months earlier, as she said, “See, I have a master’s degree, too.” Except that she was sixty, and I was twenty-two, at least that’s what went through my head while she was telling me how much better she was than me.

Williams wasn’t much better. My first one-on-one with him at the end of June was about how much better we were than “ordinary” folks like Johnstone because he had the ultimate prize – a medical degree from Harvard – and I was about to embark on the ultimate degree, a doctorate. From our first meeting, Williams had described Johnstone as a “dummy” and an “overbearing bitch.” While I knew that the latter was true, I would’ve have never said it, certainly in a workplace setting. And I certainly didn’t expect it from my boss.

By the beginning of July, it had become obvious to me that the main issue with the clinic front office and its director was much more than being three years behind in back-billing to New York State Medicaid and Medicare for psychiatric services. On the first Friday in July, I happened to be outside the director’s office, pulling old files for re-billing to New York State, when I heard someone crying. I overheard Williams say, “you are the dumbest person that I’ve ever worked with,” and another sentence where he called the woman in his office “a bitch.”

The calmness in which Williams spoke, it was as if he was attempting to comfort parents who had learned their kid was autistic. It was scary. I knew that the woman crying was Johnstone, as I’d seen her later on that afternoon, eyes unusually burgundy, mood unusually insecure.

The secret war between the office manager and the clinic director became an open one later on in mid-July, a Thursday to be more precise. They became embroiled in a shouting match over a patient’s records, escalating from “stupid” and “idiot” to “bitch” and “motherfucker” in a matter of seconds. All right in front of the office pool and waiting patients, at 3:30 pm. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d guessed that Johnstone and Williams had been involved prior to a breakup, and were using the office as a way to work out their frustrations over their relationship. But I probably read too much into what was going on.

Finally, at the end of July, came the most foul thing I’d ever been a part of in the workplace. Williams requested a one-on-one meeting with me. He wanted me to write a report that would implicate Johnstone as both incompetent and capricious as the office manager. Williams said, “people like us need to stick together.”

I knew that I wouldn’t be coming back to work for this clinic or the county again. At least, not in this capacity, and not with me starting Pitt’s doctoral program, so I really had no skin in this game. At the same time, I knew that if I wrote the report exactly as Williams had requested, that Johnstone would be out of a job. In their own way, they were both terrible bosses, lousy leaders, and had warped perceptions of the people and the world around them. I didn’t know yet what to do. I just knew that if I did exactly what I’d been told, it would lead to more office chaos, something the outpatients at the clinic didn’t need or deserve.


Breakdown: The Messiah Complex At Work, Part II

January 7, 2012

Cosmo, from Nicktoons' Fairly Odd Parents, a reminder of Ken, January 5, 2012. (http://fairlyoddparents.wikia.com).

The saying goes that a lawyer who represents him or herself at trial has a fool as counsel. This is also true of a supervisor who believes that the only ideas worth pursuing are his own, unadulterated ones. Especially one in the midst of a nervous breakdown, who who’d know since the late-1980s that he had bipolar disorder. This was the case of my last days at New Voices in January ’04, as I prepared to move on, and as Ken prepared to flip out (see my “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part I” from November ’11).

The seven weeks between the weird November meeting with Ken and others and his breakdown were tension filled. I worked out a schedule that allowed me to take until the middle of February — three months — to find another position at the Academy for Educational Development or elsewhere. Beyond that, I did my job, and found Ken constantly snooping in my office, monitoring my telephone calls, and double-checking my times in and out of the office in the meantime. It was as bad as it was during my first weeks working for him in December ’00 and January ’01.

I’d long suspected that Ken had some mental illness, either bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia (as I noted in my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post in June ’11). And in the year prior to January ’04, I’d made some of my suspicions known, to superiors like “Driving Miss Daisy” Sandra, my former Center Director Yvonne. I’d even taken two New Voices colleagues out to lunch that summer — a month before the birth of my son — to warn them about the signs I’d seen of Ken become more maniac and paranoid than usual.

But I didn’t realize that Ken’s condition knew no bounds. So it was that on the morning of Wednesday, January 7, that Driving Miss Daisy had called us into an impromptu meeting with Ken. We went into the seventh floor conference room, not knowing why we were meeting. Ken came in last, after I’d spent about five minutes updating Driving Miss Daisy about the preparation status for the New Voices gathering at the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

His face was flush, the color of freshly caught and gutted salmon, and sweat ran through his hair like he’d just run his five-foot-two frame a couple of miles in a sprint. He came in, sat down as I continued the update, then started to cry. Ken said, “Sandra, I’ve got to go,” and then left in a rush. By the time we had adjourned, Ken had left the building.

I wouldn’t see the man again for another five weeks. In the meantime, several AED higher-ups brought me up to speed on what had occurred between the time I changed my son’s diapers and disembarked from the Metro at Du Pont Circle that morning. Ken and Driving Miss Daisy had met with AED’s president and CEO that morning about the status of the project. During that meeting, Ken had gone off on the head honcho, accusing him of sabotaging the project, of sabotaging him as the project leader, of being a corrupt, money-grubbing president. Of course, I found a letter in a printer two days before which summarized some of these

Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, DC December 16, 2008. (http://flickr.com).

ideas, but I’d no idea that Ken had printed it or planned to use it.

The next revelation dropped that Saturday, although I wouldn’t learn of it until I came back to work that Monday, January 12. Ken had left me a message Saturday morning, around 8 am, apologizing for the hell that he had put me through the previous couple of months. Then, as his voice started to crack, Ken said, “I love you, Donald!” I heard a sniffle, and then a click on the message. Within that week, I learned from one colleague in human resources that Ken had checked into the psychiatric ward at Georgetown University Hospital, and from another person that it was Driving Miss Daisy who’d driven him there.

There are any number of lessons that I or anyone can draw from this experience. For me, of all of the jobs I’ve held, this one was the most bittersweet experience, and in retrospect, I probably should’ve said no to it when it was offered to me in November ’00. That everyone with some authority who worked with me or Ken should’ve but didn’t notice the signs of his manic-depressive behavior.

That no matter my integrity or proper professional behavior under the circumstances, that I’d end up the bad guy. After all, my staff went to Mumbai without me — Driving Miss Daisy’s decision — while I went on to hold down the fort and found another position at AED. And don’t tell me race wasn’t involved. A tall mentally stable and heterosexual Black male versus a short, bipolar and semi-in-the-closet White male? Only in this world does the latter keep his position another six years after this and several other breakdowns.

That said, one thing stands out above all else. It’s a sad but important lesson about the difference being true to yourself and lying to yourself, about finding the right balance between life and career.


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