Monday, July 11, 2005

Christine's Story

Christine didn't walk into the office; she bounded into it like the big ball of energy that she was. She was easily 300 lbs and from what I could tell of her blur, she gave the impression of lots of dark hair. She zipped around the room, from one chair to the next, over to the desk, then the window, then the potted plant. She ran her fingers along the backs of old textbooks, handled all the office supplies, and wielded the stapler as if it was a weapon, emitting a round of staples as she added the "bang, bang" soundtrack for the rest of us.

Finally she was induced to sit down, which she did uneasily. She had worked up a sweat with her antics, which I would soon realize was a permanent state for Christine. Once seated she turned her attention to me. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Christine's name wasn't Christine. It was Barbara, but within 30 seconds of shaking her big hand, she told me firmly that Barbara was an old-fashioned name, and that she preferred to be called Christine. And so Christine it was. She was big, and broad. She was 30 years old when I met her, but her mind worked at the level of a 4 year old. I was her new volunteer, her mentor, as the centre called it, and she was wary of me from the start. She inspected me from head to toe, scuffed my shoes with the toe of her velcro sneakers, poked at my necklace and asked if my hair was always the colour of fire engines.

Finally she pronounced that I would do, and she presented me with a gift: not one, but two sweat shirts that she produced from her Barbie bookbag. They were old, faded, stained. They were immediately identifiable as circa 1980s, but the fact that they were Winnie the Pooh had to be pointed out to me because the decals on the front had all but peeled off. She had pulled them out of boxes in her basement; they smelled of mothballs and mould. I was afraid to touch them with my bare hands but Christine insisted I wear at least one of them right then and there.

Luckily, I was able to finagle my way out of the impromptu fashion show. Christine was always full of bad ideas, but the good thing about Christine was that she was so easily distracted, it would rarely take more than a well-timed question or two to lead her astray, and on to safer topics.

I knew Christine's diagnosis before I even met her: learning disabled, manic depressive, touches of obsessive compulsive behaviours, and autistic tendencies. She was on enough drugs to kill a horse, and had weekly visits with a psychiatrist even though therapy would never do her any good since she was too simple-minded to even understand the point of it. She went to "school" a couple times of week, mornings only, although it was really just a babysitting service for other adults like her. I asked her often what she learned in school but all she ever told me was math, and walking.

She had been employed briefly. She shredded documents at a government facility. But keeping Christine on task was a job from hell, and it's not surprising that she didn't keep her position very long. When I met her, she lived in a wing of a long-term care facility, but she wanted to move back home. Home was with her mother, but her mother didn't want her. The mother already had one son at home, who was a bit older than Christine, and a bit bigger if you can imagine it, and violent with psychotic tendencies. When Christine and her brother were together, it was like mixing dangerous chemicals, and the results were often explosive.

Still, within a month, Christine had whined her way back home. The first time I went to her house to pick her up for a visit, I nearly peed my pants. The care facility had been just up the road from me, but her mother's house was all the way across town, on the end of a winding bus route that took me over an hour. It was raining lightly, and my steps were somewhat heavy as I made my way searchingly down her street. I had the directions (as Christine had given them to me over the phone) written on a paper in my hand, but I didn't need them. Within a 5 km radius, I could hear her and her brother screaming. I don't know how I ever mustered the courage to walk up the driveway and ring the bell, but I did. And when a 6'5 350lb man with a wild look in his eye answered the door and growled "What?", the sensible thing to do would have been to turn and run, but I stayed. Christine collected her backpack, and her fanny pack, and off we went.

Christine loved to talk on the phone, and every phone call was crazier than the next. As I mentioned before, Christine was manic depressive. What that means is that she has very up moments, where she babbles incoherently with excitement, is enthusiastic about everything in the world, bounces off the walls and cannot be contained, but then she has down moments where she is fearful, paranoid, tearful, and depressed. Some phone calls would go from one extreme to the other in the space of a second, but more often she would have whole days or weeks in one extreme or the other. It was exhausting keeping up with her on the phone, so you can imagine what it was like to chase after her in person.

When asked what sorts of things she would like to do, she gave me a list: bowling, swimming, shopping, baton twirling, eating at McDonald's.

On our first date together, I thought that all or any of the above might prove to be too much trouble, so I opted to take her home and do some baking with her. She seemed excited when I told her this, and so the visit was a happy one already, and we were still just at the bus stop near her house. She rooted around in her backpack while we waited, and found her baton. She showed me "her moves" as we stood in the sprinkling rain (she was afraid of umbrellas). She was delighted when I faked being very impressed with her skills (twirling was beyond her, she mostly just shook her baton at me), and her jubilation was the loudest thing I had ever heard in my life. It was all I could do to calm her down as we boarded the bus...I should have known that this was useless.

Welcome to Christine week, everyone. Christine is quite a presence in my life, as if you couldn't tell by now. I have so many Christine stories to share that I have decided to make a little serial out of it. I don't intend to make a clown out of Christine; she is a dear person, a human being with some severe challenges that she has had to live with all of her life. I only hope that I do her honour my sharing her story.

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