Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Sad End to Spectra

I wonder who the real disabled people are - the ones who can't think, or the ones who don't care.

By DANA LARSEN / Pilot-Tribune Editor

There should have been a better way. When the Buena Vista County Supervisors decided to get out from under ownership of the former county care facility site in a hurry, they inadvertently doomed Spectra, which had provided inpatient care for the severely mentally disabled since the privatization of "county home" style care many years ago.

That leaves staff scrambling for other jobs in hard times, and the people cared for at the facility forced to be moved somewhere else on a few weeks' notice. And no one particularly seems to care.

"They're just crazy people," one person told me, shrugging.

I'm not sure who to worry for most - the ones who can't mentally function normally, almost always through no fault of their own; or the rest of us, who for all of our supposed faculties, can't manage to care about human beings who we are displacing without even caring where they will go.

Just crazy people, we think.

We put them in a building out in the country, and hope not to have to see them, because out of sight can be blissfully out of mind. It's how we roll.

Anyone who we deem no longer of value goes to an institution, to be forgotten by all but perhaps a very few faithful relations or friends, maybe a pastor who visits once a week. Old, or sick, or troubled, we would say that we want them to have good care, and we do, but for too many of us, what we really want is to have them put somewhere that we don't have to deal with them.

Because when we do see them, we are reminded that we will probably one day be old too, or sick, and maybe even troubled.

We are fortunate enough that no country residents at the moment were in the Spectra home. A great excuse. Yet, but for a medical problem, a blow to the head, an accident at birth or some tragic unhinging circumstance, it could be you or I in that home, and in our core we know this to be true.

As much as we would like to pretend that the world is full of perfect people, it isn't.

Broken hearts and minds lay as far as we can see, and closing a facility doesn't make them go away.

I knew a boy growing up, named Mike. His parents did their best to give him the most normal life possible. He was a beautiful spirit, always smiling, even after the neighborhood bullies would corner him and leave him with blood pouring out of his nose and mouth. "Aw, they don't know Mikey, he would say. They don't know."

I wonder if we still know. I felt mad at myself, guilty that I wasn't there to stand up for Mike enough. I suspect it is the same brand of nagging self-knowledge that we all should share a bit of in this county this season.

There was a girl in college, pretty as a sunflower and just as fragile. She had had some tragedies around her in her life, and finally, her mind just started to go away from it all. It was rapid, and startling, and there was nothing anyone seemed to be able to do to bring her back. They took her out of school after they found her sitting silently in a corner hugging her knees and rocking back and forth. A lifetime pardon from the pain.

When I heard that lyric above, from a song about insanity, I thought of her. A butterfly in the pouring rain.

When it comes to the complexities of the mind, we are all handicapped by our limited mentality, really - none of us can pretend to understand all the secrets of how it works, and how it doesn't. People disabled in thought in some form are as unique as any of the rest of us, many have abilities we are unable to see, and we may never know what is going on in their heads or whether it is possible to do something about it besides a locked door.

Maybe in her mind, that girl is chasing butterflies right now; maybe they've taken her away from her life, or carried her back. Wherever she is today, I wish her well.

I've met people who ruined part of their minds with drug addiction. And I've known a few who simply lost their mind in grief when losing a child or a lover or a longtime partner in sad and sudden fashion. One person I worked with aged a decade overnight when his wife died suddenly - his hair literally turned white in what seemed a matter of days.

The ones I am thinking of rebounded and eventually found new paths in life, though no doubt still wearing their losses like a heavy and bittersweet backpack full of memories. Others, I know, never really come back.

There is no telling that we may not be one of them one day.

I have no doubts that supervisors did what made the most budgetary sense for their county. In such cases, policy dictates political transparency, and throwing un-needed things up for open bid. But couldn't there have been a better way? A way to give Spectra a chance to raise money to bid, or to help them find a new location? For all the years they have served people here with no other place to go, I feel like they deserved an opportunity.

If it was a new employer bringing jobs, we'd bend over backwards to throw out money and tax incentives to get them in business, you know. And if we were closing something like an animal shelter, you could bet there would be an outcry of the kind we don't hear at all here.

But these are "crazy people;" guess they don't count.

It happened too suddenly, and there probably isn't much anyone can do to change it now. Maybe someone new will start a facility, and maybe not. It's done, and I'm not asking you to say or do anything about it.

But I hope we can manage a twinge. A little tick inside our chests that shows we realize what we've done, and we feel something of it, and we care a little.

And if not, goodness help us. We're the disabled ones.