My Sister’s Advocate

In September, Jerri’s case worker, Catherina, set-up a meeting with Brian (the new property manager at Jerri’s housing complex), Hap (the former property manager and current resident advocate) Jerri, and myself. The meeting was to confront Jerri. Hap had, supposedly, caught a man red-handed in Jerri’s apartment cutting up copper piping that he’d allegedly stolen, possibly from the building. The price of copper has skyrocketed over the past few years and there is a booming black-market for the stuff. The implication? Jerri was involved in illegal activity and her housing was in serious jeopardy.

When Catherina first notified me, I immediately called Jerri to get her side of the story. It still surprises me when I hear about these things from Telecare and not from my sister. In her shoes, I’d have wanted my side to be heard first and to give me a heads-up. Instead, Jerri seemed surprised Telecare had contacted me. She didn’t know the situation had escalated or that a meeting was planned. She thought she had handled it.

“Remember the guy at the boarding house on Fayetteville where I lived who used to collect all the junk? Well it was him. He was cutting across the yard here and saw me. He stopped to talk and I told him I lived here now. He asked if he could come in and use the bathroom. I didn’t know he had copper pipe on him. Did you know copper is worth a lot of money? I don’t know where he got it but it wasn’t from here. What’s the big deal? He was just using the bathroom.”20120128-194412.jpg

[Me] “Was he cutting up pipe in your apartment?

[Jerri] “Not that I know of. I stepped out for a minute while he was here but I never saw him cutting anything.”

[Me] “Hap said he caught the guy using a saw on pipe in your apartment.”

[Jerri] “That’s not true. I was there when Hap came by.”

Have I mentioned that I’m never sure I can completely believe what Jerri says? Like others in our family, she has a way of rewriting history to fit her needs. It’s one of those crazy-making things about my family and why TRUTH is so very important to me. In my other relationships, I have a zero tolerance policy. If I catch you lying to me, you’re done. There can be no relationship where there is no trust. It was my mom’s tendency to fictionalize the facts that finally broke the back of that relationship. But what about forgiveness? Well, that’s a blog for another day but I will say this. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences. God forgave Adam and Eve and he still threw them out of the garden. But I digress.

The day of the meeting as we waited for Jerri to arrive, Hap made conversation with Catherina. “Don’t get me started on Bronwyn,” (eye-rolling), “she’s a real piece of work. You know what I mean by THAT” (nudge, nudge). “Yep, Jerri really messed up this time. Let’s see her talk her way out of this.” And this guy is supposed to be an advocate for the residents!

He’d already made up his mind about Jerri. I’ve seen this so many times over the years. People judge Jerri by how she looks, where she lives, and who she associates with. They don’t take the time to talk to her and discover who she really is. It infuriates me. I suppose it’s human nature to size up people this way but we bring all kinds of prejudices and baggage to the table. Seeing how Jerri is treated has really led me to take a hard look at myself and the assumptions I make about others.

So at the meeting Hap immediately started accusing Jerri. He hammered her with questions like, “where did the pipe come from?” and “what where you two going to do with it?” When she tried to answer, he talked over her. Jerri had the flu that day and I could tell she just wasn’t up to dealing with him. And despite my own questions about Jerri’s truthfulness, I really didn’t think she would be involved in something like this. Mainly because it takes a lot of energy to “salvage” pipe and Jerri struggles most days to get out of bed.

After about 15 minutes, I’d had enough.

“I’ve been sitting here listening to you, Hap, biting my tongue, but I really can’t stay quiet any longer. Do you even know Jerri’s side? Did you bother to ask her? She knew the man. She used to live in the same boarding house. He needed to use the bathroom. She was just being nice. She was not involved. I’ve spoken to her many times about not letting people into her apartment but she’s allowed visitors, right?” Hap attempted to interrupt and talk over me. I raised my voice. “I’m sorry but I’m still talking. Nope, not finished yet. When I’m finished, I’ll be happy to listen to what you have to say. Still talking here. Frankly, Hap, it troubles me that you are the Resident Advocate and yet you clearly have a low opinion of many of the residents including Jerri, you clearly make up your mind without seeking all the facts, and you clearly aren’t interested in listening to anyone but yourself.” Whew. I was hot.

Hap did a complete 180. It was as if someone had unscrewed his scalp, pulled out his old personality and pushed in a new one. Suddenly, he was the professional Resident Advocate he should have been from the start. The whole incident was shelved. Just like that.

Had I not been there, had I not spoken up, I fully suspect Jerri would have lost her housing. This is one of the most disturbing things to me. People with brain disorders do not have a voice. No one listens to them. No one believes in them. And they are taken advantage of and wronged and ignored and scapegoated and even bullied because of it.

Afterward, Catherina thanked me for “what I did”. “I don’t have the buddy-buddy relationship with Hap that he thinks I do but I still have to work with him. You were right about everything you said. And you saw how he changed. Thanks for that.”

When we had lunch this week, Jerri reminded me of the meeting. “Catherina and I where talking about what you did at the meeting. Remember how when we were kids, I stood up for you when that neighbor kid, what was his name–oh yeah, Michael–picked on you? Remember when he threw that big rock and hit you in the stomach? And I took you to his house and showed his mother what he’d done? I told Catherina that I stood up for you when you needed it and now you’re doing it for me.”

As I surf the net looking for other siblings like me, I read a lot of postings from sibs who are terrified of having responsibility for their brain-disordered brother or sister when their parents can no longer care for them. They don’t want to sacrifice their own happiness for their siblings. I understand that, I really do. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I believe most brain-disordered adults want to live independent lives. They don’t want a full-time, live-in caregiver. But they do need an advocate. You can be an advocate and still have a life.

It took about a year of trial and error, asking questions, seeking professional help, exploring the mental health system, and perseverance to reach this current state where I can be a sister, an advocate, and a friend without having full guardianship responsibility. And we are fortunate in that Jerri qualified for disability years ago and Durham has many supports for people with low income and mental illness. I just want to offer up hope and encouragement to families and particularly sibs in similar circumstances. Any other success stories out there?

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6 Comments on “My Sister’s Advocate”

  1. You go girl!!!! I don’t know how you remained controlled for even 15 minutes. I love reading your blog. Does Jerri read it?

  2. Marsha Coleman says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. It reminds me of many encounters I’ve had for my sister. I love the part of your story where your sister remembers the time she stood up for you. We all need help from time to time and these types of memories helps keep the humanity in our relationships. My sister gives me just as much as i give her. She’s my biggest cheerleader and we create many moments of pure fun and laughter together. She expects nothing of me so when I can give to her it’s a reward. It took a long time to get here but its worth it. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Marsha -it sounds like you and your sister are in a good place. I’m so very glad for you. It gives hope to all of us trying to support loved ones with mental illness. You said it’s taken a long time to get here. Can you share more about your journey? If it’s okay with you, I’d like to contact you via email. Perhaps you would consider doing a guest blog?

  3. Renee says:

    I thought this was such a great post explaining how you can be an advocate without giving up your life. I am sure the advice applies in many situations for many families and friends. It was quite heart touching.

    Also loved the comment about Adam & Eve.

    • Good to hear from you, Renee! You are right. There are so many people and situations where we can be advocates. There are days when even I could use a good advocate. Someone who will stand up and fight for me when I’m too weary to do it myself. We all have difficult days. We need to be courageous for one another.


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