Mark and I: 16 years later.
I pulled out a laptop to write this story because today, during my drive to Magu, I remembered a troubled old friend, a friend I will never forget. In 1998, a year after I have been to the United States, I took a temporary summer job in Boston, caring for the mentally ill individuals in their group homes. This was a typical job for immigrants and students – easy to get, flexible multiple hours, decent pay, and you can study while at work. My boss was a very understanding Greek-American named Nick. He started me off with “patients” who were not extreme cases, guys who were most of the time okay and were in the process of being reintegrated into normal, unsupervised life. So, my job was to bring them to their doctors’ appointments, make sure they take their medications on time, get them to their job training, and sometimes to their actual jobs – dishwashing at the MacDonald’s, security duties at the malls, and so forth. In essence, my job, at one time, was to watch over them doing their jobs. Most of the time, there were no incidents except for few occasions where one particular individual had a tendency to abruptly lose temper and throw tantrums and I had to intervene and sort it out or take him home. The job required training on man-management and a deeper understanding of the profile of the patients, including what words or reinforcements or incentives calm them down.
The job required that you have a driver’s license and I had just gotten one but never driven around and didn’t know my way around yet. One day my boss left a note that I should bring the guys to their doctor’s appointment in Lynn, one of Boston’s suburbs. All he left was a piece of paper with address and car key. One of the individual under my care said he knew the place and would guide me there. After 10 minutes of drive, he couldn’t remember. We got lost and didn’t eat the whole day, they missed a critical doctor’s appointment, missed their medication, and grew impatient, and a near-chaos situation ensued in the van. I further panicked. Nick got a call from doctor’s office that, two hours from appointment time, we hadn’t showed up. He panicked. I didn’t have a cell phone. The car had an outbound-only cell-phone which I didn’t know how to use. What I did was to surrender myself to the highway police officer who was kind enough to lead us back home. I knew I was going to get fired. But Nick understood. I kept my job and compensated my error with hard work.
Nick then moved me to another house which had only one patient – Mark. Mark was 37 years old but with a body of a 10-year old. Mark was a savant – a super-genius with absolutely unmatched memory, mathematical abilities and unbelievable computer skills. I have never met anyone as gifted as Mark. But Mark had a number of neurotic disorders, had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, drug and alcoholic addiction and many other ailments. He took a lot, I mean a lot, of medications with many side-effects. Mark would challenge his doctors on the biochemistry of his medications. Mark had a very specific routine – and before working with him you require two weeks training. Mark was a gentle soul and physically vulnerable. But Mark was also manipulative, deceptive, a brilliant liar and would test anyone’s patience to the limits. Mark plays with your mind. Nobody wanted to work with Mark because it is simply mentally and physically exhausting - you are required to have him in your eyesight at all time even when he is in the toilet because he sometimes tend to injure himself deliberately. For new staff, Mark would move around the house in quick paces and give multiple demands for three hours straight just to wear you down, and would ask “don’t you feel idiotic to follow me around at all time?” But Mark’s worst behavior was what was called “bolting” – that is running away from the house to any nearest grocery or liquor store to grab a bottle of whiskey or beer from the shelf (without paying) and drink it straight and collapse. So, working with Mark requires that all doors must be locked and you keep keys. But Mark has in the past pick-pocketed a key from staff.
Mark bolted on me three times. One time, because he was so tiny, he hid in the laundry drying machine. I looked the entire house and when I couldn’t find him, I opened the door to look outside and that’s when he slipped out of the house and hid in the shrubs in the backyard – and when I went back inside that’s when he left the premises. I found him at nearby grocery store where he had drank half a liter of mouthwash – yes, Listerine mouthwash. Apparently it has alcohol.
Mark had a number of rights which we were obliged to respect. He had the right to go outside the house, of course under my escort, to shop but mostly to fish – Mark was obsessed with fishing. Mark had the right to use the computer for an hour a day – and of course with me sitting behind him watching everything he was doing. With his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Mark must be on the computer at exactly 6pm. His favorite thing on the computer was chatting – back then through AOL chats. I was required to monitor these chats. But frankly I couldn’t because Mark would have about 12 chat windows at the same time and would go back and forth on each window with supersonic speed.
One day, Mark, in a friendly way, said he knew my secret: that I am using a fake driver’s license. Of course I wasn’t. He said he would show me the difference between a genuine and real drivers license. So I took my wallet out and my license and bank cards. A less than minute glance at my bank card was enough for Mark to memorise my details – all 16 digits, expiry date, etc. Next day, at about 9pm, the doorbell rang, something very unusual. I went to the door and two voluptuous ladies greet me asking if this is the correct address for Mr. Makamba. Mark had apparently used my bank card to order two prostitutes from an online escort service. When I was expressing surprise and saying I don’t know anything, Mark asked me if we could talk first. He admitted to the mischief and said to me “don’t panic, you are the man, show your manhood and don’t be a sissy, who will know? You first pick the one you like and I take the other one”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to strangle him. I politely dismissed the ladies. Boss was kind enough to compensate my money.
Mark never stays with staff for more than three weeks because he simply wears people down and people choose to quit and also because he always want a new staff. Mark would study you quickly and if you love your football on TV, Mark would ask you to bring him to fish as football game starts. As reluctantly turn-off the TV, Mark would seek to negotiate a favour to let you watch the game. During winter time, with frozen ponds outside, Mark would still want to go fishing and, I was told, if you hated winter, he would actually want to go fishing three times a day – and would negotiate to go only once if you allow him something that he is not supposed to do.
I lasted two months with him. During this time, Mark ceased to become simply a "patient" I was looking after. He became a friend. We understood each other. When I was about to leave, I was emotional and, for the first time, I saw Mark's emotional side. He gave me a clumsy hug and said to me “I will always remember you for one thing: you never even attempted to physically abuse me”. Until then, I had not known that that is what he expected from me.
I googled Mark today (I am deliberately omitting his last name to protect his privacy) but couldn’t find him. I have encountered all sorts of interesting people in my life. But Mark was special.
The point of the story is that life has many lessons – and some of them come from very unlikely places or people. I learnt the virtue of patience through working with Mark. I also learnt to appreciate the value of the gift of good health that we all take for granted. I learnt not to judge and prejudice people. But I also learnt that mental illness is real and that the mentally ill have deep humanity if we are able to go beyond their ailments. I learnt that a society without systems and culture to care for its most vulnerable members is yet to be civilized. We don’t talk much about mental illness in Tanzania. We quickly give up on the mentally-ill – and find easy reasons: drugs, witchcraft, curse. It is time that this change.