When I first met N.U., she was a crumpled mess, sitting on the floor of the Mental Health Center, with her knees pulled to her chest and face buried. She was now entering her fourth month as an inpatient at our state’s long-term mental health hospital.
At 44 years old, this navy veteran was now almost entirely dependent on others to prompt her for completion of the day’s simplest tasks. She spoke very little and made no eye contact when addressed. Everything that might contribute to her perceived value as a person had been stripped away.
As a result of her debilitating mental illness (which was amplified by chronic use of drugs and alcohol), her two young children had been removed from her custody. She lost her home and was shunned by her small native community. She was crippled by shame and self-loathing. N.U.’s medications had calmed the primary psychosis, but did nothing to restore her self-worth. She was ashamed of what she could remember and horrified by what she could not. N.U. was terribly depressed.
Due to her incapacitating illness, court intervention occurred in the form of a guardianship and conservatorship. I had the pleasure of serving as her guardian for the next two years. On the day of our first meeting, we packed up her few belongings at the hospital and journeyed back to Albuquerque to introduce her to her new life.
As a 100% service-connected veteran, N.U. received a healthy monthly compensation and full benefits for housing and healthcare. She moved into a veteran’s “foster” home, fortuitously run by two compassionate women who saw the “good” in my client. I assisted in the enrollment in the Mental Health Intensive Case Management Program at the VA and we all “went to work.” For many reasons, the level of time-intensity on this case was quite high for many months.
Incrementally and over time, N.U.’s involvement with her children was restored and increased. As guardian, we assisted in the required supervision of her visits with them. She took great pride in her newfound sobriety, attending groups, classes and 1:1 therapy. She eventually “graduated” from foster care and moved into her own apartment with supports. It was with great joy I selected her housewarming gift. She was now not only drug and alcohol free, but cigarette free as well! She did not want her new apartment (of which she was so proud) to smell of cigarette smoke.
Our next milestones were self-management of medication and overnight visits with her children. Oh – and did I mention she (by then) had a job? With all these achievements, this was a natural “next-step.” With every success, the cloud of shame that followed her dissipated just a little more. At times, she practically “bubbled over” during my visits – as if she’d stored up every good thing in anticipation of sharing at my visit.
When I first introduced the notion of seeking limitation of the guardianship, N.U. was a bit trepidacious. Though she reveled in her successes, deep down she didn’t entirely believe that she was responsible for them. Limitation of the guardianship was a scary notion. We worked through this, and sought the court for restoration of her rights. She was very proud to have the guardianship limited – another milestone! This meant less oversight and more true “ownership” of her conquests.
After a period of about six months, things had gone so well that we went back to the court to terminate the guardianship altogether. This time she was ready! By now, she was entirely independent. She had a car and her driving privileges had been restored. Her visit with the children were routine and unsupervised. Relationships with family and community members were being restored.
As painful and challenging as this road was for N.U., and despite the shame felt by the imposition of a guardianship, this was absolutely the right course to take. This guardianship was not an end, but a beginning.
I am ever grateful for this work that I’m blessed to do. For all the stiff necks and sleepless nights it gives me, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Whether it be by advocating and protecting a person through their permanent incapacity or, like the case of N.U., walking with them on the path toward restoration and recovery – EVERY case we see represents potential success.
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