Portraits From Social Work – Part 2: Paul

Even since I lost my last job doing social work with high risk, low income adults out in the community, I have missed the clients I used to see everyday. While I’m not sure if these people ever knew it themselves, the time I spent with them was much more meaningful to me than just trying to get a paycheck. This was the first time in my life that I was really able to get to know some interesting characters and bond with people older than me, with totally different and unique life experiences. Even though I was supposed to keep a professional distance, I simply couldn’t help holding a space for each of my clients in my heart. I believe these people are interesting to learn about in general, but I am also writing about them today to ensure that I can keep them with me even if they eventually fade from my memory. (I obviously won’t use their real names for confidentiality reasons.)

Part 2: Paul

Where do I even start with describing this man? Paul was a gruff 60-year-old man (although he looked much older) with a skeletally thin frame, long peppery grey hair, a handlebar mustache, one hand and one leg. The leg he lost a long time ago in an accident when he used to ride a motorcycle. The hand, well that’s a mystery to all of us. When I first met Paul, his left hand was curled into a permanent fist. The way Paul tells it, he woke up in the middle of the night a few years ago feeling as though his forearm, wrist, and hand were on fire. He traced a ghostly, zigzagging, white scar on his skin to show me the path the “flames” took. His hand clenched shut and hasn’t opened since. We went to many doctors and specialists, but none of them had a definitive answer. Their best guest seemed to be that it has something to do with his excessive drinking, and I’m inclined to believe it. Paul, however, would never take complications from years of drinking as an answer to any of his health problems, of which he had many.

Paul was one of the most sever alcoholics I’ve even known. He was never a violent or angry drunk. He never caused any problems that I knew of except for himself. Paul’s favorite drink was vodka. And he drank about a pint of it a day, despite only receiving around $700 a month from social security. There were a few instances where he ran out of money at the end of the month and actually had to be hospitalized due to DTs or alcohol withdrawal. Once he even called me to his hospital room to ask me to bring him vodka and cigarettes. (I felt bad for him so I actually did agree to bring cigarettes, knowing he wouldn’t be able to smoke them anyway. The nurse promptly took them away.) He actually reminded me a bit of Frank Gallagher from Shameless, although Paul was a bit more irritable.

Paul was definitely a character. In addition to drinking and smoking cigarettes, he also loved to smoke weed. He even had a marijuana leaf on his wallet. As soon as medical marijuana became legal in the state he demanded a prescription from every doctor we went to. Of course he didn’t get it, even though he was eligible. The system was not yet ready to dispense actual medical cards, and there were no dispensaries even if they could have. There was no telling Paul that though. He was hard-headed to put it mildly. He was often angry and impatient, but honestly, could you blame him? His life was a constant battle with pain and poverty.

In the end, Paul’s life was evenly split between drinking in front of the TV and traveling all over the state for medical appointments. When I last saw him, I knew his time was limited. He was bleeding internally. It was clearly caused by his drinking. Still he refused to stop. I’m honestly not sure if it would have made a difference at that point anyway. As I sat down to write about him today, I decided to check the local obituaries. I held my breath, hoping I’d find nothing. Instead I discovered that Paul passed away in the summer of 2019. The obituary listed so many surviving family members, children and siblings. I new he had family, but seeing just how much and how close by they lived really broke my heart. They had all left him in the hands of the state to whither in darkness and die alone. I’m sure Paul wasn’t the best father or brother, but he certainly wasn’t deserving of that sentence. At least he got to spend his final days in the warm, sunny atmosphere of summer. That was one thing we both shared, an infatuation with summer, and a deep hatred of winter.

I wish I could have been there for him in the end. Or that I had at least gotten the chance to say goodbye, the chance to tell him that he was truly my friend, not just my client. Sure, he gave me a lot of anxiety over the years by giving this people pleaser so many unethical requests, but I am thankful for the time we spent together. Despite all his flaws, he was a good man. It saddens me deeply to know he’s gone. At least I know his pain has finally ceased. I hope he has found peace. The next time I drink vodka, I’ll pour some out for him.

11 best vodkas | The Independent | The Independent

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