By Rosalie Tirella
I called her Miss Boo – after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird. When I first moved to Spencer, during one of the first summer days I took the dogs out, Miss Boo stood on her porch watching me and gave me the sweetest smile. Looking back, I’d call it beatific. I smiled back and waved to her.
Then I heard a man’s voice, snide, rough, condescending, calling from inside the apartment: “What are you doing out there?”
Miss Boo’s face dropped, her smile all gone. She turned away, wilted, and mechanically walked back into the house, like a dog obeying her master’s stern command. I grew worried for her…
A few nights later, I was getting out of my car, home from work and heard this from Miss Boo, in the Spencer dark, her voice loud and menacing: “YOU WITH THE X-RAY VISION! GO AWAY! LOOKING! LOOKING! LOOKING! … X-RAY VISION!” Her top-of-the-lungs, bizarre rant was wrapped in platitudes, too. And right away I 1. called the Spencer Police and 2. Guessed, because I worked with folks like her one summer in college, that she suffered from schizophrenia and was having a psychotic episode. I wasn’t afraid…based on my experience during that summer in college (I was an activity director), she wouldn’t hurt me and it would all simmer down. A tormented mind. A mental illness… It was her special needs mind saying one thing, and the rational side saying another – truth but wrapped in stray voices, mental incoherence that she probably worked hard to control. And succeeded. Most of the time.
Kudos to the Spencer police officers. They, because there are no social services/health clinics in Spencer, have to be police officers AND NURSES AND SOCIAL WORKERS AND SOUL SOOTHERS. The friend in need – but with a gun. The officer told me over the phone: oh, them. Her. We’re there all the time. She’s harmless. She has her good days and her bad days. Just ignore her.
The Spencer cop was right on the money. I told him I agreed with him 100% and described my college summer job years ago. Still, I said to him: I don’t want to come home to this every night! She’s loud and disturbing and I’m doing nothing wrong!!
A week later I noticed that the farmer’s porch had been stripped bare: it had been practically shrink-wrapped in heavy, yellowed plastic and stuffed to the gills with junk. Then I saw her landlord come by and carefully remove the stray weeds from the side yard. A few days later an old refrigerator, broken down/ its door off its hinges, was being hauled away in a pick up truck. Then I saw the porch all clean and sparkly white (had it been repainted?) with three potted plants, evenly, perfectly, spaced, hanging from the top of the porch! How pretty and clean!
But at night, you could see into the shadeless windows. The apartment was empty…
I was told: “She moved out.”
WHY??? I said.
I had liked Miss Boo. I knew she was suffering through no fault of her own. I was on her side!
But Miss Boo saw my newspapers, no doubt watched me photograph the neighborhood for my blog and … Moved out. In the dead of night. No crime committed. Just suffering from, most likely, a terrible, undiagnosed mental illness in rural America. In Spencer – a town that may not have the resources but nonetheless can’t do the research, make the connections to Fran’s super Family Health Clinic in Worcester or … be creative and come up with the grants/funding$ for nurses or social workers. So Miss Boo suffered … silently, not so silently, always bravely … and changed her whole life. Moved out!
God love the Spencer and Leicester police because, when things come to a boil, they’re the ones who are called. And, ya know, they do a fine job! No fancy degrees. No lecture halls for these guys and gals. Just small-town police officers embedded in a small town. They know the people. They are humane, they listen … very real. And then, because, they are not medical experts, psychiatrists … they don’t really solve the problem. But they do offer perspective, empathy and homespun wisdom.
The Leicester Police station on Route 9. Good people here, too!
But you tell the young Spencer cop, based on your weird Spencer landlord and Miss Boo that you now understand why there is an opioid epidemic in rural America! No help here! No clinics! No diagnosis! No nothing! So the people, in their pain, self-medicate. YOU GOT AN OPIOID PROBLEM OUT HERE, you tell the young Spencer cop. YOU NEED HELP – IT SHOULDN’T FALL ON YOU!
And when the young cop looks at you, grateful, and sighs, Yes, as in YOU GET IT, LADY, somebody finally gets it, your heart breaks. For Miss Boo, the community, the cops.
So, next day, YOU ARE ON THE CASE! YOU CALL FRAN A. AT FAMILY HEALTH CENTER AND TELL HER VOICEMAIL: The people in Spencer need help. Depression, psychosis … it is all here and there is no help! Please help!
You go to Spencer Town Hall and demand to speak to the Town Manager about the problem, but his middle-aged personal secretary with the big hair and cold heart blows you off. You say, in the middle of Town Hall: GET A HEALTH CLINIC RUNNING IN DOWNTOWN Spencer. To help. To combat the erroneous, dangerous self-medicating that goes on. Or the anguish that goes untreated! Every town empliyee, even Laura, the very nice Spencer Town Clerk, looks annoyed at me. It is Wednesday – almost their weekend, as Spencer is so $cash-strapped Town Hall closes for the week on Thursday, noon!!
You call Jan Yost at The Health Foundation and leave a desperate message. She calls you right back. She gets it and tells you what to do next, whom to call, and how, maybe, Spencer or Leicester can secure the $$grant money to get a social worker inside the police stations, working hand-in-hand with the police officers.
Wonderful! Hopefully … A win for Spencer! A YES for rural America! Compassion and understanding for Miss Boo!