The Caregiver

By Amy Dresner 12/02/12

I worked for a paralyzed man who taught me how quickly freedom could be taken away. If only my addiction had been willing to listen. 

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When I was 24 and living in San Francisco, I had just begun dabbling with speed and had no idea how quickly and ruthlessly this drug would take over my life. In the meantime, I needed a job and was sick of retail or waitressing. One day I casually looked in the local paper.

Video director looking for assistant the ad said. Hmmm. Sounded interesting. I called, got an interview for the next day and took the train into the financial district at 8 in the morning. The video director lived in a big loft on Folsom Street where I knocked on the metal grate door, waiting for what felt like ages for it to open. 

I was still up from the night before and the night before that. My eyes burned. The sun was coming up. I looked down and noticed that my hands were a little swollen. They felt tight. I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Finally the door opened. A frail young man in his late twenties with gnarled, bent hands sat in an electric wheelchair.

“Hiya!” he said with a smile. “Good morning!” He was wearing a silly knitted hat.

“Uh, hi.” I tried not to look surprised. I was just starting to come down and my palms felt moist, my mouth dry and my back ached. I didn’t want to betray my prejudice. I had never worked with a handicapped person. Hell, I didn’t even know one.   

For a cripple, he was really fucking happy. It was disarming. I could walk fine and was 100 times more miserable.

“Come in,” he said and with that, he whipped around in his wheelchair and started to zip through the large loft. 

I took a deep breath and followed him inside, where the aroma of warm oatmeal and peas hung heavy in the cold air. There was a large rack that I would later learn was for stringing him up so he could have the lost experience of standing again—a scary contraption that would crank up a swing seat until his legs were straight and perpendicular to the floor. We went into his bedroom, where the smell of stale urine hit me like a right hook. Thank God the majority of my sense of smell was already deadened by regular meth use.

“This is Anna,” the man said, gesturing to a tiny ex-dancer with skin the color of wheat toast and dark hair in a messy bun. “She’s one of my assistants—she’ll teach you what to do.” I later found out that on the days Anna wasn’t working for this man, she worked at a hospice for AIDS patients.

“Have you ever done any nursing?” she asked me in a high-pitched voice.

“No,” I responded. “I’m kind of a…no.” They didn’t need to know what an entitled asshole I was. “I thought this was an assistant job.”

“It is!” she chirped. “You are the personal assistant to a quadriplegic.”

“Ahh. Okay.” I wanted to bolt out the door at the moment but for some reason I didn’t. I was intrigued. Could I do this job?  

“Have you ever dealt with shit?” the man asked bluntly. He was dead serious.

My brows furrowed. “Well I—I have a cat.”  

“Good enough!” he said buoyantly. For a cripple, he was really fucking happy. It was disarming. I could walk fine and was 100 times more miserable.

“Look, I like you,” he said. “You’re funny. I know you don’t have any experience but just give it a shot. If you can’t hack it, no problem. Okay?” I saw hope in his eyes.

“All right,” I reluctantly conceded. And with that, I was hired. 

I was given a set of keys and instructed to watch Anna go through the routine one time before I was on my own. After that, I started showing up at 8 am sharp every morning, when my boss was still in bed sleeping. I’d wake him up and pull the covers back. Most mornings, the pee bag attached to his catheter would have leaked onto the bed and he’d be lying in his own cold piss for hours. I’d stick a towel under him and begin the morning ritual: first I’d stretch out his atrophied legs, which were stick-like and as narrow as those of a malnourished child. They would shake as I pulled them straight but I’d hold them until the trembling stopped and they were limp again. I was heavier then, with a heaving bosom and thick thighs, all of which I needed in order to have the strength to hoist his Auschwitz-thin body over my shoulder and into the chair.

Then we would do his morning arm exercises, where he would push against my hands in a circular motion and I would resist. We always had to have music for this activity. He loved Hendrix—a fact that was evident from the huge Hendrix posters that adorned his dark smelly bedroom.

“My legs is broke—they don’t work no more,” he’d joke in a terrible African American accent.

Whenever I came to work, my problems—all the petty shit that I was distressed over—seemed so insignificant. Because at least I could walk.

“Are you knocking boots, Amy?” he would ask me.

“Knocking boots?” I would respond breathily as I pushed against his feeble-looking but surprisingly strong arms.

“Getting laid! Making love. Having sex.”

“Oh. No, not really.”

“Better get on that shit. You never know when all of a sudden....BOOM, you’re in a chair.”

I would say nothing. And then:

“God I love Jimi!...Foxy Lady, doo doo doo...”

My boss had once had everything. He had been beautiful and young and rich with loads of talent and gaggles of girls before a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed. He showed me a video of himself before the accident and I wept like a bitch at the sight of all that wasted potential and over just how cruel fate could be. And I saw myself: the life I was losing to self-hatred and depression, to self-destruction and procrastination. I was only 24 but I had been in my own way forever, blocking the exits as my own fires consumed me.

“Tell me one of your spoken word thingies,” he’d say. I was performing spoken-word poetry at the time.

“Really? It’s 8 in the morning!” I’d say as I put on a rubber glove. Then I’d bend down and insert a finger into his rectum, making concentric circles until he was stimulated and defecated.

I’d always been pretty vain, though I’d never considered myself particularly beautiful. Men seem to find me rather attractive though it’s never helped ease my self-loathing. But he made things like that seem so inconsequential. His body was broken and maimed and rotting from disuse but his soul was so fucking vibrant that it often made his paralytic state seem immaterial. He was more alive than anyone I’d ever met.

I had never felt useful like this. I had always been the black hole of want and despair that friends and family threw love, money and time into.

“Are we taking a bath today, Sir?” I’d ask.

“Yes! I think we will do a little sudsy.”

I’d begin to run his bath while he chatted on from his potty chair. I always acted like nothing I was doing and nothing about him was out of the ordinary. His vulnerability and dependence on me made me want to rescue him and give him back whatever dignity and honor I could. It’s what I’d want done for me. 

I’d roll him over to the bathtub, hoist him over my shoulder and lay him carefully into the water. What a relief it must have been to have those twisted limbs—those extensions of dead weight— float delicately, weightlessly, in the warm water. To be unencumbered, briefly free, of all that heavy immobile, senseless flesh. He would dunk his ears into the water so he couldn’t hear me but could only see my overly animated face ask him what he wanted for breakfast. And he would laugh and laugh and I didn’t care that he was laughing at me. I was just happy to see him so happy.

Because he could move his arms but his hands were forever curled into a claw-like position, I would take a washcloth and rub it with soap before handing it to him. And his pincer-like hand would clumsily rub the soapy rag over his chest. I would wash the places he couldn’t reach. But I never washed him like he was a child. I washed him like you’d wash a sick friend.

I’d then heave his wet, stiff body onto my shoulder and into the chair before wheeling him over to the bed and drying him down. “What do you want to wear today?” I’d ask.

“My tie-dye shirt. The purple one.” 

“You fucking hippy,” I would tease.

I’d dress him and put him back into the chair, after which he’d follow me into the kitchen where I’d make his breakfast.

“What are we eating this morning, Master?”

“Oatmeal. With peas.”

“Okay, weirdo.”

I’d cook him up this bizarre concoction. And when it was piping hot, I’d put the bowl on the table. He had this clamp that would hold the spoon or fork and I’d insert the spoon and slide the clamp onto this little bent hand.

“What’s your t-shirt say?” he asked one morning with a full mouth.

“It says slave and it has a ball and chain because I think relationships are like prison.”

“Couldn’t agree more. Get in. Get yourself a little somethin’ somethin’.  And get out. That’s what I say.”

I laughed as I scrubbed the pot clean.

I didn’t do the job for the money; it didn’t pay much. And although the hours were short. they were also early, which wasn’t remotely convenient for my budding drug addiction. Despite all of this, I was always on time. I had to be. He depended on me. He needed me. I’d never been needed. I had never felt useful like this. I had always been the black hole of want and despair that friends and family threw love, money and time into. I had been the person that everybody needed to take care of. Now I was the caretaker. And that shift, that ability to be the giver instead of the taker, changed me forever. I could be a wife or a mother some day, I’d think as I cooked for him. It was in me. I was relieved and pleased.

When we’d go out in public, to run errands or eat, people either ignored him out of discomfort or looked at him with the same kind of pity and horror you’d grant a side show freak. Both reactions made me very angry. Didn’t they know he was just a guy who’d been in a motorcycle accident? He still liked good food and good drugs and fast women. He just couldn’t chase them like he used to.

Eventually my addiction ruined this job.  I came to work one morning and he saw my huge dilated pupils and he knew.

“Listen I’ve lost so many of my friends to speed,” he said. “I just can’t be around it. So if you’re gonna do that stuff, you can’t work with me.”

With the first bloom of drug love coursing through me, I responded, “Well, I’m just not ready to put it down right now.” And with that, I quit. Or was fired. I guess it was a bit of both. In any case, thanks to my addiction, I crashed and burned a few months later and was shipped back to Los Angeles by my parents. I called him two years later from my first rehab, just to say hi. He was still living the stationary dream, doing occasional drugs and having odd flings with girls. He said he was happy I was clean. And that I was still his favorite assistant.

Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She's also written about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among many other topics, for The Fix. 

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