Note: I wrote this last weekend and screwed up the publication time so sorry if you were waiting with baited breath for this week’s
by Phil La Duke
“It’s difficult to help the poor because they make so many poor choices”
—Bishop Ken Untner
Last week was a weird week for me. It started with a mentally ill stalker writing a comment on my blog that consisted of the lyrics of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road not once but twice. It was the lunatic ramblings of a man who if he were well would still be worth more to society in parts. I tried, despite the warnings of people I know and respect, that this man is deeply mentally ill (manic-depressive and Lord know what else.) and potentially, if not probably a danger to himself and others.
But early on I made a commitment to publish all comments sent to me, a policy this festering boil of a man made me modify. With all that I have going on—writing a book, working on a highly important and groundbreaking project for work about which I will disclose no details because that is the property of my employer. I will say that it is hard work, mentally and intellectually taxing, and extremely important (read high stress) and of course I am fighting with city hall about the ineptitude and indifference to safety they have shown in a recent construction project. On top of all of that my romantic entanglement got a Facebook invite from a loon with whom I used to be friends who is also manic-depressive but refuse to take his meds. I warned him that if he remained unmedicated I would unfriend him and block him. I can’t have phone calls at 3:00 a.m. asking when we are going to go to Vegas. I sympathize with the mentally ill to a point, and that point is when they are medicated I feel for them and try to help them, but when they refuse treatment I can’t have that in my life.
But let’s take a look at the men behind the illness. One flies into a rage if anyone disagrees with him. Medicated he is a narcissist who believes his opinions can only be right if everyone else’s is wrong. There are a lot of pompous asses in this business. I know, I’ve met them, and even more send me poison pen letters telling me how great they are and how much I suck. C’est la vie. But this guy is such a self-absorbed ass-hat that he attacks anyone who disagrees with him about anything. Medicated he’s a teardown, but unmedicated he should be put down like a rabid coyote. The other has always just been a jerk. Thinking it funny to promise that if I went water-skiing with him he would have me back in plenty of time for my afternoon shift and then laugh when he would drop me off without enough time for me to drive to my job let alone shower, put on my work uniform, and arrive to work on time. I could go on with the many stupid things that he did but thought were funny—but just thinking about it makes me angry.
This could be a blog about the responsibilities we have toward the mentally ill or a better discussion would perhaps be whether or not one is entitled to be a dysfunctional jerk just because one is mentally ill?
All of this makes me acutely aware of how frustrating working in safety can be. You deal with high emotions, the mentally ill, and too often just plain jerks. I am growing increasingly sympathetic to those of us who have thrown up their hands and said “screw it” I’m done trying. Of course, we can’t just give up. For the record, I have worked with many mentally ill or emotionally broken people who, while challenging, are able to do their jobs, very well. So I tend toward the opinion that if you are mentally ill, and most of us are to one degree or another, you don’t get a free pass. It’s like diabetes. If you are diabetic and choose to eat nothing but hot fudge sundaes and drink shots of maple syrup all the while refusing to take your medications and forgoing exercise in favor of bing watching the view, you can’t expect a lot of sympathy. You aren’t to be pitied, although I can honestly say that I have never taken any solace in the fact that my current predicament was entirely predictable and I had no one to blame but myself. But this is beside the point. The real question is how much responsibility are we to take for the poor choices of others.
When someone decides, despite the warnings and with the full knowledge of the risks to work on energized equipment, how much culpability are we to take? Certainly, we have to take action in a case where we witness such actions, but what about when we aren’t there? And how about instances where the person’s management is complicit in the violation? At what point has our relentless intervention enough?
The answer is, of course, never. As safety practitioners, we are like the doctor who treats the patient who refuses to quit smoking despite developing heart problems. They own the car, we are merely the mechanics. We don’t get to be sanctimonious or whiny about it; there will be no self-pity here. And while we might have the lofty goal of zero harm, we need to realize that we aren’t in this alone, and if others refuse to get on board with the program people will continue to get hurt. Again, we are like doctors. What doctor would have anything less than zero patient deaths and zero complications as a goal? Certainly not one to whom I would want anyone (with the possible exceptions of my stalkers) to go for treatment.
We can never openly say, “there are some people who just can’t be helped” and frankly even if we believe that we cannot stop trying. At some point, we may reach them and if even if they insult us for trying to help them secretly our words might just sink in and they may be moved to make a better decision. And if they don’t at least we can look ourselves in the mirror in the morning and know that while our best may not have been good enough, we did our best and therefore have no cause for regret.