From Hans Hofmann to Homeless

I recently went to the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in an attempt to explore the city of Jacksonville as well as hopefully improve my appalling art literacy level.  While I’m pretty sure I still view art at about the same cognitive level as a dung beetle, the exhibition of Hans Hofmann’s work in abstract painting on canvas did remind me of experiences I’ve had at the Sulzbacher Center (which I’m not convinced is completely healthy). The lack of continuity between works and peculiar imagery evoked memories of conversations I’ve had with one of my favorite patients at Sulzbacher: Ben Smith (pseudonym).  Ben is a disorganized schizophrenic. He has been homeless for the majority of his life, was born and raised in Jacksonville Florida, and to the best of my knowledge has never been north of Atlanta. He is dangerously underweight at 103 pounds, has smoked cigarettes since he was 13, and frequently suffers from episodic tuberculosis. He also does not have a high school diploma or GED. Most significantly though, he struggles to discern the world around him from the world inside his mind. 

Conversations with Ben are like trying to interpret the intentions of an artist.  Ben might begin by discussing a need for transportation assistance, abruptly transition to his time with former Gator football coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer (a favorite topic of mine, although I question the truth value of the stories), and conclude with his concern for his family's well being.  The nature of Ben’s schizophrenia is akin to Hofmann’s work. The disease presents much like abstract art such that it becomes easy to pass over Ben.  He is difficult to understand at first, and his intentions are often misinterpreted, making it easier to simply ignore him rather than attempt to understand him.  Yet, underneath the veil of obscurity, Ben is not so abstract as Hofmann.  Ben is concerned about his family, hoping they do not worry about him, his housing situation, which is often fluid, and feeling free from his disease. 

Often referred to as “invisible” diseases, patients suffering from mental health problems are not always easy to spot in the community. However, in the case of severe disorders like schizophrenia, patients can become quite visible.  It’s natural to avoid these people when we come into contact with them as we flee what we do not understand, I myself have been all too guilty of this in the past.  During my service at the Sulzbacher Center, it has become abundantly clear the consequences of complacency and evasion.

Each Friday morning, my AmeriCorps colleague at Sulzbacher and I get a southern breakfast and discuss the week’s happenings. While we anxiously awaited our delicious breakfast (the reward for another weeks service) an unlikely patron walked in: Ben Smith.  Ben, apparently a regular at the establishment, was there for his morning cup of coffee. Cautiously, I approached him to inquire where he had been the last few days. While he acknowledged my presence, he avoided eye contact and mumbled while studying the red tile floor.  After a few minutes of small talk, I asked Ben where he had been recently.  His demeanor quickly changed; practically jumping out of his chair, he announced “I was banned! I can’t go back there! You trying to get me in trouble!”.

I calmly attempted to explain to Ben that he had done nothing wrong, but he was adamant.  Alec and I retreated to our table, our food tasting far less satisfying than before. Instead of our normal dialogue about college sports and Crossfit, we vented about the tragedy that was unfolding of resources being available to the most vulnerable in our society only to be met with fear, isolation, and suspicion. In a last ditch effort to alter this narrative on the way out of the restaurant I mentioned to Ben that we had some inhalers waiting for him in the clinic. He perked up, a precious foothold having been gained in consciousness, and he finally became receptive to us. Relief from the daily struggle of COPD was too enticing to ignore.  Eventually, we convinced Ben to come by the clinic, linking him to both the primary care and behavioral health resources he desperately needed.

Without my experiences with the National Health Corps and the Sulzbacher Center, I likely would have remained ignorant to the burden of mental illness and chosen to ignore Ben. I would have diverted my responsibility to someone else and allowed Ben to remain without access to health care.  For these lessons I am thankful, and as for Ben I look forward to continuing our dialog and learning more about my most abstract friend.  





This blog post was written by NHC FL member, Ben Borgert.

Ben serves at the I.M. Sulzbacher Center as a Patient Navigator.