Mental Illness on the Factory Floor
Whether or not the accounts of Jared Loughner’s erratic behavior prior to his Tucson murders were “exaggerated,” they evoked some potent memories. As a former union officer, I represented two young men who were diagnosed as psychotic. Both worked several years in a big-time factory (44 acres under roof) before being discharged as a result of tragic incidents related to their illnesses. I’ll call them “Renaldo” and “Carl.”
Renaldo hired in already diagnosed as schizophrenic. Because medical confidentiality dictated that only Health Services (the nurse and company doctor) knew about this diagnosis, no one else in the facility—from the floor supervisors to Human Resource personnel to the plant manager himself—was aware of his condition.
While media reports have indicated that Jared Loughner, troubled as he was, never sought or received professional care, Renaldo’s psychiatrist had stated that his schizophrenia was treatable, and that so long as he stayed on his prescribed medication he should be able to function in an industrial environment, even one as stressful as ours.
Carl’s circumstances were different. His illness progressed over the course of several years. Although I knew Renaldo fairly well, I knew Carl even better, having trained him for 80 hours as a new-hire fresh off the street. In the way that trainers and trainees often bond, we hit it off and became work friends. Carl was a great kid: boisterous, enthusiastic, generous, out-going, fun to be around.
Renaldo was quieter. Although he regularly unnerved people with his comments and actions, no one was frightened of him because he was too polite and deferential to scare anybody. Renaldo had two basic personas: mellow or manic. There was little in-between. Some of the older employees spread rumors that he was on drugs, but the younger ones, those who’d experimented with drugs themselves, thought otherwise. Whatever Renaldo’s problem was, they didn’t believe it was drugs.
One day Renaldo was sitting all alone in a break area, laughing at some private joke. He began laughing so hard that his face and neck turned beet-red and his body began trembling. After watching him a moment or two, I made casual eye contact with a woman sitting about forty feet away who’d also been watching. She put her finger to her temple and made the circular “coo-coo” sign.
In his third or fourth year in the plant, Renaldo was fired for assaulting a fellow worker. Without his parents’ or doctor’s knowledge, he had stopped taking his meds, and in a psychotic episode on graveyard shift, violently wrestled a man to the ground and tried to choke him.
It was during the union’s investigation of the incident that we learned of his schizophrenia. Because physical violence—no matter what the cause—will always be grounds for termination, Renaldo was immediately discharged, and that was the last anyone heard of him. Everyone, including the man he attacked, felt sorry for the poor guy and wished it could have ended differently.
Carl’s case was sadder. Over the years it had become apparent to those closest to him that he was undergoing a transformation. Besides the inappropriate comments, the temper tantrums, the manic outbursts, he’d become a religious zealot, going around the converting department lecturing people on the Bible and screaming about God. A forklift driver once found him crouched behind a stack of pallets, sobbing as he prayed.
The obvious question: Why didn’t we do something to help him? There’s no easy answer. As president of the union at the time, I honestly believed it was the company’s responsibility to deal with something like this. After all, this was their plant, they were the ones in charge, they had the resources and authority. It was their call.
But human behavior can’t always be conveniently classified. Just because you behave strangely doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. No one—not even those who were alarmed by his antics—wanted to embarrass themselves or harass Carl by going to the authorities and pointing an accusing finger. In truth, there were lots of eccentric folks working in that nearly 1,000 person facility. It was part of the plant’s charm. Carl just happened to be one of them.
Moreover, he drifted in and out of these phases, so there were prolonged periods where he seemed almost normal. Yes, he could express oddball opinions with lunatic certainty, and yes, he occasionally screamed at people, but he never threatened anyone and never appeared dangerous. One of his pet insults was to call people “hemorrhoids,” which, while crude and juvenile, was usually greeted with weary smiles or exasperation rather than hurt feelings. It was just Carl being Carl.
As for his frequent shows of rage, they were exorbitant but not incomprehensible. As anyone on the floor could tell you, displays of temper weren’t exactly rare on a high-stress production line. And although some people did regard his religious zealotry as off-the-chart bizarre, others took a broader, more understanding view of it, writing him off simply as “a religious nut.”
Unlike Renaldo, who lost his job due to violent aggression, Carl lost his as a result of a hideous, self-inflicted accident. It happened on swing-shift. As the crew watched in horror, Carl walked up to a piece of high-speed machinery and deliberately reached into it, snapping a bone and mangling his arm. When they pulled him out, he was as white as a sheet and in shock.
It was after this incident that we learned he had been under the care of a psychiatrist. In the hope of saving his job, his mother gave the union written authorization to see his complete medical record. To laymen like us, who knew next to nothing about mental disorders, reviewing that dreadful document was both heartbreaking and terrifying. We were unprepared for it. We had no idea he was this sick.
Carl was given a medical retirement. The last anyone heard of him was a couple years later when one of our members saw him at the LA County fairgrounds, working as a parking lot attendant, and said hello to him. She barely recognized him. “It looked like he’d gained a hundred pounds,” she said.
It’s clear to me now that waiting for the company to act was irresponsible. The union should have intervened. If the union executive board had insisted that Carl be examined by company doctors, they would have done it, because we had that power. Not only did we have that power, as awkward as it might have been, we had that duty. We could have prevented his accident.
On the other hand, several people later observed that we had all been lucky. As disturbed as Carl was, instead of injuring himself, he could just as easily have entered the plant with a loaded gun in his lunchbox. They never searched anyone.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at email@example.com