He is agitated. Someone is trying to harm him, take his money. He’s going down to the sheriff’s office. He’s serious. He’s going to take a gun and shoot somebody if those people don’t back off.
“They’re getting in my business,” he says, raising his voice and stabbing the air with his index finger.
My brother is as wound up as I’ve seen him. He’s in my backyard, pulling out ferns. He had called and asked if I needed any work done, code for “I’m broke.” I told him, yeah, come do some gardening.
He’s always broke. Living on Supplemental Security Income of less than $845 a month is tough in any coastal town, and nearly impossible in Santa Barbara. Once he pays his mobile home park fees and utilities, he has less than $200 a month for groceries, gasoline and insurance for his old truck. Lately, the credit card companies have been calling, demanding payment. For some reason, Visa, MasterCard, Kmart and Mobil all thought he was a good credit risk and offered him cards several years ago. When he couldn’t make the monthly payments, the card companies added on penalties and fees and started calling him. Finally, they took him to court.
He stood by himself before the judge, across from opposing attorneys, and told the judge he’d pay what he owed on one card -- about $1,000 -- but not a penny in penalties or interest. And he would pay when he could. The judge said OK.
That was two years ago. He’s made a payment here and there, but it hasn’t amounted to much. And so the credit card companies are calling again. This time they are threatening to garnishee his SSI. They can’t do that legally. But my brother doesn’t know that.
And so my brother, who lives in a world of shifting realities, voices and paranoia, is gesturing wildly, storming about the yard. I am wary. He threatened to kill me once.
I look at him. Reed thin. Hollow cheeks. Half his teeth are gone. He is 52 years old.
“They’re gettin’ in my business!” he yells again, thrusting his finger at me.
We knew something was wrong from the time my brother was in high school. He moved into the garage when he was 17; moved to the backcountry and made a lean-to for a home when he was 20. He graduated from high school, and he’s smart. But he wandered aimlessly for years. We blamed the drugs. It was the ‘70s, and he smoked a lot of marijuana.
But then he began to carry guns and talk about people coming after him. It became obvious this was something more serious than drug use.
One day he came home delusional, ranting and raving, screaming at the silent TV in the den. The family sought help from the local mental health association. There, we found sympathy and information. Like many others with serious mental illness, my brother refused to believe he was sick, refused treatment. When he told my dad he was going to shoot him, we called the sheriff and had him committed to a psychiatric facility.
They kept him three weeks, diagnosed him with schizophrenia and put him on medication. Then they released him, with medicine to take and an appointment to see a county psychiatrist. He finished the pills they sent him home with, but he refused to see the doctor and never returned to the county mental health department.
That was more than 20 years ago. My brother remains resistant to treatment, fearful, broke. But he’s luckier than many with this devastating illness. Many people with schizophrenia live on the streets; he lives in a mobile home my mother bought for him after my dad died. The park managers leave threatening letters on his door regularly. “Get rid of the boxes in your yard.” And “You can’t paint your coach bright green.”
Not long after my brother moved in, I met with the park manager and threatened to file an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint if they didn’t lighten up. They still threaten, but they haven’t taken action, though the yard is still a mess and the trailer green.
He faces other, more serious threats too. Eight years ago, one of the neighborhood kids who hangs around my brother’s trailer thought it would be funny to tell a gang member just out of prison that my brother had stolen the guy’s girlfriend. That evening the guy showed up at the front door and stabbed him in the chest with a 4-inch knife. My brother, bleeding profusely, called 911 and laid down on his bed to wait for paramedics. The doctors told my mom and me that the knife just missed his heart.
Mom took care of him after my dad died -- gave him money every month to help him make ends meet; fed and clothed him; paid his dental bills. Now my mom is gone, and I am standing in my yard watching my brother rant. I feel my stomach tighten and wonder how much I should say.
Finally, he leaves, cursing all the way out to his truck. I call my sister in Oregon. He’s wound up, I tell her. Worse than I’ve seen in a long time.
The next day I call a social worker who knows my brother. He has helped so much over the years. I think he walks on water. Within two hours, he’s returned my call with the names of two attorneys who can help. Tell your brother the credit card companies can’t touch his SSI, he says.
I call my brother, explain. He says OK and promises to call the attorneys. But he won’t. I wonder: Will he end up in court again? Will the judge understand the situation? Or will he order my brother to repay thousands of dollars when he has no discretionary income?
What will happen when all of his teeth are gone? Medi-Cal no longer pays for dental care. What will happen when the mobile home park next year requires all of its tenants to buy the land under their trailers? Where will he go?
And what will happen when the last bit of my mother’s estate runs out, and my sister and I have nothing left to give him when he’s broke?
Who is responsible? Who is responsible for them all?
Marcia Meier is a Santa Barbara-based writer whose latest book, “Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders,” will be out in June.