His Messsage:“Stay away from drugs … no alcohol … the cigarettes. I’m a nice guy. Too nice at times. People take advantage of me. My friend…is trying to get me to quit being that way. But I just won’t change.”

Listen to an expanded version of Mr. Zimmerman’s message here:

Mr. Zimmerman is a divorced man in his late 40s who has struggled with periods of drug and alcohol dependency in addition to his mental illness. During the 1980s, prior to the development of his symptoms, Mr. Zimmerman served in the Navy. He is thrice divorced, with three children.

Mr. Zimmerman has lived in numerous places over the years, though usually alone. We spoke to Mr. Zimmerman first in 2011 and then again in 2012. Between these two interviews he lived in 3 different places, including spending 10 weeks homeless. During his time on the streets, he was unable to get more than a couple of hours of sleep, he lost weight and he experienced deterioration to his back, hips and neck.

Mr. Zimmerman chronically struggles with multiple health problems including diabetes, congestive heart failure, pulmonary obstructive lung disease, emphysema, peripheral artery disease, neuropathy of the legs, difficulty regulating his blood pressure, and high cholesterol. He has to take over a dozen medications daily for his various ailments. Mr. Zimmerman was our first interview for the project, and that interview occurred in the summer of 2011. Hot weather is particularly difficult for him, due to his health problems, resulting in isolation. He speaks about his limitations in this excerpt:

‘Cause I walk, you know, slow. If I walk fast, my heart beats and then I’m in trouble. I start having heart palpitations. …sometimes when I smoke, it causes me to have almost a heart attack, lightly. And then I call the ambulance, and they tell you, “Well, quit smokin’ cigarettes. That’s causin’ it.” So I’m down to about 12 cigarettes a day. I was smoking about 4 or 5 packs a day… I set here 24 hours a day. It’s like I’m cooped up in prison. I can’t go nowhere.

Listen to an expanded version of the above excerpt here:

It is not uncommon for our narrators to indicate that they have shared things with us that they have not shared with their providers because we have no agenda in our conversations with them – we are just there to document their life stories. Mr. Zimmerman articulates this point in a follow up interview:

Interviewer: …one question I, we wanted to ask you also was… what was it like to talk with us last time, to be interviewed by us?
Mr. Z: Comforting.
Interviewer: Oh yeah?
Mr. Z: Yeah.
Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit more…
Mr. Z: That’s the first time I ever told anybody things like that…
Interviewer: Okay.
Mr. Z: My doctor, when I tell him things like that, he admits me to the hospital. He thinks I’m nuts when I’m not.
Interviewer: Okay.
Mr. Z: That’s why I try not to… say anything around the doctor. Say, how you doin’? I’m doin’ fine.
Interviewer: So you don’t really get into anything?
Mr. Z: No, no.

Although the mental health field is bursting with wonderful, dedicated and caring providers, it can be a challenge to deeply listen to individuals with severe mental illness due to the constraints of an overburdened health care system. Mr. Zimmerman’s words are a reminder of what is not said when we focus too much on crisis management and not enough on listening.