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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Life of Alexander Orlowski

by capper

In four days, it will be Thanksgiving Day, the kick off to the holiday season. Most of us are already preparing for the day. Some of us are looking ahead to stuffing ourselves on turkey, stuffing, yams and pumpkin pie. Some of us are looking forward to a day of football. Some of us are looking forward to gathering with friends and/or family, some of which we haven't seen for a long time.

Some of us aren't so lucky. Gary and Patti Orlowski wish that they could have their whole family over for Thanksgiving feasting, football watching and having good times. But they can't.

Their son, Alexander Orlowski (pictured at lower right), died last year, on Thanksgiving morning.

I wrote a post about Alexander's death last year, one of many posts I wrote about the problems and disfunctionality at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. Alexander was the inmate that passed away due to an overdose of prescription medication while serving his sentence at the House of Correction.

Not too long ago, I received an email from Patti Orlowski, Alexander's mother. She told me that she had done a search on her son's name, and had found my post. She also wrote that she and her husband have been struggling with getting any answers from HOC on their son's death, and having a difficult time getting things changed so that something like this doesn't happen again.

We started to correspond, and eventually I was able to meet the Orlowskis one evening for a cup of coffee, and they told me about their son, and the problems they've faced since his passing. With their permission, I will share their story, and Alexander's story, with you today and over the next couple of days.

Today, I want to just talk about Alexander's life.

Too often, I hear people on the radio or the TV, or read in the blogs, that anyone that is incarcerated is a "thug." It doesn't matter who the person is, what they did or why they did whatever crime they committed to get arrested in the first place. It is much easier to condemn and dehumanize that person, than try to understand them. I personally think that many of these people are subconsciously afraid that they will recognize themselves or someone they love in these people if they look to closely at them.

Alexander had a pretty normal start to life. He came from a blended family, meaning that Patti and Gary both had children from other relationships before getting married. Between the two, they have four children, including Alexander, who was the baby of the family. Gary works in sales and marketing. Patti was recently laid off from Reiman Publishing in Greendale.

Their family is much like any other middle class family in the suburbs. They have had moments of great joy. They've had times of great sorrow. And they have great pride and love for all of their children.

The Orlowskis told me that Alex was a really good boy early in life. They told be that he was very creative and artistic. They had shown me some of the artwork Alexander did while at HOC. These were just pencil and paper drawings, but one could just see the talent he possessed. They told me he was very popular with the other inmates who would "hire" Alex to do drawings for them to send home to their loved ones. They would give Alex a prearranged amount of canteen (chips, candy, soda) for his work.

When Alexander was in the third or fourth grade, some early signs of his future problems started to manifest themselves. He had a hard time studying and staying focused. He went through an assessment and was found to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

By the time he was in middle school, the ADHD was in full swing, and Alexander was prescribed to take Dexadrine. The medication had mixed results. While he was managing at school, he was starting to show an increase in behaviors. He was often caught up in lies as he tried to cover up things that he did on an impulse, but still knew was wrong. Things like saying he was going over to a friend's house, but then go off to someplace else, like the mall.

In high school, Alexander's behaviors grew increasingly more serious. Friends turned him on to drugs, including alcohol and marijuana. If you have known anyone with a mental illness, whether or not they are under doctor's care, you already know that adding street drugs to the mix is a dangerous recipe for disaster. The mentally ill person feels temporary relief from their problems, and are more likely to develop an addiction. This is what happened to Alexander.

His drug usage quickly escalated to include heroin, which is highly addictive in itself. To support his habit, he did what most addicts do, he started resorting to crime to get money to pay for it.
He started stealing from his parents. They would find money, jewelry, alcohol and other things coming up missing. Alexander also started to break into people's houses to steal from them.

His behavior also escalated. He was quick to become enraged and was punching walls. He was disruptive in school. He was bounced from school to school. He attended Greendale High, Greenfield High and an alternative high school. He never graduated from any of them.

He was also getting into trouble with the law. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, possession of a controlled substance and underage drinking.

He was involved with various agencies, often through Children's Court. The agencies included Running Rebels, Southwest Key and the Matt Talbot Recovery Center of Milwaukee. While he was in each of these programs, Alexander did much better. He was able to get off of the drugs and the alcohol, and became the sweet boy that Gary and Patti knew he could be.

Unfortunately, the support he received from these groups were not infinite, and soon after being discharged from them, Alexander would end up with the wrong people, in the wrong neighborhoods, doing the wrong things again.

When Alexander was 17 years old, he overdosed on heroin. He would have died that night, except that Garry noticed that Alexander was experiencing breathing problems and called 911. He was in St. Luke's Hospital's ICU for a month due to respiratory distress and a strep infection in his blood, all from the drug use.

When he became an adult, Alexander had been charged three times for breaking and entering. He was finally sentenced to the House of Correction. His parents actually felt relief when he was sentenced, thinking at least they knew where he was and that he'd be safe. We'll talk more about that tomorrow.

For now, I would just ask the gentle reader to reflect on their lives, compared to the Orlowskis. Most of us have, just like the Orlowskis, I'm sure, a fairly normal life. We get up, go to work, come home to our families. For those with children, we spend time playing with them, helping them with homework, and telling them that we love them.

But just like the Orlowskis, one never knows when something can happen to turn our worlds upside down. Some forms of mental illness, like any other illness such as diabetes or heart problems, are hereditary, so there might be a clue ahead of time. Many times, there is no such indication, and unless you already have an understanding of mental health issues, it can be very alarming and frightening, because your loved one is acting so bizarrely, so dangerously and you don't understand why.

I have worked with the mentally ill in one way or another my entire professional career. It still saddens and angers me when people with a mental illness are still being stigmatized by society as a whole. Mental illness is just that, an illness. We don't treat diabetics, cancer patients or people with asthma like second-class citizens. We shouldn't treat the mentally ill that way either.

This also reminds me of something I was told during my first week working at the HOC. The sergeant in charge of training us kept reminding us that the inmates are people too. They are someone's brother, father, son, sister, mother, daughter, aunt or uncle. And they could be anyone of us. All it takes is one mistake, one bad decision, or even one bad break in luck, and any one of could end up incarcerated. The point he was trying to make is that we didn't necessarily have to like the person, or even respect them, but that they still should be treated with respect anyway, because they are people too.

Alexander's story also reminded me of an old saying. It goes, "There but for the grace of God, go I."

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