BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Eugene Panzer sits crossed legged on the living room floor playing a Duke Nukem video game. The volume is turned up as the explosions and gunfire compete with the techno-music from the early-‘90s game. To the side is a cup of Ramen noodles.
Panzer, 25, lives like many young bachelors - dirty dishes in the sink, garbage that needs emptying and dirty clothes piled on the floor in front of the washing machine. A small kitchen table with three chairs, a worn sofa and loveseat, a television with a video game system and leisure chair fill his living room and kitchen area.
There are small attempts to make the apartment look homey - a couple of floral pictures and a kitchen clock hang on the wall. On top of the refrigerator next to the loaves of bread is a framed collage of pictures of his nieces and nephews.
The walls in his bedroom are bare, with a few knickknacks and pictures placed on top of his dresser. A couple of the drawers are open and unfolded clothes haphazardly hang over the edges.
But Panzer is not a typical bachelor.
Asperger syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, reactive detachment, fetal alcohol effect, mild retardation and diabetes are his diagnosed conditions. Together, they require 24-hour care by a professional from a community-based service provider for individuals with disabilities, The Bismarck Tribune reported as part of a five-part series about institutionalized care and the push for change at the long-established Life Skills and Transition Center (https://bit.ly/2hHSkQC ).
To get to where he is today - living in his own apartment - the Glenburn native has endured a number of misdiagnoses by doctors and specialists, attended numerous schools and the number of hospitals and residential treatment facilities he’s been admitted to is as long as the list of psychotropic drugs he swallows several times a day.
Unable to obtain the appropriate educational services at Glenburn Elementary School, Panzer spent time at two elementary schools in Minot. From there, he had two unproductive stints at the Dakota Boys Ranch in Minot and was admitted to the State Hospital in Jamestown. He found success at Bar None, a residential treatment facility near Minneapolis, but a funding issue forced the family to pull him from those services.
His last institutional placement for care was at the Life Skills and Transition Center in Grafton for three years until he was 17 years old. The facility is a North Dakota state-run agency located in the small community about 40 miles northwest of Grand Forks and is a residential treatment facility for people with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities.
To Panzer, anything is better than living at the Life Skills and Transition Center.
“Pardon my French, but I wanted to get the hell out of Grafton,” Panzer said earlier this year. “When you get mad or something, they’d much rather dope you up than talk to you.”
At first impression, Panzer said he liked the facility.
“About a month or two, it just started to go downhill,” he said.
Panzer said he eventually got used to the way staff handled his outbursts.
“I just felt like they would do it (giving him added medications) just to get me out of the way. I learned to accept it after a while. There was nothing I could really do about it. That’s why my mother fought so hard to get me out of that place,” he said.
“They did their job,” Sheryl Panzer said. “They did what they had to do, but my impression is they were trying to mold something out of Eugene that wasn’t there. You cannot take somebody and give a bunch of medication hoping you can mold them into a human being.”
The Panzers would see Eugene every month during his stay in Grafton by traveling halfway, usually in Rugby, for a visit or to take him home for holidays or weekends.
“When we would go and visit him, he was like a zombie a lot of the times,” Sheryl Panzer said. “People like Eugene, they’ve got to have personality. They’ve got to have soul. They’ve got to have feelings. He was constantly having nervous ticks, because he was on so much medicine.”
Blocking Cheryl and Chuck Panzer’s efforts to have their son released from the institution in Grafton was the realization the community-based service providers in the state were unwilling to place their son in local care due to his history of violence.
After hearing about Panzer, Community Options in Bismarck stepped up and said it would help him. The community-based service provider has locations in 10 towns and cities across North Dakota.
“They gave him a fresh start,” Sheryl Panzer said. “I trust these people. … He’s getting to be himself. He’s Eugene again. Laughing and joking and wanting to do things.”
Since 2013, Panzer has been living in his own apartment in Bismarck with support staff while his parents remain in Glenburn, a small community north of Minot.
“I’m 24 hours with staff for now until I can get myself adjusted,” Panzer said. “You know, get myself straightened out. Then I won’t need staff as much.”
“I feel a bit of freedom,” Panzer said about living in an apartment with staff always with him. “I’m not restricted to a room. I feel happy, and I am progressing so I can get less and less staff hopefully.”
Overall, Panzer thinks his stay at the Life Skills and Transition Center in Grafton helped him.
“I needed help,” Panzer said. “I actually needed help for my behaviors and outbursts. I had a past history of violence to my family. I would hit my mother. Of course, I don’t do that anymore.”
But the numerous confrontations with residents egging him on to fight and a constant distrust of staff left him not liking the person he was becoming.
“People (residents) would pick on me, pick fights with me. I didn’t like it there. Yeah, you got to do stuff, but you were confined to a suite,” recalled Panzer, who shared the space, which consisted of four bedrooms and a shared common area, with three other residents.
“I was trying to be like everyone else and be mean and just a real butthead. I wanted to be better than everyone there,” Panzer said. “My first impression of the place was, yeah, we’re going to have fun and it’s going to be an OK place. After about a month or two, it just started going downhill.”
If Panzer refused to participate in activities or other requests from the staff at the Life Skills and Transition Center, he would be given restrictions. It was often a trigger for violence.
“The right way they could have done it is just sit down and try to talk to (me) and talk it out instead of take the easy way out,” said Panzer, of the doses of medication.
Panzer said playing video games also helps his anger go away.
He responds to positive reinforcements from the staff at Community Options.
“It’s nice to talk to someone. If I’m having issues, the staff will do their best to sit down and listen,” he said.
Panzer has goals he wants to achieve one day - some more complicated than others.
“I want to manage my own meds,” Panzer said of one goal. “I’m guessing, when it gets better and I’m more consistent with stuff, I’ll be able to take public transportation if I’m ever alone. I want to get a driver’s license and save money for a laptop computer.”
He has filled out a job application to work on the cleaning staff for a local hotel.
“I have the opportunity; I just have to take the initiative,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to prove to the world I can do it.”
Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com
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