Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More thoughts on homelessness, and personal experience

Last night I wrote the previous post about my apartment building being turned into a transitional housing facility for homeless men. I realize that, in that post, it may have sounded like I didn't understand or didn't care what it is like to be homeless. And I want to correct that. I do not know what it is like to live in the streets. I did live in my car in 1999 for a couple weeks, but I never lived actually on a street. However, I know very well what it is like to be in homeless shelters for months (or until they kick you out), and in substandard housing in such places as motel rooms or couches. Plus, even when I wasn't homeless, I was barely keeping a roof over my head. For three years, I lived in a rented room in a condo where I rarely left that room.

The reason I'm bringing this up today is not because I talked about the homeless men moving in here in my last post. It's because today, in a college class, we watched a video about homelessness. It was interesting, and it was a documentary about people in a city where I was once homeless myself briefly, not far from where I live now. I didn't realize, however, that it had profoundly affected me watching that video in that classroom until after I was in my car, driving away from the university, crying. I couldn't stop crying for some time. I was also talking out loud, which I do sometimes, because I'm not - as you might have noticed by now - completely "normal" (whatever that is) mentally, and so I still do some odd things now and then. I had to talk about this video and how it affected me, so I talked out loud to no one, and I talked briefly to my case manager about it, even called a couple of other people and might have talked to them about it if they were available.

It affected me for a few reasons. One reason is, I try not to think a lot about what it was like to be psychotic and wandering the streets, sleeping in a shelter at night. I don't focus on it. I don't spend a lot of time remembering it. I don't tell a lot of people about it. But it happened, and I never forgot it happened. Another reason is that I had to watch this video about this issue in a classroom full of people who have, mostly, never been homeless, and who might gain some more awareness about mental illness and homelessness if I could personally tell them what it is like, but I can't do that. Another reason is, yeah, I can't do that.

It's weird to be in a situation where you are not safe to talk about major aspects of your life, but it happens frequently to me. I do not talk about mental illness at my workplace, because I was not treated well when I did mention it at my previous work place (after having to mention it because I had to be hospitalized for a few days), three and a half years ago. I do not talk about it with people at college, except for people in the office for students with disabilities and, occasionally, a professor (but not often). I do not talk about it with most of the women I know through the women's rights organization I'm involved in, although there have been times I have mentioned it to them, and with one person there who is a former therapist I have talked about it several times in some detail. So, often, I never talk about it. Even with my family, who know about it, I don't talk about it all that much.

So, this is a big contrast to the times when I do talk about in detail during public speaking engagements or when I'm in a conversation with someone from NAMI or when I'm writing here on this blog. It's weird to be silent about a major aspect of your life, and pretend like it doesn't exist. It's aggravating. I don't like having to pretend like it doesn't exist. I want to create awareness and shed a light on mental illness, and on homelessness, because people don't talk about these issues enough. And, more than that, I want a witness. Everybody who goes through a major challenge in life and barely survives it usually wants the basic acknowledgement that it happened. To pretend like it never happened is to be silenced, and being silenced is stifling.

When you survive cancer, or when you survive serving your country in a war, or when you survive a car accident, you are generally recognized by people as a survivor of that thing. They might say, you're in remission, or you might have a title to put with your name such as "veteran", or you might be praised for your ability to walk again after serious injury. But when you survive serious mental illness, even if you recover enough that you are well aware you survived it and what you went through, you don't get recognition at all. Because people don't understand mental illness. And people pretend like mental illness doesn't even happen to "someone like them". And people think that they can tell by looking at a person if she has a mental illness, particularly a "serious" one. And people don't want to know anything about the realities of mental illness because it's easier just to make snide comments and stupid jokes about craziness and never educate yourself on what it's like to really be psychotic for years. Because people think it could never happen to someone like them, or someone in their family, or someone they sit next to at work, or someone they sit next to in a class at a university, or someone they are talking to in the dentist's office.

So, people with mental illnesses get ignored, and, I think, people with serious mental illnesses - by which I mean ones that include psychosis - get ignored even more, and, I think, people who are homeless due to a mental illness get ignored even more than that, and, I think, people with serious mental illnesses who are homeless and who are undiagnosed or untreated or both REALLY get ignored.......and that sucks. I don't know exactly how many people with psychosis are sleeping on the streets of the United States, but I know there are a lot of them, and I know something else, I could very easily be one of them myself. So it's hard to sit in a classroom and act like I'm objectively learning about this subject. This subject could be me. This subject used to be. This subject, in some ways, still is me. So sitting there, afraid to call attention to my illness and my "abnormality", afraid to be seen as crazy or a freak, afraid to be viewed as abnormal or to be shunned, afraid to be looked down on or talked about, afraid.......I am silenced. Silenced by ignorance and a lack of awareness that is so pervasive it is common amongst the most educated people in society. The silence that enshrouds mental illness serves to keep us all down, downtrodden, down at the bottom of the societal consciousness, down, down, down. Way down.

So, I pointed out to my class that the young man in the film with Bipolar Disorder who was not on medication was an example of the many, many people who are homeless who have mental illnesses, including many who are undiagnosed. And I hoped that they cared. I listened to them discussing homelessness as if it was this subject that didn't affect "someone like them", and wouldn't or couldn't touch them, but was something that it was interesting to learn about in a classroom (with the one exception of the brave young woman who said she was homeless as a teenager and slept on friends' couches for a while). And then, I left, and I went to the parking garage, and I got in my car, and I drove away, and I cried. It sucks to be silenced. It sucks to not have a witness. It sucks that you don't get called a survivor when you survive something nobody knows anything about.

I wanted to talk about this because it deeply affected me, and I realize this is rather ironic considering that I also just posted last night about how pissed off I am that people are going to be moved from streets into my apartment building and will now be my neighbors. I'm not proud that I don't want to live with a group of men who are coming from the streets. I know it is not a very nice thing to say. So I wanted to clarify that and make sure you understand that I do care about people living on the streets, that I do know what it is like to not know where you're going to be sleeping at night or not have a key to a door that is yours, and I do want to help homeless people, create awareness about homelessness, and see the problem addressed. At the same time, I guess part of the reason I am bothered about my apartment building becoming a transitional housing facility is that I have fought really damn hard for years, and gone through a ton of treatment, to get to the point that I don't worry regularly that I'm going to end up in a shelter again. And now I'm going to be living in a place that will be akin to a shelter. So it's as if, after all this effort, going to work regularly and college and paying tons of money in tuition and paying my rent on time every month, and addressing my mental illness with my full attention by going to therapy and talking to my case manager and taking daily medications for years plus bi-weekly injections, after all that, I haven't "moved up" in the world much. I resent the agency that owns this building for this reason. I have worked hard, have been given treatment that luckily helped me, and have improved my life situation a great deal. So I don't really want to go back to living in a homelessness center. I want to be past that. I want that to be behind me. I want to be able to live just like somebody who doesn't have a mental illness, in a comfortable, and safe apartment building. I don't think that I'm wrong for wanting this, and I don't think it is an odd thing to want. I think most people would want this. So that is why I wrote the post that I wrote last night. I never lived on the streets, but I did live without a home, and I do know how horrible homelessness is. I don't want it to seem like I am unaware of the status of homeless veterans living on the streets, rejected, ignored, and discarded by society after they served their country. I do care about them. I just want to be able to live in a place where I am comfortable and safe, especially when I am paying $500 a month to live there.

In my class, where we watched the homelessness video today, we are writing papers about how each class affected us. They're called 'reflection papers'. They are supposed to include one paragraph about each class. I wonder how the heck I am supposed to fit this topic into one paragraph??? "Gee, this film kind of reminded me of the lousy food in one of the shelters I lived in when I was psychotic for six years pretty much around the clock...It's kind of a long story."?

I almost ended this post without ever getting to the actual experiences I had with homelessness, so I will briefly mention them. I have written about them before, but it has been a long time. I became psychotic in 1999, and instead of going to Smith College, I ended up in a homeless shelter in Maryland, because I became estranged from my family with nowhere to go, no job, and no money, partly due to being physically sick, and partly due to being really delusional. I got kicked out of that shelter when my time ran out, because most homeless shelters have time limits for how long you can stay in them, and because nobody there did anything to help me find another place to go. So, where I went was the backseat of my blue Kia. I slept there until my friend from the internet who lived in Virginia, sent me an email and said, "There is $100 for you at Western Union. Go get it and drive to Alexandria where there is an empty room for you in my old condo." I stayed in that room three years. Until I got kicked out.

After that, and more psychotic than I had been in 1999, around 2002, I went to live in a rented room which didn't work out because the owner of the home tried to rape me, or, at least, I thought he was about to rape me, so I was then put into a domestic violence shelter since he had a documented history of violence against women that I didn't ever get the details about. After my time ran out at the domestic violence shelter, still really psychotic and totally undiagosed, with nobody helping me find another place to go and me being unable to secure a place due to bad credit and the general inability to know what reality was, I ended up in motels for a while. After that, in between hospital stays, I was in a rented room at another place that was located for me by a social worker who worked for the city. After that, in between hospital stays, I was in my mom's house in Florida. Then, at one point, when she couldn't deal with my abnormal behaviors, and she couldn't get the police to do anything to "help" me (she said, "SHE NEEDS HELP!!" as I recall, more than once), she pretty much dumped me at a homeless shelter downtown in the city that I watched the documentary about today. After that, I was in a motel again, or perhaps before that, I'm not quite sure, but only for a little while. Then I was in between my mom's house, hospitals, shack-like apartments, and one Assisted Living Facility where I lived briefly until they figured out that I didn't have Medicaid or Medicare coverage to live there like the hospital had thought I had. Then, the next time I was hospitalized, I was diagnosed. Somewhat correctly (Schizophrenia, which was later changed to Schizoaffective). Then I was hospitalized for five months. After that, I was put into a group home for ten months. Then I moved into the building where I live now, and that was in 2006. So that is a brief overview of my inability to keep a roof over my head some of the time for six years. That is also the story of how life was before I got the first long-term apartment I ever lived in, which was the one here that I moved into five years ago. I think now you can maybe understand why it's important to me to maintain some stability, and why I kind of enjoyed having this apartment be my long-term home place, even though it is a high-crime neighborhood. I just really enjoy not constantly moving from one place to the next, with no real plans, and no ability to make any. I have been in this apartment (the renovated one in the same building as the one I moved into in 2006) since April 1, 2011. I do not want to be forced to move again. That's pretty much the end of the story for now.

Edited to Add: On a related note, over at Define Functioning, Backward E had put up a post a while ago asking what people want other people to know about mental illness, and she is getting these contributions made into a book. It will be a very real book, and if you would like to contribute something towards this effort, go here, and help create some awareness and educate the world!


  1. Wow is powerful. I know what you mean by this being a silent disease that others don't care to know about. It sucks. But I think you are very brave to have made it through so much. Thank you for writing this post.

  2. "Gee, this film kind of reminded me of the lousy food in one of the shelters I lived in when I was psychotic for six years pretty much around the clock...It's kind of a long story."

    This made me laugh out loud at the thought of an unsuspecting teacher/professor reading it among the other reflection papers, which I would assume wouldn't be nearly as interesting or personal. Also, it's a good example that while "reflection papers" somewhat assume we haven't already reflected on a topic, yours would make it clear that you probably don't need help reflecting on the topic at hand.

  3. Oh Jen, I don't know whether to cry for what you've experienced or to cheer for what you've overcome. You are amazing to me, and so inspiring - your strength and determination is never-ending. While we all have compassion for the homeless veterans who will be moving in to your building, it does seem unfair that the management have changed the situation on you like that. It's destabilising and debilitating. I wish there was a way you could fight the change, but it seems you will just have to use your incredible reserves of guts and gumption to rise above.

  4. Dear Jen,

    I too have been homeless, twice, living in a shelter. Its been more than fifteen years that that happened and I swear, I still have a fear that I will one day again been homeless. So once bitten, twice shy. It doesn't look like I'll be homeless, but I know, you can't plan for it if you have a mental illness.

    What I know about providers who are also consumers (what you will be when you become a social worker - working yet in or out of the closet about having a mental illness) is that the difference you felt with your classmates may still be there with your new colleges. I know a bi-polar woman who got her job taking care of mentally ill people in a group home BECAUSE she had a diagnosis - they wanted an advocate for their clients. She says that at staff picnics when she introduces herself she sometimes gets weird vibes. That may be all her or it may be real. Who you reveal your story to will be very important, just as important as when you choose to stay silent. I applaud you for your restraint in class, I'm sorry that you cried in your car afterwords, but it showed that you are a strong lady, making a division between your education face and your personal face.

    But know that having your traumatic experiences of homelessness and sexual victimization will make you a better social worker. Frankly, I think you will be hiring gold. You will understand your clients intuitively. In my state of Vermont there are jobs in the health field that can only be filled with someone with a diagnosis. They are serious about having people on staff with insider knowledge. Perhaps such luck will flow your way.

    All the best,

    ps. that bi-polar lady I told you about recently had to miss some work because of a manic episode and they were sooo nice to her at work, they said take as long as you need to stabilize, your job will still be here when you get better.

  5. I was always inclined to draw a giant middle finger in charcoal for any and all "reflection" papers in college. Fortunately, I was a film production major, as well as a psychology major, so neither department felt the need to challenge any sardonic responses I may or may not provide in that I had a 4.0 and that's all that mattered to them.

    You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself through your writing. You get to your points, it's not at all scattered or gratuitous. I'm enjoying "thumbing" through your archives.

    I didn't think that your previous post sounded at all judgmental and I can totally understand your frustration with your living situation. Those of us who do right; who do things by the book so very often get shafted in the big book of numbers: that is, we're just another number in the system. And the system is outdated, corrupted and dysfunctional.

    It's like being held hostage and it's sad and extremely frustrating.

    Keep writing!


  6. I would be afraid to have a bunch of men I didn't know suddenly moving into a building that I was living in. Or even a bunch of women I didn't know! I don't think that sounds like you're being bigoted. It's a real concern.


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