Homelessness and Mental Illness – All Too Common Bedfellows

Schizophrenic NYCI recently received a message from a girl that wanted my help. Her name is Michelle and she is the founder of Schizophrenic.NYC. She stumbled across my blog and wondered if I would be willing to write a post about her organization. She would even be willing to send me a free tee shirt. Now, she had me at help… but the word free sealed the deal.

See that cool t-shirt I’m wearing? That’s just one of many designs she creates and sells to help raise awareness and fund programs for the homeless mentally ill in and around New York City. And even though I’m not from New York, I can identify with the mental illness part.

I suffered my first depressive episode at sixteen and it sucked. It sucked my sanity, sucked for my family and nearly sucked the life out of me, literally. At the time, I had no idea what was happening. I thought I was just being witchy and mean. I thought I was just being overly emotional and sensitive. I thought I was a loser, a scumbag, a failure – not worth the air I breathed. And I at the time, I thought that type of thinking was normal.

Luckily, I had a great family who loved me, supported me and got me the help I needed. I learned about the illness and how to turn my thinking and moods around. When I struggled with depression as an adult, I was blessed to have a loving family and adequate insurance to get the care and support I needed. I again learned about the illness I had and how best to treat it. When I was finally diagnosed bipolar in my early 40’s, I again was fortunate enough to get the help and treatment I needed.

I was one of the lucky ones. But there are many more who are not as lucky. These are the one in four homeless that we see on street corners and under bridges. These are the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters who didn’t have insurance. They are the husbands, sons, fathers and brothers who were not given the information they needed to get better. They are college graduates, attorneys, doctors, entrepreneurs, laborers, teachers, scientists, engineers, professors who didn’t get the support and resources they needed. They are the stigmatized, the ridiculed, the ostracized. They are the homeless mentally ill.

THEY ARE YOU AND ME…

stripped of our insurance, our family, our finances and our dignity.

I won’t pretend to know what they feel like, the homeless mentally ill. I have never been homeless. I won’t lie and say I never walked on the other side of the street when I saw them, those reflections of a less fortunate me. I won’t sit here and say that I bled sympathy for them and willingly threw money at their open hands because I didn’t.

I JUDGED THEM.

Until I realized that I was just one drink,

one drug, one missed diagnosis away from being them.

That realization came one day early in my recovery. I was on that pink cloud, seeing everything with my new pair of glasses and frankly, feeling invincible. As I was driving, I passed a busy intersection and saw him, the man who would right size me. He was wild eyed and dirty. His clothes were stained and ripped and several sizes too big. His long dirty hair hung loosely on his darkly tanned, exposed chest. I couldn’t tell if he was young or old because he wore an overgrown beard and an expression of defeat.

But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that in that instant I knew that this man, this homeless, dirty stranger was me if I didn’t do what I needed to stay sane and sober. If I didn’t work my recovery program, stay accountable and do what my sponsor and doctor told me to do, I could be him. If I slid into the abyss of depression or the insanity of mania again and didn’t let people know, didn’t reach out, I could fall off the edge and wind up under a cardboard box.

I knew, in that flicker of an instant when my eyes locked on his, that this man had a name, a past, a history, a mother, a father, a purpose. And for whatever reason, he had ended up right there, on that street corner, at that exact moment that I needed to see him. Why? I didn’t know and didn’t care. All that really mattered was that he had and I was glad. I was glad that he had put me in my place. I was a sober, sane woman that day. But only for that day. I wasn’t before and had no guarantee that I would be in the future. And thanks to that dirty, homeless man, I was reminded of that and have never forgotten it since.

Michelle is schizophrenic. I’m bipolar. These are two different mental illnesses with different moods, behaviors, thinking and courses of treatment. But one thing both of these illnesses, and most mental illnesses have in common is that they are misunderstood. When someone has delusions or paranoia, it doesn’t always mean they are on drugs. When someone is weepy and negative all the time, it doesn’t always mean they like to play the victim and crave attention. When someone jumps at loud noises or panics in crowds it doesn’t mean they do it for the entertainment of others.

There is no one fix for mental illness or for homelessness. But there is a lot we can do to improve the lives of those suffering both. We can…

GET EDUCATED – learn about mental illness and how it affects those in your life

GET GRATITUDE – be thankful that you have what you have and figure out how you can share it with those who do not

GET ACTIVE – participate in programs or campaigns that advocate or raise awareness for mental illness and homelessness

GET GRACE – show compassion when you see someone suffering with mental illness

I’m so grateful that I saw that man that day. I’m so grateful that God gave me the ability to write what’s on my heart. And I’m so glad Michelle read it and reached out to me. Schizophrenia business cardsDespite all of the advances we have made as a society, there is still not enough being done or said about mental illness.

Please help this Michelle and her awesome cause by hopping over to Schizophrenic.NYC and checking out the tee-shirts Michelle and her organization offer. Note their tagline I LOVE IT! And please, talk about it. Talk about the site to others. Talk about mental illness and homelessness to others. Talk about what you know, what you don’t know and what you want to know so that together we can be more informed, involved and empathetic to our brothers and sisters in need.

 

About Jennifer Wilson

Fumbling through recovery, faith and mental illness with God and lots of coffee
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