Y is for the true You inside
This post is the last of the Mental Health stories that I will share in honor Mental Health Awareness Month. As I’ve written earlier, these are memories I carry with me from past experiences. I hope that in reading these snapshots, you can get a glimpse of the struggles for a person who lives with chronic and persistent symptoms of mental illness and from that glimpse, gain understanding and empathy. This mini-series resulted from the letter “Y” in April 2018 A to Z writing Challenge. If you’d like, you can go back to Part 1 and start at the beginning.
I met Margaret as I did many of my clients, in a state-run psychiatric hospital to be a part of discharge planning. As I had mentioned in my last post, Margaret was on the younger end of middle age. She had been married once and had a child, a boy named Shaun. The boy’s father had full custody. Margaret had not seen her son, now a teenager, for many years.
Margaret carried a dual diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder with manic episodes along with Alcohol Abuse and Dependency. Hospital records indicated that there was a family history of substance abuse by both parents and siblings. Margaret had lost contact with her family. She had lived “on the streets” or in psychiatric facilities for most of her adult life.
One of the first things that Margaret wanted me to know was that she “was not like the other homeless drunks.” She wanted me to know she had lived in a big white house overlooking the Bay in a small posh town known as a summer retreat for famous people. As she stuck out her arm in front of herself, she fanned her hand and wiggled spread fingers to make a point, “and, I had di-ah-mends…”
Whenever she was having a hard time, she would repeat the story to me with the same gestures and intonations. She wanted me to remember. It was her dream to get back to that point in her life. It was my goal to help her get as close as possible. She was discharged to a women’s transitional residential program with seven other women and plenty of support. The structure proved too much for Margaret. There were curfews, chores and according to Margaret “the staff was pushy and some of the other girls were too young or too sick.”
We started looking for safe alternative housing. It was the 1990s. Margaret’s only income was Supplemental Security Income and the minimum allowance of food stamps. Today she would probably get a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs for that amount. Without a housing subsidy, it was impossible for Margaret to afford even a room in one of the many rundown boarding room houses in the city. We applied for a rental assistance allowance through a special grant designed for downsizing the state hospitals. While we waited, Margaret’s boyfriend, Jean found a small attic apartment in an old triple decker.
Jean was supportive of Margaret’s treatment and personal goals. We were able to adjust the subsidy request to use at that apartment. With a place of her own, the primary thing on her mind was to see her son Shaun again. Margaret was able to open communication with Shaun and his father. Now she could tell his dad that she had a safe place for him to visit. Jean was able to borrow a car to meet her son for lunch near his home. It was the first time they had seen each other since he was a small boy. She was so excited. She bought a stylish blouse and slacks at the Salvation Army. For Shaun, she purchased a gift from a local department store, precursors to Target or Walmart. They tell me she looked fabulous. It was very stressful, but she managed to get through it without hospitalization or too much disruption in her life.
It was a year later when Shaun got his driver’s license and a car, that he was able to visit Margaret. From the moment she got the apartment, everything she did was with Shaun in mind. Now, her little boy was coming for Christmas!
Margaret and I would shop for her groceries and personal items at the beginning of each month when her Representative Payee would give her spending allowance according to her budget. Margaret had planned and budgeted for Shaun’s Christmas visit for months. She wanted to make sure she had enough for a Christmas tree. She was extra careful shopping because she also wanted some ingredients for a special dinner. After we secured her monthly staples, we were done, but with very little left for a Christmas tree.
Margaret wanted a real tree for Shaun. She didn’t want a dusty beat-up artificial one from a thrift store. We searched high and low on that cold New England winter day. Finally, in the back of a tree lot, Margaret spotted the perfect one. It was short and lopsided, but not too scraggly and at least one hundred times better than Charlie Brown’s. To Margaret, it looked like the one at Rockefeller Center. She negotiated and got it for eight dollars. She cried silent tears as we drove home.
At my next visit, I saw the lopsided little evergreen sitting in the corner glowing brightly from the lights and ornaments that Margaret had collected from around town – donation boxes, thrift stores, and friends. The little Christmas tree did look like it belonged in a big white house by the Bay with strings of “di-ah-mends” to light it up. Margaret had poured years of bottled up love for her son into decorating the tiny apartment for that visit. It was Margaret’s first Christmas in a long time as well, and sometimes she would become flooded with so many emotions. It was good to hear they had a lovely time.
Margaret was a loving mother who also happened to struggle with distressing symptoms of a major mental illness. I tip my hat to her this Mother’s Day wherever she may be.
Each one of us has our own evolution of life, and each one of us goes through different tests which are unique and challenging. But certain things are common. And we do learn things from each other’s experience. On a spiritual journey, we all have the same destination. A. R. Rahman (from BrainQuotes.com)
Please check out the links below for additional information for family supports as well. Many times family and friends want to help but don’t know how. There is also information about Peer support groups and peer mentoring programs. No one has to do this alone.
SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) at https://www.samhsa.gov/
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness (a grassroots organization run by families and consumers) https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI