i first met debbie a few years ago. she was 30 at the time and a pretty woman with big brown eyes and a smile that would light up a room. she was vibrant, fun and full of personality. we became close friends quickly and easiiy. we went to dinner, we talked late into many evenings, we went to movies and all the things that two people who enjoy each other do. in our conversations i learned she was divorced and had a young child whom her ex-husband had custody of. she spoke of her mother who had an apartment management business in a nearby suburb. i retained these facts but didn't really put alot of thought into them.
one afternoon we were having a conversation and out of the blue she said she wanted to call her child and say hello. i didn't think much about it, so i handed her my cell phone. i began to walk away but she took my arm and held me back. she began talking on the phone...to her ex-husband. her eyes became dark and full of anger, not the brightness that i had come to know. she had an almost blank look as she spoke. the words were full of anger and contempt almost to the point of being threatening. i was so surprised that i didn't know whether to take the phone or let the conversation take its course. i chose the latter and didn't have to wait long. when she hung up, she abruptly said she had to go...and just like that she did.
i drove home thinking about that call and it bothered me quite abit. to see her change from the person i knew into someone i didn't before my eyes and in such a brief moment baffled me. still, i didn't connect the dots. i rationalized it off to a bad divorce and the subsequent anger and i decided to let her do what she needed to do to calm down and i would probably see her the next day.
i did see her the next day, but there had been a drastic change in the person that i knew. that change continued over the course of the next several days and weeks. her behavior became border line bizarre in alot of ways. she started wearing sunglasses and a hat. she seemed agitated most of the time and she was very argumentative with the people she encountered. she seemed to be in fear...of something. she became paranoid and often didn't want me to be far from her at any time. this behavior seemed to intensify over time until i became worried about her well being. the thought of mental illness began to cross my mind or some sort of nervous breakdown. i finally decided to call her mother and see if she could help me identify the problem of offer some advice. at the very least i felt i could let her know her daughter was in some sort of distress. what i learned shocked me and hit me like a lead hammer.
her mother told me, matter of factly, that debbie suffered from severe depression, bi polar disorder and paranoia. she also very calmly told me that she could not care for her and would not accept her in her home. she informed me that debbie was on medication but frequently wouldn't take it and had an obsession with her weight and felt that the medication caused her to gain weight. i truly didn't know what to say. i was stunned and confused and had no idea of how to deal with the situation. i chose to attempt to take the high moral ground and see if i could help debbie and be as patient as i possibly could.
over the course of the next few days debbie argued with me on a consistent basis. she became increasingly paranoid to the point she was afraid to sleep in her apartment alone. i spent several nites without sleep keeping her company while she watched television, fidgeted nervously or talked incessantly. at one point while she was attempting to argue with me she became so angry she tossed hot coffee in the direction of my face. luckily i moved in time to not do any major damage. we could no longer go to dinner because she would instigate an embarrassing argument with anyone in earshot. one day i had my car at a mechanic shop for some minor repairs. we took a taxi into town to do some things. on the way in, debbie suddenly opened the taxi door while it was traveling 50 mph. my blood pressure went thru the roof, my adrenaline surged and i grabbed the door and slammed it shut. needless to say the taxi driver was livid. i asked/yelled what she was doing and she calmly said...i wanted to see if the driver had locked us in, i don't trust him.
that day i decided i could no longer deal with the situation and to be honest i became aware that i could be putting myself in danger if i continued on the path that i was traveling. i decided to cut my ties and move on. actually i wasn't moving on, i was deserting debbie in her time of need. i was looking away. i came home one day from work and realized it wasn't going to be that simple. debbie had somehow managed to gain access to my apartment, changed all the alarm codes, rummaged through all my papers and anything else she could find. i was very angry, very concerned and very frustrated. i had her removed from the apartment and filed a restraining order the next day. shortly afterward i was transferred to another city...the transfer was totally unrelated to debbie but at that point i was relieved. and poof...she was gone. i thought about debbie at times, but those moments faded as time went by.
a couple of years later i learned that debbie lost her apartment shortly after i transferred. her mother cut off all funds and contact with her. debbie filed for and was denied disability benefits. with no income and emotional instability, debbie became homeless and was referred to a homeless shelter in the city she lived in. her mother and father refused contact with her and apparently wasn't interested in seeking help for her. debbie floated in and out of mental clinics and institutions for brief periods of time. jewish family services attempted to help, but without client willingness there's not alot they can do. debbie wasn't insane and had no debilitating mental disorder that rendered her incapable of functioning according to the definition of the law. debbie remained homeless for two years, sometimes sleeping at the local mission, sometimes sleeping on the streets. sometimes doing what women do to stay safe and feel protected. debbie left the city she lived in and i lost all contact and couldn't obtain any information of her whereabouts.
i failed debbie. her mother and father failed debbie. the system failed debbie. as is often the case with homeless people who has a mental illness...it is the sole cause of their homelessness. there's still not a good system in place to deal with people who have a mental illness. even many missions, other than giving them shelter during the nite and feeding them don't have a policy or adequate system in place to effectively deal with the mentally ill. there is no known cause for bi polar disorder and the duration can be extended on both sides of the emotional spectrum. it is very difficult to deal with and often goes unrecognized by the general public. medication can and does treat it effectively, but only when taken properly. that too is a difficulty in itself because people with mental disorders often forget to or just don't take their medication.
as i stated earlier..i'm no mental health expert. but as in debbie's case, many people are slipping thru the cracks of the system into chronic homelessness. it is a very difficult problem to deal with under the best of circumstances. once they reach the street level it becomes even more problematic. their health along with the continued mental difficulties deteriorate and it only exasperates a treatable problem.
like homelessness, there needs to be a logical, systematic and sustained effort to help the homeless with mental disorders. if there ever was a case where housing first. free housing or rapid rehousing shouldn't be an issue this is it....the homeless who suffer from mental disorders should be top priority...with no hesitation and no regrets. someone told me once that you can't rescue the mentally ill. in the case of the homeless....i think you can...and i think we should. in any case...we can no longer continue to look away.
see you around town