Tag Archives: mental illness

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break: Early Summer 2017 Update

I’ve finally had time this summer to try to touch bases with all of the forty-eight women who started in this project eight years ago.

Seven women have disappeared from (my) sight. None of their old addresses or phone numbers are still good. None of the people we knew in common have heard from them. I couldn’t reach any of their family members. And I couldn’t find any trace using Google searches (I tried various nicknames and known aliases).

Five women are dead.

Only three women are currently housed, sober and employed (or stay-at-home moms whose husbands are employed), and have been so throughout most of the eight year period. 

The rest of the women continue to cycle in and out of housing, jobs, detox and rehab, hospitals, and jail. Some of these women have stable housing but are on Disability. In some cases, they are unable to do any kind of work. More commonly, they cannot find a job that for which they are qualified and that allows them sufficient flexibility to take care of children, health problems or mental health crises.

I’ve been reminded again and again that I cannot predict how any particular woman will be faring at any given time. Just this week I went to jail to visit a woman whom I never dreamed would end up incarcerated again. At just about the same time, I learned that a woman whom I assumed would continue to bounce between prison and the streets is now stably housed and raising her children. 

To read previous updates click on:  January 2017   Summer 2016   New Years 2016   Summer 2015   Christmas 2014 / 2015    Fall 2014 

Andrea passed away.  The fifth woman for whom we’ve written a Eulogy, Andrea was the only one whose death was described as “natural.” Two others were murdered (see Eulogy for Elizabeth and Orange-Frosted Hostess Cupcakes), one died with a needle in her arm (see Eulogy for Nicole), and one died of complications of HIV/AIDS (see Eulogy for Junie). Andrea had a congenital heart defect, but I can’t help but wonder whether the decade she lived in homeless shelters contributed to her death.

Andrea loved working out while watching exercise shows on television. For years, she urged me to do the same. I would smile and nod my head, and tell her that I’d try. Finally, this spring, not long after she died, I started going to a zumba class. I wish I could tell Andrea about it.

Carly (see “A New Home for Carly“) is still homeless. Though she has a voucher for Section VIII (subsidized housing), she cannot find an apartment in the permitted price range. DCF (child welfare department) has not returned her baby to her custody. She’s been told she needs to see a therapist (she is) and attend a parenting class (she is waiting for DCF to run one), but the reality is that without an apartment she is unlikely to get her child back. She has been focusing a great deal of her attention on reaching out to the baby’s father. He is incarcerated, so it’s not clear to me how she expects him to become involved with the child.

As of this writing, Erin is no longer using drugs and seems to have settled down. “One day I just decided to stop. I can’t live like this again. I knew if I kept using I’d die.” She continues, however, to experience memory lapses, “probably [caused by] the drugs. I used to be on anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers. I was diagnosed bi-polar but I think they freely throw that [diagnosis] around. My problems are more because of how I lived.”

Erin’s husband died last year. She now is living with a man whom she has known for many years. He is employed, and she makes a bit of money selling cosmetics. Her main concern at this time is her back. She suffers from degenerative disk disease that interferes with her sleep and with her ability to stand up straight.

Two months ago Francesca (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) had major surgery on her neck. Both before and after the surgery her doctors prescribed large amounts of Percocet, an opioid that has always been her drug of choice. There were a few weeks during which I was worried that she was going to slide right off the slippery slope of monitored pain medication use back into drug abuse, but she seems to have weathered the worst of the post-surgical pain and is doing a good job of going about her life. She still lives with her son and granddaughter, works part-time, and is involved with a man who does not seem (to me) to be abusive.

Ginger (seeThe New Price of Freedom) called me every single day when my father was in the hospital back in January. She never intruded – she’d just call to say that she is thinking of me and is available if I need to talk. It amazes me that she has this much compassion — and consistency in showing compassion — when she herself is homeless.

The last time we spoke she was optimistic about getting housing. She’s been working with a case manager at a housing agency and had been told that she is high on the housing list. But as of this writing I haven’t heard from her for a month. Her phone number is no longer working and I don’t know where she is.

Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) is back in jail. Though still unemployed and grieving for her late husband, she seemed to be managing her life. She had a reasonable place to live, was consistent about going to the methadone clinic for her daily dose, and had re-established good relationships with her family.

Then, a few months ago she was in a car accident (it was not her fault). She was knocked unconscious at the time of the accident. She woke up in the hospital — handcuffed to the side of the bed.

It turns out that when the police checked her identification on their computer system they found that she had outstanding warrants on a number of old drug charges. Because she had moved frequently, she had not received the summonses to appear in court.

After a week in the hospital, she was transferred to jail, where she detoxed from methadone. The detox process led to major weight loss and seizures. She now is feeling better and is happy to be off the methadone. She would like to enter a drug treatment program to get support in staying clean.

In the meantime, she has lost her apartment as well as all of her belongings (from jail she couldn’t arrange to transfer her clothes and furniture to a storage locker.) No one in her family has written or come to see her.

Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“) continues to work with DCF to regain custody of her children. Each time it seems that the matter is resolved, something else comes up.

She is still going to all of the required appointments and programs, still volunteering at  soup kitchen, and still seeing her children once each week.

Unfortunately, her health has deteriorated. She has trouble breathing, carries oxygen with her, and struggles to go up the four flights of stairs to her apartment. Most days she only goes out one time so that she won’t have to navigate the stairs more than once. It’s unclear to me how she’ll manage when her children come back home.

This week she was too sick to go to her volunteer job. At this writing, she is sitting in the emergency room waiting to see a doctor.

Melanie – a woman who had worked steadily for the first seven years I knew her, is now on Disability because of mental health challenges. She desperately wants to go back to work.

Patricia has overcome a great deal in her life. Her mother died of an overdose and her father is serving time in a European prison for drug trafficking. She began drinking in her early teens, and ended up in prison because of a string of DUIs.

After her stint in prison she trained as a medical assistant and worked fairly consistently for the past six years. At this point she feels that she is a functioning alcoholic, though there are times she drinks too much and has to phone in to miss work. Unfortunately, she recently lost her job at a clinic.  “A doctor behaved inappropriately to me. The clinic fired me, not him, because he brings in the clients and the money.”  As of this writing, she has been collecting unemployment for several months.

Even with all of that history, Patricia looks and sounds like a soccer mom! She relishes hosting pajama parties and going to her kids’ school events. Patricia is one of the few women who has never been homeless. An attractive woman with a friendly and pleasing manner, she has always had a boyfriend, a “sugar daddy” (her words) or extended family to stay with. She and I agree that the fact that she has never been forced onto the streets or into the shelters is a function of how she looks and sounds (middle-class) as well as the reason that she continues to look and sound so very well.

Paula, a white woman in her early fifties, had fallen off our radar for a number of years. A few years ago she was arrested on a drug charge. Last year we heard through the grapevine that she died of an overdose. It turns out that she, in her words, “almost died”.  Paula explains, “I caught pneumonia and I was using hard, so I got septic and my lungs acquired ARDS – a fatal lung disease. I was on life support for 6 weeks.”

Just last week she told me, “I’m OK, I guess. I’m clean but lost both parents and am dealing with an alcoholic husband. We’re living in a low rent room in [central Massachusetts]. I have been out of prison now for two years and have lived in five different spots. It sucks.”

On the positive side, “I passed my driving test and bought my first car. I never thought I’d actually have a car!”

Life is unpredictable for all of us – the reality of impermanence is one of the four noble truths of Buddhism. But the women of Can’t Catch a Break seem especially vulnerable to shifts in public policies and in social service programming as well as to the vicissitudes of luck and fate, and the challenges of their own mortal bodies.


Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

The big news coming out of Los Angeles County – the county with the largest number of incarcerated people in the country – is the approval of a plan to replace an overcrowded, decaying jail with a correctional center that provides care for  incarcerated men suffering from mental illnesses and substance abuse. The plan includes a $1.9 billion proposal to tear down Men’s Central Jail and construct a 4,885-bed “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”. The proposal also calls for “upgrading” the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster into a 1,040-bed facility for women. Altogether, these proposals would add about 1,000 beds to the county’s jail system, bringing the total to just over 21,000.

No doubt about it – the jail that many consider to be one of the worst in the country – needs to come down. No one has anything good to say about the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail – a facility known for its abhorrent conditions and rampant violence. However, replacing a “jail” with a “correctional treatment facility” is, at best, a cosmetic change. At worst, it sets the stage for rebranding individuals who have been drawn into the correctional system from “offenders” (that is, people who did bad things) to “sick” (that is, people who are a bad thing.)

“Treatment” certainly sounds more benevolent than “punishment.” And it certainly is the case that the overwhelming majority of people serving time in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from physical and mental health challenges. Around the country incarcerated men and women have higher rates of hypertension, anxiety, myocardial infarction, psychotic episodes, asthma, arthritis, major depression, cervical cancer, urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, tuberculosis and hepatitis, than Americans in the general population.

I acknowledge that we are holistic beings whose physical, emotional, mental and spiritual lives are, on a deep level, one and the same. But, just for now, let’s bracket that deep epistemological insight and ask: Why the newfound public attention to mental illness – a vague, subjective and stigmatized category, rather than physical illness – far more concrete, less stigmatized, and usually more treatable. Why the sudden surge of interest in mental health treatment for criminalized Americans?

Over past year or so we have reached a tipping point regarding mass incarceration. In the current mid-term elections, every single candidate I have heard has spoken about the need for “prison reform” (a vague idea that typically centers on getting “treatment” for the many mentally ill prisoners.) That we’ve reached this point reflects the hard work of anti-incarceration and human rights activists, the inability of states and counties to afford the economic cost of incarceration, the cumulative numbers of people impacted by decades of mass incarceration making it harder for “average” Americans to see so-called criminals as “Other” (my guess is that by now most Americans personally know someone who has been locked up on a minor charge because of “tough on crime” policies), and perhaps simply the usual waxing and waning of the popularity of public policies.

But I think that there is another factor at work here. Redefining criminalized Americans as mentally ill resonates with deeply rooted ideas regarding sin: That deviant behaviors and identities are manifestations of core personal flaws. The fluidity of “criminal,” “sinful,” and “mentally ill” classifications in the United States are clearly seen in the rebranding of homosexual desire from sin to criminal to mental illness over the course of a single century. That is far from the only example of this sort of fluidity. Psychoactive drug use has been labeled a Christian sin (most clearly in the case of Native American religion), a crime (and indeed the largest driver of mass incarceration today), and an illness (according to the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and virtually all psychotherapeutic authorities.)

How particular identities or practices are branded drives how those who are associated with those identities or practices are treated. And, on the face of it, we’d assume that those who are categorized as “ill” will be treated better than those who are categorized as “sinful” or “criminal.”

So here is where I want to push back a bit. It seems to me that sinners – in normative American Christian understandings — can be “reborn” and their sins can be washed away. Criminals (in theory) can “serve their time,” “pay their dues to society,” and be “rehabilitated.” Those who are classified as mentally ill, however, are diagnosed with a chronic – that is, incurable – condition. Medication can help control the symptoms, but if the individual ceases to be compliant with doctor’s orders, that person will relapse – the mental illness that was suppressed by treatment will reemerge. Rhetoric about not blaming the mentally ill for their mental illness (after all, it’s biological, chemical or genetic) is a two edged sword. As the women’s movement has long argued, excusing groups of people from the responsibilities of civic life because of inherent weakness ultimately serves to disempower. You cannot control what you cannot control. Continue reading Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?