Personal Stories

Mental Illness, Poverty and How the Other Half Lives

At the soup kitchen, the volunteers are friendly, have shiny teeth, a luster that my teeth don’t have, having faded from poverty, smoking and lack of dental care. My teeth are somewhat healthy by some standards, unlike crack and meth addicts who roam throughout the streets of my hometown, Wheeling, West Virginia. My hometown wasn’t always like this, with a hardcore drug epidemic. When I was a child the hardest drug I knew of was marijuana. But then again, when I was a child I was a privileged white male, a future very bright, a future that would systematically take me through extremes of depression, psychosis, and delusion. I have bipolar disorder. Not only a form of mental illness, an excuse for some, but a truth for others.

While I may go to group therapy, soup kitchens, food pantries, and live meagerly, I am alive, have shelter and food. I have rebuilt myself time and time again since my early onset of depression. I have climbed out of psychosis with the aid of loved ones and medication. I have come from delusions of believing other living people are Jesus Christ and that I am dead. I’ve known paranoia in the sense that when I walked down the street, random people I thought were making statements about me. But I am not here to regale in battle wounds and scars. I am trying to live life, and once believed in living life to the fullest for experience and the singular passion of writing poetry and nonfiction from my experiences, hoping to draw from it larger patterns and conclusions.

You would think that a child who had an elevator in his house, Christmases and Easters filled with gifts of Nintendo games, that he would have sailed into a privileged life of good schools, steady careers, a bountiful family, and his finger on the pearl of life. I have had some of those things, but it was anything but steady.  In graduate school, I had a scholarship, a stipend, a blank check from my parents, and a past of rebuilding myself from ashes under the shelter of my parents. I was carried by many hands.

Yet my depression and unhappiness would gaze at the homeless with mixed emotion, feeling somehow that I really should be like them. My feeling of self-worth destroyed many times by bouts of depression, paranoia, and delusion, which was akin to the very vilest and ugliness someone can feel. The summer directly after graduate school I attempted suicide with one of my medications. It would be two other times since then that I would repeat it, death being very imminent in each case.

In June 2013, after a suicide attempt, I came to with an aggressive and alcoholic look on all the people in my life. Verbal fights with my girlfriend and parents landed me homeless in Miami and Jacksonville, Florida. And this kind of homelessness wasn’t the safe kind with long-term shelters, soup kitchens, and accessible necessities. This was sleeping on the street with no money and nowhere to go. I tried to take medication and sleep in the day, so that no one would rob me of my suitcase of clothes at night. This only furthered my delusions and hallucinations. Eventually, my girlfriend and a friend pulled me out of the gutter. 

There is a symptom of homelessness that many may not understand. When coming out of the depths of madness and street life, and trying to adjust to a lifestyle of Starbucks, Target, a society that is well-groomed and full of the American dream, I often secretly felt I deserved to go back to being homeless, even though there were only safe circumstances around.  It’s a peculiar syndrome I would imagine soldiers feel after war and their drive to go back to war. A weird Post Traumatic Disorder that keeps abused people in abusive relationships. I have heard of some homeless people simply choosing to be vagabonds, even after they are squared away in a home, food, and job.  I, however, was purely psychotic on the street. Despite this syndrome, I have tried to adjust to society. I would do many things to never go back “out there”.

Having fallen from an upper middle class to extreme poverty, as well as being on the fringe side of society among the mentally ill and drug addicts, I have concluded things I would have never imagined in a posh life of VIP clubs, vodka martini art galleries, of only knowing the right people. Wherever you are in life, you are probably trying to relieve suffering the best way you know how. For some, it may be eating and fattening themselves, others it may be trying to afford food for their family. If you haven’t experienced suffering of some sort, you probably aren’t human. 

The mentally ill are not easily spotted by the non-psychiatric eye, but it accounts for many people, which is why I tend to look at those who have a mental illness as a minority, an invisible minority. The pathology of mental suffering knows no age, race, ethnicity, status, nation, sex or sexual orientation. We all know someone who was either diagnosed with a mental illness or is suspected of having one. It is often believed that criminals are purely evil or idiotic. But sociologists have found that all on death row were directly related to abusive parents. You would have to be blind to not see how poverty can cause distress and crime. While mental illness is genetic, millions of well-intentioned afflicted do not become serial killers or gangbangers as movies would portray.  However if they didn’t have adequate healthcare and stability, it would be easy to see the horrors we all know. Ultimately, humanity needs to recognize this minority as such, the one that the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industry thrive on, and recognize how these sufferers’ minds work to be clear on what humanity is dealing with.

When I was in Jacksonville, staying in my second homeless shelter, the men were separated from women and children. That was a stark reality facing me.  That while I had everything ever imagined as a child, here in urban and suburban areas of America, children are hungry, homeless, and fall through the cracks. Families divorce, lose everything, simply have bad luck, or know nothing different than poverty. Even to this day, I meet people who have never owned anything in their entire lives. While this may be common sense, it is an atrocity. It is the product of a scarcity of resources in a Capitalistic marketplace.  It is bound to happen. As there is a belief that winners have worked hard, while losers are lazy, and winners in large part ignore what they could easily become, what child has better odds coming from a homeless shelter and the streets to receive an Ivy League education? If I can fall through the classes because of a chronic illness, if the bottom can fall out for a long time, how would children survive otherwise?

I may only have a computer, a studio and food, but I have a wealth in education. Education and awareness are solutions to these problems.  Americans tend to have mixed feelings about education on the whole. There is a do-it-yourself mentality that is found in business and government. That you can simply rise out of slums with elbow grease. People look at teachers as bad guys, because they had one bad teacher from high school or some kind of ill feeling for those who are nerdy, over-educated, or a lover of the learning process. While I do not deny it takes work to get somewhere in life, why do people consider education not a form of work? In terms of mental illness and poverty, education and awareness are utterly important. They can separate the criminal from honest success. The ability to read and do math, the ability to study, can take you very far. I can comprehend drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, suffering, but I can’t comprehend this type of belief system that opposes teachers, professors, and scholars. Awareness and education need to be a wildfire not only in politics but in our hearts.

I am 35 years old. I was a privileged white male growing up. I am no longer privileged and among the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.  Whether by circumstance, choice, or genetic predisposition, I am not ashamed of what I am. If anything I was ignorant trying to be privileged for all my life and not see how life truly is for a great number of people. We all suffer in some capacity. Some more than others. And though my depression, that monster, wants to destroy me, I overcome it daily. Less stigma needs to surround all these things to find a solution, just as we all try to find a solution to our problems.