My Personal Pound of Flesh


I spent most of the weekend birthday-ing–going out for breakfast, lunch, even dinner last night at my sister Lynn’s, cheering my University of Kentucky Wildcats to a spot in the Final Four:

Don't tell anyone in Kentucky, but I'm not much of a basketball fan!

 So, I’ve had next to no time for posting, reading my favorite blogs, or working on my memoir.  But—I have, at least, begun looking through that God awful stack of journals, a lifetime’s worth of thinking this, feeling that, and believing so much of it was worth writing down and lugging from one side of the country to the other and back again: 

I had a LOT to say!

However, even with so little time to dedicate to the effort, I’ve already discovered something that has touched me—something about one of the unexpectedly painful parts of mental illness—namely the poverty.

I rarely talk about it these days, as things have become comfortable again.  Sara and I have everything we need and then some (a lot, really).  We are beyond blessed, and I am staggeringly grateful.

However, having lost my job teaching college English to the tyranny of bipolar disorder in 1990, I suffered innumerable financial hardships, and though I never ended up on the street, as so many with psychiatric illnesses do, I did spend too many years struggling to feed and clothe myself and lived twice in government housing, first in Dallas and later here in Lexington.

But ironically, those apartments with their roaches, grit, and grime, were a relief compared to the never-ending struggle to make do in abysmal neighborhoods with the meager income I collected from Social Security Disability—never enough to get by, never enough to treat myself to a cup of coffee out with friends or shopping for new shoes anywhere other than garage sales or thrift stores (both of which, I still love, by the way).

But even while my partner Sara has showered me with gifts this week—days and evenings out, doing whatever I wanted, eating wherever I pleased—I’ve read some painful passages from a journal I kept in 1995—reminders of what it used to be like.

So even as Sara has given me this:

So I can transfer video-taped therapy sessions from VHS to DVD

And this:

The coolest purse on the planet!

And this:

Necklace by Israeli artist Ayala Bar

I was reading this from January 10, 1995:

I want to be able to buy clothes & shoes.  I want the luxury of going out to eat.  I miss it terribly. . . . I’m wondering if I could manage to sell my blood for money, the way Barbara is.  I could buy new tennis shoes and stuff.

And this from several days later:

I worry about my pets not getting to the vet and my car not being serviced.  These are deep and terrifying issues for me—especially when I have little hope of these things resolving themselves any time in the near future . . . . If only I could enjoy going out for coffee—buying a Sunday paper—getting a new item of clothing from time to time with less fear.  I mean even the issue of the tennis shoes yesterday was a big deal . . . . and I had to sell my blood and suffer pain for that.

The antipsychotic medication I had to take had caused me to gain considerable weight, and in January of ‘95 I was trying to exercise to lose a few pounds.  However, without the appropriate footwear, I was getting shin splints from walking.  It felt like I was living a giant catch 22.  So ultimately I sold my plasma to fund the purchase of exercise shoes—actually, sold blood a number of times over the six months to follow in an effort to move myself to Dallas and get the psychiatric care I knew was available there, the care that over the next 5 years would allow me to stay out of the hospital for more than several months at a time.

So, I guess I’m feeling blessed, and maybe even a little spoiled these days.  I had forgotten about selling plasma for the funds to get by, even buy the shoes to help me lose weight.  I know The Merchant of Venice had it bad, but I had forgotten the price I paid for sanity—

My personal pound of flesh!

56 thoughts on “My Personal Pound of Flesh

  1. Amazing, Kathy– this is an incredibly powerful post. The juxtaposition of your jovial birthday weekend with your past, selling plasma (!!) to afford some simple tennis shoes…. wow. Poverty itself has so many layers– financial, yes– but also mental, emotional, and physical dimensions. Your experiences with bipolar disorder may have rendered you ‘poor’ in the financial sense, but think of the riches you now have because of your experiences, wisdom, and profound stories to tell! I’m looking *so* forward to more of your memoirs. Happy birthday again!

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    • Ah, thanks Dana! How great that this post moved you! You are so right–poverty is layered–layered even with a few riches, as well. Great point! Yes, now I wouldn’t trade those expereinces, as I learned so much about empathy! It’s hard to really know poverty unless you have lived poverty.

      Thanks again, Dana. You have made my day!

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  2. I tried to read Carrie Fisher’s book about her bipolar issues but it was just so heart wrenching I couldn’t finish it. I have an aunt that suffers from it and won’t get treated. I’m so thankful you are where you are now. You are a strong survivor.

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    • I can’t tell you how surreal it is to look back on all of this. It’s like another life–another me. But goodness, the lessons were profound, and I have been forever changed–for the better, I think.

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  3. So powerful. Happy birthday weeked/week. The purse and necklase are so beautiful.

    So many of the homeless people in our city are mentally ill. It breaks my heart.

    My brother was bi-polar, but luckily always had a safe place to live in my parent’s home. Even with shelter safely secured his mental illness was still so much for him to tolerate and deal with all the time.

    Love the picture of the journals. I stashed a decade’s worth someplace in the house when my in-laws were coming to stay and watch the house for a few weeks and still have yet to find them! (I do NOT live in a big house….)
    (:

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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    • Thanks so much for this comment. Thank goodness, your brother has had a safe and secure place to live. Mental illness is hard enough without all of the other associated struggles.

      But what a hoot about your journals. I have one in particular that I kept separate from the rest, as it was especially important, and I’ll be damned, if that’s the ONE I can’t find now! Oh, the mistakes of hiding special things in special places! Hope they turn up soon for you!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

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  4. Happy Birthday! I know that because of your experiences, you are able to appreciate so much more the richness (and money is the least of it) that surrounds you now. I keep thinking how you are a stand for all the people who have gone or are going through this and can’t express themselves as you do.

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    • You are so right, Renee. I tried to convice people a few years later that I was, indeed, not poor, as I felt like I had enormous creative resources. And, in fact, now I’m grateful to have expereinced some of these things, as I would not be who I am today otherwise–so, in some ways, the experience was priceless.

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  5. Wow! You really have begun you know. I agree with all the above comments. Your life is a story full of richness and you are giving us all a gift by sharing it. Thank you for that gift.
    I love the purse and the necklace. Sara’s got great taste! 🙂

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    • I’m so glad you are able to see the positives, because it wasn’t all bad. Yes, the story is rich, as ironically the poverty of mental illness, poverty is so many senses of the word, left me with resources I would not have gotten otherwise.

      Sara does have great taste–though I did help her pick out those 2 items.

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  6. This is a great post! I never thought about the connection to poverty, but you’re so right. It makes me wonder if you’re going to do a chronological memoir or thematic; I could see a chapter on poverty or money issues–you have a lot of amazing details here.
    Sara knows your taste so well–what sweet gifts.
    Now, when do I get to take you out to celebrate…?
    XOXO

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    • Actually, I hadn’t thought of the memoir as either chronological or thematic. I anticipated anchoring the past in the current advenure Sara and I are living, moving back and forth in time. I guess though that it could be more thematic–hadn’t thought of it that way though. I thought of it more like layering time–like chronological transparencies laid over top one another. If that makes any sense.

      Let’s do lunch soon. Let me know when you’re available. I can be flexible.

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  7. I am ugly crying. It seems like punishment, if you can’t disguise your mental illness you must be financially destroyed. I hate that you or anyone else ever had to suffer through it.
    On a lighter note, your new necklace is gorgeous and you seem well-taken care of, just like you deserve!

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  8. The necklace looks “like you.” Love it!

    I can relate to your story of living in poverty…I did it for many years as a single mom of three…it’s really hard to tell a kid you can’t give them a dollar for a chocolate bar! I still buy new clothes for myself only occasionally…

    I try not to take things for granted now…there but for the grace of God go I!

    Hugs,
    Wendy

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  9. I dunno, Kathy…what you’re describing here is a tad worse than Merchant…in that Portia manages to exploit a loophole to save Antonio from death (since Shylock wanted to take the pound of flesh debt in the form of Antonio’s heart…yeesh) by telling Shylock that he only mentions flesh in the contract, and not blood. Antonio’s life is saved because there’s no way Shylock can take his pound of flesh without spilling Antonio’s blood.

    You had to spill blood. Your own blood. That’s incredibly intense and heartbreaking. I think that at some point forgetting that sort of sacrifice can be a blessing–but it’s also worth looking back and remembering because it puts everything that you do have into astonishing perspective.

    Also, I love love love the necklace and bag! 🙂 They are so utterly cool and seem to perfectly suit you!

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    • Honestly, Amanda, I had forgotten that part. Good God! That’s intense! I almost feel like I need to rewrite the post in light of this. I was thinking in pretty superficial/general terms. God, that almost freaks me out–wow! Thanks so much for this reminder! God———————

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      • Haha, please don’t rewrite! I just taught Merchant last semester, so it’s still sort of fresh in my mind. I think despite my best efforts I will always be a teacher when it comes to Shakespeare.

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  10. That necklace looks “like you.” The colours are perfect…love it!

    I can relate to the story of living in poverty…I did it for many years as a single mom of three. It’s really tough to tell a kid you don’t have a dollar for a chocolate bar! I still rarely buy new clothes for myself.

    I try not to take things for granted now…there but for the grace of God go I!

    Hugs,
    Wendy

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    • Yes, that has to be really tough–especially with kids! It’s one thing to deny yourself, but another to have to deny your child. Wow, Wendy–you really do understand! Thanks so much for sharing this!

      I’m wondering what happened, cause your comment went to my spam. That shouldn’t happen, WordPress!

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  11. This post moved me so much…to be able to be where you are now, in health, and to be able to look back, boldly and with eyes-wide-open, to see how far you’ve travelled…

    how can we know thankfulness if we haven’t also known lack? how can we know how good the sun feels, fresh like a kiss on our faces…without having lived in the darkness?

    blessings, Kathy, and happy birth.

    jane

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    • Yes, it does feel like a rebirth of sorts, and there is no way to fully appreciate anything without having first been without it. It’s so surreal to be where I am now looking back on all of this. I’m so thankful this has moved you, Jane!

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  12. Your memoir is going to be fantastic! I was watching that game last night, thinking that I knew of two ladies that were probably going nuts after the UK win…..Ashley Judd…..and Kathryn! 🙂

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  13. Kathy,
    This is a breakthrough post. I feel your heart spoke first and you did not try to analyze what it said, but, instead, wrote it down and left it pretty much alone.

    At the same time, there is an immediacy to this post that made me devour every word and then re-read it, because I could not read it fast enough.

    What an awesome gift this is for those of us who either suffer from or know someone who wrestles with mental illness.
    I love you! Thank you for writing it down!

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    • Thanks, Mindy What’s strange is that this is one of the easiest posts I’ve written. It came naturally and without huge effort, for which I’m so grateful! Hope you and Grant had a great weekend! Hugs to you, my friend!

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  14. What a contrast between the “then” and the “now.” I can’t imagine going through my past in such a way. (It might horrify some to learn that I burn my journals at the end of every year, as a way of starting anew each year.)

    I covet that necklace. Just saying. 😀

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    • Wow, Robin. I can’t imagine burning them at the end of each year. But then that’s a way to not end up with a glut of them 30 years down the road!

      Glad you like the necklace. I thought it was pretty cool, myself!

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  15. Look at that stack of journals! I often wish I’d kept them when I was younger. I always meant to, but I despised my own handwriting…sigh…so it wasn’t until this thing called the “internet” was invented (thanks, Al!) that I started keeping any record of my life.

    And obviously you went through some painful times…those must make today that much sweeter in retrospect.

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    • Ah, yes, Mr. Gore has allowed you to keep track of your life–that was one hell of an invention, wasn’t it!

      But it’s so true–a painful past makes the present so much more sweet! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I see you around other blogs. I sure appreciate your stopping here!

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  16. Sara gives really cool gifts! Another thing she has in common with Willie.

    Reading this once again reminds me not to judge people by their outward appearance or behaviour. Everyone has a story, and maybe it’s too painful to share.

    I’m definitely not as brave as you are in sharing my “secrets”.

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    • So true, Lisa. There’s always a story–always–something that is easy to forget, since we are all inclined to read others in light of our own story.

      How cool that Willie also gives good gifts. Sometimes her generosity is amazing!

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    • Ah thanks, Sunshine! I don’t like to take things for granted, to be sure. Once you have been without, it’s hard to see the world the same way again. Thanks so much for noticing! Hope your new job is going well!

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  17. Wow, Kathy! I think you have even more journals than I do, and I have them back to high school (though I sometimes go months without writing), and even one rather sparse diary (that I cannot find at the moment but is somewhere in the house) from grammar school. I can relate to the poverty, though. I have been out of work more than a year and a half now, Roger is on SSDI, and, since January, he was somehow dropped from Medicare Part D and Medicaid, for reasons no one has been able to discern. We didn’t realize at first because we thought it was beginning-of-the-year deductibles, and we are still trying to sort it out (a saga in itself, thanks to bureaucracy). He has so many medications, some of them very expensive, and much of his SS checks this year has just gone to meds. We are now behind on every bill, struggling to hold on to the rental apartment and our car (which, thank God, is paid for, but there’s still insurance, gas, and upkeep), because we have nowhere else to go and without the car we would be dependent on others (or paid car services) for all grocery shopping. I only go out with friends if someone treats me or the event is free and we don’t share a meal. We are blessed to have had a tremendous amount of help from sacrificially generous friends and from church (the latter gave us $200 last month when we simply did not have enough to get all of Roger’s meds). I couldn’t even sell blood — I fainted the first time I tried to donate at a blood drive years ago, and when I tried a second time was so nervous my heartbeat was irregular and they wouldn’t take me, so I don’t think they would now — even if my doctor (back when I could still afford to go to him) had told me not to, and Roger’s medical conditions preclude it for him, I think, too. What absolutely infuriates me is the way so many politicians now seem to feel we are just lazy and/or expendable/unaffordable.

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    • Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have said this so well, and I can’t tell you how I appreciate it! It’s difficult. Sometimes so close to impossible, you’d swear it was beyond impossible. So sorry to hear about your struggle, but I can sooooo relate. Hugs to you, my friend!

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      • I thank you, Kathy. It helps knowing we are not alone — I mean, technically I know that, intellectually I know it, but reading what you wrote was so, I don’t know, in a way comforting. It feels so alone (even though Roger and I are together in it) to say no to things, to go to a wonderful free evening at a museum, then bid farewell to my friends at the door of the restaurant we always go to together afterwards, to weigh whether to spend the $1.60 for a cup of tea on the boat on mornings when I have to go into Manhattan for something if I run out of time to make some to put into a travel mug (or now, with a small part-time job I started in a high-security building, when liquids aren’t allowed through security). It feels stupid and degrading to have to give serious thought to spending that small a sum.

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      • Absolutely, most people can’t even imagine how socially isolating it is. I spent so much unnecessary time alone, cause I could not afford friends. Isn’t that CRAZY! I’m so with you! Any time you need to ventilate or feel less alone, I’m here. I know. I’ve been there. And, but for the grace of God, could be there again!

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  18. Thanks, Kathy. I really appreciate it. Illness and poverty are both isolating; when you put them together, It’s even more so. We’re doing okay — we have each other and a wide circle of friends, some incredibly generous, so we are not as badly off as we might be. But still, the stress is constant, and some days it’s just less easy to cope than others.

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  19. It’s amazing to me to begin to understand the struggle you’ve been through due to bipolar disorder. The poverty is something that never even occurred to me. I take so much for granted.

    You are a fighter and an amazing woman.

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    • Thanks, Terri. I think I just did what I had to do. Really, when it happens to you, you don’t have any other options. Maybe the mania it me is stronger than the depression. I always have hope. I wanna see what’s gonna happen. I’m too damn curious to give up.

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  20. Kathryn, you are absolutely amazing! Thank you for sharing your story. I liken your stack of journals to a tall glass of ice tea, whereas mine are the few sips at the end of the glass that mixed with the ice. Lol!!! You go girl. I love to hear the story of an OVERCOMER! Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog.

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  21. When I lost everything after going through ECT, my family moved me back to my home town. I live on SSDI and have the same issues with poverty, but I’m also blessed to have parents and a sister close by who are generous and supportive in emergencies. The decisions I make every day seem ridiculous. Do I have enough change saved yet to buy a new bra or will this tattered one serve me another week? Can I spend a dollar on a new spiral notebook or will I need that for gas? I watch friends blow thousands of dollars on cruises, flat screen TVs, clothes and try not to resent them.

    When I really feel the crush of my poverty, I realize most of it comes from my internal lack, the *wanting* that can never be filled. I’ve faced so many of my deepest fears being bipolar, single and poor that I know now this *wanting* is just another fear rising up to the surface. There is always help, if I ask for it.

    I’ve never thought of donating blood. This idea is the gift in your post! Thank you.

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    • Wow, I sooooooooo know what you are talking about. I have been there–way too often. You are fortunate to have such a loving and supportive family. I am blessed to have a wonderful partner now, who is extremely generous. It saddens her so much to know what I used to go through financially. I too get SSDI still. (But I don’t recommend donating blood. There are other ways.)

      Like

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