Housing Hide-and-Seek: Sheltering Crazy in America


As mental patients go, I’ve been lucky.  I’ve never been homeless—a fate faced by many with psychiatric illnesses in the United States. 

Estimates vary, but many believe at least a quarter (others say as many as half) of the homeless population in America is chronically mentally ill.  In fact, housing the mentally ill has been problematic in the US since the 1960s, when policy makers closed psychiatric hospitals used to warehouse the mentally ill for decades—freeing those who were suffering from one prison, only to sentence them to a fate without four walls or a roof.

When I became ill in the late 1980s, mental health housing found itself in a second crisis, this one caused by managed care companies that denied almost all coverage for inpatient treatment unless the patient was an immediate danger to himself or others.  This only exacerbated the problems still unresolved from the ‘60s.

When I began exhibiting the worst and most debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder, I was living in a one-bedroom, suburban apartment—beige, boring, and builder grade.  But quickly my middle class experience of home degenerated, as I found myself at home in the most restricted wards of state psychiatric facilities.

Insanely, I felt I belonged in the hospital.  I felt less afraid there. 

By contrast, home was hard for me—functioning, almost impossible.  I could barely lift my head from the pillow.  The antipsychotic medication blurred my vision.  I struggled to process the most basic information.  Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, were often too much to attempt.  I wore the same clothes day after day—even sleeping in them.  I often didn’t bath.  Why bother?  I thought.  I’d just have to do it again the next day.

I was overcome with a sense of futility.  All effort seemed like too much and not enough—simultaneously extreme in both directions.

So—over the next week—the story of my ever-evolving housing options, options that came and went, as my illness worsened and ultimately improved—my own mental health journey, played out both in a game of housing hide and seek and in failed efforts to shelter crazy in America.

25 thoughts on “Housing Hide-and-Seek: Sheltering Crazy in America

      • “Sheltering Crazy” works too. Isn’t funny that we are all planning your book title for you. Whether you want to admit it or not, you are well on your way. 😉

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  1. This is such a tantalizing tease! I can’t wait to read the rest of the week’s posts.

    It’s interesting how current research on the old sanitorium system is proving how effective it really was. Some of the state hospitals were snake pits, but many were clean and quiet places for patients to live out their lives in safety.

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  2. Interestingly, I just watched “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and while the movie is obviously fictional, it was filmed in the real-life Oregon State Hospital which has long been criticized as providing inadequate care. I, too, like the title.

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    • Wow, Mark, that’s interesting to know. I need to watch that movie again. I’ve only watched parts of it here and there–found it difficult/painful to watch the enire thing. Another vote for that title!

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  3. I admire your ability to candidly and openly discuss these issues Kathy. You are an inspiration! Any word on what new country ya’ll might be headed to?

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    • Thanks, Mark! But, no, we don’t know where we’ll be heading next. Could be Japan–the organization had mentioned that. But before we left Vietnam, before the earthquake in Haiti, we were supposed to go to South Africa. But this will largely be determined by where there is another disaster.

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  4. I sadly have not been visiting much lately, which is my loss, seeing as I have missed much. Humanity as a whole is good at hiding from what they don’t want to deal with. It is good to have the perspective of one who has been behind the screens. Keep up the good work!!

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    • It’s so great to hear from you! Welcome back. Yes, sadly we do like to hide what we don’t want to deal with, but I didn’t feel like I was being unfairly isolated. I needed the time out–needed it desperately. I’m afraid that the deinstitutionalizing of the ’60s has turned out to be a huge failure in terms of chronically mentally ill having access to care. It’s sad.

      Again–it’s great to have you back!

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  5. I’m not going to add my vote for the title because I suspect there’s a lot more to your life story than you are publishing on your blog… If I remember correctly, you had shared 2 out of 3 main threads of your memoir to your online audience (mental illness and growing up being raided by the FBI on occasion), but that leaves one mysterious thread and a whole other avenue not yet explored online! Too early to settle on a title, methinks.

    To touch on the content of today’s post, it breaks my heart to know how little support is available for people with mental illnesses. With subsidized housing today, so much depends on being able to fill out ridiculous amounts of paperwork to qualify, and what kind of obstacle do you think that presents to people who are struggling to wear clean clothes and possibly brush their teeth before bed? You got it: it’s impossible! I’m happy that you’ve had the incredible fortune of breaking free from that particular cycle. I can’t even imagine… 😦

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    • Indeed, Dana! The FBI raids are an equally huge part of the story. I’m beginning to wonder if there may not be more than one memoir here. One about my childhood and the visits from the FBI during those years, and other about my adult struggle with bipolar disorder. Maybe even one about our year in Vietnam and the another on our year in Haiti. There’s a lot of story to tell here. Thanks for remembering!

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