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.