As you may have noticed, it’s been nearly a week since my last memoir post. I promised a series on mental health housing issues and have delivered only two.
I had intended the series to follow the arc of housing options available to the mentally ill—first during decline and later during recovery. In fact, I had intended to share my own home-related struggles, but had gotten bogged down in the details.
Initially, I thought I’d write about the hospital as home, about government housing, and about the ultimate mark of housing recovery—home-ownership. But the more I thought and wrote about this, the more complicated the issues seemed.
I realized, for instance, that there was a definite phase when I tried to remain in mainstream housing, but struggled to do so with an exceptionally low-income. This was probably when I experienced my most extreme poverty—when I spent 60-70% of my income on housing and didn’t have enough left over to actually live on.
During these years, when I lived in Tulsa and later in Dallas, I strategized about how I would spend nearly every penny, budgeting $30 a week toward groceries and making lists of food options and their estimated costs, attempting to, in effect, get the biggest bang for my super market buck.
Below is a grocery list I made in a journal on June 6, 1996:
Now I can’t believe I actually tried to get by spending so little. It’s no wonder I had an eating disorder; I pretty much couldn’t afford to eat. Notice on the list above, I had nearly reached my $30 limit without including the cost of iced tea, parmesan cheese, and spaghetti sauce. I apparently planned to do without.
Because of this, I did more itemizing a month later–an effort to reduce my weekly grocery expenditure even further. Apparently, $30 was more than I could justify:
When I look back on this now, I’m terrified remembering how I struggled, especially at a time when I couldn’t afford a car and spent 2 and a half hours riding three buses (each way) to get to and from my daily therapy sessions.
But my motivation to get well was enormous, and I was willing to spend huge amounts of energy figuring out how to manage with what I couldn’t afford financially. However, I think it’s important to remember, many never have that luxury. What if I hadn’t had the education necessary to see where my resources were best invested? What if I hadn’t been motivated to seek the best treatment possible in a city far from home?
The bottom line is this: mental illness costs an enormous amount–not only in terms of financial security, but also in terms of self-esteem and self-respect. It’s difficult to lose one’s job and not have the mental health to find and hold down another, but it’s excruciating to struggle to feed oneself and to constantly try getting by on less and less.
These are the details you might never know, if you’ve never been mentally ill. These are the realities more Americans need to understand, if the social stigma, not to mention the financial devastation of psychiatric illness, is ever to be overcome.
The mentally ill deserve more. They deserve better.
Please remember, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I hope you’ll share with those you love, via Facebook and Twitter, the real cost of mental illness, not only in terms of income lost, but also in terms of dignity sacrificed–the truly insane costs of housing “crazy” in America.