The Insane Cost of Housing Crazy in America

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.

23 thoughts on “The Insane Cost of Housing Crazy in America

  1. This post makes me want to cry. I’m amazed and glad that you kept these grocery lists — they really tell a story. There’s a lot more I want to say but I’ll leave it at that 🙂


    • I know it’s sad! The only reason I have these lists is because I made them in the journals I kept at the time. They are an amazing peek into the reality I lived at that time. Thanks for letting me share my story!


  2. Thanks Kathryn for another great article. Until we actually see it on paper, it’s hard to imagine having to get buy on so little each week. Your courage and determination to keep going to your therapy sessions are inspiring.


    • I so agree. Seeing these things in black and white somehow brings the reality home in a more powerful way! I’m so glad you can appreciate them. It was a difficult time, but the good news is, for me it’s in the past. However, others are living this reality even as I write this. That’s what we have to remember. Thanks so much for reading!


  3. As a woman who has lived in poverty, I can relate to your lists, Kathy…I think every bureaucrat should be forced to “live in poverty” for a week, just so they know what it’s like.



  4. I second the comment about saving these grocery lists– simple scraps of paper that many (including myself) might have off-handedly recycled tell an incredible story. I can’t imagine trying to feed myself off $30 a week– where would gigantic slabs of cake fit in?? (Or would I eat ONLY giant slabs of cake all week? Just kidding, of course.)

    On a serious note, I haven’t said this in quite these words before, but I want you to know that whenever I come to your blog and read your posts, I feel a wave of energy wash over me. I get goosebumps and tingles and a definite feeling of “confirmation”– like you are accomplishing your life’s mission and you are forging ahead boldly and beautifully on the exact path you were meant to be on. Brava to your courage and commitment to these memoirs! *You are making a positive difference in the lives of everyone you touch, regardless of whether they have personally experienced mental illness.* Thanks so much, Kathy. 🙂


    • Dana–I can’t tell you how much this comment means to me! Can’t even begin. Sometimes it feels so hard to get the story out, so challenging to make the writing compelling. Thank God it’s working. You really GET what I’m trying to do, and that makes you so, so dear to me! Thanks for sharing this, Dana. Thank you!


  5. The shopping list made me appreciate how much I have now and wonder how many people today are going through what you went through because of being homeless or because of poverty in general…such deep sadness…thanks for sharing this post.


  6. You started this post by saying what you had intended to describe almost feeling as though that had somehow had got bogged down in the detail. Then you went on to illustrate to us, perfectly and wholly, the true cost of ‘housing crazy’. Both in where and how you lived (were housed) and how you yourself housed that crazy within yourself. Beautifully, beautifully illustrated Kathy and even your response to looking at the list now – the unfolding of your story is just such a joy to read (I hesitated to use the word joy because I know there is pain but it so describes the experience for me of the revelation). I’m stopping the gushing now…but it is, well, just perfect.


    • Thanks so much, Penny! I love the way you point out that I also demonstrate how I housed crazy within myself. Really good point! I hadn’t thought of that. You are dear to share that this moves you. I can’t tell you what that means to me! I can’t even begin to tell you. Thanks so much, my friend!


  7. I’m still living this way now, as far as finances go. I try to ignore it at my own blog so people don’t peg me just one way and ignore all the other things that I am besides someone who struggles. I’m a vegetarian and I look hard for coupons and sales, but that doesn’t help much when you’re trying to eat on $20 or less a week. I’d rather be able to make a decent living at a non-sales job (I’m completely not cut out for the awful pressure of that kind of job), or through my writing, but life is what it is. Thanks for talking about it and putting it out there for others to see and understand.


    • Wow–I can’t imagine how you could manage as a vegetarian on $20 a week. That has got to be incredibly difficult! However, I understand why you would not want to talk about this on your own blog, is it might cause folks to take less seriously some of the other things you write about. I had that same fear about beginning to address mental health issues!


  8. Such an important message, Kathy — and one that probably will not be heard by those who think aid to those who are struggling is coddling. I know I’m particularly sensitive at the moment, as it is very personal, but I may never quite get over the South Carolina legislator who said continued assistance for the unemployed was like feeding stray dogs: you’ll never get rid of them. And don’t even get me started on medical coverage, where the whole attitude seems to be predicated on the pre-conversion Scrooge: “If they be like to die, they had best do it and decrease the surplus population.” And that’s just for physical coverage — psych issues get hardly any help at all. It just makes it even worse to me that so many of these folks self-identify as Christians and don’t seem to see any conflict there.


    • Isn’t that the truth, Robin! That’s partly why I hope my memoir will do advocacy, so no one else has to do the same. Cause I promise there are folks all over America tonight facing the same struggle. It’s tragic–even criminal!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s