Close Encounters with Well-Wigged Old Women and other Adventures in Government-Subsidized Housing


I mentioned the other day that Briarwood, the government-subsidized housing complex where I lived, had what residents and folks running the place called a “craft-room.”  Actually, there were 4 craft rooms, one in each building, second floor, across from the elevator.

These “craft rooms” were more like little libraries with couches, a few comfortable and very 80s-era blue chairs, an artificial flower or two, and, yes, an equally-80s-styled book-case that housed at least 6 dozen romance novels and a few Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies—not to mention a good 30 games and close to 50 jig-saw puzzles—all with pieces missing, of course—because what’s a puzzle without a few holes in the Eifel Tower image—Monet’s “Water Lilies” minus a bloom or two?

In Building A, where I lived, the elderly, lady residents gathered in the craft room most afternoons—gossiping, reading, gossiping some more.  Some slept from time to time.  A few even snored.  Mind you, no one assembled there was born after 1920—except for me, of course, D.O.B. 1962.  Yes, I know—generation gap—big time.

On my 40th birthday Briarwood friends sat me in a wheelchair to mark the occasion of my aging. Note: I didn't wear a wig.

Wigs were all the rage in the craft room.  And everyone, besides me in my sweatpants, dressed up.  One woman named Evelyn—92-years-old when I moved into the complex—always wore a wig.  And she was the best dressed of the group—nicely-styled polyester dresses in navy or gray, with crisp white collars and big brass buttons—usually a fake patent leather belt around the waist.

Evelyn engaged in the only remotely craft-like activity ever done in the history of Briarwood craft rooms.  Evelyn crocheted. And she ever only made one thing—over and over.  She had to have produced hundreds, even thousands, of them while I lived there.  Evelyn made doilies.  Usually they were white.  Sometimes they were lavender or baby blue, some coaster-sized, others larger.

And like any good crocheter over the age of eighty, Evelyn liked to give her creations away.  Nothing honored her more than if, at the end of snowy afternoon in February, when she said, “Kathy, would you like to take this home for your coffee table?”  I responded in the reluctant affirmative—but only after declaring I didn’t dare take another.  When I suggested she might like to give that day’s doily to our friend Bea, Evelyn would insist, “Oh but you need a set, dear, especially when you serve sweet tea.”

Bottom line—Evelyn may have doilied me to death, but believe you me, every gray-haired lady in Building A was as well-doilied as me.  When I finally moved from Briarwood in 2005, I found more coaster-sized, crocheted circles and almost circles (as Evelyn aged) shoved in underwear drawers and kitchen cabinets than any self-respecting resident of government housing ought to own.

But our dear friend Bea, on whom I tried to foist doilies from time to time—also frequented the craft room.  Bea, tall and painfully thin, had to have been at least 5’ 9” before osteoporosis and old age shrunk and hunched her to a mere 5’ 6”, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet. 

Bea, like Evelyn, had obviously, at one time, been a stunningly beautiful woman, a fact betrayed by facial features that shown through despite her age—high cheek bones and big, blue eyes that still twinkled when she smiled.

Bea was one of the few ladies in the group who didn’t wear a wig, and for a woman well into her 90s she had a head of gorgeous, light brown curls.  True her hair was largely gray, but she retained enough of the brown to surprise you, since otherwise she looked so old and borderline antique.

Bea was also one of the ladies who slept most afternoons, waking herself up every few minutes with her own overly-sized snores.

But then again, Bea never stayed more than 30 minutes at a time, as when nicotine called at least twice an hour, she struggled to her feet from the over-stuffed chair, shuffled her pink-slippered feet across the industrial blue carpet, and disappeared into her apartment several doors down, only to reemerge a few minutes later having snuck a cigarette or two, still insisting upon her return that she had had to use the rest room or make a phone call.  Never mind she smelled like smoke over the tic-tac she sucked and the Avon she had sprayed post-puff.

But what’s the point of these craft room portraits?  Why share these old lady images, besides the fact that these grand dames of Briarwood charmed the socks off the too-few men in the building, like sweet Wayne, who, at 60-something, visited the craft several times a week?

Well, the point is this—

These aging ladies utterly obliterate the image most folks have of government-subsidized housing.  These were not crack heads with jeans belted around their knees or welfare moms, screaming, runny-nosed toddlers on either hip.  These were not delinquent teens smoking pot in parking lots or dangling younger siblings from balconies.

These ladies were what 90% of the residents at Briarwood were like, kind, considerate, doily-crocheting grandmas who cared about me and the other neighbors they encountered in the elevator or the wanna-be craft room on the second floor.

These ladies were also, in many ways, the story of my recovery.  Though I never breathed a word to them about bipolar disorder, what they would have called “a problem with [my] nerves.” These ladies loved me and asked nothing more than that I allow them to lavish their doily-making attention on me.

But then that’s a subject for another post—the tale of just how these women worked a psychiatric magic, a mental health miracle, how they did what drugs and doctors failed to do, allow me to leave government housing in 2005 only to become a home-owner in 2006.

So stay tuned over the next several weeks, as I bring you more up-close-and-personal encounters with well-wigged old women, more doilied-adventures in government-subsidized housing.

The Monkey Dance Summer


Voices tormented me the summer of 2001.  They were unrelenting, a cacophonous echo inside my skull,  like primates mimicking, mocking, making me desperate for relief.

On top of trying  to silence the monkey mayhem–I felt utterly and completely alone, suspected no one could help me—that there was no way out, no way my mood would ever even out—no way to ever grab hold of reality, something concrete and tangible—nothing to anchor me in the here and now, the then and there.

I decided I needed treatment the community mental health system could not provide.  My therapist there was pathetically inept.  Though I was sure of very little, of this I was absolutely certain.

However, I knew I could not afford the Medicare co-pay to see someone in private practice as long as I had to pay the open-market cost of rent, what I’d been doing since moving home to Kentucky from Texas in 1999.  It was in this context that I decided to return to government housing, hoping a rent based on my income would afford me the funds to pay a therapist.

I plan to do an additional post about this return to public housing, one that happened just days before 9/11.  Today, however, I would like to share my effort, on August 22, 2001, to transcribe the voices I was hearing, as I was packing and preparing for that move.

One voice, in particular, said this:

We want to know if you can hear the music.  You don’t know the way of the spheres.  You listen and listen and hear only chaos, when we are in fact making harmony.

We do not think the way you think.  We do not feel as you feel.  The way to us is not straight—neither is it winding.  The way to us is the “un” way—the way to us is beside the dark river, near the weeping willow.

You do not hear us—you do not listen.

The way is dark.  The way is light.  The way is not the way.

You must turn your mind inside out and do the monkey dance.

Please tell me what you would think, what you would do, were you to hear something like this.  What would you make of this Zen-like exhortation?  Would you consider it the voice of God, the voice of primate madness?

Can you imagine why I might have been confused and floundering?

And consider the context—my apartment piled high with boxes as I attempted to pack—planned to move in less than a week, hoping a new apartment would afford me the funds to get the help I needed, if only I could navigate the craziness enough to make the move itself!

Do the monkey dance, indeed!

When One Boomer’s Madness Morphs into Dream-Come-True


In 2011, it’s hard to know which is weirder—watching myself on videotape narrating my psychiatric struggle in 1997 or knowing now how inherently different my life is 14 years later.

Though ’97 was difficult, I generally had to fight hard for more than 10 years following my diagnosis with bipolar disorder in 1990, a decade of pain and endurance, as I struggled with every ounce of energy available, battled a diagnosis that doomed me to countless psychiatric hospitalizations and chronic poverty.  I lived without a car and in 1997 on $736 a month.

Things were particularly bleak during the winter and spring of 1997, when I was hospitalized twice and struggled to complete even the most basic tasks of daily living—getting myself to and from treatment, feeding myself regular meals, taking medications as prescribed.  I spent 5 hours a day on Dallas city buses, struggled to purchase groceries on $30 a week, and suffered so with memory loss, I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d taken the Zyprexa (an anti-psychotic drug) that dulled my thinking and left me listless, not to mention sleepy and ravenously hungry.

But yesterday, in the context of a memoir-writing project, I watched video-taped therapy sessions from 1997, a number of them, at least 6 hours worth.

I noted especially that on March 6, 1997, wearing red sweat pants and my hair in a loose bun, I congratulated my therapist on the occasion of her 49th birthday.  I was 35 years old but looked at least 10 years younger than that—thin and toned as I pretzeled myself into a corner of black leather sofa.

what I looked like in 1997

But what I remember about that time, recall without having to watch a video, is the belief that my therapist was rather old—unimaginably older that I could ever imagine myself becoming.

Yet now, in 2011, I am myself 49.  I am the “old” I couldn’t imagine myself becoming.  And this is a hugely strange experience— sitting in a home I own, with my graying hair and gained weight—watching a much younger version of myself, wishing a woman I so respected happy birthday, knowing I was thinking, “Gosh, she’s almost 50.  I can’t imagine being that old.”

watching videos of myself 14 years later

Not only am I watching myself 14 years ago—seemingly endless hours of myself frozen in time—but also I’m thinking about who I am myself now at this ripe old age—how different I look—how inherently reversed my circumstances are—how much better, richer, fuller my life is—how my experience is now what I only hoped it could be then, what I only dreamed it could be, but never expected it could become.

Clichéd as it sounds—I am now literally living a dream come true—a dream I articulated to my therapist in 1997—a dream about teaching at a university again, a dream about writing—a dream about succeeding—a dream about love.

I don’t know how it happened.  I don’t know how or why I became ill, why my mind deteriorated to the point it could no longer be trusted, how it is that now I am well—at least in relative terms—my symptoms well-managed. 

In 1997 Bill Clinton was just beginning his second term as president; scientists were cloning Dolly the sheep; and in the US we would soon have a balanced budget.  Though Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died, it was a time of hope—a time of new beginnings and relative prosperity.

However, my memory at the time was so poor, my connection to the larger world so tenuous, I recall little of this.  I know most of this from my more recent efforts to go back and fill in the blankness my brain experienced as real life.

Now, as I watch these videos, as I reflect on how I felt 14 years ago, on how it feels now to not remember, I’m amazed that I have come this far.  That I no longer fear homelessness, that I no longer live in government housing, that I now own a home, function well, love an amazingly accomplished woman who loves me even more. 

How did I survive more than a decade of seeming defeat?  How is it that I’ve recovered to this degree?  How did this come to be, this tale of endurance, my narrative of hope?  How is it that this stunning grace has happened?

I hope my memoir can help me share this amazing magic—let others know that what sometimes seems an illusion of recovery can indeed become a solid and shared reality—a Boomer’s madness morphed into dream-come-true.

The Wacky Winter of ’97


I was hospitalized in the winter of 1997.  And from what I can tell about that
time—reading journals, watching video-taped therapy sessions, looking at art—I was unequivocally crazy, insane in every conceivable sense of the word.  Not that I wasn’t exactly that during other hospital stays.  However, during February and March of ’97, my insanity was off the charts.

I’m still trying to understand what happened—still trying to assemble some sense of where I went wrong, what set me off.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I understand any more now than I did before.  I was so insane, none of what I wrote helps me recreate what happened.

I do, however, notice at least two themes I’ve alluded to before—namely my fear of homelessness and my sense that the hospital was home.

I guess this takes me back to the mental health housing series I began a month or so ago but never finished.  The first post in that sequence explores my belief that the hospital was where I belonged, where I felt safe, especially during an inpatient stay during the spring of 1990.  However, that feeling returned during the times I’ve been most ill in subsequent years, as well.  And the winter of 1997 was no exception.

For example, at 8:30 pm on February 2, 1997, three days after being admitted, I wrote:

I want to stay in the hospital for a very long time.  I want this to be my
home . . . .  I’d just prefer to stay here.

I went on to explain that I knew this desire was crazy in and of itself—that it was not normal, nowhere near normal, to want to be locked up in a psychiatric facility.

However, this refrain repeats itself often during the course of my illness—regularly and without fail.  I remember thinking this from time to time, but I hadn’t realized how often I expressed that desire overtly  in the journals I kept.

It’s clear the illness terrified me.  I knew I was sick.  I desperately wanted help and apparently knew on some level that the hospital could keep me safe—not so much from suicide (as I was not often actively suicidal at that time) but from a profound inability to function and  take care of myself.

I’m not sure what precipitated this collapse, though just before this admission, I was obsessed with a fear of homelessness again—seemingly because my social security disability benefits were being reviewed, I feared losing them, and knew I was not able to function well enough to work.  It’s hard to imagine how that fear impacted me, whether that’s what triggered this dizzying psychosis.

However, just two weeks before being admitted and around the time I began to unravel, I made this list—a seeming attempt to survive should I lose my little apartment in east Dallas:

As I review the video-taped therapy sessions, I realize that my therapist repeatedly encouraged me to share my financial struggle with my family—something I refused to do, insisting that the very real possibility that my only remaining parent would respond with indifference to my dilemma, was too
terrifying a risk to take—that my psyche would not be able to tolerate that
degree of rejection, especially since, when I one time needed help purchasing
medication, I had, in fact, met with unwillingness.

So, I don’t know now if that was an accurate perception on my part.  I’d like to think I was wrong.

However, during this same hospitalization I also did a decent amount of what I think is called mirror writing–writing words backwards and forming letters in reverse.

In one instance, I was cognizant enough to make a list of things to tell my friend Georgia–to create a list of items I wanted her to bring me, but crazy enough to compose the whole thing in reversed writing:

In other instances I would begin sentences in the bottom, right-hand corner of the page–writing from right to left, bottom to top, as I did in the ramble about “woods” and “wolves” below:

The three lines at the bottom read:

I will tell that lady the story of my life in the big woods and under the trees where the magic flows.

I truly have no idea why I suddenly began writing in reverse, if perhaps it was paranoia that motivated me–fear that someone might read what I wrote.  I’m baffled by this and have not found any explanations in the literature as to why I might have suddenly done this.  I do know that Leonardo da Vinci wrote all of his personal journals in reverse and that left-handed people are more able to do this than are the right-handed.  I don’t understand brain chemistry well enough to offer a reasonable explanation, and don’t know if something neurological might have been happening.  However, the most obvious explanation remains paranoia, I assume.

I might also surmise that there was something about this particular psychosis that made me obsess about mirrors and write in reverse as part of that obsession, for some of the mirror writing I did was in fact about mirrors–quoting the line from Snow White, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all:”

I clearly lack the clinical expertise to explain any of this, though it seems my thinking had the bizarre features associated with a fairly severe psychosis.

The fact remains—I lost my mind.  I lost it in a big way

I expect more evidence of this will follow in subsequent posts, as I think I got worse that winter before I got better—so stay tuned for more detailed descriptions of Kathy’s wacky ways in the winter of ’97— ways weirder than this semi-sane version of me might like to admit.