I am living in the land of Nowhere and it is very frightening. Many years ago, when my two boys were very young, I took them on a car trip to Great Adventure, in NJ. Now anyone who knows me well understands that driving anyplace new is highly traumatic since I have literally no sense of direction. This of course was in the days before GPS technology and cell phones, so I had to rely on actual written instructions and directional skills from my sons too. Miraculously we arrived at Great Adventure uneventfully and met up with my then sister-in-law and her kids. Throughout the entire day, I was extremely anxious about the drive home, worrying that I would get lost (a huge phobia I have). By the time we said our good-byes, it was dark, making it even harder to navigate. Sure enough we found ourselves in a lonely, dark wooded area, with no visible signs, going around and around in circles. My poor children had to endure the increasing panic that engulfed me each time we found ourselves back to the beginning. After many desperate attempts to extract myself from that never-ending merry-go-round, I blurted out that we were officially in “Nowheresville.” At the time, the kids actually thought that was very funny, and it makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was terror-stricken. Now so many years later, I still sometimes get the feeling that I am in “Nowheresville”, sometimes known as “Loserville” or “Lonelyville”, depending on my specific state of mind on that particular day. When I was officially employed and doing “important” work, I didn’t have time to feel like I lived in “Nowheresville.” But now that I am on my own it is an effort to find a reason to “keep on keeping on” sometimes, especially in the morning. I constantly fill my life with all sorts of creative endeavors such as writing, photography classes, blog sites, social media, which creates a sense of peacefulness and purpose for a while, but it never lasts. Years ago I wrote in my journal that the amount of times I felt “good” and “peaceful” was so little that I actually could count them on my fingers, and I think that still holds true to this day. I live in the land of Nowhere, fleeing from the feeling that I am becoming more and more invisible as I get older, that I am alone, that I am becoming less valuable than I used to be, less relevant. Being creative and busy are good things when done for the right reasons. But, in reality, I am still seeking the praise, recognition, and love I never received as a child by filling my life with everything, when I am really running away from my demons. It’s human nature to not remember where we came from and to “forget” what life was like. When my life was a living hell with my medical issues and my son’s homelessness, I prayed and prayed to God to help me, and when my prayers were answered in the form of knowledge (about my spinal tumor) and surgery, I was literally glowing with happiness and filled with gratitude. But, almost two years later, I am feeling LOST again and I don’t know why. Life is a journey, and I know that my wild ride was not in vain because, although painful, I grew as a person. Human beings need to grow to thrive and I am doing just that, but sometimes maybe I need to just stand still and enjoy what I have NOW, rather than looking for the next thing, and the next thing. Maybe I need to just stand still and feel God’s grace.
Lost and never found so often describes the life of the chronically mentally ill. It can apply to their lives as well as to their personal belongings. One of the hallmarks of the mentally ill is that they seem to be unable to hang onto their possessions and are incapable of “thinking” in logical terms the way a “normal” person would. They are unable to think past the day, not thinking of the consequences of their actions. They drift from situation to situation, on or off their meds, sometimes homeless, sometimes working, sometimes in jail. There is no predicting what their situation will be from week to week, or day to day, and sometimes moment to moment. It is agonizing and infuriating all at once for the person who desperately loves someone in the throes of mental illness. I’m not talking about garden-variety neurosis (many of us are neurotic, in some fashion) but the gut wrenching, all consuming, disease of psychosis, such as schizophrenia, where rational thinking is impossible. It is a never-ending merry-go-round where you are always waiting to exhale; where when the phone rings, and you see the area code, you hold your breath and say a silent prayer before answering—wondering out loud, “What Now?” It is a world where no matter how many clothes or personal items you buy or send them, these meager possessions will disappear into thin air eventually. It is a world where they live in fleabag motels, and when they end up back incarcerated, they don’t think to ask anyone to store their belongings, so everything they had acquired (when you thought they were making progress) is lost, yet again. It is a world where there is no monetary limit to what is lost—be it clothes, phones, and even cars. When I remember that a diagnosis of mental illness does not define a person and that mental illnesses are brain disorders, I am more tolerant. But, often it is so hard not to be angry when your life is continually disrupted and have the anger turn to guilt at even being angry. We are all human and must give ourselves the grace to be so, which means accepting the emotions that are elicited from the constant stress of either waiting for the “other shoe to drop” or dealing with a current crisis. The definition of “insanity” is “doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.” The average person learns (eventually) that banging your head against the wall over and over will give you a concussion and maybe they should not do it anymore. But the chronically mentally ill have short-term memory and seem to be doomed to repeat the same destructive patterns over and over. It is just so frustrating to see this happening, and be powerless to change it, just waiting around for the next crisis. It is a never-ending battle that just cannot be won and it is so heart breaking because you see the train wreck coming but you can’t get out of the way.
Haunting memories–I think we all have them, but some stick with you more than others. Of all the crazy things I’ve done in my former life, the one that stands out the most had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. Back in the early 90s when I was an avid Marathoner I worked in Manhattan, but lived in NJ. About two days before the New York City Marathon, I left work early to pick up my race number at the Sheraton Hotel on the upper West side. This is a very upscale area, and that evening there were loads of police, tourists, busboys, hotel staff, and marathoners picking up their numbers, in and outside the hotel. Since I lived in NJ, I was always very conscious of the bus schedule, so I was in a big rush to hop the subway back to the bus terminal. It was about 5:30 in late October so it was dark and chilly, and all I wanted to do was get home when suddenly I saw a large plastic bag lying on the sidewalk. I just assumed it was garbage, but when I looked closer, I was appalled to see that it was a thin black woman who was literally “wearing” the bag as her clothes. I remember standing over her, looking around trying to see if anyone else saw this, trying to decide if someone would take ownership of this discovery. I grappled with the thought of trying to find a cop to get this woman some help, but in the end I decided I was in too much of a rush to do this simple act of humanity. So, I just left her there, assuming that someone else would find her. I remember walking down the dark street towards the subway station, all the while feeling guilty and ashamed of myself. The whole time I was walking, I kept wanting to turn around and go back, because I knew I was wrong, but I didn’t. The whole time I rode home on the bus, I kept thinking that I should have gotten help, but it was too late by then. That’s the same mentality that prevents people from calling the cops when they see someone being attacked, or let someone lay in the road, thinking someone else will step up to the plate. I will never know what happened to this woman, but all these years later, this haunting memory still causes me shame.
Invisible people exist all over the world. My friend commented on my recent post about older women being invisible by noting this, although this is a different type of invisibility. When I was in Antigua, Guatemala, the narrow streets were lined with beggars, appearing to be either sleeping or motionless, with their bowls waiting for people to drop coins in. I even took pictures, all the while feeling guilty. Everybody would just literally walk over them. But it seemed their assigned “job” in life was “beggar”, and their job description included being as unobtrusive as possible. That is definitely not the case in Manhattan. When I worked there, I encountered the “invisible” every day, in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, the Subway, the street leading up to the bus terminal (40th and 8th). These areas have been “cleaned up” since the last time I was there, but I distinctly remember avoiding the urine soaked stench on one side of the street by moving to the other side. Before the cops cracked down on the homeless, you would be greeted each morning by society’s outcasts, hanging around right outside or even inside Port Authority, begging for money. Sometimes they would come up to you while you were on the line waiting for the bus to arrive, and we would just ignore them, pretending they were invisible. A day never passed that I was not approached in the Subway by a panhandler. Everybody on the train would virtually ignore them, staring right through them as if they were not even there. We all seemed to have an unwritten code that said, “Do not give money to the indigent”, but sometimes my heart would break for someone. I’ll never forget a dirty homeless young man who collapsed to his knees on the subway train, begging anyone to help him, while we all pretended he was not there. I don’t know how other people felt, but I SAW these “throwaway” people and always thought, “There for the grace of God go I” and knew it could happen to anyone, even me. I think the main culprit was drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or most likely, a combination. Where mental illness goes, so does addiction and alcoholism. Not all alcoholics are severely mentally ill, but the majority of homeless are mentally ill and abuse drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medication. I never would have thought that a loved one would fall victim to that exact same fate, but it happened, which shows it can affect anyone even if you feel you are immune. I hope that some of these people came back from the living dead, by getting the help they needed, but I will never know. More resources are needed for the mentally ill, but until we realize that this can and may touch your life, we will continue to see invisible people.