In the fourth installment of ‘Bipolar Planet,’ Gabi Coatsworth recounts a parent’s nightmare: finding a homeless shelter for her son.
Jason would have to leave his mental hospital soon, said the social worker assigned to his case. He would have to go to a homeless shelter—in a part of Hartford whose murder rate was one of the highest in Connecticut. And it was all my fault.
He was about to become one of the homeless people I’d read about. The people who panhandled at the traffic lights or on the sidewalk, who slept in doorways or who wandered around town with a shopping cart, talking to themselves. Now Jason would be one of them.
He’d made an earlier attempt to get out of Cedarcrest hospital after he’d been there for a month, but both the doctors and I agreed that he still wasn’t right. Being bipolar isn’t something you can cure, but I was hoping he’d at least be functional before he was allowed to leave. At the moment he was making an enormous effort to appear cool and in control, but I sensed that the slightest setback might set him off again. I dreaded being the one who caused the setback. By law, they can’t force people to stay in mental hospitals unless they’re a danger to themselves or others. So Jason was hoping that, with my support, and the help of the pro bono lawyer he’d found, they’d let him out.
As I drove up I-91 to Hartford on the chilly, overcast morning of the hearing, I was straining to keep my emotions in check. I knew he’d already been in there for a month, living in a locked ward, and I understood his frustration, but I simply couldn’t look after him at home. I had the rest of the family to think about. What would the judge ask me at the hearing? Would he expect me to take Jason home today?
My clammy hands gripped the steering wheel tighter as I thought about what might happen when I said I couldn’t look after Jason. My thoughts were interrupted by the piercing sound of a police siren; a glance in my rearview mirror told me I was the criminal they were after. I pulled over, wound down the window, and waited. The burly state trooper, looming beside the car, asked me the familiar question: “How fast do you think you were going?”
This was too much for me to handle today. I burst into tears as I tried to explain that I was going to see my son at Cedarcrest, because he was seriously ill.
“Sorry to hear that, ma’am,” he said, and handed me a speeding ticket for $287.00.
“You can appeal it if you want,” he added with the sort of intonation that indicated it really wouldn’t be worth it. I fumbled for a Kleenex and dabbed at my eyes. Then I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. I looked like hell, but I would have to drive on or I’d be late for the hearing.
They sat, the judge and the doctor, the lawyer and Jason, facing each other across a beaten-up table in a dingy room whose brown and cream paint looked to be decades old. I didn’t know where to put myself. Whose side was I on?
As I apologized for my lateness, I took a chair at one end of the table, not joining either side. The lawyer presented Jason’s case.
“My client has a home to go to,” he said, “and should be allowed to leave.”
“I can stay with you, right?” said Jason. I couldn’t speak. A scared look came into his eyes. “Right, Mom?”
I let out the breath I’d been holding. “I don’t think so, Jason.”
“Why?” His voice rose. “Why the hell not?”
“Jason, there are the boys to consider,” I said. “We—Jay and I—don’t think it would be good for them to be in the same house with you right now.”
The boys were my sister’s sons. She had died in England six years before and they were now 11 and 14. Their father had been diagnosed as clinically depressed, possibly schizophrenic. They had already been through a lot, and didn’t need any more trauma. This was not the time to expose them to the scary uncertainty of Jason’s moods.
The doctor was trying to calm Jason down, and it wasn’t going well. Jason had been managing to appear quite rational until I’d refused his request. Then he suddenly lost control. He began banging his fist on the table, yelling threats at the judge and the doctor.
“You can’t do this to me. I’m going to get a better lawyer than this useless bastard and I’m going to sue. I could get millions. Then I won’t need any of you anymore.” He was flushed with rage.
The judge raised his eyebrows, but otherwise his face was expressionless. “I think it’s clear that Jason might still pose a threat to others,” said the judge. “He’s not ready to leave here yet.” He picked up his elegant fountain pen and signed off on his decision.
Two months later, Jason was finally ready to leave, but the situation at home hadn’t changed. Before we could let Jason share our life, we had to know he could manage his own.
“We can’t find any halfway house that will take him,” said the social worker at Cedarcrest. “It will have to be a homeless shelter.” I shivered.
By now, Jay, Jason’s stepfather, had persuaded me that a homeless shelter wasn’t such a bad idea. Jason would have somewhere to sleep and a chance to get back on his feet.
“Can he, at least, come to one nearer to us?” I asked. We lived an hour away from Hartford, and having Jason closer would enable me to offer, at the very least, moral support.
The social worker said they could try. The next day, as I researched halfway houses, still hoping for a reprieve for Jason, they reported back. “Fairfield has a waiting list of 25,” they told me. “And Westport’s full, too.”
So Jason went to the Hartford shelter a day or two later, carrying a plastic bag containing a change of underwear, his toothbrush and comb, and a bottle of Diet Coke. I went to see him the next day. The location didn’t seem terrible, but as I approached the door, I could see that the doors were bolted shut and getting in was as hard as getting out. He couldn’t stay here, I decided. It was too much like a prison.
The social worker was done with him now, so it was up to me. I called the Fairfield shelter the same day, and they confirmed that their waiting list was long. The Westport shelter told me they had a waiting list and only 14 beds.
“How does someone ever find a place?” I asked, beginning to despair.
“You have to call every day, and report that you’re still homeless,” a friendly voice answered. “If someone has left the shelter, we can offer you a place.”
Thank God, I thought. I’d come a long way since the days when I’d thought that going into a mental hospital meant being cured and coming home to resume a normal life. Now I had no idea what a normal life might be for someone like Jason.
“But phone between 11 and 12,” she said, “or there’ll be no one here.”
I picked up Jason a day later and brought him home, with Jay’s reluctant agreement. Jason slept in the basement and only emerged for meals, where I made sure he was taking his meds. He was quiet and seemed withdrawn, but that was so much better than the mania that I didn’t complain. Every day he asked if he could stay, and every day I stiffened my spine and made him phone the homeless shelter in Westport.
A week later, they told him he could come and be interviewed to see if he qualified. If he did, he would have a place. I drove him over to Westport, and found the tiny building behind Restoration Hardware. The contrast between the store’s luxurious interior and the bare-bones shelter with fluorescent lighting did not escape me. Sitting with the director in his cramped office, we listened while he explained the rules. Jason would have a curfew of 8 p.m., and would have to leave the shelter at 8 every morning before he could return at 5. He would have to attend house meetings and outpatient appointments. He would be expected to do chores to help pay for his keep.
But he was in. For the time being, at least.