Aunt Terri: Same Illness, Different Story
Houston’s schizophrenia was not the first instance of severe mental illness in my family. My Aunt Terri—my mother’s baby sister—had a psychotic break in 1977, when she was 16. She lived near my mom in Ohio and appeared in her backyard one day, pacing, raving in outer-space language, and swinging her arms wildly.
“Do whatever you have to do to get her in the car,” the general practitioner said when my mother phoned him and described the scene. He told her to get her sister to the Woodruff Psychiatric Hospital in Cleveland by any means necessary. So my mom told her sister that she would take her to the airport because the only discernible thing that Terri was babbling about was that Chris Squire, the bass player of the rock band Yes, was sending her messages that she needed to meet him in Canada right away.
It took five white coats to contain Terri as she tried to scream and fight her way out of the hospital lobby. Terri—straight-A’s bright and talented—was schizophrenic.
My grandparents tried bringing her home. They weren’t medical professionals, and for years she was in and out of the hospital as they struggled to get her to take her medication and to care for her when she wasn’t stable. But after several violent episodes, including a fight that ended with my grandmother’s arm broken, Terri was moved to a group home. Within six months, she was thrown out, so my grandparents got her a duplex. She was evicted. She got another apartment—and was evicted again. Two more group homes in Cleveland—evicted. Another apartment—evicted. With the state hospital, Cleveland Psychiatric Institute (CPI), long since closed by then, making hospitalization no longer an option, Terri was running out of places to go.
Fortunately, my aunt lived in a state, Ohio, where leaders at the Department of Mental Health were determined to build a model for post-deinstitutionalized life. It was an excellent case manager who helped solve Aunt Terri’s housing crisis. Eleanor Dockry, a tiny woman with chin-length black hair and black-framed glasses, was assigned Terri’s case through a nonprofit agency supported by the county Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) board—essentially the rump of what was supposed to have been the community-services network envisioned by the reformers of the ’60s—and a slew of other local organizations. Eleanor sat my grandparents down. “I think if you could afford to buy something for her, that would be good,” she said. My grandparents pulled together the money for a trailer in a mobile-home community near their house.
A lifesaver, Eleanor took care of my aunt for 23 years. She came by at least once and sometimes twice a week. She took Terri to her favorite restaurant, McDonald’s, to the park, or to the store to buy her nieces presents with money from her Social Security check. Every three weeks, Eleanor took her to get her antipsychotic haloperidol injections. She took her to Neighboring, a local nonprofit organization, which offered field trips, skill-building lessons, art classes, and support groups about medication side effects.
Terri was able to live on her own for almost two decades. In 2012, my Aunt Paula came to pick Terri up for her weekly grocery shopping and found her dead in the cold winter grass. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. It was, in fact, the best-case scenario. She died in her own yard, where she had lived her own life. Young, at 52, yes, but not a terrible age for a body doused in antipsychotics and cigarettes. Yet more and more these days, Aunt Terri’s scenario is an unlikely one. It took a lot of work on the part of my grandma and Aunt Paula and 23 years of dedication by a caseworker. It’s work that nobody wants to do, work that counties and states are increasingly not paying for.
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