By Cleo E. Brown
I was born in 1954. Most of my life has been a struggle. As a child, I had trouble relating to my mother who was responsible for raising me. Although I grew up in a traditional two-parent family with three brothers, I had no female sibling to bond with. From day one, living on A Street in Oakland, California, our lives were fraught with tension. In 1956, we were the first African-American family in an all Portuguese-Catholic neighborhood to buy a home in that area.
I felt isolated. My inability to bond with my mother or a sister (that I never had) coupled with problems which plagued me in elementary school (being an outcast), festered in my subconscious like a canker sore. At the age of eighteen, I began to self-medicate with alcohol and by using recreational drugs. At nineteen, after graduating with mediocre grades from a prestigious catholic high school, I left home to live with my married, hippie boyfriend because I disagreed with the curfew my parents had established for me. Consequently, I used more drugs.
I did not immediately attend college. I worked as a cashier at a McDonald’s and participated as an actress/stage manager at the Oakland’s Black Ensemble Theater. I smoked marijuana and consumed alcohol daily. Sometimes, I took acid, Mescaline, Angel Dust, mushrooms and a number of other drugs. You name it! I did everything except heroin and crack. Eventually, my boyfriend went back to his wife, forcing me to relocate in Stockton, California. While living in Stockton with my cousin and her husband, I began dating my future husband. We were married in November____??, 1975…one day before I turned twenty-one. Full of Amphetamines, barbiturates and wine I walked down the aisle and married the father of two of my future children.
Since my husband was a good provider, I no longer needed to work as a cashier at McDonald’s. I began taking college courses. Yet, I still took drugs that were available to me including cocaine, and drank a quart of hard liquor every weekend. In 1978, The Jim Jones Mass Suicide took place in Guyana. I had known some of the people who died in this tragedy coming from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area. My mental health plummeted. Self-medication certainly did not help. I was a wife, a mother, a college student and totally baffled by a God who would permit such an atrocity to happen. I stopped believing in God. My drug and alcohol usage increased.
In June, 1983 I earned my Associate Degree in History from Columbia College in Columbia, California. By November, 1984, I had given birth to my second child and earned my B.A. in History and Political Science. I became a weekend party-person i.e. doing drugs and consuming vast amounts of alcohol. I figured that my studies would not be affected during the week. Not yet admitting that I was deeply depressed and needed psychiatric counseling for my bi-polar malady, I continued to self-medicate.
Not only did I manage my home with my husband, care for his three sons from a previous marriage alongside my two boys (at that time ages 1 and 6) but I began working as a teaching assistant and substitute teacher as well as began working on a Master’s and a teaching degree from UC Davis in September, 1985.
In May, 1986, the emotional tightrope I was walking on snapped. I inexplicably left my husband while taking my two sons with me. Although I had graduated with honors from Columbia University and Summa Cum Laude from Stanislaus State, I struggled with failing grades at UC Davis without having my husband to help me. I was placed on academic probation. My husband sued me for divorce claiming desertion in August, 1986. He would not permit me to have any contact with his sons by his first wife even though I had raised them. He refused to let me see my two boys. At one point, he utilized law enforcement against me to prohibit any contact with his children. I felt used, betrayed and humiliated. At that point, I stopped using drugs and alcohol.
I went cold turkey, focusing upon Andy Gibb as a prime example of WHAT NOT TO DO. By January, 1987 I believed that this would be the catalyst to my academic success; not realizing that I needed some form of medicine to numb the emotional pain I felt coming off of drugs. I became disoriented. I forgot why I went to the store. My thoughts would race. I found it difficult to read a book or to concentrate. I began to hear voices which called me “stupid” and “poor tired slut.”
On November 28, 1987 my emotional tightrope snapped again when I suffered the proverbial NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. I was admitted to The Mental Health Unit at Kaiser-Martinez in Martinez, California. I had begun to be fearful of everyone and everything to the extent that I would not walk out of a door for fear that I would explode. It was imperative that I have my mental health to work as a teacher. My role as a single-parent, was in jeopardy. My entire world collapsed!
My psychiatrist placed me on a regimen of Stelazine which worked almost immediately. The voices faded and the stupor I experienced left me. The racing thoughts slowed down so that I could read again. I was able to concentrate.
I had resumed my graduate program by September, 1988. At that time, my divorce was final. I went back to work as a teacher. The professor I had been dating died of pancreatic cancer in March, 1989…a very traumatic event for me. Yet, as long as I remained on my medications, I was OK. I went into therapy in Davis and Sacramento. I graduated with a Master of Arts Degree in History and with a Teaching Degree in May, 1990. I was immediately hired to work as a full-time classroom teacher and part-time as a college instructor in Sacramento.
As I worked both jobs and parented my two boys, I became pregnant with my third child. Obviously, I could not take my medication. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in 1992. However, I could no longer work both a full-time job and a part-time job.
In January, 1993 I resigned from my full-time position as a Humanities/Drama Teacher at Leonardo DaVinci School. That same month, my oldest boy ran away from home to live with his father, leaving me alone to care for my two younger children. I had resigned from my part-time job as an Instructor or Professor of Black History at American River College in August, 1993. With my year old baby and eight year old son I packed everything in my car and drive to New York City where I arrived on October 2, 1993.
NEW YORK: After I complained about the treatment of my son by his teacher in a Bronx public school classroom, I found myself in a confrontational situation with a very nasty and foul-mouthed NYC police officer. My children had been returned to California by the authorities to be raised by my parents. I was devastated without my children. I floundered. I was transferred from the Family Shelter System to The Kingsbridge Single Women’s Assessment Shelter. After three weeks of waiting for my children to be returned to me, I was transferred to The International Home for Ladies. I was then referred to the UN Shelter on First Avenue in Manhattan. I refused to leave Kingsbridge because I believed that my children would be unable to find me in Manhattan. I then made a protest sign which I hung up as I camped outside of the shelter.
The police and paramedics arrived and took me to North Central Bronx Hospital where I was a patient for six weeks. I started off on a regimen of Lithium which was replaced with Depakote because Lithium is fat soluable; Depakote is not. I was released in late August, 1994 in the care of The UN Shelter in Manhattan.
The medications which my psychiatrist placed me on worked for as long as I took the Departed. I went off of my medication, in June, 1995. I became sullen, angry and resentful over the loss of my children. I did not approve of the condescending and abusive nature of shelter staff toward clients. I turned to organized protest and demonstration with The Reverand Al Sharpton’s Organization and I protested on my own. I wrote letters to government and to The United Nations praising the structure of The New York City Shelter System but decrying the abuse! I sometimes cried at night without my children much to the chagrin of the other women who slept beside me. Therefore, I was hospitalized again by August, 1995 at Bellevue. The staff eventually found me housing. I lived in Manhattan for ten months until the my psychiatrist approved my move back to California. I missed my children very much.
I returned to California to find that my children no longer needed me. Regardless, I like living in California and remained there for three years working as a teacher to be near my kids. I was eventually taken off Navene. Once again, my mental health began to decline to the extent that I inexplicably got on a bus in July, 1999…my destination was Manhattan. I lived there as a homeless woman for five years. I had no contact with my family during this time. Living on the street was rock bottom…the gutter! I kept trying to find my way out of what seemed to be an emotional bottomless pit. I became frustrated when I could not determine how to climb or claw my way out of this situation. I increasingly grew more and more delusional with each passing day.
I eventually went back on my medication and into housing. Two events had occurred concerning my hospitalization and medications during my hospitalization in New York. On one occasion, a police officer caught me trying to break the glass at a pizza place after they refused to feed the homeless as was their custom every Sunday night after closing. I looked upon myself at this time as a Civil Rights Activist who championed minority and homeless rights. I was hospitalized for three weeks as the result of this. Going off of my medication again, at a later time, I witnessed a police officer abuse a homeless man at a drop-in center. This caused me to become so agitated that I screamed out loud at the officer. I was hospitalized and medicated again. When I was released, I was back on the streets but on my medications. I went back to the drop-in center to determine if they could help me.
There, I slept on a chair for ten months as I begrudgingly let my case manager in conjunction with my psychiatrist find me permanent housing. I was afraid to go into the housing they initially suggested because I had lived on the streets among homeless men for five years. I was afraid that I would get my hopes up only to be disappointed as I remained on the streets. However, I did follow their lead. It was also during this time that I re-established contact with my family whom I had not spoken with since 1999. Many of the delusions I suffered surrounded my family and their health. I was relieved that they were all still alive.
I have lived in housing for twelve years. I had a feeling of elation as I realized that my room with a stove, refrigerator-freezer, bed and bathroom were all for me. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed after years of awakening to the fear of being back on the streets.
I moved into another shelter in August, 2004. During that time, I was hospitalized only once when I stopped taking my meds. I became openly agitated refusing to speak with people. I roamed the streets at night. I would not eat. I became extremely wary of what I perceived to be racism and began to protest and demonstrate again. My favorite protest sign said “I am fasting in defiance of a racist sub-culture.” I began to dream of running away to Miami. I had lived there between 2000 and 2001.
I then took my prescribed medications everyday. Therapy together with medications were quite effective. Subsequently, I have been quite productive in publishing numerous works of poetry, a history/political-science book, numerous sociological articles and movie reviews. I have worked, sporadically, as a project manager for a theater company.
I now have a good relationship with my parents and my children. I have established a network of friends, staff and colleagues who support me. At times, I do become depressed as I miss my children and other family members who live in California. However, I do visit them regularly. My oldest son is now thirty-seven years old, recently visited me in New York and is seriously considering moving to New Jersey and New York.
All and all, today I consider myself quite a fortunate woman to have survived my battles with drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness. Although the battle against mental illness is never ending, I thank God for my success as a person each and every day.