In Book 17 of the Odyssey, entitled “Stranger at the Gate,” Odysseus has returned at last to his home of Ithaca. His trials, however, are not over: he must plot how to take back the lands and home that have been invaded by the scheming and lascivious marauders who vie for faithful Penelope’s hand.
The all-seeing goddess Athena, who has for the entire course of the poem been the protector of Odysseus, disguises him as an old man: his body shrinks with age and wizened bone; his skin, a moment before darkened by the fierce sea-sun, sags and grows pale, and his eyes lose their keen glistening luster.
In a flash, the goddess turns the robust man to neglected unsavory beggar.
This moment in the poem is a perfect representation of madness, at least in the manner in which it was presented to me. In the summer of 2013, while pregnant, I found myself quite suddenly transformed from a woman who had fairly efficiently coped with a history of depression and anxiety to a creature crippled by it. I became not only a stranger to those around me, but to myself as well. Unlike fair Odysseus, my fate was not to roust the invaders from afar, but from those within.
Lost, I began to search. Eventually, a couple of months after the initial metamorphosis, convinced beyond all reason that if it were not for the child growing inside me I would shortly be dead by my own hand, I presented myself to the gate of the psych ward. I was not psychotic. I was desperate: for rest, for help, for guidance on how to manage this new and alien brain.
Help was not what was on offer. Instead, horror.
The place I chose for what I thought would be treatment and care has a reputation in Denver for being the best choice available for anyone struggling with mental anguish, whether it be depression or psychosis brought on from untreated bi-polar disease. Even as I write these words, well over a year later, I am stunned and disgusted that this so called “treatment center” even exists in today’s society, much less possesses the fine reputation it has somehow managed to foster.
As soon as I entered the place I terrifyingly realized what a mistake I had made: it was not a final haven but a holding pen, far more akin to a prison than a hospital.
And indeed, the achingly damaged people I met there were many of them familiar with prison. One woman I spoke with, an intelligent woman with a soul extinguished by poverty, trauma, lack of care, lack of support – just lack – made a gesture like an infinity circle when I asked her if she’d be leaving soon. She was an alcoholic, bi-polar, being treated for a gun shot wound. I could see by the gleam in her eye that, granted a different life, one that filled the holes, she’d be a success. At something other than circling in and out of homelessness, prison, psych ward.
My roommate for the one and a half horrific days I was there was a beautiful young professional musician. A singer and songwriter. She had tow-headed children who came to visit; she had been there eight days and planned to stay as long as the suicidal voices inside her mind continued their incessant song. She was clear, wise, gifted, not crazy, and she wasn’t getting the help she needed.
Because there was no help. There were restraints both physical, for the rowdy ones, and psychic: the nurses on duty acted more as bodyguards to the drugs on hand than helpmeets to the wounded, and “group” therapy consisted of a barely trained “counselor” telling the patients, who varied from the simply depressed to the almost comatose, to “work their skills,” whatever that might mean to one who is so drugged or downtrodden language itself fades from cognitive view.
What do we, as a society, do with and for the mentally ill? This is a question that has been asked for quite literally thousands of years, and still we have no answer. However, when Reagan was elected on that dark November day in 1980, he presented a solution for which our country is still paying an unspeakable price. He closed up the shop: gone was the necessary funding to keep profoundly mentally ill people in decently run hospitals; the street, privately run half-way houses, and prison became home.
There are more than 600,000 homeless people today in the United States. Of that number, at least 40% are reported to be mentally ill, though that figure seems low to me. For them, there are almost no resources, particularly of the publicly funded sort. Even the place in which I found myself is out of reach for some of them. For those who have mental illness, and are also burdened with poverty, our society’s answer to the great ethical question of how to assist one in need is brutal and simple: open air and concrete.
In order to heal from disabling depression, then, one must essentially be middle or upper middle class in the United States. Even then, there exists no affordable refuge where one might go for a spell, to rest, to weep, to simply be…. sick. A place in which the mind is treated with gentleness, insight, intelligent therapy and the right sort of drugs: now, a de-funded fantasy.
I am one of the sick lucky ones: my family is solidly middle class, and after escaping the nightmare of that ward I continued my search. It led me to some even darker places and then it washed me up on the bright shores of an impossibly expensive and brilliant shrink’s couch. We have emptied the bank account, some savings, and stock in the effort to undo the damage done. No insurance will touch him. But it is our privilege that such a doctor can even be a possibility for us. Not so, for almost everyone else similarly afflicted.
As I slowly peel back the layers of the grief and trauma, the patterns and sadness that landed me in that spot those many months ago, I think almost daily of the people I met and saw in the ward. When I do, I often think of some lyrics from the Joni Mitchell song “Carey:”
“Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers / A round for these friends of mine…”
I yearn to lift a glass, or, like Athena, a staff, and create a toast that would break the cycle of illness, poverty, illness, and crack open the spell of misery that cocoons the whole thing.
I am alive. These beings help me to survive.
I wonder about the people at the ward. I wish for them something to which they, too, can hold fast. Fast and dear, until our world softens enough that they can loosen their grip.