Friday, May 4, 2012

The Homeless Situation

This is supposed to be about Autism, but an event in my life recently became so amazingly insane that I felt it deserved a place on my blog.  Have you ever walked by the crazy lady talking to herself at the bus stop or on the street somewhere?  You know the type, the ones pushing grocery carts with all of their belongings inside.  You move to the other side of the street and pray that they don’t approach you to ask for money.  As much as I’d like to say that I have been a compassionate person, those people scare me.  I have avoided them like the plague.  Until recently…
Years ago, as I was approaching my teenage years, I had a cousin move into my parents’ house.  She was 5 years older than me and she became a big sister figure in my life.  I loved hanging out with her.  She was fun and hyper and beautiful.  We traded clothes and makeup and fought to see who could be the skinniest and attract the most guys.  We were quite a pair.  As a teen, my parents let me go do many things with her that I wouldn’t have been allowed to do otherwise.  We backpacked up Devil’s Slide Trail in Idyllwild, and of course, met some guys who wanted to share their beer with us.  As they left to return to their own camp, they warned us to be careful since we were girls alone in the woods and other guys might not be as kind and generous as they were.  My cousin pulled out a pocket knife and said “Don’t worry, I have protection”.  One of the guys pulled out a much larger knife and said “That’s not a knife.  THIS is a knife!”  Being young girls out on our own, we panicked and took turns standing guard for the rest of the night.  The guys were gone the next morning, leaving us with an adventure we would never forget.  Throughout my teenage years we had many more fun adventures.
As the years passed, she moved in and out of my life.  She married and divorced several times, always landing back at our house to recover and search for the next boyfriend/husband.  She eventually married a doctor and had children.  I moved to Michigan and started my own family.  While I was pregnant with my first child, I received a phone call telling me that my cousins’ second child had been born with Down Syndrome.  I had just had my Alpha Fetal Protein blood test come back as abnormal and I was sure that I too was going to have a child with Down Syndrome.  After genetic testing, it was determined that it was a different chromosomal abnormality, which I am sure has something to do with having a son on the Autism Spectrum.  But, mine and my cousins’ paths were destined to cross again.
After my cousin gave birth to her second child she had her first psychotic break.  She believed that her doctor husband was in the mafia and that he had arranged a hit on her.  She also thought that he was poisoning her food.  She ran away to Michigan where she had lived with her parents at some point in her life.  Her sister tracked her down and had her committed to the hospital to undergo psychiatric care and get stabilized on medication.  She was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic episodes.  I’m sure that there was much more to the story that I am not aware of, but my cousin eventually stopped taking her medication and began drinking heavily. 

She showed up at our house one Christmas very drunk and very delusional.  She had been arrested for drunk driving multiple times and ended up in the state prison. While she was in jail she claims to remember other prisoners being brought into and taken away from her cell.  I don’t remember her exact delusions during this time but they had something to do with her belief that the guards were body snatchers and were returning pod-people to her cell.  This is where she comes back into my life via my mother.
My mother had moved to Michigan after my children were born because she wanted to live nearby and get to know her grandchildren.  She was a special education teacher and she could work anywhere, so she bought a house around the corner from me.  What neither of us knew at the time of escrow was that we would all move into the house together.  My marriage had been rocky for quite some time, but a gas leak lead to the final break.  The gas company came, tested the air for carbon monoxide and shut down the gas to my house until we had it repaired.  We had no heat in the middle of winter.  I needed to get it fixed, but my ex-husband said that I was overreacting and he turned the gas back on himself.  He didn’t want to spend the money to get it fixed and I had no money of my own.  I refused to stay in a house filled with carbon monoxide, so I took my children and moved in with my mother until it got fixed.  I didn’t return to my house until that summer, after I had filed for a divorce.
In the meantime, my cousin’s sister, who had previously committed my cousin to a psychiatric hospital, called my mom and asked her for help in getting my cousin out of the state prison psychiatric ward.  My mother signed up to be her guardian and my cousin was released to her custody.  We all ended up in my mom’s house living together.  My cousin was stable on medications for the next few years  but she eventually started stealing my son’s Concerta, which he took for his extreme impulsivity.  She would stay up all night pacing and talking on the phone.  She stood for hours out in the cold smoking cigarette after cigarette.  We began locking up the Concerta and she eventually stabilized again. 

She decided to move back to her family in Kentucky where she was able to attend college.  She found a boyfriend and lived with him for a few years.  She decided that she had ADHD and didn’t need any medication except Concerta.  She went off of her Zyprexa and Depakote medication again and ended up sitting outside on her porch in a VERY bad neighborhood all night long, talking to herself.  Her boyfriend had her committed to the psychiatric hospital where she was again stabilized on her medication.   Only this time I don’t think it really worked. 

She began coming to California, where my mother and I had moved, and staying with us for one or two week visits.  During these visits, her sleeping habits were erratic.  She would fall asleep on the sofa at 7:00 PM and wake at 1:00 AM and smoke and pace for the rest of the night.  She re-established contact with her daughters who had been raised by their father and was looking to find an apartment where she could care for her adult daughter with Down Syndrome.  Her last visit was so stressful on my children that they asked me to tell her no the next time she asked to come to visit. 

My life was difficult already.  Raising two children on my own, having a son with Aspergers and severe impulsivity, a daughter with ADHD and dyslexia, teaching students with Autism and caring for my mother who was having health problems was overwhelming.  I had also recently helped my niece and 3 small children get settled after a rough marriage and divorce.  My niece had just moved out after staying with my family for about 7 months.  I was worn out.  When my cousin called to ask if she could stay with us for the summer, I told her no. 

She went on Craigslist and found an apartment with a roommate and moved from Kentucky to California.  She said that she had a scholarship to the University of California Irvine and from all accounts it seems as if that was true.  She never started college.  Her roommate quickly found out that she was mentally ill when my cousin wrote her a rent check for a million dollars.  The roommate contacted us before evicting her, in the hopes that we could convince my cousin to get help.  My cousin became belligerent and accused me of turning my mother against her.  She refused to leave the premises and was locked out of the apartment when she went to do her laundry.  The police came and escorted her from the premises.  They asked her if she was a danger to herself or others.  She said no, so they let her go.  How crazy is it to ask a crazy person if they are crazy and if they say no, then they get sent on their way?  This was the first of many run-ins my cousin would have with California police.  Every time she was picked up, she was released without getting any help.
She went missing after she left the apartment and it would be months before we heard from her again.  She eventually ran out of money and called my mom.  She refused to get help and told us that she just needed money to pay for the hotel room until the end of month when she would get her social security check.  My mom gave her the money and she disappeared again.
Months later we were contacted by a social worker, tipping us off that my cousin was staying in a woman’s shelter in Santa Ana.  We went and tried to talk her into getting help.  She did not use her normal voice when talking to us.  She had a slight English accent and told us that she was fine and there was nothing wrong with her.  She told us that she had a ship waiting off the coast to take her away.  She said that she didn't need any help.  When we asked her if she realized that it had been over a year since she had seen or talked to her children, she claimed that she talked to them every day and that she had just seen her older daughter for lunch and described what she thought that she was wearing that day.  The older daughter is going to school in San Francisco and had not been home for months.  There was no way that she could have seen her.
We talked to the social workers at the shelter for a while and they told us that they believed that she had Schizophrenia.  They said that they had had quite a bit of contact with her and she was always talking to herself.  She would become belligerent and accuse people of stealing her things.  She believed that people were out to get her.  She told an old friend that she was the secret wife of Osama Bin Laudin.  She claimed to be communicating through e-mail with a terrorist organization.  She was arrested in Laguna Beach for accusing the owner of an art studio of selling her paintings without permission.  She was arrested for making terrorists threats to the owner of the studio.

A week ago, we got a call from my cousin.  It’s been over a year since our last contact.  She said that she wanted to take us up on our offer of shelter until she could get her Social Security check issued to her again so she could have some money to get a place of her own.  She said that she had been sleeping on the ground, across from the Santa Ana Police Station.   She is now staying with us temporarily.  My mother can’t work because we don’t feel safe leaving her in our house alone.  We all lock our bedroom doors as we come and go.  We all carry pepper spray in case she isn't safe.  We don’t really know her anymore.  She speaks in at least 4 different accents.  One is her normal voice and she seems to try to use that voice when communicating with us, but she isn't always successful.  She has a female persona who speaks with an English accent and is a little bit gruff and another who is a giggling little girl.  The last and most scary one is a male voice.  It truly sounds as if there is a male in our house of all females.  The dogs do not like this persona.  He/she scares them.  They bark when he is present. 
Since living with us, she spends a lot of time in her room, smoking cigarettes.  She knows that we do not smoke and that we do not want it in our house, but we don’t complain because we don’t want her to disappear again.  She also goes outside and sits in the dark at night to smoke her cigarettes, so it isn’t that she isn’t willing to go outside.  I think that the “guy” just doesn’t care, while the other personas do care and try to be polite.  She has conversations with herself using all of these different voices.  She says that she just likes to talk to herself and this doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with her. 
 How come she can’t see that going from being the wife of a doctor to being the bag lady on the street isn't normal?  How can she justify moving to California to attend school and spend time with her children and then disappearing for two years?  How can she think that she is okay when everyone around her keeps telling her otherwise?
The final questions I have are “How can the State of California prevent family members from getting help for an obviously mentally ill person?   Why do they think that it is okay for an obviously mentally ill person to make the decision to not seek treatment and end up living on the street?  If a mentally ill person was making good decisions they wouldn’t need help.  Isn’t that the point of having a state mental health system?  If the only people who can get help are those that realize they are crazy then we are abandoning those who most need our help.  It’s those who think that they are fine even when all of the evidence suggests otherwise, that need us to make decisions for them because they are not capable of making them for themselves.
I now need to give my cousin an ultimatum.  Either she goes to see a doctor and start on medication or my mom will need to drop her back off in Santa Ana to return to homelessness. 

Postscript:  She agreed to see a doctor and then changed her mind.  She is afraid that they will put her in the hospital and lock her away.  She chooses to return to the street rather than go see a doctor.  There is nothing I can do to help her.  I can’t live with a mentally ill person indefinitely.  My mother must return to work and there is no-one available to watch her.  My cousin asked my mom to stop at the humane society to get her a dog before driving her back to Santa Ana and dropping her on the street.  

I am heartbroken…     

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