Wherever I hang my hat

Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle writer, artist, and musician living with schizophrenia. In addition to his biweekly blog for BringChange2Mind, he is writing a memoir chronicling his experience with schizophrenia and trauma. Publicly open in his advocacy, Henry focuses on education and authenticity as the most effective tools for shining a light on the face of mental illness.

It was the dead of winter when I found myself sleeping in bus shelters or couch-surfing with coworkers. If the definition of homelessness is to be without an address, those four months fit that description. In addition to the fear that comes with having no stability, I was self-medicating an illness that I didn’t know I had.

Sure, the rest of the world was confusing and generally wrong about everything, but that didn’t make my medicine of choice any easier to swallow. The bitterness of divorce and barely making a living wage compounded with the hopelessness of not knowing where I would sleep, shower, or eat became an experience I’d rather leave behind, and one for certain that I wish to never face again.

That was in the winter of 2005, from Thanksgiving to Easter. Sometimes it got so bad that it was easier to just wander the streets until my shift came on. If I needed to wash up, I could use the sink in the employee bathroom. I ate from the trash when I couldn’t afford to buy real groceries. My thoughts were jumbled and my connection to reality became blurred.

My boss suggested that I use the Employee Assistance Program and schedule a visit with a therapist to sort out my troubles. Although I’d found my footing again and gotten an apartment of my own by then, I still lived in fear that my space would be taken away. There’s something in the nature of trauma that amps up the vigilance, a sort of haunted quality pasted over one’s life.

I joined Alcoholics Anonymous to help me solve the drink problem that had escalated during my time of homelessness. I’ve been clean and sober ever since. This ran in tandem with my psychiatric counseling, and in January 2010 I received my diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, compounded with PTSD, anorexia, and OCD. Better that I remain sober than to pick up the crutch again.

My problems weren’t solved overnight. Sobriety took diligence and adherence to a belief system that I struggled with through the lens of intermittent psychosis, but I found my footing eventually because I wanted to, and because I needed to. That’s key to survival. I wasn’t going to give up on myself even though every fiber of my being told me to. I knew that if I could get through homelessness and alcoholism, that I could tackle my mental health issues head on, which is exactly what I did.

It took me almost three years to find the one therapist that I felt I could trust, and with her I learned to see my illness and its symptoms from a different perspective, one where I was in charge of the outcome. Two years after my diagnosis, my symptoms had escalated to a point where I had to leave work and go on disability. I wasn’t satisfied with just receiving my monthly check; I felt like I needed to give back to the community. As luck would have it, I found a job writing for a nonprofit organization, BringChange2Mind, and from then on I considered my disability income to be my ersatz “paycheck”. I guess it’s a matter of self-esteem.

There’s not a lot to be proud of when you’re struggling with mental health issues, especially in a culture rife with misunderstanding and stigmatic beliefs. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative flow and take on the mantle of self-stigma, criticizing one’s self, even blaming one’s self for having a mental illness.

Once I got through the maze of paperwork and protocol, I could apply for health care through our state’s Department of Social and Health Services. I considered myself lucky to receive therapy as a pro-bono client. Creating a support network of friends and doctors has helped me immensely in managing schizophrenia, an illness which is both progressive and debilitating. My “team” was invaluable this past January when I had one of the worst breakdowns of my life following a suicide attempt. I received expert care in the psychiatric hospital, and I finally let go of my preconceptions about medication. I agreed to a daily regimen of medicines to help me control my symptoms and feel like I could participate in life.

Still, the housing question remains. Rents increase, and I currently have no way of supplementing my income outside of my dwindling savings. I work closely with my case manager to apply for affordable rent through the Public Housing Authority. I’m on a wait list for new digs. I have an EBT card for food assistance, and my Medicare is now fully covered.

It seems counterintuitive to me that a person has to lose everything to be considered eligible for benefits that others take for granted: a roof overhead, food, and safety. Life is balanced for the time being and for that I am grateful, but I have to admit to a nagging fear that perhaps I will one day be homeless again. It’s a traumatic event that continues to haunt me. Security seems like a distant dream, a goal I might never reach, and I don’t want it to be that way. I want to walk through that door and know that I’m home.