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A woman shares her story of life with bipolar disorder, being homeless, yet still having hope that things will improve.

Personal Stories on Living with Bipolar Disorder

Manic Depressive, Homeless, and Hopeful

A woman shares her story of life with bipolar disorder, being homeless, yet still having hope that things will improve.Looking back, it's hard to believe that it took over 40 years before I was diagnosed bipolar (manic depressive). During my childhood, I went back and forth between A+ student and "underachiever." As an adult, I went back and forth between workaholic and drifting vaguely between jobs, couch-surfing.

In 1994, while I was staying with my sister "between jobs," she cleared up some of my misunderstanding about manic depression (which had come to be called bipolar disorder) and I saw a psychiatrist, who made the diagnosis official. I was afraid of medication, however. I thought that by knowing what was going on I could control my cycles better — by diet, exercise, and regularized sleep.

In 1995, though, I slid into a depression with no manias. It went on and on. I was staying with a friend who had a home business, and let me work in his home office and sleep on his couch. I became less and less effective, more and more foggy, confused and lethargic. Eventually he hired someone else for the office work, but he let me stay with him until I "got better" and found other work.

In October, he told me that a family member was coming for a visit and he needed the couch. I pulled some energy up, put on a bright face, and told him I'd found a job and an apartment, I'd be just fine.

I spent what money I had left on a night at the YWCA. The next night, I rode the bus out to the airport — I'd heard that people slept in the transit lounge at the airport. When I got their, there were two older white men with twine-wrapped boxes on old handcarts, three older black men with the same sort of "luggage," and two white women with newish-looking luggage, both stretched out asleep. Everyone had what I've come to call "the pavement look" on their face. Several hours later, everybody was still there. Eventually, I went to sleep. At four in the morning, two airport security men came around and started asking the black men to show their tickets. "If you need shelter," they said, "we can get you to a shelter."

I thought we were all busted. But after rousting the black guys, the security folks moved on. They never asked any of the rest of us to show a ticket. I doubt that any of us could have.

The next day, I spent several hours wandering Capitol Hill, looking for a sign in a window saying, "Desperately wanted: One manic-depressive computer programmer, to start immediately." I didn't find one.

Finally I stopped on a street corner and said too myself, "This is it. I'm 45 years old, broke, unemployed, homeless, sick, manic depressive, my hair's a mess, I have bad teeth, I'm overweight, and my tits hang down to my navel. I need help."

Suddenly I felt a great sense of peace. I walked into a low-income apartment building and said, for the first time, "I'm homeless and I think I'm manic depressive. Where can I go?"

They directed me down to Angeline's day center in downtown Seattle. When I walked in and introduced myself to the staff at the front desk, they had a pile of reference material for me, God bless 'em. Shelters, housing programs, meal programs, food banks, where to find free clothes, even how to get a new ID card. The packet of papers seemed an inch thick. And they pointed to a free phone I could use.

I was in depression! I made two calls, got answering machines, left messages — then went to a couch and sat down for the rest of the day.

Angeline's closed at 5:30 pm. The staff asked one of the other women using the shelter to show me the way to the evening shelter, Noel House. It was two and a half blocks away. They knew I might not make it on my own.

When you arrived at Noel House they added your name at the bottom of a list. The top forty women on the list had beds at Noel House. The rest of us were referred out to one of a network of volunteer shelters. As one of the women in beds moved on, one of the other women on the list would move up.

All of us ate together and socialized until about 7:30. Then vans came around; each van took eight to ten women to a different church or school. There we would get out with a couple of bags of blankets, and go in; to a school gym, or a church basement, or some other empty area. The volunteers would unlock a storage room where mats were kept. We'd each lay out a mat and two blankets. Usually there was some kind of juice, hot cocoa, cookies. At ten the lights were turned off. At six in the morning the lights went on again, and we got up, put the mats away, bagged the blankets, and cleaned the area, including the restrooms we'd used. By 7AM, the van arrived to pick us up, drive us downtown, and let us off in front of Angeline's, which opened at 7:30 AM.

I was extremely fortunate. That first night at Noel was one of the nights that a mental health outreach worker came to the shelter. Instead of waiting in an office for people to find their way in, these workers went out to places where homeless people were, including streets and underpasses, found people in need of help, built up a relationship with them, and got them into services and housing.

I was easy. I was ready for help. Medication was still scary, but the alternative was scarier. During my wandering on Capitol Hill that day I'd even found a free medical clinic, and I had a prescription for Lithium in my pocket. I didn't have the money to get it filled, though.

Debbie Shaw got me my Lithium. I took my first dose just before dinner the next night. Halfway through the meal, I noticed the color of the walls, and I could taste the food. The next day I was able to complete forms for food stamps and disability.