Searching for snipes
My life as a mentally ill and homeless man
On a mid-November evening last year, I was sitting in the caged-in back seat of affable Chico police officer Scott Harris’ squad car. A light rain was falling. I was grateful that I hadn’t been handcuffed, as had been recommended by a peer assistant at the Torres Community Shelter, where I had been a “guest” (their term) for seven days.
Peer assistants are well-trained individuals whose job it is to be available for guests to talk with, generally in times of trouble. About an hour and a half earlier, I had been in the conference room at the Torres talking with the peer assistant about my state of mind. Johnny Meehan had opened his office door adjacent to the room and, seeing me in tears, asked if he could join us. I nodded yes.
Johnny is my service coordinator at the shelter and had admitted me seven days earlier. Service coordinators act as guides to move us through and out of homelessness.
In a halting and disjointed manner, I was explaining that since noon I had been obsessing about suicide and how I could pull it off. At the mention of the word “suicide,” Johnny explained in a calm, professional manner that it was Torres policy that he call the Police Department for a “welfare check.”
While waiting outside for the police to arrive, I paced and chain-smoked cigarettes. With a reassuring demeanor, the peer assistant stayed at my side until Officer Harris, after asking me a series of pointed questions to assess my mental stability and doing a patdown, placed me in his vehicle.
In the darkness, I could see a glowing green-on-black computer screen that held an account of my behavior and symptoms. Stopped at a red light before a freeway on-ramp, Officer Harris turned and said, “If you ask me, Don, the mental-health system in California is broken.”
He was correct, of course, and his comment was prophetic as to what I was about to endure.
I was born in San Francisco in 1954, so I can easily recall the late 1960s and early 1970s, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan closed the majority of mental institutions in California. Then, in the 1980s, as president, Reagan slashed funding for mental-health treatment in the United States. Both acts caused a steep rise in homelessness, as homelessness and mental illness often go hand in hand.
The irony remains that President Reagan was shot by a mentally unstable man.
My own mental illness first became apparent when, at 9 years of age, I swallowed a vial of my father’s sleeping medication. It was 1963, and the notion that parents sexually abused their children was generally not considered. Being sexually molested by both my parents overshadows my earliest recollections. I never forgot, never repressed those memories.
That was the year President John F. Kennedy’s assassination played out on all three television channels for days. The message was clear to me: No one was safe from harm—not the president of the United States, certainly not a child.
Additionally, my family had the cloak of the Catholic Church, with all its strict mores and patriarchal indoctrination, to assist in projecting an image of normalcy.
As I was growing up in San Francisco, the social upheaval and violence of the 1960s became the backdrop to my childhood and only added to the fear and confusion of a little boy. Conversely, the civil-rights and peace-and-freedom movements instilled a vague sense of hope that, of course, has never been fully realized.
There would be more childish suicide attempts, yet no medical professionals, including child psychologists, caught on. Adult perpetrators are adept at manipulating children not to tell their secrets. During my formative years, my brain was being calibrated to accommodate psychological adversity.
The abuse stopped when I was 14, when my parents divorced. I entered a period of rebelliousness against my mother, who had, as was the custom in 1960s California, full custody of me.
But it was too late. The hardwiring of mental illness was in place. I made a succession of suicide attempts, one of which left me in a coma for eight days. I can still recall the disappointment I felt when I returned to consciousness.
In 1983, thinking getting out of the city would do me good, I moved to South Lake Tahoe, where I lived for nearly 30 years prior to moving to Chico.
Throughout my life, periods of dark despondency have been interspersed with times of great lucidity and productivity. At Tahoe, I distinguished myself by co-founding and publishing a controversial newspaper, The Tahoe Reader, with the highest circulation of any print medium in the Tahoe Basin. It gave me a significant public profile and tremendous power, neither of which I could handle well.
The newspaper years were a time of feeling I was barely holding it together, self-medicating on pot and Xanax and writing of my depression in a series of columns titled “Fear and Loathing at South Lake Tahoe.”
I lived in much-admired homes with beautiful gardens, sat on boards and civic committees and wielded influence with my newspaper.
Tahoe is a community of the working poor, and I was anointed a “crusader for the downtrodden” by the wife of an owner of a ski resort. Looking back from my present circumstances, my concerns about poverty and social inequity seem surreal.
Finally, at age 39, I cracked up under the pressure, folded the newspaper and admitted myself to the Carson-Tahoe Hospital Psychiatric Ward for 28 days. There, I felt I got a handle on my mental illness by connecting the dots between my childhood and adulthood. In the end, I resigned myself to being one of the walking wounded.
Conventional wisdom is that men with my background often live lives of failed relationships, post-traumatic-stress disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, self-hatred and suicide. Bingo on most points.
I’m a tightly controlled man, so alcohol and drugs have not played large roles in my life. Marijuana is another matter. I often said publicly at Tahoe, “If it weren’t for pot, I’d be dead,” meaning that marijuana simply worked for me. There are certainly downsides to its use, but overall I have found it … comforting.
As for relationships, I’ve had my share, but a goal has always been not to have children, to make sure there was no chance I could become my parents.
I’ve had great friendships, some romantic, some not. I’ve had great relationships, some platonic, some not. The concept of long-term commitment seems endlessly tedious to me, and solitude is what I strive for.
In late October 2012, close friends at South Lake Tahoe told me they were concerned about my behavior. What they had observed was that I was divesting myself of all material things and cutting myself off socially. At their urging, I called the crisis prevention line. I spoke at length with a counselor named Richard Greco, and he asked me to promise to meet him at South Tahoe’s Barton Memorial Hospital’s emergency room.
After assessments by a series of health-care professionals and being watched carefully by at a young female, then a young male, volunteer, I was placed on a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold and sent to a mental hospital, North Valley Behavioral Health (NVBH), in Yuba City.
I spent two weeks there. I rarely spoke with any psychological counselors, but I nevertheless was placed on six medications.
Some of the stigma of mental illness has been mitigated by the pharmaceutical industry’s massive advertising campaigns. Depressed? Pop a pill, even though some of the side effects may leave you feeling suicidal.
It is easier and more cost-effective to place the mentally ill on meds than provide us with therapy.
Then, inexplicably, I was discharged to the Oroville Rescue Mission, without being given a choice. It was an edgy place. I lasted just four hours.
I walked into town and found my way to Oroville Hospital, but it took seven hours before I had the courage to walk in. I was admitted as being suicidal and having a mysterious infection for which I was given antibiotics. After three days, I was discharged to the Torres Community Shelter in Chico.
The Torres, which I had read about online about two years prior, is a remarkably well-run place. A 120-bed facility, it acts as a halfway house—a place where people whose lives have hit the skids to regroup with guidance and, hopefully, move on to productive existences. As a nonprofit, it is unusually transparent, with Bill Slack, the shelter director, maintaining an open-door policy to any guest who wishes to speak with him. Furthermore, Brad Montgomery, the executive director, conducts monthly meetings, all guests invited, to discuss the ongoing operations of the shelter, take suggestions and answer questions.
There is a two-page, single-spaced list of rules (each of which you must initial) to which guests must adhere. The rules make sense, considering the orchestration required to make the shelter work on a daily basis. The paid staff exhibits well-trained frontline professionalism, and a cadre of volunteers are ever cheery and gracious in meeting our needs.
Not only is one given a warm bed, hot shower, food, clothing, toiletries and over-the-counter medications; there are also once-a-week art classes and AA meetings for those so inclined.
The problem at the Torres is with a small, vocal number of guests who complain endlessly about the rules, the food and the staff. I would like to say, “This is not a hotel, it’s a shelter and all of this is free to us. If you don’t like it, leave,” but I never do.
Most disturbing, there is a constant stream of mean-spirited gossip about other homeless people, either at the Torres or in the homeless population at large. Many of the targets are the mentally ill who display aberrant behaviors, young people and other vulnerable persons.
Officer Harris, who is presumably a member of the Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team, continued to engage me in intelligent and soothing conversation as we drove through the rain.
When we arrived at the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health’s Crisis Services Unit, or CSU, I was let into the waiting room. Officer Harris wished me luck and said goodbye.
The purpose of the CSU is to assess individuals who walk in voluntarily or, as in my case, are taken involuntarily for a 23-hour assessment.
In the waiting area, I met a patient half my age whom I will call Chris. He would be instrumental to my survival over the next two weeks.
For one thing, he introduced me to “snipe hunting”—seeking out cigarette butts to either smoke or remove the tobacco from and make into a “rolly.” I realize that, to those outside the subculture of homelessness, snipe hunting may seem disgusting and desperate, but many aspects of homelessness would seem disgusting and desperate to the uninitiated.
Chris and I were placed on 72-hour holds at the nearby Psychiatric Health Facility (colloquially referred to as “the Puff”), where we would become roommates. Both our holds turned into two-week holds. My stay was uneven, to say the least.
Initially, I felt hopeful when I was told by the lead psychiatrist, who gave me a great deal of his time, “You’re smart, you’re going to get better and your most productive years are ahead of you.”
He gave me instructions not to tell the secondary psychiatrist that I was not suicidal. I asked why. “Because he’ll try to discharge you, and I don’t want you discharged,” he told me.
But when Thanksgiving weekend arrived, the lead psychiatrist was off work for several days, leaving the secondary psychiatrist in charge. Apparently wanting to free up my bed, he discontinued all of my meds.
This triggered more than 72 hours of sleep deprivation that was tortuous. On the third evening, as I began to experience audio and visual hallucinations, the charge nurse telephoned the secondary psychiatrist at home twice, asking that I be prescribed something for sleep. He refused.
“I’m being treated as if I’m a poor homeless man, which I am,” I said to the charge nurse.
With tremendous compassion she responded, “Yes, but that doesn’t give him the right to mistreat you.”
As at Yuba City’s NVBH, the real benefit came from bonding with other patients and the wonderful mental-health workers who interacted with us the most on a daily basis. Chris and I, two men from very different backgrounds, talked for hours every day, and we both came to believe that our Puff experiences would have been much more challenging were it not for our becoming friends.
We were discharged on the same day. It turned out that my social worker, who was responsible for coming up with a discharge plan for me, did nothing that he said he would. Chris and I were booted out so quickly that they failed to give him his wallet.
At the Torres, I was welcomed back warmly by staff and guests. My bed was as I left it. I met with Johnny and described what I had endured at the PHF and assured him I was basically OK. I wasn’t, however, and by 9 p.m. I was unraveling in the office while talking with two staff members.
Again, one of them explained matter-of-factly that she would have to call the Police Department for a welfare check. Those two women, eventually joined by another staff member, formed a protective circle around me as we waited for the police to arrive.
“You know what I thought when I first met you?” one of the women asked. I looked at her blankly. “I thought, there goes a very nice man.” I had no idea what she was talking about. At that moment, I was entirely self-loathing.
Two Chico police officers arrived this time, playing good cop/bad cop. I didn’t get their names. The good cop asked the requisite questions and noticed that I could not control my trembling. The bad cop, to my dismay, said with unabashed contempt, “People who are going to kill themselves don’t talk about it, Don.”
I wasn’t about to argue, but made a tacit promise to myself then and there that I wasn’t going to go back into another mental hospital. Thankfully, it was the good cop who drove me to the CSU, and our only dialogue was when he asked if I minded the music he was playing.
At the CSU, I stood outside smoking a snipe with another patient. A train whistle sounded in the distance. “It’s talking to me,” he said.
“What’s it saying?” I asked.
“It’s telling me my dog is dead,” he answered tearfully.
Steadfast to my promise to myself, I convinced the staff that I was stable, and was not sent off to a psychiatric hospital.
I am back at the Torres now, toughing out my scattered-marbles mind. I have the support of the staff there and friendships with a handful of other guests. I’ve followed up with my outpatient appointments at Behavioral Health, and so far it’s going well. A team is developing a treatment plan for me. Its four members include a psychiatrist who respects my wishes not to be prescribed any other meds besides Wellbutrin (an antidepressant) and Seroquel (a sleep aid), which I’ve been taking for two months; a nurse who manages my medications weekly (so that I’m not in possession of a lethal dose) and encourages me to write; a case manager who speaks with me with encouragement and a sense of camaraderie; and a clinical social worker whose competence and empathy move me when she says, “I don’t want to see you hurt yourself.”
I am categorized by the Behavioral Health team as “severely mentally ill” based on my lifelong history of mental illness, my recent spates of hospitalizations and my “suicidal ideation.” The team members, as well as Johnny at the Torres, believe I will get well. I have no clear sense of that, but because of all the sincere efforts being made to fix me, I’m willing to give it one more shot.
Additionally, the Butte County Department of Social Services and the Social Security Administration are attempting to address my financial needs.
As a poor person, this is all at no cost to me. I feel no guilt or shame about that, as I have paid my societal dues.
In some ways, I feel faux-homeless: I’ve not earned the badge of honor of living on the streets, I haven’t had the gumption to panhandle (although I’ve had no money for nearly three months), haven’t been rousted from the bench at Children’s Playground, where I often take short afternoon naps, or been shooed away from Barnes & Noble, where I sometimes read for hours before checking back into the nearby Torres Shelter.
Chico has been largely welcoming to me. Despite the brouhaha over the unsavory aspects of the downtown area, I find it pleasantly quirky, and City Plaza is a crossroads for us homeless.
On Saturdays the group Food Not Bombs serves up delicious free meals, the makings of which are contributed by Chico Natural Foods and the Saturday farmers’ market. Some of the nearby coffee shops and Lyon Books and the used bookstore are hospitable, even though I don’t spend a dime. And then there are the tremendous resources of the Chico State library and the Butte County Public Library.
On Jan. 15, I attended the monthly meeting of the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force. It had been years since I attended such a bureaucratic gathering. Addressing the nearly overwhelming issue of Chico’s homeless population, one of the panelists said, “We’re struggling with how to deal with it.”
Many days I walk or bike alone for miles, losing myself in the astonishing vastness of Upper Bidwell Park. Connecting with nature has a settling effect on a man like me.
Throughout my life I have become adept as masking the trouble within my mind. I am reserved, well-mannered and confident in my social skills. Often I have been told, “You don’t appear mentally ill” or “You don’t look homeless.”
My response is bewilderment. Tell me, what do mental illness and homelessness look like?
There’s potential light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, if I can figure out how to turn it on. I’m signed with a literary agency in New York City, and a major publisher is waiting for me to produce a book synopsis (three chapters and an outline). The concept of re-entering anything close to public life leaves me wholly blocked.
One of the ironies of my life is that I am in very good physical health. Every day I remind myself of yoga philosophy: engage the breath, stay in the moment, don’t look back and don’t look forward. Also, I often think of Chris’ last words to me as we said our goodbyes, “You’re pretty cool, man. Don’t kill yourself. Write the book.”