Near me is a sheltered care residence for the mentally ill. They don’t need to be confined, but they need help. My wanderings often take me past this melancholy place.
The residents loiter outside, smoking, sitting on the benches, rocking to the Thorazine. They wear old, worn, institutional clothes – whatever they had on when they went in; what loved ones bring, if they have anyone; cast-offs from charity; what the State doles out.
They have a haunted look – shoulders rounded, heads down, shuffling along aimlessly, going nowhere. They’re unkempt, not altogether clean. The men have the beards you get when you don’t bother to shave. It’s a life of meds and neglectful custody.
I could have become one of these people, sitting there with them, swaying back and forth from the medication, smoking stubs of generic cigarettes, waiting for the next meal, the next meds call – the high points of each day. No one to visit me, no friends, no money to go anywhere, nowhere to go. Maybe we’d have movies in the dining room on weekends. Seeing these people I say to myself, “There but for the grace of God…” I was almost driven to that journey of despair.
After my hospitalizations, people told me I should enter a residence, that I couldn’t make it on my own. Sometimes, alone in the darkness, I believed them. It was tempting – have my physical needs met, no worries about job or rent or food – the State would drug me, feed me, give me a bed. No life, just a sufferable tomb. It was so hard not to crumble, not let the State take over.
This residence is across the street from Chicago’s Lincoln Park, a large and beautiful area with a zoo, museums, lagoons with geese, the Lake. It’s a pleasantly upscale neighborhood, the Starbucks crowd invading and taking over. I see these people, too – the ones who sneer at the shelter residents, thinking they’re different, eyes averted as they pass them by.
I could have been one of those people. I was a paralegal, living in that area. Had I not fallen ill, I might have made a career, earned a living wage, bought a condo, married, become another Starbucks asshole. When I see those people I say to myself, “There but for the grace of God…” They must feel the same about me.
I pass these memories of what might have been, awed at the broken path that led me between the possibilities, wondering whether I was the lucky one. I kept my independence without losing my soul.
And then I wonder: Was it worth it?