I just read another article in the Chicago Tribune about West Hollywood’s Christina Ellman (pictured), the 21-year-old bipolar girl who was thrown from a seventh-floor unit in the Robert Taylor Homes after being sexually assaulted there. She’d come to the housing project in a profound state of disorientation, having been released from a nearby jail just hours before into one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in Chicago. She’d never been there before.
Having nowhere to go, and without any friends and a dead cell phone, she wandered into a store and asked for a bottle of water to take a pill with. People who encountered her said she was barely coherent—a seemingly drunk white woman stumbling through a black neighborood in tight shorts with a blond ponytail. She was bound to be noticed.
She would never have been there at all if it weren’t for the fact that Chicago police arrested her the day before at Midway Airport. She was trying to get on a flight home, but she was off her meds, and too out of control to know what to do. Her father wanted her to be held somehow until family could come get her, but she was thrown into a jail cell rather than a hospital.
She protested, knowing even in her manic state that she needed help. Her pleas to the guards to take her to a hospital were ignored, and even mocked. The police fielded phone calls from her parents, who told them repeatedly she had bipolar disorder and was without her meds. Still, she was kept in a cell without medical attention, violating every rule of dealing with a mentally ill person. Then she was released, and was later found on the ground in her underwear.
Of course, after a fall like that, she’s a mess. She’s in a brain-injury unit in a hospital, barely able to move. She’s enduring intense therapy in the hopes she can one day take care of herself a little. But at the moment, she only makes fleeting eye contact, and it’s unclear how much she even understands.
Her parents have moved into temporary housing to be near to her while she’s in the hospital. After suffering through the pain of having a child with mental illness, they’re now dealing with what is, in some ways, a graver situation. Even when Christina was ill, her parents had their daughter. Now she’s in limbo—both physically and mentally. How much more can her parents take? Of course, they’re very, very angry. They’re suing the city of Chicago for $100 million. They should get every last cent.
Why blog about this now when it happened months ago? I guess I’m just feeling overwhelmed by the details of the story, which I never allowed myself to read. I’ve never related so strongly to a story like this before, and I’ve read hundreds of articles over the years about mental health—cases involving murder and suicide and gruesome inmate deaths. Something about Christina’s story, though, really compels me. I guess it’s because that could’ve been me. The story brings back so many memories.
My illness was at its worst when I was 21, as Christina is now. That was the year of my first hospitalization, which came when I was in a mixed state. My apartment was a disaster area: a disgustingly dirty single room with a second-hand mattress and the smell of decay. (The adjoining apartment was occupied by Daniel Johnston, if that gives you any idea.) A boy I was dating came over, against his instincts, and slept with me in the unwashed bed. I begged him to stay, but he ran out the door. “Don’t leave,” I yelled after him, knowing if I was alone things would unravel.
And they did. I somehow cut myself with a knife, not in a suicidal gesture but in an altered state. I called my therapist and told her I wanted to cut my thumb off. She told me to go to the state hospital, around the corner. I stashed the knife in my bag and drove myself over there. It was about two blocks away. When I got there I was put in a curtained cubicle, where I used my knife to slash the mattress and tear the sheet apart into strips. They tried to admit me but I wouldn’t relinquish the knife.
I left, driving wildly, and went to another hospital. They wrestled the knife away and admitted me. In a strange way it was one of my happiest moments of my life. I felt safe. I cried a lot. I got medicated for the first time. I got help. I could see myself more clearly, though I was talking in a weird baby voice. I missed my cat. I wanted never to leave. I got kicked out because my insurance ran out.
It was the beginning of hell. Everything fell apart, but I finally went home to be with my parents, who saved me. I cannot imagine the pain of being Christina, trying desperately to get home, knowing that was safety, and not being able to get there. The frenetic phone calls to friends and family; the desperation of a mind clouded by odd thoughts and noise. She wanted to be well, like I did, but she didn’t know how. She was on the cusp of help, though, until the Chicago police intervened. Mind you, this is a police force that has been specifically trained to deal with people who suffer from mental illness. Hard to believe.
People feel for the parents, as do I. I think of my mother’s face when she greeted me in my altered state. I think of the tears in my father’s eyes. But I think more about Christina, and the strange feeling you have when the mix of lucidity and madness takes hold. You think, “I know I’m off. I know I shouldn’t be saying these things. I’m a freak. Or am I? Someone help me.” It’s utter despair. It’s no wonder so many people with biploar disorder commit suicide.
The years that followed for me included more manic episodes with more painful moments than I can bear to recall. Sometimes one of those moments will pop into my head, and I think, “My God. How did I live through that?” So many people who loved me but couldn’t save me. So many humiliations and disappointments. Above all, so much fear.
One evening comes back to me too clearly. I was living in yet another dirty apartment with heaping cat litter and bugs in the bathroom. I walked into the bathroom and saw a huge roach in the tub. Unable to think clearly, I went and got a fire-starter you use to light stove burners with, and came back to the bathroom. I got into the tub and sprayed the roach with Raid until it was sluggish, though not dead. Then I set it on fire while I scrunched my legs beneath me, and screamed as I watched it burn—slowly. The stench of chemicals filled the tiny room, but I couldn’t leave. And I couldn’t stop screaming. I was so afraid. I wanted to set myself on fire.
I think it was later that night when I tried to kill myself, using a recipe from a book on euthanasia. Or maybe that was another night, and I’m conflating the two for drama’s sake. I don’t know. But I do know Christina could’ve been on the way to wellness and safety.
Christina’s story hits me hard. I’m so sorry for her, and I’m so sorry for her parents, Rick and Kathy Paine. I wish them the best of luck. They need it.
liz | 10:23 PM | Uncategorized