top of page

Ahead of the Vortex

By Fred Dickey

Published August 12, 2012

Brenda Hart’s words are as blunt as her life. Answering my phone call, she says, “My life is a negative one. Maybe you want a positive one.” Brenda’s life story makes me think of the Slough of Despond in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” except that John Bunyan’s spiritual ditch was for sin and guilt. Brenda’s despair is not of her doing, but of an age-old malady that modern medicine cannot cure.

Brenda is a 44-year-old single woman. She’s kind of frumpy, but that’s the least of her worries. Brenda is afflicted with bipolar disorder and is schizoaffective. That’s about the mental illness equivalent of cancer and pneumonia combined. You can tell by looking at her that something’s not quite right.

In common terms, she occasionally sees things that aren’t there, and sometimes has trouble making her thoughts travel in a straight line. Her moods can go from elation to black depression like a shutter click. In the brain of the afflicted, mental illness is a pied piper leading into a room of distorted mirrors.

Brenda is important because there are so many Brendas, of both sexes, and we don’t know them. They often don’t know themselves.

Her disease started quite early, and perhaps was speeded along by a screwed-up childhood. “My relationship with my parents was really bad. There are certain things that happened to me as a child that were tragic, and I think had something to do with my mental illness.” She is completely alienated from her parents. “I wouldn’t cry if they died.”

Brenda dropped out of high school and then got married at 21 — bad idea — and had three children before divorcing her husband. One child she gave up for adoption; the other two she has no contact with, but she knows their names and ages: Daniel Allen, 24 or 25, and Yahshua, who is 22 or 23. (“That’s Jesus in Hebrew,” she says.)

“I would like to see them again, but I don’t know how to do it. I can’t afford to go to Spokane, and I couldn’t afford to stay in a motel,” she says in a flat monotone, probably a benign side effect of one of the drugs she is on, as prescribed by her psychiatrist.

She now lives in a board and care facility in San Diego’s Golden Hill. She shares a bedroom with another woman in the older, large house that seems quiet and clean. Her rent is paid by her Social Security disability (SSI) benefits. It’s a sad place to visit because all the others who live there are also mentally ill. However, residents are free to come and go, and activities are planned to lighten their lives: movies, shopping trips to Walmart, an outing to the fair. Brenda sometimes goes out for a meal by herself at McDonald’s.

Several residents are sitting on the porch as I arrive, and everyone smiles and says hello. Others are in the parlor sitting and watching TV, but not with much engagement. Some seem a bit vacant, but all are friendly, as they almost always are. As a group, the mentally ill under treatment are about as dangerous as a nun on a well-lit street.

It’s hard to imagine this place being a refuge; you and I would shudder at the prospect of having no place to go but here. However, for Brenda and the others, this is a peaceful haven.

After picking her up for lunch, I invited her to choose any place, thinking it’s probably been a while since she’s been to a white-tablecloth restaurant. Her choice was a taco stand.

She is deeply curious about why she is the way she is, in the same way a cancer patient reads up on oncology. She attends chapter meetings of the National Alliance on Mental Illness because, she says, “It’s a good place for people like me to learn stuff about getting better.”

For most of the past 12 years — she’s not sure how many — Brenda lived on the streets of San Diego, frequently drunk, sometimes high, and very often out of her mind. She was one of the mentally ill homeless who are part reality and part myth in every large city in America. Brenda was a person you drive past without noticing, and, depressingly, she might be once again. The danger is always there.

In 2000 or 2001, Brenda isn’t sure which, she took some SSI funds and left her hometown of Spokane for San Diego, where the sun did shine and there was no snow.

“When I got to San Diego, I was homeless right off the bus. I panicked because I didn’t have all my medications. I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I didn’t know where to go to get something to eat or where to get help. So I was stuck.”

She woke up in a hospital psych ward. “I guess the cops picked me up.” Thus began a decade-long series of round-trips between streets and hospitals. Once back on the street, she would neglect the medications given her, which would lead to episodes of mental breakdown, again followed by hospitalization, then back to the streets. She lost track of her SSI benefits. She lived wherever she found herself at the moment.

Brenda’s chronology often doesn’t square. Years and thoughts trip over each other. On being homeless, she says, “It was off and on, sometimes it was seven years, and one time it was — I don’t know if it was really seven years. It might have been another year. I was just thinking it was that long, you know, cause it, I mean, I was not taking my meds, and I’d get delusional and think things that are different, and, uh, I think it was another year, and sometimes it would be six months.”

The public hears about homeless people discarding medications and wonders why, often with exasperation. Brenda explains it’s not always a wanton act. Many drugs used for the mentally ill have severe side effects that require monitoring. However, since hospitals can’t keep people against their will, these patients may end up coping on their own with the drugs’ sometimes nasty side effects. You might as well ask them to explain the Higgs boson particle as to manage their own treatment.

“When I was homeless, the cops would pick me up and take me to the hospital, or sometimes to jail, because I’d be drunk in public and yelling and screaming and talking to myself. I was out of it without my meds, because I’d just throw them away because of the way they made me feel. Geodon made my nose bleed, Paxil made me feel like climbing the walls. And others were as bad. So when I was put in a different hospital, I’d get put on new drugs.”

And the cycle would repeat itself: delusions and hallucinations. “This one time I went into Macy’s, and, uh, I took some stuff thinking my dad had bought it for me, and then I got in trouble. I was holding the stuff in my hands and walking out the door. I don’t remember what all it was. Then, I got arrested. I told the police I was sorry. I don’t know if they took me to jail. I don’t remember. They probably did.”

Hallucinations terrified Brenda. “I would hear my name being called, and I’d be looking for the person who called my name, and there’d be nobody there. And I would see scary black silhouettes that were like shadows of people. I’d see something that looked like a cat and I don’t think it was really there.”

Worse, she saw evil ghosts. “One time, I saw the Grim Reaper.” Terrifying.

Living on the street was a lonely time for Brenda, even when surrounded by crowds of people during the day and fellow dwellers at night. “(Street people) were only my friends if I had something to drink. If I didn’t, they weren’t around. I just wanted to be by myself. If someone offered something, yeah, I would take it. But if nobody offered, I’d just drink by myself.”

To Brenda, drinking meant a vile concoction I had never heard of called Four Loko. Brenda describes it as 12 percent malt liquor with a super injection of caffeine in a fruit flavor. Ugh. But its reputation didn’t lie. It did the promised job.

“Most times I wouldn’t sleep because I was drinking Four Lokos. It’s guaranteed to keep you both drunk and energized at the same time. The first time I ever had one, I ended up lying on my back, and when I came to, the rain was falling on me.”

She would also smoke weed on the occasions when another homeless person would share with her.

“One time, when I was talking to myself and screaming profanities. This one guy, he thought I was talking to him. He came up to me like he was going to beat me up. I was really scared. I was telling him over and over again, ‘I wasn’t talking to you. I wasn’t talking to you.’ ”

A typical day on the streets would be spent going through garbage cans for food or to find aluminum cans for a little spending money. “I’d find chicken or sandwiches, some partially eaten. Sometimes people would come up and give me some food.” She would also go to downtown churches or charity facilities for food.

Every couple of weeks or so, she would go to grocery store restrooms to clean up, wash her clothes and put on her clean set. There, she wouldn’t be bothered. She avoided gas station restrooms because “people would be banging on the door.

“I didn’t have boyfriends when I was homeless; just didn’t want to.” She was never raped, a common danger on the streets. She also wasn’t tempted to turn to prostitution. “No, I wouldn’t do that. I’d rather look for cans and stuff.”

Brenda declares herself a believing Christian, but says religion was of little benefit to her when she was on the streets.

She has been stabilized for over a year, first in the Alpine Special Treatment Center, a lockdown facility that she voluntarily entered. She then became stable enough to move to her present board and care, after her SSI situation was untangled. She is currently on three medications, the names of which she painstakingly printed out on lined paper: Depakote, Risperdal and Lamictal. These drugs are her friends, but only so long as she is faithful to them. Thus far, she has stayed with the regimen.

She dreams of becoming a graphic designer because she likes to draw, but she’s had no experience with computers and is uncertain how one goes about such a thing. Yet she has signed up for two classes at San Diego City College — in general ed and beginning computers.

Brenda is trying. She never quit trying.

She’d appreciate having a companion, a fella with whom she could share things, but she’s not hungry for that. She’d just like it.

I don’t think Brenda knows any fulfillment beyond momentary satisfaction. She is never out of danger from herself. She is aware that, at any time, some insult or stress could set her off and she might dump her meds, return to the streets and again sleep on concrete and drink Four Lokos. It would not be what she wants, but in her brain, compulsion can beat down choice like an angry bully.

Brenda is friendly with a crinkly-face laugh. She is open and trusting. You would like her, especially knowing her burdens. Imagine, if you will, having no contact with the three children you birthed, being estranged from your parents and not even trusting them, having no one to whom you can turn for love, and every moment knowing that a shade can drop on reality.

Brenda Hart is trapped in a vortex of swirling winds that pry at her finger-hold on reality and threaten to again spin her life out of control. Her struggle has no end.

And yet, she smiles.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer. Contact him with your story ideas at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

bottom of page