My mama passed away in late February, my birthday month and almost two years to the day I moved her in with me. The immense grief has gradually decreased, as I read and was told it would do. But some days, the grief, and the guilt and sadness associated with it, hit me intensely. It combines with my “PTSD.”
I say PTSD because of the intensity of the painful memories and feelings I experience and relive at times. Partly situational, there are a number of things that can trigger it. Most recently, it has been facilitated by the arrival of the cold weather.
The cold is a raw reminder of the time my mom was homeless, living in a car, for around two years. The whole ordeal was traumatizing and depressing. I would, in fact, be put on an anti-depressant for a short time then.
In the Central Valley of California, the weather is similar to that of a desert. In the summer, it gets hot, over 100 degrees many days. In the winter, it gets cold, into the 40s and below freezing at night.
Making it through the cold winter nights was very difficult for my mom. She would have to turn on the car and run the heater throughout the night. How I hoped the car engine or heater wouldn’t go out from her doing so! My mom was tough and, actually, didn’t complain much at all. But she’d of course ask for help at times.
In a letter she wrote, asking me if she could come live with me, she specifically mentioned the difficulty of surviving the cold. I bought her blankets and clothes to help and checked in on her regularly, but it wasn’t enough. She didn’t know, given her serious mental illness, but I suffered too.
I had tremendous trouble sleeping during cold nights, knowing my mom was out there. It was agony. And just stepping outside in the cold weather would strike me with dread and despair. The first winter my mom was homeless, I lost a lot of weight. By the second, my stress and anxiety reached the point that my doctor suggested I take a leave from my job.
The cold weather arrived a few weeks ago, freezing temperatures this past week. With it at times, the feelings and memories of those two years. Each time, I’m there again, in that time period, in a moment, seeing her and hearing her suffer in some way and feeling the dread, agony and heart break all over again.
If it’s not the cold directly, it’s seeing homeless people trying to survive it, like the woman I saw as I drove to work the other day. In a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, I noticed her as she sat up. She sprung up and made a facial expression of great discomfort and pain, mouth wide open, eyes closed, like a silent scream. That moment took me right back to my mom.
At these times, and whenever the grief is great, I take deep breathes and try to remember all that I did to help and take care of my mom. That includes advocating for her fiercely when she was homeless. And I’d still visit her when I could, including for Thanksgiving. I’d usually take her to Marie Callender’s, her place of choice for the occasion.
In a few days, it will be the first Thanksgiving without my mama. I’ll miss her company. To help get through it, I’ll be spending it this year in the warmth and company of my extended family, my aunt (my mom’s sister) and cousins. It’s what my mama would want: warmth, instead of cold, connection, instead of estrangement, hope, instead of despair. I’m trying, mama.
(Originally published in August of 2010. It was the beginning of dealing w/persistent government neglect towards my mom. Knowing what I know now, my mom should have met criteria for what is considered “gravely disabled” and been taken in for mental health treatment, not just at this time, but countless others since.]
On Thursday night, exhausted and hungry, my mother began to cry and plead with two of my cousins: “I’m tired of this. I’m tired of all of this. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I have nothing.”
These break downs happen often. While she shows tremendous courage and endurance in living her life with an untreated serious mental illness, at times of distress, she breaks down and cries, saying that she doesn’t want to live estranged from her family. Needless to say, it is heartbreaking for me and my family to see and hear my mother when she is distraught like this.
For a week, my mother and uncle were homeless AND without a car in Bakersfield. My uncle had driven them both down to Bakersfield from Fresno last Thursday. Driving back and forth between Bakersfield and Fresno has become routine for them these last few months. They do it when my mother feels Fresno is particularly unsafe, i.e. when the “enemy is out to get them.” They will drive around for hours, or even days, and will sleep in their car.
Sometime the following evening, though, my mom was pulled over by the police while driving. For all I know, my uncle just let her drive because she wanted to or because he was tired and asleep in the backseat. Whatever the reason, letting my mother have access to the keys was foolish because my mother has a suspended license and the police impounded the vehicle.
They stayed in Bakersfield for a week trying to get their car back. For a couple of days and nights, members of my extended family put them up in a hotel. That was all my extended family could do for them, though. Like my sister and me, it is too difficult for my cousins to be around my mother, especially since they have young kids. My mom has scared their kids before, believing as she does that there are people and evil spirits around her and trying to cause her grave harm. So, for the other five nights, instead of going to a homeless shelter like my cousins and I suggested, my uncle and mom elected to sleep in another uncle’s car.
Come this past Thursday evening, they were both worn out. According to my cousins, my mom was so tired and hungry, that she looked like she was going to pass out. I can only imagine what her glucose level might be. She admitted to me on the phone earlier that day that she is out of one of her diabetic medications.
My sister and I made phone calls throughout the week to Adult Protective Services (APS) and the police to try and get them to do a welfare check on my mother and, if possible, to connect her with temporary housing. APS and the police were unable or unwilling to do anything, though, because we couldn’t tell them with any certainty where my mother was going to be at any given time. We knew my mom and uncle were at the courthouse during the day, but APS told us they only go to actual residencies and a rude police operator told me that the police aren’t going to waste their time by looking for someone in a courthouse.
Well, as of today, the 28th, my mom and uncle are back in Fresno. My sister and I are hoping that we can get Fresno APS to visit my mom. This is not a sure thing, however, because Fresno APS has been uncooperative. They have been refusing to check in on my mom the last two months, even though we have told them that she is regularly sleeping in the car and had been evicted from her apartment. Fresno APS sent an investigator to my mom’s residence three months ago and found signs of neglect, but since that time has been saying that, due to my mom having a conservator, checking in on my mom’s condition and welfare is the probate court’s responsibility. (The probate court is the court that handles conservatorship issues.)
Because of this bureaucratic negligence and indifference, my sister and I have missed work and spent the last two days meeting with and talking to people at different agencies about what’s going on. My sister was able to talk to a supervisor at the investigation department of the probate court and was told, predictably, it was APS’s responsibility. Talk about passing the buck! With that information in hand, I called the Deputy Director in charge of APS and told them what I had been told.
Finally, around 4:30pm on Friday, I received a call from Bea, a supervisor at Fresno APS, who said that she was going to reopen my mom’s case and send someone to visit my mom sometime this next week. My sister and I are not holding our breath, though. We know by now to not get our hopes up in relying on the government for meaningful help. We won’t be surprised if they find an excuse not to visit my mom at all. Even if they do pay her a visit, we know they probably won’t do anything. It’s pretty simple. They should find some shelter for my mom, hospitalize her if they have to and physically separate her from her brother, since he is neglecting and enabling her. We all damn well know that if she was wealthy and/or famous, it would not be this hard to get her help.
It’s time to end this post now. I need to return my ailing mother’s phone call. She is sounding really tired and weak.
As a caretaker and advocate for my mom, I’m constantly reminded how much of what we have experienced, in dealing with my mom’s serious mental illness (SMI) and the mental health system, is reflective of the Latino/a experience. From problems with acquiring basic access to MH services, to trying to achieve adequate treatment and support, to the unresponsiveness on the part of MH professionals, to navigating cultural barriers in my family/community, all have been unnecessarily daunting. In our case, they have proven to be impossible to surmount in getting my mother adequate treatment.
Percentage wise, Latinos/as currently make up around 18% of the U.S. population. Around 16% of Latinos/as have experienced a mental illness in the last year, compared to 20% of whites, 16% of blacks and 13% of Asians.
In respect to Latino/a subgroups, young Latinos/as have higher rates of attempted suicide compared to whites. For males, it was 6.9% compared to 4.6%, respectively. For females, it was 13.5% compared to 7.9%. Among U.S. born Latinos/as, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans experience higher rates of mental illness than Cubans and other Latinos/as.
The rates may very well be higher, however, given the multiple barriers preventing Latinos/as from acknowledging they have a MI and receiving adequate treatment. In the case of my mother, it took years to get her an official diagnosis. (In the case of my father, the PTSD he developed from the Vietnam War wasn’t officially diagnosed until recently, after he retired.)
Regardless of race/ethnicity, denial is a common response towards MI. This was very much the case with my mom and family. In hindsight, it was clear there were times when my mom was harboring extreme delusions and experiencing bouts of mania. At crisis times, the situation would swing between heated arguments with her to just avoidance. We viewed her “locura” (“craziness”) as just part of her personality.
More specific to Latino/a families than denial is pride. We don’t like others to see our weaknesses. We don’t want to admit we even have any. For most of us, not being many, if any, generations removed from working class or impoverished backgrounds instills in us a deep-seated perseverance; an attitude encapsulated by the slogan “¡si se puede!”
In the case of my Mexican-American family, my parents grew up poor, working in the fields of the California’s Central Valley. As my dad describes in a story he likes to tell: “Teachers would ask us when school started in fall what we did over the summer. The white kids would say they went to Disneyland. I would say, ‘I worked.’”
Our pride certainly led us to downplay any problems with my mom. Our family was “successful.” Together, my parents made enough income to be considered “middle class.” Latino/a families are also very private. We don’t like to “air our dirty laundry.” Problems
are settled within the family. This extended to family gatherings. At times during these events, I would take it upon myself to try and help my mom socially navigate, in the hope of concealing any petulant and irrational behavior.
Attending extended family functions with her began to occur less frequently, however, as my mom’s mental health abruptly deteriorated. She’d begin accusing the family of working for the F.B.I to spy on her. She’d begin accusing my dad of trying to kill her by putting poisons in her food and drink. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and insist she heard people trying to get inside the house in order to kill her. Suggesting she see a psychiatrist just made my mom angry and hostile, and everyone more miserable.
About 3-4 years into this, into my mom exhibiting a SMI, I began to take a more direct role in trying to get help and treatment for her. By then, my parents were divorced, but still living together. My mom was unemployed and uninsured, and her psychosis was a constant. She had nowhere else to really go and my dad was reluctant to kick his high-school sweetheart out of his house. I rolled up my sleeves one summer and went to work.
Lack of health insurance was a significant barrier for us when I first tried to get her help. Indeed, it’s a problem experienced by too many Latinos/as. Until recently, 30% of Latinos/as lacked health insurance, compared to 11% of whites. That percentage has been significantly reduced, fortunately, due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2008, however, George Bush Jr. was still president and my mom didn’t have an official diagnosis, essentially proof of a disability, we could use to apply for Medicaid.
I had little choice but to move my mom in with me in San Francisco. SF was in its early years of providing health care services to indigent, uninsured residents. I enrolled my mom and we began accessing community medical and mental health services.
Fast forward nine years later. Despite my best efforts, my mom still remains untreated. In that time, my mom has been released from hospitals against my wishes, homeless, and has developed various serious medical issues. Accessing MH outpatient services, whether community centers or county services, has proven to be entirely fruitless. Why see a psychiatrist, let alone take psychiatric meds, if you don’t believe you’re ill and believe the medicine is poison? I should mention, they won’t even see a person, unless the person makes the appointment themselves!
There are gross inadequacies and structural problems in our MH system. Nothing makes this more plainly obvious, perhaps, than the fact that our country’s largest MH treatment centers are prisons and jails. At a minimum, to address this, laws that prevent people like my mom from being effectively treated need to be amended, or ended, and the lack of psychiatric beds should be viewed for what it is, a national crisis!
More and better family education and outreach are essential too, in order to mitigate the cultural barriers that play a part in impeding Latino/a families from realizing and accepting they need help (The video above is a good example of what that looks like.). Truly universal healthcare is also a must. The last thing a family that is going through a MH crisis needs is more stress caused from excessive hospital/medical bills. Training and employing more culturally responsive and competent MH staff and psychiatrists, and expanding community MH centers/clinics, are also very important. The Latino/a mental health center we utilized in SF was a blessing in helping us finally get an official diagnosis for my mom.
I’ll advocate for these things for the rest of my life cause my mom, my family and community deserve respect and a decent quality of life.
 Rates of mental illness are from 2014 data provided by SAMSA.