Tuesday, February 5, 2013

One Desperate Cry, A Hundred Responses

By Regina DeAngelo  

Where to get help

WARM Center: 401-596-9276.
The Jonnycake Center in Westerly and Peace Dale: 401-377-8069.
RI-CAN (Rhode Island Center for Assisting Those in Need): 401-364 -9412.
Basic Needs Network, a collaboration of 30 social-service agencies: Click here

Two years ago a friend of mine reached the end of her rope. For her privacy, I'll call her Anna.

One October afternoon. Anna opened a vial of Vicodin and emptied the contents into her mouth, washing about 18 pills down with a bottle of spring water. Along with that she took one Zofran, a drug that prevents nausea, so that things would go smoothly. Then she put a 3cc syringe into the zipper pocket of her jacket and set off on Green Hill Beach road toward the ocean.

When she reached the beach it was getting dark. She nestled between the rocks, close to the surf, and pulled out the syringe. The idea was to shoot enough air into a vein in her arm to kill her. But she was shaking and crying too hard to maneuver the syringe. She tried again. And again; five times in all, and finally gave up as the Vicodin began to blur everything. She dropped the syringe, lay back and closed her eyes. 

It was early morning, before light, when she came to. "Oh shit," she thought, "I failed again. Even this I can't get right."  It was freezing. It took a while for Anna to unfold herself and stand up. When she could stand she figured she might as well walk. So she walked until she was back home in Charlestown. At home, her husband was asleep. Anna lay down on the living room floor.

A few hours later she awoke throwing up violently. When the vomiting subsided, Anna washed, dressed, and went to work at her maintenance job. On her way out, her husband said, "next time you try to kill yourself, use your own drugs."  Later, at the diner where she went every morning, one of her friends noticed that Anna was in a bad way. She called another friend, who got in touch with Anna's therapist, who got Anna admitted to a hospital. She went without protest; there was nothing left in her. 

It wasn't any singular event that led Anna to attempt to kill herself, but many years and layers that brought her down. There was the 30-year marriage that had soured long ago, but from which Anna couldn't extricate herself. Her husband, who had a degenerative disease, needed her as much as he berated her. Anna stayed out of guilt. Plus, she didn’t have the money to leave.. Depression had come on slowly and settled into her life until she no longer noticed it there. Her house, that she'd spent so many years to renovate, was now about to go into foreclosure. Her career, which had started with a Master's Degree in occupational therapy, had ended up as job cleaning offices in Cranston.

With the help of friends, Anna got the courage to leave her husband. Having nowhere affordable to live, she commenced a year of couch-surfing. When she began to feel burdensome at one friend's house Anna would pack her things in her car to go and sleep on the beach. At one point she lived in a tent in Burlingame Park for two weeks. At each turn, however, Anna had friends ready to take her in, cook her a meal. After a year Anna finally got a small apartment. She still had her job, but it was killing her; she'd had a severe form of arthritis since her twenties, and she was now 55. Her job did not pay enough to cover rent, prescriptions, and food. So she went without the prescriptions and sometimes the food.  Meals with friends were great, but Anna didn't want to be a charity case. Besides, she said, "I knew I could always get a dollar-box of mac and cheese at the store."  She had heard about the food pantries and the soup kitchen in Westerly, but she wasn't going there.
"It was pride, I guess, and the fact that I had a job. I thought, you shouldn't have to go to a food pantry if you have a job. I've always been self-sufficient, not asking for anything." 

It was a couple of years after Anna’s downturn that I went to work for the WARM Center, a social-services agency that offers emergency shelter, a soup kitchen, and help for basic needs. Before WARM, I had no idea the extent of aid that was available for people like Anna. WARM is part of a network of social-service agencies across Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Anyone, with any need, from young veterans suffering PTSD to elderly people having trouble paying utility bills, to kids whose parents can barely afford groceries, to a single person in despair who is about to lose his home and forfeit his life, can get help from one of these agencies.  In WARM's soup kitchen I met people working two or more low-wage jobs who still couldn't afford the mortgage or rent. I saw how a bad turn can hit unlikely targets, like the "achievers" I met in the shelter who, not long ago, were making five times my salary. Or the educated, soft-spoken woman who moved from Arizona with her kids to care for her aging father, could not find work in South County, and was quickly running out of options. 

What I was surprised to learn was that most people don't know about the abundance of social-service agencies in and around South County. At these agencies, professionals who understand plights like Anna's could have worked out a mortgage adjustment with the bank; gotten Anna some healthy food, some help paying for prescriptions; and a better place for her husband to live affordably and comfortably.

Things eventually changed for Anna, starting with a loan from a friend to buy a used car. Then she landed a part-time job where she could employ her skills in occupational therapy.  Then she found herself in a loving relationship.  Now, two years later, she has a new life.  Anna's story ends happily because she had friends who helped her. But not everyone has this luxury, perhaps because they've moved to another part of the country, or are dealing with drug addiction or alcoholism, or mental illness or physical illness mixed with poverty. On any given night, there are 636,000 people who cannot afford a place to live. Thirty-seven percent of them are families with children.

I can't help all these people with an address to go to or phone number to call for help, but I can help people in South County with some useful information that I hope readers will pass on to someone in trouble. First, there's the WARM Center at 56 Spruce Street in Westerly. They can be reached 24/7 at 401-596-9276. There's the Jonnycake Center in Westerly and in Peace Dale: 401-377-8069. There is also RI-CAN, the Rhode Island Center for Assisting Those in Need, which is in Charlestown: 401-364 -9412. They belong to network of kind people who know that loss of income does not mean a loss of dignity, and will treat with respect anyone asking for help. This group is called the Basic Needs Network, a collaboration of 30 social-service agencies in the area. For information, Click here.