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A Chance to Reconnect for Mentally Ill Addicts

The New York Times By David Rohde

Brandi Wells set off from her Upper West Side apartment for East Harlem on Thursday night fighting memories of a decade of failure. With a mixture of hope and dread churning her stomach, Ms. Wells, a 28-year-old artist with cascading brown hair and freckled skin, told herself that tonight, her sad crusade would end differently.

On East 121st Street, she strode into a six-story building that looked like a college dormitory and signed the visitor’s log. She took the elevator to the top floor and entered a large, sterile room with rows of empty chairs. Fifteen minutes early, she was among the first to arrive.

The room gradually filled, and about 7 p.m. a middle-aged women who looks like a faded version of Ms. Wells bounded in. The older woman, Elizabeth Tiess, enveloped Ms. Wells in her arms and told her she loved her. Ms. Wells tried to temper her joy: this was the mother she remembered from when she was a young child, before Ms. Tiess became what her daughter calls a “walking zombie,” ravaged by mental illness and “a slave to drugs.”

Ms. Wells was attending her first Family Night at Odyssey House, a drug rehabilitation agency. The gathering, every two months, is a sometimes awkward, always wrenching effort to reconnect homeless, mentally ill addicts and their families.

To strangers, the 60 residents of Odyssey House’s East Harlem center are often dismissed as “homeless crazies” who prompt pity, disgust and most of all, fear. To their relatives, they are ghosts.

But advances in medications have made some severe mental illnesses more manageable. And various studies have found that for a schizophrenic person in treatment, for example, the stronger the network of peers, friends and family, the less likely he or she is to relapse.

On Thursday night, a grandmother and her schizophrenic grandson sat in the front of the room. A father and his daughter, also schizophrenic, sat in the row behind them. In the back, a woman sat beside her mother, who has schizoaffective disorder, a type of schizophrenia that includes depression.

The meeting began with a presentation and a video describing the night’s theme, bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings. As Ms. Tiess watched intently and gently stroked her daughter’s hair, a character in the video described manic, drug-fueled highs and barren, suicidal crashes. It reminded Ms. Wells of her life before the courts placed her in foster care as a teenager.

Ms. Tiess, 47, has spent the last 10 years cycling between jail and the streets: dealing drugs, stealing and selling herself to support her addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. After a nearly fatal overdose, she was referred to Odyssey House, where doctors diagnosed her schizophrenia. She has been living there for 18 months, and has been drug free for seven.

Right now, she said, all she wants to do is “not to use, not to use.”

“It’s nuts: it’s out of control,” she said. “I’m trying to come to terms with it.”

As the video ended, the man in the video said that mentally ill people can re-establish ties with their families. “Eventually, they’ll see you changing,” he explained. “And feel like they can trust you again.”

Afterward, three of the house’s residents, all suffering from bipolar disorder, led a panel discussion. One of them, Darwin Arrington, 37, a former factory supervisor from Chicago, beamed as he introduced his girlfriend. Then Mr. Arrington described how he took angel dust to help ease the psychological ups and downs that confounded his family.

“My parents couldn’t really understand me because of my mood swings,” he said. “All they could say was I was crazy.” He was sent to Odyssey House after his most recent hospitalization, and his sister, who lives in New York, attends some meetings.

Those in the audience began to speak up. A young man stood and said he wished that his relative was simply an addict, instead of also being mentally ill. The grandmother in the front of the room accused her schizophrenic grandson of bringing his troubles on himself. The young man said nothing.

One resident, Charles Taylor, said drugs and mental illness “made me a disgrace to myself and my family” and vowed to change. Later, Benjamin Cooper, the father of Katherine Webb, a schizophrenic resident, said that he loved his daughter, but that she had been “a real pain” and refused to listen to him when she did not take her medication.

The comments prompted nods in audience. Ms. Wells said she felt tremendous relief as she listened to others describe struggles with mentally ill relatives that were similar to those she had gone through with her mother. There is help out there, she realized, for people like her mother and herself.

Ms. Wells said that when she learned of her mother’s schizophrenia, it was easier for her to understand the behavior of a woman whom she had given up for dead.

“I’ve been going up and down myself, not wanting to trust it,” she said, of their latest contact. “It’s so real. It just feels so good,” she said, tears spotting her cheeks.

Her voice cracking, Ms. Tiess said simply, “I’m sorry,” and hugged her daughter.

After the meeting, the two women headed downstairs and sat on a bench behind the house, smoking. Ms. Wells smiled and waved her hands as she told her mother about her life in the three years since they had last seen each other. Her mother smiled back.

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