The January 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Religious Witness with Homeless People

Memorial for Homeless Deaths in East Bay

Remember Rosa Parks: Justice in Public Transit

Justice is Pushed to Back of Bus

Big Brother Watches the Poor

Homeless Woman Works to Survive

Let Justice Roll: Raise the Miserly Minimum Wage

Richmond Courts Unfair to Poor

War Profiteer Parties Hearty

Poets Against the War Machine

Poems for the Poorman

Poems in Spirit of St. Francis

Songs of Our Shared Humanity

Psychotic Breaks

How to Deal with Pain and Fear


November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005





Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Psychotic Breaks

I feel blessed. My mental illness has made me see with eyes of compassion. It has taken away my fear of life and opened doors to me that would never have been visible before.

by Joy Bright McCorkle

I drove into the schoolyard, shut off the motor, and looked through the windshield. A large chartreuse cloud came from the right and from the left came a cloud of lavender -- it covered the whole building. "Great! I'm hallucinating," I thought to myself.

I taught that day in a classroom full of bright and eager, green and purple children. Leaving that afternoon, I caught myself trying to drive onto the off ramp of the 101 freeway. I resigned my position as a special education teacher soon afterwards.

Teaching was made for me: Nine months of controlled mania and three months of not going out of my house. I slept from June until September.

Many psychotic breaks later, I found myself homeless again in Tent City in Phoenix, Arizona. My memory of this time is just flashes. I remember a "nice" man walking me down the street to protect me and pulling me into an abandoned building and raping me. I remember feeling so dry that I would do anything for some lotion. Someone gave me Crisco with which I generously lathered my body. There was no grass on the vacant lot by the Salvation Army. Instantaneously, I was covered with dirt and grease.

I remember another "nice" fellow who got on the church bus with me to visit a service. I tried to wash my hair in the toilet of that church. In the early morning, back on the lot, he awoke me by pulling my hair and dragged me into a tent where he kept hitting me over the head with a large flashlight and telling innumerable other men, whose faces I can't remember, lined up in the twinkling light of the flashlight, that they could sexually have me when he was through. He and the others left me at dawn, bloody and violated. The mind is a wonderful thing. Some things the mind chooses not to remember.

I remember looking into the clouds and seeing my husband riding a beautiful Morgan horse to come to rescue me, but he never materialized. In a wee, small part of my insane mind, I knew I had to save myself. I went to the Salvation Army and asked for a bus pass to go to Maricopa County Hospital.

I stood at the bus stop for a long time until I saw a very pregnant woman waiting to board. I told her I couldn't make the hospital without her. Could I hold onto her blouse while she guided me to the hospital grounds? When we arrived, she asked me where I wanted to go.
I answered, "The psych ward." I went to the window and told the nurse that I needed to see a psychiatrist.

"Why?" she questioned.

I answered, "Because my feet are bleeding" -- for in my mania I had paced for seven days and nights over broken glass, cactus, and stones. After the gang rape, there was no safe place to sleep -- just keep walking.

I remember the pristine white tub as the two nurses lowered me into the warm water. I remember the filth and grime from the grease, the dirt, the lice, and the scabies. When my body was cleaned and fed, my lucidity slowly returned.

There, in Maricopa County Hospital, I was correctly diagnosed as suffering from bipolar illness. I was finally put on the correct medication -- lithium -- 23 years after I saw my first psychiatrist, 23 long years of "losing it" every two and a half years.

Bipolar illness tends to be cyclic, but all the psychiatrists had done for those 23 years was put me on tranquilizers to "calm" the mania. However, in their defense, there were fewer psychotropic drugs available in the 1960s and '70s.

Finally, in 1986, on a summer vacation, all systems failed. Physically, I fell apart. I had facial tics and my body shook so badly that the doctors at Emeline wanted me tested for cerebral palsy. The social worker at Emeline had to fill out my forms because I had lost the ability to write.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, I began the assent toward stabilization, through the crap shoot of psych drugs to find a mix that would work for me. Oscillating between sanity and insanity, I kept climbing out of the abyss. I felt powerless. No longer able to teach school, I felt worthless.

Still later, another tent city, this time in Santa Cruz, and again the psych meds had stopped working for me. Terrified of the cold rains coming for winter, I "lost it" again. Three things flip me: physical pain, emotional stress, or disturbances in my sleep. Mania crept forward -- the raging dragon stripping my dignity away.

I remember shedding my binding clothes. I remember the "nice" policeman telling me to calm down. Being calm was not an option. I couldn't control my brain. So, naked, I ran through the "back 40" on Coral Street for three days and nights while those caring and compassionate homeless people tried to shield me and protect me from myself, hoping my sanity would return.

But, I escaped one Saturday afternoon wearing only a big straw hat. The police couldn't allow a naked woman to direct traffic on Coral Street. I was transported to the Dominican Behavioral Health Unit, where they changed my medication.

In 2000, I discovered the Mental Health Client Action Network, a peer-run drop-in center with computer access. I wanted to write my poetry so I learned the computer. They urged me to return to Cabrillo, where I took creative writing, poetry and two computer courses. They hired me as a receptionist. My two-and-a-half-year cycle has passed over three years ago. I am still stable.

I feel blessed. Although I've had innumerable psychotic breaks, I am now stabilized... for a while. My mental illness has allowed me to see through unique eyes, eyes that see color where others see black and white. My illness has made me see with my heart, to see with eyes of compassion. It has taken away my fear of life and opened doors to me that would never have been visible before. It has allowed me the privilege of becoming a voice for the homeless and the mentally ill. Now, my voice has been published.

Hopefully, my story can still inspire. Hopefully, my 65 years of dealing with mental illness and my 46 years of taking psych meds will help others believe that a diagnosis of mental illness is not a death sentence. It is not the end. I am living a good life now and I feel worthwhile, alive and happy.

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