She calls almost every day, my “old friend from Oak Terrace.” I can tell by the tenor of her voice, as soon as she greets me, what kind of day she’s having: Sometimes it’s a joyful chirp, quoting scripture and gushing about choir rehearsal; others it’s a smoker’s croak, bitter and depressed and “just about ready to give up.”
My friend’s name is Linda Jean Cray. She’s 45, heavyset—though she’s lost a considerable amount of weight recently—with stew-brown hair that flows just over her shoulders. Her smile reveals badly-worn, discolored teeth. A single, front tooth, apparently the survivor of the bunch, remains intact, recalling some cartoonish caricature of a baby.
Her arms are lined by scars and dotted by burns. Both are self-inflicted, the former by razor blades, the latter by cigarettes.
Linda has been clean for 21 months, her second-longest sobriety streak since she began abusing drugs and alcohol as a teenager. She says she’s tempted daily, that illegal substances are readily accessible at her Conrad Street apartment complex, and there are days when “I wish I’d never left Waterbury and the prostitution, the drugs, the alcohol; I wish I never left it.”
Compounding the arduousness of Linda’s recovery is a 30-year struggle with mental illness. She is manic-depressive, or as she explains, “I’m either really depressed or I’m screaming and yelling at you. Or I’m just crying my eyes out and don’t want to get out of bed.”
Linda’s chief comfort is her beloved cat, Leo, to whom she croons such inspirational songs as “I Can Only Imagine” and “I Will Carry You.” Leo is like her child—Linda puts his health before her own. A couple of weeks ago, she was scheduled for admission to the cardiac unit of Waterbury Hospital. Her doctor, she says, told her that her heart valves are clogged and beginning to leak blood; she might die before Christmas.
But she refuses to go because she’s afraid of what might happen to Leo if she does. She’s also scared she’ll lose what little personal property she owns, especially her late mother’s memorial and her estranged father’s vacuum cleaner.
Besides, she says, “I’d rather die with my cat, knowing that he loves me, than die in some hospital, knowing that you ain’t cared about.”
The details of Linda’s personal history—at least, the ones I’ve gathered over months of conversations—are largely saddening, extremely scattered, and often irreconcilable. In the third category is her relationship with her parents. Linda speaks affectionately about her mother; she says she can’t wait to be with her again in heaven and that the holiday season is always difficult because she misses her so much. And she displays admiration for her father, a former Connecticut state trooper, and brags that she inherited his “gut instinct when something is wrong.”
But she also recalls awful beatings and claims she was forced into prostitution at age 8.
Her schooling was patchwork, at best. She attended Hartford Public High School and Crosby High School in Waterbury, where she was born, but the onset of mental illness at 14 led eventually to an extended stay at Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown. There she completed her diploma as an independent study student.
Linda says she has “all kinds of trainings,” including medical training, legal training and, most notably, police training. She’s never explained the first two but says she was a police explorer as a teen in Waterbury, until she was booted for getting high with a pair of officers.
As an adult, Linda has performed a veritable tour of Connecticut’s mental health facilities, halfway houses and shelters: Cedarcrest Regional Hospital, Greater Bridgeport Community Mental Health Center, Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington and Gray Lodge Shelter for Women in Hartford, just to name a few.
“I’ve always been on the move,” she says.
Now, jobless and unable to pay her rent at Oak Terrace, Linda is on the move again. She says she’s received a notice of eviction; she was supposed to be out by Dec. 11, but the Naugatuck Housing Authority allowed her to remain in her apartment a while longer. As of printing, she planned to move in with a friend in Waterbury.
Housing is a particularly frustrating subject for Linda. She says she once lost all her belongings at an apartment on Bridge Street, though I’ve never gleaned specifics of how that might have happened. Recently, I compiled a list of two dozen or so affordable housing complexes in New Haven County, but I could barely complete an offer to share it when she exclaimed, “I can’t get an apartment because I don’t have any ID!”
On days when she feels no one is helping her, an exasperated Linda will ask, “Why can’t somebody just buy me a little house? I’d take good care of it, fix it up.”
Linda’s lowest point, one to which she refers constantly, came on Christmas Eve 2006. I’ll let her describe what happened in her own words:
“When [my boyfriend at the time, Vin] got out of church, he took me over to his house [then] went over to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner, leaving me alone, knowing how I felt. And, again, I figured, ‘Make the best of it. I can do my laundry, clean his apartment.’
“When I saw them razor blades, oh no, they were too tempting, and I pocketed one. Didn’t tell him about it. And I took a very massive overdose. They didn’t know at the time why I was taking pills, in the letter I was leaving. But they said in a way, it’s a good thing I did because they were working, and I didn’t have time to cut my wrists before I passed out. They said no way should I still be alive. And the only reason I know that I am is that somebody helps me out a lot and doesn’t want me that way.”
Linda’s “somebody” is God, by the way.
After the overdose, Vin rushed Linda to a nearby hospital, where she claims she received no psychiatric treatment.
“It was the crisis unit that said, ‘There’s no doctor here tonight, so we’ll hold you for the night, and you’ll be seen in the morning and a decision made,’” Linda continues. “Eight o’clock in the morning, when crisis came in—I guess I was the first patient seen—and I can’t remember their names, but these two lady crisis workers come in and say, ‘Call your ride, you’re sprung.’
“Well back then, I had kind of a poo mouth, and I said, ‘What the f— do you mean I’m sprung? I told you I’m gonna kill myself.’
“[They said,] ‘Well, you’re sprung, so call your ride and tell him to hurry up or you’re going to jail for trespassing.’”
Linda didn’t kill herself, and though she admits to persistent suicidal thoughts, since she’s been off her anti-depressant, she insists she never will. After the suicide of a dear cousin, she vowed to never take her own life.
“[She killed herself] because I made a Thanksgiving meal for her when I was in a rooming house in Waterbury, and she did have 25 years of recovery, until I told her something that hurt her so bad she relapsed,” Linda says. “And like I said, they don’t know if she went into blackout when she took all the pills. So yes, I do carry that guilt around. That my lie hurt her that bad, when I was brought up to never lie.”
Linda has never revealed to me what she told her cousin or exactly why she blames herself for the suicide, but that event is an oft-cited turning point for her.
Another is joining the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church choir a couple years ago. Linda loves to sing, not only for Leo but also for a congregation and anyone else willing to listen. She says she was singing on the town green one day when a woman from St. Mike’s suggested the choir could use an alto.
Nowadays, Linda spends as much time as possible inside those brick walls. Most Sundays, she’s there by 7 a.m., an hour before the first service and three hours before she sings. And while some folks can’t help nodding off in the pews, Linda quaffs the sermons of Rev. Marston Price like an Israelite might have water, after 40 years in the desert.
“I think the church is the only thing really holding me together right now,” she says.
The day before Thanksgiving, Linda was in the sanctuary, rehearsing. Sporting a pair of headphones and a white robe that covered the CD player spinning instrumental accompaniment in her ears, Linda did her best to belt out the hymn, “Power in the Blood.” The noise was airy but joyful, her face impassioned, hands spread like wings at every crescendo and drawn to her chest as she cherished the “wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb.”
Watching Linda sing, I understood that for her, this sanctuary is just that, and I wondered whether those headphones brought more comfort by the sounds they produced or those they blocked out.
The first call came some time in the spring, probably April, when long-rumored tension between young, disabled residents and senior citizens at Oak Terrace showed up in the police blotter: A 37-year-old Watertown man drove to the apartment complex and beat up a 40-year-old, mentally handicapped woman who he believed had assaulted his elderly mother.
Linda resented what she saw as a public perception that recovering addicts and mentally unstable newcomers were ruining the tranquil environment seniors once enjoyed at Oak Terrace. So she called the paper.
I field a fair number of complaints and, frankly, Linda’s didn’t really stand out. Her claims seemed vague and better handled by the housing authority than by a meddling newspaper editor.
Still, I listened. I got the impression not too many people did. Gradually, Linda began calling more frequently—every couple weeks, then every week, then almost every day. For the most part, I say very little. I just listen.
Linda has a very hard time trusting people. Most days she tells me how good the church has been to her; occasionally she declares it’s not doing enough to help her and that she feels unwelcome because of cruel rumors about her. She alternates between lauding the nobility of the police department and decrying its corruption. She rails consistently against the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, believing it orchestrated a “big scheme” to keep her locked up at Cedarcrest for 13 months. And when she’s really feeling down, Linda conjures her Native American heritage, characterizing herself as a modern-day victim of oppression by “the white man.”
She has absolutely no faith in doctors, least of all psychiatrists. She believes one “shot me full” of Abilify, a drug often prescribed to treat bipolar disorder or paired with an antidepressant, even though he knew it has a history of exacerbating her suicidal tendencies. Another, she claims, called every psychiatrist in the state and told them all not to see her.
“It just bothers me that they are allowed to get away with murder,” she says. “Doctors have a license to kill, I guess.”
The day she was supposed to go to the cardiac unit, Dec. 2, she called in a frenzy, feeling harassed by a call from the hospital. She’d just begun to calm down when the hospital called again. Linda held her cell (me) to one ear and her house phone (the hospital) to the other, so I could overhear the exchange. A female hospital worker asked calmly if Linda was refusing transport to the unit.
“I’m not going to see [that doctor]!” Linda shouted. “I don’t trust him!”
I’m not sure whether Linda trusts me or not. But I’ve told her she can always call me: “I won’t always pick up,” I say, “because sometimes I’m not at my desk or I’m working on a deadline, but you can always leave a message, and we’ll talk later.”
It’s an offer she’s embraced. In fact, sometimes she calls, knowing I’m not in the office, just to vent via voicemail. Thanksgiving weekend was a tough one for Linda. I’d told her I’d be out-of-state Thursday to Sunday, but when I arrived at my desk Monday morning, I had eight messages—seven from her.
In one, on Thanksgiving Day, she said she had called the same crisis unit to which she was admitted on Christmas Eve three years ago and that the woman who picked up the phone pretended she couldn’t hear Linda and hung up.
In another, on Saturday, she was audibly winded and said she was climbing the staircase by Salem School, with a taxing climb up Millville Avenue still to come, on her way home from the church.
“I highly doubt I’ll make it up the hill,” she said. “I’ll probably go down somewhere … just roll under a bush, and nobody will find me until I start stinking.”
Then in the wee hours of Monday morning, Linda left three messages—at 2:03, 2:30 and 3:37 a.m. In the first, she reported being kicked out of the church bell choir. In the second, she turned upbeat and proposed adding a puzzles page to Citizen’s News. And in the third, she described excitedly a radio advertisement she had just heard, in which the station said it was partnering with area charities to grant Christmas wishes. Linda’s wish was, of course, for that little house.
Later, she told me she made her holiday request, but the station never called back.
Linda’s heart, though alarmingly weak by medical standards, is irrepressibly strong by all others.
“During Earth Day, I started in March because I wanted to do it alone. It was April, [but] no, I started in March,” she says of the borough’s month-long community cleanup project. “And I cleaned from Rubber Avenue to just below the school, picking up trash six hours a day.”
She volunteers at the Ecumenical Food Bank and at various church events, including St. Michael’s annual fair and its free Thanksgiving dinner. She says serving at last year’s dinner made her feel like her mother was alive again.
One Tuesday in October, Linda cheerfully told me she had participated in a CROP hunger walk over the weekend and had marched seven miles, instead of the requisite five.
“When you’re working for God, he won’t let anything happen to you,” she said.
Despite all her frustrations, Linda maintains a remarkably witty sense of humor. One of her favorite jokes is about the biblical judgment day, when, she believes, all the people who have wronged her will stand in judgment before her and God.
“I think it’s going to be neat when Christ turns to me and says, ‘OK, now how do I deal with these people, learning what I taught you?’” she says, knowing God calls her to be merciful, even if she feels vengeful. “And I keep telling people, ‘I hope I don’t dissociate. Thank God he has the final say.’”
It’s not exactly a knee-slapper, but Linda’s crack is pretty revealing: It shatters any illusion we might have that people suffering from mental illnesses live in separate worlds, unaware of their own conditions and oblivious to our opinions. If Linda is capable of pulling off a dissociation joke at her own expense, she certainly knows when she’s the target of comments of a different nature.
“When you’re not receiving your meds and you can’t control how you act, you do get embarrassed,” she says. “I mean, when you feel the rejection that I feel every day, it’s hard. A lot of times I just stay in the apartment and lock myself in my room with my cat because it feels like he’s the only one who understands me.”
Friday is Linda’s birthday. It’s the first of a trio of December milestones she’s often doubted she’d see; Christmas and her 22-month anniversary, Dec. 28, are the other two.
Telling her story is my gift to her. It might feel like more of a burden to you, if you haven’t already tossed this column in the fireplace. But you know what? This is reality, or her reality, at least. You might have noticed I didn’t include comments from anyone but Linda; there’s no one in this article saying, “That’s not what happened” or “She’s exaggerating” or “She’s paranoid.”
Maybe they’d be right, but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is this is how Linda sees the world, how God-knows-how-many-others see the world. And most of us don’t want to know that—we’d rather throw their stories in the fireplace.
After I watched Linda rehearse at St. Michael’s the day before Thanksgiving, I was stopped on my way out by a woman from the church. She was very concerned that Linda might have spoken ill about the church and wanted to make it clear that St. Mike’s is not involved with Linda’s eviction proceedings.
“But if you’d like to take a nice photo,” she said, “you can take one of the folks preparing for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner.”
As it happened, the kitchen was empty, so she steered the conversation toward the volunteer efforts church members put in to Naugatuck Teen Theatre.
I share this exchange not to disparage St. Michael’s or this woman in any way. Linda has made it clear over and over that when she’s in the church, “I just feel happy.” I think we all know how many good works it and other local churches perform; I believe the same about our hospitals and local and state services.
I share it as an accountability check to all of us: This time of year, we do all sorts of good deeds: We organize can drives and coat drives, sponsor children in third-world countries, slip an extra bill in the offering plate. We feel good about ourselves, and we should. Those are wonderful, generous acts.
But if we’re honest, we can admit they’re comfortable; they’re easy. And if we’re brutally honest, we can admit we possess little or no willingness to pay attention to someone like Linda.
My Christmas wish is that we start paying attention.