Formerly homeless vendor shares truth about mental health stigma

Kevin sells The Curbside Chronicle vendor in Oklahoma City [OKC]. Here, he shares a candid account of living with bipolar and schizophrenia to help shine a light on the stigmas surrounding mental health and homelessness.

Interview: Ranya O’Connor, The Curbside Chronicle editor

Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

I was raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I come from a very dysfunctional family. My father was a veteran in the U.S. Army and a weekend alcoholic. He would get drunk and tell me stories about Vietnam. He got shot in the war and a fellow soldier had to pack him on his back to safety. Me and him lived with my grandma. She was very spiritual and a hard worker. I went back and forth a lot from Oklahoma City (OKC) to Ardmore as a kid. My parents were divorced and my mom lived in OKC. My mother was in an abusive relationship for about 20 years throughout my childhood.

Kevin, The Curbside Chronicle vendor. Credit: Sarah Powers

What was that like for you to experience?

It was horrible. I felt helpless. In hindsight, I realise I was a victim too. He would hit me with his fists. But I didn’t process a lot of that until I was grown up. Growing up, I was also sexually abused by a family friend. He would tie me up and then sexually touch me. I was seven when it started and it went on for about a year. It messed me up. I thought I had done something wrong. I grew up with a lot of hate in my heart and very confused. It made me question my sexuality as I got older and affected my relationships. Months after it started, I told someone about it but my mother didn’t do anything. She kept it hush-hush. Back then, I guess that’s just the way they did things.

What was school like for you?

I loved school. I used to wrestle, play track and basketball. I was an Ardmore Tiger [his high school football team]. When I was 14, I started having problems though. I started having anxiety attacks and getting really paranoid. But I didn’t know what it was so I didn’t tell anybody for years. My thoughts would race and I would get manic. I would have highs and lows. Sometimes I would just crash and burn and be extremely depressed for weeks at a time. I was embarrassed about the situation because at the time I didn’t understand that I had a mental illness. People didn’t talk about mental illness back then. It was a taboo thing. Now, I know that I am bipolar and schizoaffective [a condition in which a person experiences a combination of schizophrenia symptoms – such as hallucinations or delusions – and mood disorder symptoms, such as mania or depression].

Kevin, The Curbside Chronicle vendor. Credit: Sarah Powers

When were you first diagnosed with a mental illness?

It wasn’t until 1997 that I started getting help. I was 24 at the time and working at St. Anthony’s Hospital as a porter. I had a big meltdown. I went to work one day and just couldn’t do it no more. I went to the emergency room and told them what I was dealing with. They put me in St. Anthony’s psych ward.

What is it like having bipolar and schizoaffective disorder?

I get very paranoid. I used to think that people were always talking about me behind my back. I had all these thoughts in my mind that I couldn’t process correctly. I knew they weren’t true, but they felt very real. I also have manic episodes that can last weeks at a time. But on my meds, I can live a healthy, productive life and keep my emotions at bay.

How did the medication affect your life?

I could finally interact better and be around other people. I felt somewhat normal. I hadn’t felt normal for a lot of years. I did real good for a while. But when I get to feeling good and my life is going well, I think I don’t need the meds anymore. It’s hard to explain that feeling to someone. I’m sure you can’t understand why someone would stop taking their meds. But if you were ever bipolar or schizoaffective, you’d understand. The meds have different side effects. I would get real sluggish, lethargic, and tired all of the time. I would overeat. I gained 100lbs on one of my medications. I was 300lbs at one point.  I didn’t like the side effects and they didn’t make me feel good, so I would just fall off and start making bad choices.

“There’s a stigma around mental illness. We’re just normal people trying to make it day by day… I have bipolar. Bipolar doesn’t have me.”

I would go off my meds and self-medicate with alcohol. That was the only way I could deal with it. My thoughts would be racing and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But when I drank, I would be able to sleep. It would make me feel like I could fit in. Momentarily, it took away all the depression.

What do you want people to know about those who have mental illness?

We are normal people and we can live normal lives. I have bipolar. Bipolar doesn’t have me. I have schizoaffective. It doesn’t have me. There’s a stigma around mental illness. We’re just normal people trying to make it day by day. We want to have a healthy life just like everyone else. We want happiness, love. Mental illness can be treated but there’s not a cure for it. We can have functional, normal lives and interact and be productive. It’s just like any other disease. But you have to learn how to live with it and deal with it.

I have people in my family that aren’t here anymore because they couldn’t deal with it. For a while, I couldn’t deal with it either. I tried to kill myself five times because I didn’t like the way I was feeling. The way life was. I didn’t want to be like that no more. I didn’t want to take more pills. I wanted everything to go away. But I finally learned how to deal with my mental illness. I got help. I got medicine. Even though it’s not curable, it is treatable. I can’t live a healthy normal life if I don’t stay on my meds. I know that now, and I’m really trying.

"I have bipolar. Bipolar doesn't have me." Curbside vendor Kevin has something to say about the stigmas surrounding mental health and homelessness. Credit: Sarah Powers

When did you first experience homelessness?

I first experienced homelessness about four years ago. I was off my medicine and things just fell into a haze. I got into a funk and lost it. I started making bad choices and lost my place. It’s a hard thing. I felt lonely all the time. I was living on the streets, so you can’t show any fear. But at times, I would be fearful for my life. I’ve had people come in where I was asleep and steal my stuff. I’ve had several guns pulled on me on the street by gang members. It’s not a good situation.

Where did you stay while you were homeless?

I mainly stayed on the streets. That way I didn’t have to deal with anybody. I could keep to myself. I used to stay in McKinley Park and in several nearby abandoned houses. I would stay in the brush at night, out of site. I had blankets and cardboard to keep me warm. When I would wake up at the park and come out of the brush, people would snatch their kids away from me. I know that they were afraid of me, which was hard. I wasn’t trying to break the law or anything. I just didn’t have anywhere else to go.

One thing I never did was give up though. We have an awesome God. I wouldn’t say that I’m religious but I am spiritual. It gives me a sense of peace that I can’t explain. I prayed every night. And Oklahoma City has been good to me. People have opened their hearts and lives up to me.

“I love working with Curbside because I feel like I’m doing something for myself and I’m staying productive.”

What are you looking forward to?

I have a bright future, I think. My meds are working and I’m staying focused. I am back in housing now, and I’m just trying to do the next right thing. I would like to go to a tech school and to gain further employment. I’d like to study computers or welding or something. Several people have already asked me about other jobs while I’m selling Curbside. I have options. I just need a little more time to get steady. I haven’t ever had a lot of stability in life. I’m just now starting to feel like I do.

Life is a teacher. I have learned a lot over time. I have to stay on my meds. I have to stay positive and stay focused. I love working with Curbside because I feel like I’m doing something for myself and I’m staying productive. Even though I am taking my medication, I don’t feel as sluggish any more. In the mornings I feel a little slow, but then I get up and head out to work and that energises me. And more people interact with me now. It had been a while since I had interacted with people. At first, I was real shy and timid while selling. Now, I feel real positive. I can talk to anybody and be around big crowds without getting anxious. I feel more confident.

Formerly homeless Kevin sits at the front door of his new home. Credit: Sarah Powers

How is it being back in housing?

It feels good. I feel a sense of normalcy and peace. The first night, I paced around the house for a real long time. I took a hot shower and thanked God. To me, this house is a mansion. My shed looks better than the places I stayed.

What’s important to you?

The most important thing in my life are my kids and grandkids. I love them. I wanted to see them grow up and have all the things I didn’t have.  We didn’t have a lot, but we had what we needed as a kid. My mother always worked real hard to provide and so did my grandmother. I was real close with my daughters growing up. I haven’t seen them in a while now. Once I get me a little bit more together, I plan to reach out.

What are some of your hobbies?

I love basketball. I love the wilderness and nature. I love to go to garage sales. I used to do that for a living. I had my own business and I used to buy, sell, and trade things that I would pick up at garage sales and estate sales. I would start about 6am.