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Mother Copes With Mental Illness And A Rootless Life


December 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Ligia Martinez spends her nights gripped by insomnia, in a room she shares with four others. She lies next to her daughter on a mattress, next to the small, stained mattress where her son sleeps. Her cousin's young children sleep on a bunk bed that dominates the tiny room.

Getting up in the morning is hard for Ms. Martinez, not only because she has barely slept, but because of the pain from her arthritis when she rises from the mattress on the floor.

She keeps all of their belongings in a metal locker at the foot of the mattresses. She keeps all of her medications – seven types of pills – in a shoe box.

Ms. Martinez, who has been struggling with mental illness since she was a teenager, is unable to work. She relies on food stamps to feed her children and on dwindling welfare payments to keep her small family afloat.

When she was 14, she was told that she had depression. She takes medication to stabilize her mood and for her arthritis. She also attends counseling. "I don't want my life to depend on a pill," she said.

Ms. Martinez, 39, and her two children, Ligia, 16, and David, 14, stay in a two-bedroom apartment with her cousin in East New York, Brooklyn, to avoid crowded homeless shelters. In April, they were evicted from their previous apartment, near Highland Park.

Losing that apartment was devastating. "I found my son outside on the sidewalk the day I found out," Ms. Martinez said, crying. "They had put padlocks on the doors."

She and her children have lost other apartments in nearby Cypress Hills over the years. Ten years ago, faulty wiring sparked a fire in their basement apartment. All of their belongings were ruined.

The next apartment, also in a basement, flooded. Ms. Martinez and her children spent several weeks in homeless shelters before moving in with her cousin.

"I saw myself giving up on life," she said, so she sought help at the East New York Family Center through the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, one of the seven charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. She was referred there by her son's school in Cypress Hills.

At the suggestion of a caseworker at the family center, she had a psychiatric evaluation and was told that she has bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies.

Several appointments throughout the week with a counselor, a therapist and a psychiatrist help Ms. Martinez deal with her mental illness.

But she worries about the impact on her children. "All of this I'm going through, they're going through," she said.

After the eviction this spring, Ms. Martinez found out that her son had stopped attending classes and that her daughter was getting into fights at school.

Ms. Martinez is determined to be a good parent. "You have to raise your kids in reality," she said. She not only tells them to avoid drugs, but explains why. She has talked to her daughter about avoiding early pregnancy.

Ms. Martinez's situation became even more desperate when her welfare payments were reduced without explanation at the beginning of the month. She had been receiving checks for $118 every 15 days for herself and her children, but the payments dropped to $27.

Ms. Martinez said she received no warning. Her caseworker is helping her to find out why the benefits were reduced and to have the full amount restored.

At the same time, additional group therapy sessions each week are preparing her to re-enter the working world. She has an associate's degree in business administration, which she received in Puerto Rico almost 20 years ago, and she intends to take more classes.

Ms. Martinez dreams of a home where each of her children can have a room and a measure of privacy. She wants to work in an office and does not want to have to explain to her children why she cannot buy them new clothes.

At Thanksgiving, the Brooklyn Bureau provided Ms. Martinez and her family with food, along with $30 from the Neediest Cases Fund. They were able to celebrate with a roast turkey and hot potato salad.

With $200 more from Neediest Cases, the children also celebrated Christmas. Each child bought a pair of jeans, a shirt and a sweatshirt. Ms. Martinez's daughter also received a blue coat, and the children chose a CD case for their mother.

These moments offer a glimpse of the stable life that Ms. Martinez envisions for her children.

Attaining that life will take work. But Ms. Martinez has help. Another caseworker at the family center, Sonia Berti, is showing her how to cope with the stress of her current situation. "I make her focus on the great person that she is," Ms. Berti said.

Ms. Martinez is trying. "I find myself sharing and talking more freely like I used to," she said.

She has other ways to express herself. She often sits at a narrow table near the apartment's front door to write poetry. Each poem centers on a particular word that represents her moods and the facets of her life. She has titled the collection "My Mind's Alphabet" and hopes that it will one day be published and help others cope with depression.

With her counselor, her poetry, her determination, Ms. Martinez is trying to build that stable life she glimpsed at her Thanksgiving table.

"I want to depend on myself," she said. "I want to wake up one morning and say, `This place is mine.' "

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