‘Coming Out of a Cloud’ After Drug Abuse and Mental Illness

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The New York Times on 10/25/2017 by Emily Palmer

Wanda Ramirez in her Brooklyn apartment.

Wanda Ramirez likes to draw faces with hairstyles, no bodies attached. She calls it doodling. Her recovery specialist calls it art.

“She’s an artist,” the specialist, Laura Gwinnell, said with a nod.

Ms. Ramirez, 51, was uncomfortable with the compliment. She laughed shyly and rolled her eyes. She draws, she said, “when I’m at my wit’s end.”

Ms. Ramirez said in a recent interview that she found it difficult to talk about her struggles, fearing judgment. “It’s not been an easy road,” she said.

When she was 26, she learned she had schizophrenia. At the time, she did not even know what the word meant. During her episodes, Ms. Ramirez said, she would hear confusing voices and a constant bell-like clinking. She was hospitalized so frequently that sometimes just a week separated the stints, she said.

“I was crying a lot, and I didn’t know why,” Ms. Ramirez said, adding that she also experienced depression and insomnia. “And then the doctors told me I was immensely ill.”

She had been living in her own apartment in Queens, but after the diagnosis she moved back into her childhood home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, sharing the space with her mother and other relatives.

Feeling anxious, Ms. Ramirez started smoking up to two packs a day. “I used to wake up smoking cigarettes,” she recalled. “Smoking made me calm.”

Ms. Ramirez had also experienced a long bout of grief. In one year, she had buried several close relatives who had contracted HIV from infected needles. “There were so many funerals,” she said. She lost five of her siblings in the space of a few years.

Ms. Ramirez was also a marijuana smoker, but she began increasingly using the drug by herself, multiple times a day. “I used to have to do it just to move around, cook, clean, to do whatever it was I wanted to do,” she said.

It took doctors two years to find a prescription that eased her schizophrenia symptoms without drastic side effects. During this time, she gained about 100 pounds, doubling her weight.

For about a decade, Ms. Ramirez has received mental health and wellness services through Brooklyn Community Services and its predecessor. When she started coming to the agency, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, she often slept sprawled on a covered radiator by the window in the common area and did not socialize.

Outside the agency, she continued smoking marijuana. But Ms. Ramirez said she hated how people would look at her and comment on her red eyes and the stench of her clothes.

In 2010, she began an integrated dual disorder treatment program to combat her mental illness and her drug use.

“It was like coming out of a cloud,” Ms. Ramirez said of quitting marijuana. Over the years, she regained her senses of taste and smell, which had been dulled by smoking. “It was like I was waking up,” she added.

Within a few months of kicking her drug habit, she joined a weekly smoking-cessation group through Brooklyn Community Services. “I quit cold turkey,” she said. Most in the group used nicotine patches to transition, but not Ms. Ramirez. “I didn’t want to leave one addiction for another,” she said, adding: “I wanted to make that change. I was ready to make that change.”

Art therapy, offered by the organization, helped her through the withdrawal symptoms, she said. Ms. Ramirez, who had drawn since she was a teenager, took to the method quickly. And in 2012, the organization featured Ms. Ramirez’s pencil and ink drawings at its annual art show. Her series of bodiless faces in pinks, blues and grays depicted long lashes blooming from almond eyes, hairstyles of tight circles, the faces surrounded by hearts and cubes.

Her mother, Carmen Rivera, came to the show. “She said, ‘Thank you for giving me my daughter back,’” Ms. Gwinnell, the recovery specialist, recalled.

Ms. Ramirez is grateful, too. “Thank you for getting me back,” she told Ms. Gwinnell recently.

In May, Ms. Ramirez, a mother of three adult children, moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, the first home she has had to herself since her diagnosis about 25 years ago. Ms. Ramirez receives monthly $735 in Social Security Income and $150 in food stamps and pays $162 in subsidized rent. In July, Brooklyn Community Services used $300 from the Neediest Cases Funds to buy her, among other household items, two sets of window curtains, a lamp and a shower curtain.

After living with family for so long, Ms. Ramirez said she particularly enjoyed having full rein over the kitchen. No longer the shadow on the radiator, she likes socializing and sharing favorite Puerto Rican dishes like fritters and flan with others at the organization.

Ms. Ramirez, who dropped out of school in 10th grade when she was pregnant with her first child, said she would like to earn her high school equivalency diploma. Having previously worked in fast food and other industries, she wants to pursue a career as a chef. She might also try to display her artwork in a neighborhood gallery.

But for now, she is focused on her health. About a year ago, she became depressed and withdrawn and sought help again through Brooklyn Community Services. She has not been hospitalized for over 10 years. In addition to drawing, she meditates frequently.

“You have to put your part in,” she said of remaining drug-free. “A miracle doesn’t just walk in the door. If you want to quit, you have to be understanding and compassionate with yourself.” Ms. Ramirez smiled. “Today,” she added, “I walked in with my health.”