Christmas Eve on an empty city street

This Just In ...

December 22, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

THE DEMONS got to Sue Blankenship a few weeks before Christmas that year. She had started hearing voices, and by mid-December the voices were growing stronger. She had started to fear people, especially men in uniform, especially the police officers in her neighborhood. Some mornings she was too afraid to get out of bed and face even the relatively narrow world in which she lived. She wept, suddenly sometimes, and uncontrollably, day and night.

It was a dismal time for a lonely, divorced 48-year-old woman, crushed by mental illness, her grown children hundreds of miles away.

One day, as Christmas 1986 approached, Sue walked. She packed a suitcase, put on her coat and left her live-in job as a nursing companion for a 97-year-old man on Argonne Drive in North Baltimore. She left the only home she had. She left her car. She wandered. She became one of the lost among us.

Somehow she ended up at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Towson, asking for a nursing job, though she had just walked away from one in the city.

The people at GBMC could tell something was terribly wrong with this sad, thin woman in the overcoat.

So, instead of seeing a human resources specialist for a job interview, she saw a social worker. In short order, the social worker persuaded Sue to admit herself to Spring Grove Hospital Center, Catonsville.

"I went there by ambulance from GBMC," she recalls. "The social worker said that at least I'd be able to get some meals and shelter while the hospital conducted its evaluation."

The evaluation was snappy. Sue Blankenship was in and out of Spring Grove in only three days.

"This is not a hotel," she remembers someone saying in the midst of informing her she could not spend Christmas in the state psychiatric hospital.

She was released with $1.55 bus fare. She walked out to Frederick Road and stood on the sidewalk.

With nowhere to go, she decided to knock on her sister's door a few miles away. She hadn't spoken to this sister in a long time, but maybe the dire circumstance could force a reunion of sorts.

Sue took the bus toward the city, stepping off in Irvington. She walked across Frederick Road to the house where her sister had a room. Either she could not bring herself to knock on the door or she knocked so lightly her sister did not hear. "I stayed all night on the doorstep waiting for her to answer," she says.

A police officer came by in the early morning, spoke to Sue and rapped on the door for her.

"No, she can't stay here!" the sister screamed from inside.

"I felt completely dejected after that," Sue recalls. "I went back to Frederick Road and I was standing there, just standing there, I couldn't move. I was crying. I didn't know what to do. And this lady saw me with my suitcase, and she walked up to me and gave me $5 and told me I'd better go to social services and talk to someone. I didn't get her name. She just got on the bus and left. She was my angel."

Sue tried to get to the Baltimore Department of Social Services, but it was Christmas Eve and she didn't make it.

She remembers wandering empty city streets as evening fell, then sitting on a bench on North Avenue during most of the night. She ate an apple someone had given her.

The next day, Christmas, she wandered into a shelter for women and children operated by Manna House at St. Paul and North. "I had Christmas dinner at the shelter's soup kitchen," she says. "The families there with children made the day even sadder for me. I'd been too proud to tell my own children about my circumstances, and I missed them so much. As Christmas passed, I sank deeper and deeper into depression."

Ultimately, she ended up back in Spring Grove. "It was better than the streets," she says. "But it was a grim, depressing, lifeless place."

She was there for four months. The doctors diagnosed her as "schizo-affective," and prescribed medication, which seemed to work after a while. The voices stopped. Sue's appetite returned. She could think more clearly.

Then one day, two young women came to see her. Beth McSweeney and Denise Christopher were case managers for ReVisions Inc., a nonprofit agency in Catonsville that helps adults with mental disorders get out of institutions by providing assistance with jobs, housing and support services. Hundreds of men and women have gone through ReVisions on the way to the mainstream.

In 1987, one of them was Sue Blankenship.

"Beth and Denise said they had a place for me to stay if I was interested, and I most certainly was," Sue says. "A few weeks after that, one of them came to pick me up on the day of my discharge from Spring Grove. She took me to McDonald's and bought me a Coke and a cheeseburger and then she took me to my new house. I had an apartment at Town and Country Apartments. It was so beautiful I broke down in tears. It really was the first day of the rest of my life."

She's worked as the receptionist at the ReVisions headquarters in an old parochial school on Winters Lane all these years. She moved into a townhouse a couple of years ago. She has a fiance. She tells clean jokes. She laughs. She has a smile that would warm an empty city street on a winter night.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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