Through the Cracks


There was a time that I didn’t feel safe in my own home. Every night before bed, after I’d tested the doorknob to make sure it was locked, I lodged a kitchen chair securely under it. It wasn’t the neighborhood.

My small patch of Brooklyn had changed, with waves of gentrification washing away the drug dealers who’d lived in the graffiti-tagged tenement down the street when I’d moved in several years earlier.

My family had recently shrunk to just my daughter Lizzie and me, the sum of a complicated mathematical equation involving subtracting one husband after adding severe mental illness. I’d spent the previous five years trying to make him take the medication that could control his bipolar disorder.

Five months after we separated, my new life seemed… normal. Or as much as it could be. Lizzie appeared to have quickly adjusted. She had started preschool and seemed happy, coming home each day chattering about friends and singing snippets of new songs, her clothing often speckled with bright tempera paint. Then one afternoon, I picked her up from school and ferried her to a playdate. The October afternoon felt as crisp as the apples she’d just eaten for snack while sitting on the school’s stoop.

My friend Jen and I settled into her thick cushioned sofa and gossiped about a particular mother from the playground who practiced laissez-faire parenting, sitting on a bench chatting on her cell phone as her son strong-armed yellow Tonka trucks and plastic shovels from other kids in the sandbox. As we talked, our daughters flitted about in the next room in gossamer wings and purple tulle tutus, shoving stuffed animals in a plastic shopping cart. I held a mug of tea in both hands, blowing on the steam.

I asked Jen if she’d mind if I borrowed her phone to check my messages. I was expecting a call from my ex-sister-in-law, Sarah. We’d made tentative plans to meet for a quick glass of wine (and hot cocoa for Lizzie) on our way home early that evening.

Instead of being greeted by my own recorded voice, a different one answered. For a split second I thought I’d misdialed, but the voice seemed too familiar. I’d heard it so often over the previous eighteen years. I must have gasped because Lizzie looked up from feeding a stuffed animal a plastic pear, concerned. I put on my responsible mom mask and smiled through the shock of hearing my ex answer my phone. He was in my apartment. But he didn’t live there—he didn’t have a key and I’d changed the locks as soon as he’d moved. I hung up without saying anything.

I felt an adrenaline surge. It was a bit like I was floating above my life, watching someone else’s, but at the same time it was also so real that it shimmered around the edges. This was the same disconnect I’d felt a few years earlier, when I called 911 while my ex wrestled with his seventy year old father over his car keys, my ex’s eyes wide from days of psychosis and nights without sleep. The police and medics came and took him to the hospital. Now, my ex had been out of a different hospital and off his meds for the previous few months. He’d called multiple times and angrily blamed me for his illness. When I let my machine pick up, he left disjointed, rambling messages. He’d send emails accusing me of poisoning him, telling me that one of my relatives was a devotee of Hitler and that I had better watch it. He had somehow broken into my apartment and I was scared to go home. Should I call the police? He was sick, not a criminal. When he was on his medication, he was gentle. But I was scared of him when he was off—unmedicated, he was unpredictable.

I whispered an abridged version to Jen and told her that I had to make one more call. Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, I tapped my ex-sister-in-law’s work number into the phone. While the children played, blissfully unaware, I quietly told Sarah what had happened. We decided Lizzie and I would spend the night with her and, in the morning after we’d dropped Lizzie off at school, we’d go back to my apartment and, if my ex was still there, make him leave. We weren’t quite sure how we’d accomplish this.

That night was a surreal slumber party. We ordered a pizza and played pretend, trying not to hint that anything was askew. Once Lizzie was asleep, Sarah and I talked softly, trying to decide whether we should call the police or not. We wanted him to get help, not arrested. We decided not to call.

The following morning, after dropping Lizzie off at preschool, we walked the mile or so to my apartment. I took out my keys and they jingled—my hands were shaking. I placed a key in the lock, turned and pushed open the door. Cigarette smoke clouded the apartment. When my ex lived with us, he never smoked inside. Three wine bottles, each half empty, were lined up in a row on the kitchen’s formica counter. The sink was filled with dishes. A cereal bowl had been used as an ashtray and was piled high with butts. There were damp green towels on the hardwood floor outside the bathroom. He’d been sick but hadn’t made it all the way to the toilet. As we stared at the debris surrounding us, my ex walked out of the bedroom, smiling. But his smile didn’t look real. It looked as if he was faking it, forcing his mouth to curl up at the edges.

“Hello!” he said, apparently pleased to see us, like we’d just dropped by for a cup of tea and some sugar cookies.

“Why are you here?” I asked, willing my voice to not quiver. He looked genuinely surprised.

“I live here.”

“How’d you get in?”

“Analiese gave me my key, of course.” Analiese was our upstairs neighbor.

He leaned over, towering above me. (Many people do, since I’m not quite 5’3”.) Suddenly I knew exactly what the term “in your face” meant. I reflexively took a step back.

Sarah—who is about the same height as my ex—stood up and stepped forward.

“You need to leave. If you don’t, we’ll have to call the police and you’ll go back to the hospital,” she said calmly and slowly, as if speaking to a child.

He seemed to think about this, weighing the possibility. He did not like the hospital.

He turned and walked out.

I locked the front door and flung open the back door and windows, keeping the iron security gates, pre-gentrification remnants, locked. I called the locksmith. Sarah helped me clean. We sprayed orange air freshener, coughing. Sarah rinsed bottles and dropped them in the recycling bin while I filled and started the dishwasher. I retched as I threw out vomit-caked towels and scrubbed the bathroom. We worked for hours, desperately trying to get the apartment back to normal before I picked Lizzie up from preschool. When the locksmith had replaced the locks and handed me two keys, I gave one to Sarah and kept one. Analiese wouldn’t get one. Later, when I asked Analiese why she’d given my ex a key, she said she was scared. She was home with her baby, alone, when he rang her doorbell. She opened the door and he stood too close to her, saying he knew she had a key—give it to him. She did.

By far, the vast majority of people who have mental illness are not violent or scary. If anything, they’re far more likely to be victims than victimizers. But with my ex, I just didn’t know him anymore. He had become a stranger and, when he was off his meds, I had to approach him as such, especially after all the anger he’d directed at me. Still, I was haunted by the “what ifs.” What if I hadn’t called home that day? What if Sarah hadn’t helped me? What if he just took his meds? Would he then be like many of the other people I know who have mental illness: pretty much undistinguishable from anyone else? Should we have called the police? Maybe we weren’t doing him any favors by keeping him out of the hospital. The better person who I was in my mind might have found a way to do things differently. But I was me and he wasn’t taking his medicine. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. So you do what you can instead of what you wish you could do. Besides, when I’d contacted the police on previous occasions, they said there was nothing they could do unless he was a danger to himself or others.

Lizzie and I were “others.” And earlier hospitalizations hadn’t always helped. Some had kept him only as long as his insurance would pay. Others released him before he would have to appear before a judge, one who apparently rarely kept people in the hospital against their will.

My ex was the kind of person who fell through the cracks, cracks in his case as large as the Grand Canyon. Laws meant to protect the mentally ill from being hospitalized against their will kept him un- or under-medicated and ill. Sometimes it seemed the only thing that separated him from the unwashed man on the park bench muttering to himself was his family and his money.

Back in Brooklyn, after Sarah and I had cleaned, I looked around my apartment. Even though it looked better, it didn’t feel like it had before. It no longer felt safe. The sense of normalcy I’d felt vanished—it was like I’d been fooling myself, that it wasn’t over, that it never could be, that he’d invade when I wasn’t expecting it. After Sarah left I sat on the sofa and cried. Washing my face, I reapplied mascara on my puffy eyes and went to pick up Lizzie. That night was the first of many with a chair under the door.

Slowly—very slowly—over time, my house felt more like a home again. I got an order of protection and though it really offered no protection, the piece of paper somehow made me feel better, like I was doing what I could. My ex went back on his meds for a while, until he didn’t. And Lizzie never knew about why we really had our slumber party with her aunt.


Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.

Sue Sanders' essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Brain, Child and Parents, among others. Her first book, Mom, I'm Not a Kid Anymore, a collection of essays, will be published in May by The Experiment. More from this author →