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In spite of illness, they find their happy ending

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 21, 2001


This is about a Clearwater woman who lost her mother for 10 years, found her, tried to help her, had her involuntarily committed (twice) only to see her released back onto the street, and finally brought her home to save her.

In other words, the story has a happy ending for now, although both mother and daughter believe that it demonstrates some things we should be doing better.

Donna M. Horn is 33, works as a Web designer and owns a well-kept house with hardwood floors that she shares with a happy boxer puppy named Gracey. We sat at her dining table while she brought out boxes and files.

Donna's mother, Vickie Carroll, sat across the table, a handsome, blond, 57-year-old with a serene smile. She was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic 20 years ago, at the end of a 16-year marriage, in which she and her husband raised four kids in Largo.

That first time she was in the hospital three months. "I was pretty confused," she remembers. "I was full of fear." In a rage, she hurled her wedding and engagement rings into the garbage.

"We didn't understand what was happening," Donna says, tears framed by curly blond hair. "We were told, "Mom's crazy.' " Donna and Vickie eventually had a terrible falling-out. They lost touch for a decade.

The day before Easter of this year, Donna was driving down Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard when she saw a woman on the side of the road. As she passed, she saw a flash of bright lipstick, like her mother used to wear.

("Hot Lips," Vickie interjects.)

"Oh my God, that's my mom," Donna exclaimed. By the time she had made a U-turn, Vickie had disappeared into a trailer park.

Donna found Vickie in a trailer with no electricity, late on the rent. At times over the years she had been homeless, or lived in a tent. She ate little and kept only a Bible.

"I ignored my flesh and walked in the spirit," Vickie says now. "I didn't listen to my flesh, even though it was screaming."

Donna, with help from friends and charities, scraped together money, furniture and food. Donna made a deal for the rent, and even printed up a resume for her mother. But Vickie gave away whatever she got, even a TV and VCR. She refused to apply for benefits.

In June, Donna had Vickie committed under the state's Baker Act, which covers people deemed an immediate danger to themselves or others. Vickie spent 12 days inside. She was released with a bus token and an $800-a-month prescription that went unfilled.

Donna committed Vickie again in October. Five days later, without notice, she saw Vickie walking down Gulf-to-Bay yet again, clutching another bus token. "I can just walk home," Vickie had told the doctors.

Donna took over. In late October she grabbed her mother and brought her home. She got an appointment at Directions for Mental Health, the non-profit center in Clearwater. She paid cash for the drugs.

It turns out that the drugs help. This is why a sweet woman sat across the dining table from me, making quiet conversation. "They don't follow through with people," Vickie says. "They don't explain the diagnosis. People have no means of getting help. They can go on for years and years like that."

Later I talked on the phone with Tom Riggs, the chief executive of Directions for Mental Health. He reminded me that in the 1960s and 1970s, our society moved away from widespread involuntary commitment, except for brief, Baker Act-like periods.

So the hard part is getting many mentally ill people to follow up. "We can offer," Riggs said. "We can be as user-friendly as possible. We can provide services at a deep, deep discount. But we can't shackle the person to treatment." He said there is movement in some quarters to revise the law.

Donna Horn is frustrated. "These people are sick," she says. "They're hurting. Everybody thinks they're crazy. Then they get thrown in jail for peeing on a bush."

I stood, and Donna let Gracey inside for a tail-wagging farewell. We all shook hands and said to each other, Happy Thanksgiving.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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