It’s the stuff of drama: reversals of fortune caused by social changes, personal flaws, and chance circumstances. While there is comfort in saying, “It can’t happen to me,” the reality is that “it” can. And when it does, it strikes hard.
Classic drama uses a grand face, kings such as Oedipus and Lear; but everyday faces glimpsed during daily routines sometimes tell the story better. After all, those in our midst are the ones who bear testament to the unpleasant truth that no one is guaranteed safe passage.
Even the one who seems to be living “the life” may suddenly fall from grace and need the net of a social service agency, the type that are asking for end-of-the-year donations for year-round services.
One such face belongs to Kathleen Bird — a woman whose words put both name and face on a situation that is becoming all too common.
Bird came to U.S. 1’s attention when she contacted the paper to help publicize a sale of art created by women in HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center. While she noted that she was contributing artworks for this fundraiser, her name seemed familiar and suggested that she — as does every client of a social service agency — had a history. An E-mail exchange verified that hunch. Bird, a successful journalist, communications professional, and former Hopewell council member and mayor, was part of our regional landscape, one of us.
She had also become homeless.
How could that have happened? How could someone who had risen from a modest background (her father was traffic analyst for General Electric and her mother held a variety of clerical positions at Sears and Roebucks, Trenton Trust, and others), was socially and politically connected, and saw her children attend private schools become a client at HomeFront, a charitable organization that provides shelter and assistance to homeless families?
Bird shared her story in a speech that she had delivered this past year at a luncheon for HomeFront supporters. In an era where the Great Recession has become the Great Redistribution, and the poor are getting poorer and have fewer resources, her story is one of witness.
It is also a story of cautions. One is of how easily it is for anyone to fall. The other stirs the imagination as to what could happen if the safety net is taken away. Its tragedy would be to listen to her account and still say, “It could never happen to me.”
Herewith the text of her speech, delivered to HomeFront’s Women’s Initiative at a luncheon at Greenacres Country Club in Lawrenceville:
Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here. And thank you, especially, to my youngest son, Brendan, and his girlfriend, Jamie, for wanting to be here today.
My name is Kathleen Bird and I am an alcoholic.
No, this is not an AA meeting and you are in the right place. I am homeless and a guest at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center in Ewing Township.
You may think I’m crazy for telling you this story, but I hope to remove the stigma associated with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. And perhaps this can help someone.
This is particularly timely. As HomeFront supporter Mathematica Policy Research notes on its website, “mental health and substance abuse problems are among the leading causes of disability.” Also, the research firm states, “Individuals with disabilities, including mental illness, experience a higher rate of unemployment than those without disabilities.”
I can personally attest to the correlation among disabilities, including mental illness, addiction, unemployment, and homelessness. This is my story.
I’m 56 years old, and I’ve been drinking since I turned 18 — that’s 38 years when you do the math. You see, I have the “Irish virus.” The predisposition to the disease of alcoholism — and it is a disease, a progressive, fatal disease, in fact — is in my genes.
Let me also get this out on the table. I have bipolar II disorder, characterized largely by severe depression, with occasional “highs” or mania. The actress Catherine Zeta-Jones so bravely revealed her struggles with this condition several years ago.
Add to my genetic disposition toward alcoholism and my bipolar II disorder the fact that I had a lengthy journalism career. With apologies to (Times of Trenton publisher) Sheila Gallagher-Montone, in the 1980s and 1990s when I was a reporter and editor, drinking and newspapermen — and women — went together, well, like cops and doughnuts.
I had a triple threat to my sobriety.
I drank moderately, then heavily, for years and alcoholically for the past 15. My drinking crossed into alcoholism around the time of my 44-year-old brother Joe’s sudden and tragic death from bacterial meningitis — from untreated strep.
My alcoholism kicked into high gear when I started divorce proceedings against my husband. It was a very public, very expensive, and very bitter divorce over two years. I drank more to calm my nerves and to ease the pain.
The next year after Joe died, another brother, also in his 40s, died of alcohol-attributed cirrhosis.
As the eminent philosopher Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
I grew up in poverty in a dysfunctional family in Hamilton Township, one of six kids. And I never felt that I was ever “good enough.” I did what my parents and the nuns ordered me to, got good grades, over-achieved, and had too many adult responsibilities when I was just a kid.
I had my first job just out of eighth grade at age 14, selling produce at the Trenton Farmers Market. I worked there all through high school.
A budding Lois Lane before I even had budding breasts, I got paid for writing my first story for the Trenton Times at age 14. I paid my own Notre Dame High School tuition, fees, books, and uniforms, and had four part-time jobs in college.
I initially attended Northeastern University in Boston but transferred back to New Jersey to finish my higher education after a Times editor promised me that I could be a Trenton State College stringer if I enrolled there. So I did.
The Times gave me my first full-time job upon my graduation. At 29, and with a great career, I was swept off my feet by a charming, ambitious, politically connected legislative staff member. Romance blossomed under the Golden Dome of the Statehouse in Trenton. We married and shortly thereafter had a five-bedroom home in Hopewell Township, with two Volvos in the two-car garage and two adorable sons two years apart.
There was no dog. My husband was allergic to pet hair. Once the husband was gone, the boys and I adopted a dog.
Unfortunately, like Brooke Shields, I was a profoundly depressed new mother. I didn’t seek any help, and I see this all now through the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.
Over the years, I drank to numb both physical and emotional pain. (I have severe back problems.)
Once the disease really kicked in, I didn’t need a reason. It was a 24/7 obsession and compulsion. My life was unmanageable. I lost my home in foreclosure at the same time thousands of others did all across the country.
In my case, my $75,000 a year state job ended in my firing at the same time my $28,500 a year in alimony ended. I went from a six-figure income to zero.
I actually lost six jobs in a row, including my last professional position as communications director for the state public advocate. I lasted a mere three months there before I was fired for my drinking. My beloved career — first as a journalist for about 20 years and then as a state government communications director for more than 10 years — ended. The very things — my jobs — that I thought defined me as a person were gone. I became a nobody.
I also lost my position as mayor of Hopewell Township when my closest political allies told me they wouldn’t support me for mayor again. Why? I was publicly drunk at the township government’s Christmas party. They didn’t even know that I was sexually assaulted later that night and could not help prosecute the perpetrator because I had blacked out and could not remember anything.
I ran for re-election for my seat on the Hopewell Township Committee while my estranged husband ran the campaign for my opponents! Really. I wish I were making this stuff up. It’s true — it was in the Trenton Times.
I lost my last residence when I was evicted from my apartment. I became homeless when a friend who had taken me in rightly kicked me out because I couldn’t stay sober and neglected to go to AA meetings.
She had taken pity on me because I found out 17 months ago that I had breast cancer. It was an unusual form of breast cancer that has a higher likelihood in women who consume one to two drinks per day.
I can recall now that since I was 12, I have been depressed. For years I was resentful, severely depressed, and sometimes suicidal. I hated myself.
I drank even though I didn’t want to. Willpower and a desire to stop had nothing to do with it. I was obsessed with acquiring and consuming white wine, or any alcohol. I wouldn’t ask for help because I thought I was Superwoman and could do everything myself. Then I just gave up.
A string of detoxification and rehabilitation programs I attended, starting in 2005, yielded minimal results. I couldn’t stay sober for more than a couple of weeks on my own. I didn’t think it was possible for me to ever stop drinking.
But about a year-and-a-half ago, around the time of my first of three stays at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center, I started to think that maybe with the right help, I could possibly stay sober. Last July, after my radiation treatment for breast cancer was over, I went to a residential women’s program in Secaucus. I knew I needed to be locked up where I couldn’t get my hands on alcohol.
Connie Mercer [HomeFront’s founder and executive director] said she would have a bed for me when I was finished. Around Thanksgiving, a little over four months into the program, I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders. I suddenly felt clear-headed. I became more focused, and I was able to open my eyes and my heart wide. I regained my ability to feel!
Amazingly, my childhood hurts and decades of adult resentments disappeared. I gained the gift of humility.
I am grateful that I stuck around long enough for the miracle to happen!
I graduated from the year-long program in six months. Connie replied to my request for a bed at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center (FPC), saying HomeFront would be “honored” to be a part of my new life. I was honored, too, for Sheila Addison of HomeFront had given me great advice on how to get sober and to stay sober. (She told me to change everything. She told me to stop doing what I did before.)
Diseases like mine, and homelessness, wreck people’s lives regardless of their previously comfortable income levels and advanced education. We come in all ages, colors, religions, shapes, and sizes — but we all have our own stories.
HomeFront gives me the structure and the support I need in encouraging me to stay sober as I transition back into the community.
I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to sleep every night and where my next meal is coming from.
HomeFront saves my life every day and restores my soul. In addition, I’ve rediscovered a side of me that’s been missing since childhood. I’ve always loved coloring, painting, drawing, sewing, and arts-and-crafts projects growing up, but these fun activities fell by the wayside as I pursued traditional academic subjects in high school and college.
I have re-found my creative side through the encouragement of the ArtSpace team at HomeFront FPC. Art is therapeutic — a way to release stress, to stop racing or depressing thoughts, and to relax and just lighten up. I’m learning every day. It’s literally what the doctor ordered for me. The psychiatrist told me, “Remember your fun side, Kathy! Smile!”
HomeFront also has me writing again, my main passion and talent. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed in his first inaugural address, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
The wonderful staff at HomeFront has provided invaluable assistance in furthering my efforts to become independent and support myself again. Today I can say that I have 10 months and 10 days sober. I’m grateful to HomeFront for putting a roof over my head, as well as access to ArtSpace, where I can unleash my creative spirit again after decades of being buried.
You have saved my life! Thank you.