I was 27, a 2-week-old resident of New York City and excited about starting a new job as a senior account executive at a major firm in Manhattan. I’m from the Midwest. So apart from a few distant relatives who lived in Bushwick and a boyfriend who was 4 hours away at Harvard, I didn’t know anyone on the entire East Coast.
Cassandra was the first friend I made in NYC, and it turned out that, really, she was all I needed.
I met her that first week on my new job at an afterwork social I attended while trying to fit in. She was an executive assistant but looked every bit like she could have been somebody’s boss– an authoritative figure. She was a stunningly beautiful black woman, tall, thin, with a figure like Jessica Rabbit (literally), thick hair that swept halfway down her back, and dressed in designer, from her ears to her down to her feet.
I came to learn within the next few days on the job how much Cassandra was respected in the industry. She was so kind and giving, always smiling, a meticulous worker, a masterful communicator, a consummate multi-tasker, an amazing front-face at any high-level client meeting and was one of the most sought-after executive assistants in the city. She made twice my own salary, and recruiters were beating down her door.
Cassie and I became fast friends, thank God, because she was precisely the type of person I needed in my corner as a newbie in New York! Plus, there were only a handful of black people in the industry where we worked. And so knowing her gave me comfort, as well as the inside track and a level of respect by association.
Also, as luck would have it, we lived only five blocks from each other in Crown Heights! At age 29, she was already a homeowner who took care of her elderly West Indian mother and older brother. Her mom immediately took me in as her own daughter and would cook dinner for us every evening: My favorite was the Kingfish with macaroni pie, curried lentils, callaloo and coo coo. Also, because Cassie was so stunning, there wasn’t a bar we would walk into after work where free drinks were not sent down to us by some Wall Street executive interested in getting her number (never mine, but I didn’t care).
And that’s not all. It gets better still… Somehow, she had befriended a cab driver who would come and pick us up anytime she called and take us anywhere around the city for free! This was my initial lifestyle upon moving to New York City: cab rides everywhere, free drinks anywhere, disposable income, and a delicious, home-cooked meal every night– the sort of thing a person could only dream about as a new resident in their 20s!
But, of course, at some point the bubble had to burst. Ironically, it began to happen around the same time that the Dot.Com bubble bursted; that Cassie and my favorite singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash; and that the Twin Towers fell.
I had left the company to start my own business, and immediately my income began evaporating before my eyes. Initially, Cassie and I maintained a close friendship, but it was also during this time when I first started noticing that she was changing. She was drinking a lot more and growing more argumentative and confrontational with everyone– her family members, me, her mom and co-workers…
I knew my life was changing because I was a struggling entrepreneur. I could tell life was changing for her as well, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Soon, she fell in love and married. I also got married to my boyfriend, and our calls grew less and less frequent.
One day, a few years after she got married, I got a call from her husband informing me Cassie was in the hospital. He said she had had a panic attack and that she was asking for me.
I left work and went by the hospital to visit her. I hadn’t seen her in about a year. She had put on a lot of weight, the result, she said, of the medication she was on (I had no idea she was on meds). She didn’t look the same. All of that shiny, thick, long hair she had? Still long, but now thin and wispy. Her eyes were sunken, her skin had a grey hue. She looked like a caricature of the Cassie I used to know… a curious rendition. What was happening?
I remember praying with Cassie that day in the hospital. I was confident in no time, she’d be back on her feet.
Six months later, I got another call from Cassie’s house. This time, from Cassie herself. Another nervous breakdown. After nearly 17 years on the same job, she was let go. Apparently, she was taking too many “mental health days” off, and her boss had to replace her. To make matters worse, she and her husband were talking divorce.
I tried to be there for her when she would call for moral support. But as my own life began to accelerate professionally, she seemed to be losing a grip on hers. It just felt as though our lives were in two entirely different places. I justified my absence from her life by chalking it up to the “natural evolution of things” and “a difference in how we deal with stress.” Seemed like she was either always trying to pick a fight or acting depressed about something. I wanted her to be the strong and confident again. That’s who I met. I didn’t know this other person she had become.
Over the next five years, still unemployed, Cassie grew more and more depressed and further and further in debt. All the recruiters beating down her door before were no longer returning her calls. Then, her mother passed away.
Months would go by before we would call each other until eventually, no calls at all and our only correspondence was over Facebook. I begin to worry about Cassie a year ago, because she hadn’t logged into Facebook in over a year and her phone was disconnected. I tried reaching out to a few of her family members over Facebook to ask about her, but none of them answered my messages. I figured that she had either moved away or that our cycle as friends had finally come to an end. Quietly, still, I was sad because it was almost like losing a sister.
Then, this past Monday, the same day the Las Vegas mass shooting was dominating the news, I got a call.
“Zawadi?” I heard a soft, raspy voice whisper. I recognized it immediately. “…Cassie?” I said…
“How are you? Where are you? Where have you been? I’ve been worried about you! I’m so glad to hear from you! I tried to…”
“Zawadi,” she interrupted me, “I’m in a shelter. I’m homeless.”
I paused to catch my breath: “What? Homeless??? How can you be homeless? Where’s your family? Where are you right now?”
She said she’d been in the mental hospital and that when it was time for them to release her, every single one of the people she listed in her family refused to take her in. So they released her to a shelter for women with mental health issues, where she has been living since December 2016. She said she didn’t want to call me for the last nine months, because she was embarrassed and ashamed. She said I was the very last person she still considered family, and she couldn’t bear if I rejected her too.
“Help me,” she said. “Can I come stay with you? I have nothing; I’ve lost everything. Literally, all I have left is my life. And… I already feel dead.”
My thoughts flew into a thousand different places trying to imagine my friend– the woman who I once looked up to as the epitome of beauty, class and success– homeless. In a shelter! What? No, this wasn’t happening! Immediately, I wanted to rush to her. But then I remembered my husband would be home expecting dinner in two hours; I hadn’t yet done payroll for my tiny staff; and I had a conference call scheduled to start in ten minutes…
She didn’t want to give me the name of the shelter. She didn’t want me to come there. She was calling me from a public payphone, so before the call ended, I gave her my address and told her to come by the next day.
“Help me,” she said. “Can I come stay with you? I have nothing; I’ve lost everything. All I have left is my life. And… I feel dead.”
The next day, Cassie took the subway to come meet me. It’s hard to put into words how much she had deteriorated physically. She had cut all of her hair off, and what hair remained was gelled close to her scalp with a black headband. Her face was wrought and a bit twisted, as if someone had wrung it dry. Her shoulders slumped over.
She was extremely thin, walked like an 80-year-old woman, dragging her feet, in sneakers that had separated in the front. She needed a bra (or did she have one on? I couldn’t tell). But what struck me the most, of all the superficial things for me to notice, was that nowhere on her body was there a single piece of jewelry.
Ironically, aside from her physical appearance, she seemed perfectly normal, mentally. Just exhausted like she had walked a million miles, and she also seemed sad. Very sad.
She wouldn’t elaborate on how she ended up where she was currently. She offered up no story: It seemed like something too heavy to unload for her at the time. She wouldn’t take the food or water or juice I offered her. So, I tried reminiscing on some of the good times we shared to make her smile and open up again, and then realized what a heartless, stupid idea that was. She didn’t really want to talk. She just wanted to sit with me and look out the window at the city.
I asked her if she wanted to take a hot shower.
“I showered this morning,” she snapped, looking at me almost offended. Eventually, she asked me if she could take a nap in my bed.
When she woke up a few hours later, she asked me again if she could come stay with me. I stalled and then finally said I’d have to ask my husband (another stall). She looked away in disappointment. I felt like a selfish traitor. But I wasn’t sure what to do…
Eventually, she got up and with quiet resolve, said she had to get back to the shelter before 5:00 or she would miss dinner. “Bye Zawadi. And please,” she said, “If you see a call from an odd number, pick up.” Then, she turned and left.
That evening, I explained the entire meet up with Cassandra to my husband, who listened quietly, head dropped. I asked him if she could come live with us.
He said, “Unfortunately, I can’t allow her to stay here. She is mentally ill, so what she needs now, more than anything, is an advocate and services. Contact her social worker at the shelter to let them know you are here for Cassie, and that you would like to help set up a life plan for her. Find out about her mental diagnosis, her medication, what she needs daily and what’s available to her as far as employment and housing. If they know at the shelter that she has an advocate and if Cassie at least knows she has one advocate, it will give her some hope that she’s not fighting this battle alone. This is the best way to help her get back on her feet.”
It’s been six days, and I have not heard from Cassie again. I have no idea what shelter she is in. I tried calling around to a few, but they will not release any information on their residents without expressed permission from the resident. So I’ve been waiting for her to call me back while reading as much as I can about depression and New York City shelter life and the social services that are available.
I still don’t know the full story of why Cassandra’s entire family would reject her. I’m sure there’s a reason, but I almost don’t want to know. What I do know is that she was the only family I had when I first moved to New York City 20 years ago. Now, I must be there for her at a time when I’m the only family she’s got left.
I am ready when she calls, if she calls again. I’m ready to be a true advocate.
For anyone who thinks they may be battling with mental illness, my advice is that you seek help now, before the battle overwhelms you. Do not hide your condition; be honest with yourself enough to secure a trusted advocate and seek support.
For anyone who knows someone who is battling with mental illness, please, do not dismiss them as deserving of what they’re going through because of “bad behavior.” Remember, it is an illness, so their behavior is altered. Reach out to them with love and understanding, let them know you are there for them, and help guide them to the right places for help, before it’s too late.
From the struggling single mother to the corporate executive; from the high school student to the college professor, mental illness does not discriminate by age, race, social status or income. It could hit anybody.
Of this, I am now certain.
For more information on how to help someone battling with mental illness, call 1-888-NYC-WELL; text WELL to 65173 or chat live at nyc.gov/nycwell.
Let’s take care of each other.