Last month we met with Kristy Catchings in Pollock Pines, just an hour’s drive from Sacramento towards Lake Tahoe. She lives in a house with large windows, nestled in the hills dense with pine trees. For as long as she can remember, her sister Lynette Godfrey had always seemed troubled. She often acted out and ran away from home.
This was in the 60s. Her family lived in a rural Midwest town where children were taught to be seen and not heard. Parents did not openly discuss their troubles with others much less with school psychologists or mental health professionals. Kristy recalls, “This was a time and place where things like mental illness and sexual abuse were tucked neatly away in the closet. People who suffered mental illness were often put into facilities.”
Lynette was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia but not until she had become an adult. By this time, she had become self-medicating and addicted to drugs. She lost custody of her son and eventually had to live on the streets. This life style was incomprehensible to her family. While they made every effort to help her, the forces of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness were just too great.
Kristy recalls the last time she saw her sister. In 2009, she found Lynette by combing the streets of San Diego and asking homeless people for her whereabouts. “They were living on the streets in cardboard boxes. I had to step over feces and puddles of urine.” Kristy had one surprising consolation. People would greet her warmly and talked about Lynette with fondness. They were always smiling and very happy despite their circumstances. “I could see the humanity in their eyes. They may have been homeless, but they were real people who have the same emotions and spirit as others.”
Kristy met Lynette in Balboa Park. Lynette’s was gaunt. She lost her front upper and lower teeth. She had dark circles under her eyes, yet she ran towards Kristy as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Beaming from ear to ear, Lynette introduced Kristy to her boyfriend and announced that they were getting married. The two people in front of her were in love and they were planning their future together just as she and her husband were doing. Despite their appearance, she saw in in them a sense of normalcy.
Later that year, however, Lynette died of a brain aneurysm, most likely brought on by her heavy drug use. “The thought of Lynnette lying on the street while taking her last breath and not being surrounded by her family is just heartbreaking to me,” Kristy stated. At her funeral, her boyfriend got up to speak. He was distraught over her passing. He immediately began sobbing. While Kristy empathized with him, others seemed annoyed and embarrassed that he was making a spectacle of himself. “They were probably thinking, who is this crazy guy,” Kristy said.
In hindsight, Kristy wishes that her family had sought help for Lynette when she was a child. She said, “As an adult looking back at events, I can see clear signs where my sister was crying out for help. Her unaddressed issues lead into a downward spiral she never could recover from.”
Kristy and Lynette lived in a blended family. Their parents felt that Lynette’s behavior was a reaction to her biological parent’s divorce and having adjust to her stepfather. As Lynette grew older, she started to hear voices, which her parents thought, were demonic. They did not understand nor seek help for her schizophrenia, which was the root of the problem according to Kristy.
By telling her story, Kristy wants to help other families avoid losing their loved ones to mental illness and homelessness.