A few Saturdays ago I dragged my boyfriend and Grandmother to the local independent theater to watch a terribly sad documentary about Linda Bishop. Linda Bishop was a middle-aged woman who had an ordinary life until she had a psychotic break later in life. Her diagnosis varied from doctor to doctor and at times included bipolar and schizophrenia. But Linda Bishop vehemently denied having a mental illness. She tried time and time again to prove to doctors and her family that she was not mentally ill, despite erratic and unstable behavior that put her own safety in danger. Which constituted her admittance to New Hampshire Hospital.
Years ago, New Hampshire had a model mental health system and places all over the United States attempted to duplicate it. As time went on, funding decreased and New Hampshire faced hefty fines and criticism for their lack of mental health treatment available. Unfortunately, the story of Linda Bishop is one of a person who slipped through the cracks, and it ended terribly.
She was released after months of refusing to take her medication due to continuing to deny her diagnosis. She gave the hospital a fake address of where she would be staying after discharge, but this was a lie. All she wanted to do was get her freedom back after an extensive stay that to Linda, reduced her dignity. Once out of the hospital, she wandered Concord, homeless and without water, food, or money. She stumbled across a vacant farmhouse and decided to stay there. Her family was not notified of her discharge due to confidentiality concerns. Linda became suspicious of her family’s intentions and did not want her sister knowing about her whereabout. Essentially, Linda isolated herself in hopes to free herself.
Once at the farmhouse, she hid in the house with no electricity and as Winter came, with no heat. She went out at night to bathe in the nearby creek and to pick apples off of the apple tree for food. For months, she only ate apples, rationing them to extend her meals. Unfortunately, she became increasingly delusional about a husband that never existed coming to save her. She contemplated leaving the house to get help and food, but paranoid ideations kept her in the house. She expressed what good would come of getting help when all she had experienced before was a dictatorship over her life, and people trying to convince her she had a mental illness, all the while she tried to convince them she didn’t. Up until the very end, Linda Bishop wanted to keep her dignity and chose to stay in that house. But, was it really her choice? Or was it that she was so mentally ill, she was not able to tap into her survival instincts to make it out of that house alive?
In the end, Linda ran out of apples and came up with a million different reasons why leaving the house for help was not plausible. And why staying there despite not having food and waiting for her husband to save her was a better idea. And in the end, this killed Linda Bishop. She starved to death for a month, becoming weaker and weaker until eventually passing away on the living room floor in an empty house. We know this because she documented her every day in a journal.
After the documentary was over, my Grandmother and I talked back and forth since we both work in the mental health field. My boyfriend has heard me banter back and forth for years about mental illness and the political issues that pop up with treatment, so he chimed in as well. The documentary was terribly upsetting, frustrating because you knew all she had to do was walk the few feet to the main, busy road to save herself, and sad because it was apparent how sick Linda Bishop really was. As stated in the documentary and by proof of Linda’s journal, the way she described the farmhouse you would think it was in the middle of nowhere. But sadly, it was feet from a busy road, and easily viewed from the busy 93 highway. As a matter of fact, I had driven past that house at least two times a day for years.
We went grocery shopping, which was a distraction from the deep, intense subject of what we just watched. We spent more money than we ever had on groceries that day… was it because we had just witnessed the process of someone starving? On our way back home, I couldn’t help but ask my boyfriend to drive by. Just to see what was going on there nowadays. And as we got closer, it still looked empty, so I told him to pull in. I had to look in the bay window that faced the highway to see where she died. Something came over me. I jumped out of the car, adrenaline rushing. Instead of going to the bay window on the left side of the house, we went to the right of the house, it looming over us, daunting and mysterious. But in the middle of the day, the sun was shining and the sound of cars filled my ears. We approached the windows, looking in tentatively.
I realized the door was partially open… looking over at my boyfriend, I asked him nervously, “Can it open?!” Shocked that the property was still empty and the door wide open, he pulled the door open, it half off its hinges already. There was another door that appeared to have a number lock on it, but that also was open. We walked into the house that Linda Bishop had found as a haven, lived in barely alive, and then died in.
Walking through the house I believe I said “oh my God” continually. How was this possible that we were in this house right now when all I wanted to do was look in the bay window into the living room? The house was empty with only some dishes on the counter and an empty, dirty Dunkin Donuts styrofoam cup in the sink. We walked through the dining room where the floor got soft and sank a little, my heart racing as we walked past the open basement door into the living room. And there, in front of the bay window, was a heating grate. Linda explained how some heat would come up through the grate and she would sit on it for warmth as the days and nights got colder. Her body was found over the grate, awaiting some curious person to come along and discover her.
The energy in the house, especially the living room, rushed my body. I was in awe, my boyfriend and I walking quickly around the house like we were trying to take in every inch of the wood floors and blank walls. We were about to walk back out and it didn’t feel right. “Let’s have a moment of silence for her.” We walked back into the living room, holding hands. Me closing my eyes, and my boyfriend looking intently at where Linda passed away. I closed my eyes thinking of Linda, smiling in the pictures we saw in the documentary, and then alone and confused in this house. And then her struggling to find strength after not eating for days. And then for weeks. Seeing her laying on the floor, leaning over to write faithfully in her journal, her handwriting becoming shakier and her entries shorter and more factual. I thought of Linda and in my mind, embraced her to hopefully help her know that people are remembering her. She was not just some person that disappeared off the face of the planet that no one cared about.
We left the house, adrenaline rushing, quiet in thought. The car full of groceries, which could have saved Linda. The irony was enough to keep us silent for a few minutes. Every time I drive past the house either on the road out front or on the highway, I have to look and think of Linda.
The following Monday, my boyfriend could not sleep which in turn caused me to wake up and for some reason, I was not able to go back to sleep. I woke up at 5 am and before I even thought about it, I put my dog Harley in her harness and headed out for a walk. This is unheard of as usually, I can barely get out of bed by 7 am! We saw the sunrise come up and started down the wooded path, exploring, smiling, and running. After sufficiently tiring myself and her out, we returned home. The amount of gratitude I felt that morning after such a life changing experience learning about Linda Bishop is almost indescribable. I stopped and enjoyed the sunrise, I played with my dog, I ran, I smiled, I let the sunshine warm my face, and I breathed deeply knowing that another day is not always guaranteed. I was deeply grateful for my experiences, my family, my boyfriend, my animals, my job, my car, access to clean water and good food… I was grateful for what I have in my life, and what I don’t have for it is all part of the bigger plan.