The Fixer at Hixon House

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Valley News
Sunday, July 1, 2012
By Jim Kenyon

In the last few months, John Caswell lost the apartment he lived in for 14 years, became homeless, and spent nights sleeping on a park bench in downtown Lebanon.

Lucky him.

I say that because Caswell’s misfortune led him to Hixon House, the Upper Valley Haven’s shelter for homeless adults in Hartford, where, along with getting a roof over his head and hot meals, he was matched up with Caroline Swaney. At the Haven, Swaney’s title is case manager, but she’s more of what I’d call a supreme fixer. She specializes in repairing lives. When handed Caswell’s case file, Swaney quickly concluded that he needed more than a place to live. Caswell, who has battled schizophrenia for more than 20 years, needed a reason to live.

Several times over the years, Caswell, 57 has tried to end his hardscrabble life. He wouldn’t have been the first in his family to do so. As a teenager, Caswell was on the other side of a locked door in the family’s Lebanon home one Christmas Eve when his father ended his life with a bullet.

Soon after, Caswell found himself in a downward spiral. “For a long time, I blamed my turning to drugs and alcohol on my father’s death, but it was really my choice,” said Caswell, who kicked his habits when he was in his late 30s.

The schizophrenia diagnosis came in 1990, a few years after his wife and two children had moved away. Caswell stopped working in construction and started collecting social security disability checks. He moved into a government-subsidized apartment in West Lebanon. But it wasn’t what he wanted, “Once anyone is labeled with a mental illness, it’s like we’ve been told we’re broken,” he said.

When I met Caswell a decade ago, he was pursuing a writing career, in which he often tackled the demons in his life – drugs, alcohol, mental illness and attempts at suicide – through short stories and poetry. “It was assisting me, but I made it public to help other people, so they knew they weren’t alone,” he said.

Schizophrenia can be a severe and disabling illness, which affects about 1 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. They disorder can impair a person’s thinking, judgment and ability to function.
Caswell was prescribed powerful antipsychotic drugs to manage his illness. In 2004, Caswell’s younger brother, Ralph, committed suicide. When Caswell’s health care providers recommended a 50 percent increase in his daily medication dosage, he went along. “I’ve always been looking for that mafic pill,” he told me, “but after 20 years of being medicated, I had become emotionally numb.

“Last year, I woke up on the Fourth of July and told myself, ‘I don’t need these pills anymore. It’s Independence Day,’”

When he sat in front of his laptop, his creativity soared. But there was a huge downside: “My judgment is faulty when I go off my medications,” he said.

That’s putting it mildly.

In January, Caswell drove to Nebraska to visit his children. After six weeks, he returned to the Upper Valley, Sold his car and bought a bus ticket o Omaha. When his plan to resettle 1,500 miles away didn’t work out, he was back on Greyhound. By this time, however, the lease on his West Lebanon apartment had lapsed. After a failed experiment at camping off the Rail Trail in Lebanon, he paid $75 a week to stay in a vacant house with no hot water that was in foreclosure.

This spring, a 1 o’clock one morning, Lebanon police found him downtown, where he sometimes slept in Colburn Park. A few days later, he wandered into the cemetery on School Street, where he took stock of his situation. “I didn’t overcome drugs and alcohol to be sitting here.” He took a taxi to DHMC. After a short stay in its psychiatric unit, DHMC arranged for DCaswell to move into the 20-bed Hixon House.

Enter Swaney, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and spent 20 years as a psychotherapist in Florida. But her ability to connect with Caswell goes beyond her expertise in the mental health field. Swaney, 60, speaks with a Southern drawl that is a legacy of her Georgia roots and comes across as something of a free spirit, which might explain the convertible in the Haven parking lot.

“She’s very easy to relate to,” said Caswell. “She picks up on the little things that are important to me.”

Swaney sensed that Caswell could benefit from living in a place where he would have access to therapy, but also be able to share meals and time with people facing similar mental health challenges. Although he’s back on his daily medication (at the level before his brother’s death), Caswell wishes to live as drug-free as he safely can.

Last Wednesday, Swaney and Caswell visited Safe Haven, a six-bed converted house for homeless individuals with chronic mental illnesses in Randolph. For 10 years, Clara Martin Center, which provides community-based mental health services, and Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, a Rutland nonprofit, have partnered to offer the transitional housing.

Vacancies at Safe Haven, where residents have stayed up to 1 ½ years, are rare, but Swaney is hopeful a room will open up for Caswell sometime this summer. “I think it would be a great fit,” she said. “John is highly intelligent, and he’s a pretty determined individual. He’s able to advocate for himself and other people like him. He’s finding his voice.”

And maybe true independence.

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Jim Kenyon can be reached at jim.kenyon@valley.net.

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