Students of subway advertising may have noticed a campaign that recently joined the ambulance-chaser ads and those signs admonishing straphangers to free themselves finally from the unsightly discomfort of warts, corns and sebaceous cysts. It’s sponsored by the city’s Department of Mental Health, and it features posters of four New Yorkers who have conquered mental illness, or at least have learned to cope with the disease and are now leading productive lives.
Three of the individuals are young and ethnic. The fourth is Nancy Walder, a middle-aged women posed with a laptop, who is the director of the Morningside-WestSide Bulletin . Nancy and I go way back.
We worked together on Ed Koch’s first mayoral campaign. After Mr. Koch was elected, I followed her to the Department of Correction, where I toiled in the public-relations office–my responsibilities included writing The Pen , a monthly newsletter for prison guards, carrying a beeper and fielding calls from WINS-AM at 3 in the morning when they wanted instant reaction to whatever mayhem was occurring on Rikers Island at that moment–and Nancy served as an assistant to the Commissioner of Correction.
Unfortunately, she lasted less than a year. Her mental illness was already starting to devour her. “I remember yelling at you and yelling at everybody,” she recalled as we sat in City Hall’s Public Hearing Chamber last June after Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s and Mental Health Commissioner Neal Cohen’s press conference kicking off the anti-stigma campaign. “I had fights with everybody. Everybody.”
We stayed friends after Nancy left the department. We were both single, lived on the Upper East Side and shared an interest in politics. On one occasion, she somehow persuaded me to be her date at a fund-raiser for Richard Shelby, the conservative Republican Senator who was running for office as a Democrat in those days. I contributed $25 and have rued my investment ever since.
“You were very nice,” she mused. “You used to make Cornish hens for us and salad before you were married.”
Cornish hen and salad was my seduction dinner. Women appreciated the effort; it was cheaper than going to a restaurant; and, best of all, you avoided the inevitable awkwardness of trying to cajole the object of your desire back to your apartment since the two of you were already there.
Nancy and I were never romantic. She treated me like a little brother and, perhaps more to the point, as presentable as she always appeared, she was a bit loony. It was hard to get her to sit still. “I have bipolar disease,” she told me matter-of-factly as we sat in City Hall. When I confessed that I didn’t know precisely what the diagnosis meant, she said, “It’s also known as manic depression.”
We eventually lost touch. Nancy thinks it was for two years. I think it was for more like 10. The next time I heard about her, she was spending most of her time at Fountain House, a halfway house for the mentally ill on West 47th Street.
“I lived in Fountain House housing for a long time,” she explained. “I gradually moved up the ladder in degrees of independence.”
However, she suffered a setback about five years ago with what she describes as a “very bad manic episode.” I wondered what distinguished a very bad episode from a merely bad one.
“I hired Laura Ashley to decorate a $7 million town house that I bought,” Nancy whispered. “I walked into a real estate office, picked out a town house on 70th Street between Madison and Park, and told them I’d pay $7 million in cash.”
Of course she didn’t have the money. But Nancy, who grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y., attended Wheaton College and did graduate work at Brown and Columbia universities, always looked the part.
“I picked out a $10,000 wardrobe at Searle in two hours,” she went on, giggling. “I was negotiating with the Carlyle Hotel to rent an entire floor for one year to accommodate CBS–which I had just bought. It went on for quite a while, a couple of weeks. I went to Elizabeth Arden three times and had the works. I hired a car and driver to take me to Cartier and Tiffany’s, where they were having sales. I planned a party at the Stanhope Hotel–the menu, flowers. I hired music–all this with no money.”
Her spending spree eventually concluded when she packed an overnight bag and went to Elizabeth Arden for one more facial, planning to spend the night at the Carlyle. However, she somehow ended up at the homeless shelter at the Seventh Regiment Armory, got spooked by a mouse, fled and found her way to a friend’s apartment building in the neighborhood.
“The doorman knew me,” she remembers. “I went up. My friends took me to New York Hospital and called my psychiatrist. Everybody was looking for me.”
She spent several months at Payne-Whitney, where she was treated for severe pneumonia and finally put on medication that worked. “I am faithfully taking my medication, which seems to work well, and I see a psychiatrist three times a week,” she reported. “Plus, I’m very busy.”
She’s president of the Morningside-Westside Community Action Corporation, whose mission is to “employ and empower consumers,” Nancy said, “consumers” being the mental-health community’s term for the mentally ill. “All we want to be treated as is people, a small part of whom are mentally ill, but mental illness is not a defining feature of their personality.”
The Department of Mental Health’s campaign seems to be working. Its “Lifenet” hot line normally receives about 10 calls a month. In July, the first full month the posters ran in the subway, the number jumped to 211, and 209 people called the line in August.
The quintessential East Sider (which may have contributed to her insanity), Nancy today lives on the Upper West Side. “I love it,” she told me. “It’s like living in the country over there. I don’t think I could ever move back. It’s made me more reasonable.”
Nancy’s mother apparently cleared up whatever misunderstandings, thwarted expectations and bounced checks stood between her daughter and her creditors. Nancy says her mother is proud of her participation in the campaign, even though she doesn’t think her picture does her justice. “She has a copy of the poster,” Nancy said. “She’s thinking of having it framed.
“My mother got in touch with the Stanhope and explained the situation,” she added when I asked whether the wolves were still after her. “You have no idea how accommodating they were to me, and how far they went in planning this party.”
She emitted a full-throated cackle that I remember from the old days and that makes her sound pleasantly coo-coo even when her medication is working fine. “I still find it humorous. Everybody believed me. There was nothing I couldn’t talk people into.”
Some still do believe her and apparently cling to the hope that Nancy will one day make good, at least on her charitable pledges. Perhaps she will. “I made a $5,000 contribution to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she said. “I’m still getting tremendous mailings from them.”