Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno can't wait to take their love outside the walls of an adult home on Coney Island. But for now, they have to wait.

Cosmo and Solange say that they know they're lucky to have each other, but that lately they are both struggling to keep their spirits up. "I've been putting my hopes on this so much," Solange says of the lawsuit. "Anytime me and him get depressed, I always tell him, 'We're going to be out of here soon.' " She tries to keep Cosmo occupied by writing him elaborate stories on the library computers about an imaginary place called Upper Bear Land, where two little bears named Solange Poo Bear and Cozzy Bear live together. Upper Bear Land is a tale she returns to frequently. "I tell Cosmo, and it cheers him up," she says. But when she talks about the lawsuit, she reaches for a different literary metaphor. "You know what it reminds me of?" she says, laughing ruefully. "You ever read Charles Dickens? You ever read the book Bleak House? It's about a hearing that took like a hundred years and they're all still waiting. I'm calling this Surf Manor Bleak House."

Hard Lives

When Solange arrived at surf manor at 25, she had never even heard of an adult home. "I had no idea what that was before I moved in," she says. For her, Surf Manor was the latest stop in a sad, tangled family history, one that she says included childhood sexual abuse by both her grandfather and stepfather and at least five suicide attempts between the ages of 14 and 22. (Solange and Cosmo trace their own pasts in this article; their social worker, Jason Chernikoff, and doctors were either unavailable or couldn't talk about their life histories.)

"I've had a very hard life," Solange says matter-of-factly, adding that sometimes she would try to kill herself by overdosing on a mixture of the medications (including Seroquel, Lithium, Lamictal, and Celexa) that she takes for her bipolar disorder, and other times by slashing her wrists. Before coming to Surf Manor, she says, she had already spent a lot of time in institutions: a year at a residential program for emotionally disturbed teenagers in Orefield, Pennsylvania, called KidsPeace, and four years in Allentown State Hospital. Her last overdose was in 2006, when her grandmother, with whom she'd been living, passed away. This overdose, she says, landed her in a coma; when she recovered, the hospital recommended that she move into Surf Manor.

When Solange moved in, Cosmo was 53 and had been living at the home since 1999, when he suffered a breakdown following the death of his mother. "I always had a normal life," he says sadly, of his years before Surf Manor. "No trouble I was." He says he was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety after his mother's death, which, six months on, became unbearable. Near Christmastime of the year she died, Cosmo says, he stabbed himself twice in the stomach with a bread knife. "I heard Christmas songs, and I was drinking and making a sandwich," he remembers. "I just broke down, being in the apartment all alone." He was hospitalized for the wounds, which weren't life-threatening; when he got out, he was referred to Surf Manor, which is right across Surf Avenue from the Bernard Haber Houses, the city housing project where he'd been living previously. He'd already been through two other relationships at the home by the time Solange arrived. "The second one, she was just all about money," he says. "Solange, she's not like that."

Surf Manor: Haven, hospital, hotel.
Emily Berl
Surf Manor: Haven, hospital, hotel.
Residents' Council President Norman Bloomfield
Emily Berl
Residents' Council President Norman Bloomfield

Solange wasn't especially interested in dating anyone when she got to the home. "I remember a lot of the disgusting old men were following me around when I first came here," she says. "One of them grabbed my boobs one time. One of them grabbed my butt. I complained about it, and nothing was done. I used to sit by myself outside a lot of times, because I was lonely."

Cosmo sat outside, too, and soon they began talking. "I realized he was a really nice person," Solange says, grinning at Cosmo. "I didn't want to go out with anybody because in all my other relationships I got abused. The age difference, I thought that wouldn't work. But he's, like, the sweetest guy. I like that he's older. He knows how to treat a lady nice, you know?"

Solange and Cosmo have the same social worker and psychiatrist, both of whom they see once a week. It was the social worker, Jason Chernikoff, who granted the pair permission to move into the same room, Solange says. Then, she adds, he sat her down for an embarrassed chat. "I need to know," she remembers him saying, "are you and Cosmo protecting yourselves?" She reassured him that they were using condoms. "It was kinda awkward," she says, grinning.

But what was awkward for Solange represents for some adult-home supporters a level of familiarity and concern that they argue would be missing from residents' lives if they moved into supportive housing, where they would be much more on their own. In July 2010, 40 families of adult-home residents urged the appellate court to overturn the decision that favored supportive housing, saying in part, "The families respectfully ask this court to consider the disastrous consequences that the lack of an adult home system would have for them and their loved one."

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15 comments
Succlo
Succlo

These people need to get a job and move on from their personal problems. It's too easy to drug oneself and sit in a flophouse on SSI.

Lakotawinter
Lakotawinter

OFF OUR MEDS ON PARK AVENUE (True Story) Walked past a tall homeless man near Park Avenue one afternoon. Barefoot, hair like a porcupine, three inches of dirt on clothes. Took a closer look. He was yelling into his CELL PHONE! I stopped a few feet away in shock. HE has a CELL PHONE?! "Oh, hell yeah. Haven't seen my brother in three years. Right. Still lives in the Bronx. Yeah. What do I care about that?" He paced up and down yelling into the phone to the person on the other line. As I passed him I looked carefully at the cell phone. Put my hand over my mouth so he wouldn't see me laugh. It was a hair brush! Damn. It was a life lesson for me. Don't judge people by the way they appear! He was really hurting and obviously alone and scared. I was pissed 'cause he had a cell phone! He turned the mirror on me and made me look at myself. I love NYC! If you stay here long enough you can get a Masters in Life!

Lucy
Lucy

Wow! What a compelling angle on the situation of adult homes. It's hard to consider what's best for the patient while also considering the humanity of the issue. Very illuminating piece.

JK
JK

Holy crap, are these people insane?!??!

Missboo42
Missboo42

True love is so hard to come by these days, it is refreshing to read a story about two people who love each other. I hate the term 'mental illness.' We are all mentally ill to one degree or another. Please don't reply, "Speak for yourself!" The people who think there is nothing wrong with them are the people who have the most problems in life. I do not know one person here in NYC who isn't fighting some sort of emotional trauma on a daily basis. 99% of them would be so much happier with someone in their life. Half their problem is not having someone to share things with. We can go to the Moon (?), build skyscrapers through the clouds, and create the Internet, but we haven't a clue how to make people better without tons of meds. There has to be a cure. If you calculated on a yearly basis how much money was spent on disability and mental health in this country and eliminated 80% of it, we wouldn't have the financial woes we currently suffer from. 'Mental illness' is a crutch for a lot of people. I've seen it my entire adult life. Come back to this couple 5 years from now and give us an update.

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

Since 2003, they have been in the middle of a huge legal battle between New York State, which supervises privately owned adult homes like Surf Manor, and advocates who say the adult-home system unfairly isolates "the mentally ill" from society

As entertaining as is your "the" mentally ill, it is inaccurate, imprecise. Please say what you mean, those words do not do it.

Harold A. Maiokhmaio@earthlink.net

Solange
Solange

My name is Solange Lambert and this article was about my boyfriend Cosmoand myself. Your comments are extremely hurtful. You say we should get a joband move on with our lives. You have no idea how hard this is to do with no oneto help us in our lives. We both have no family and support.You cant talk about other peoples lives unless you have walked inthere shoes. Also someone who was abused in every way possible from the agesof two to seventeen like myself and just move on.Try living my life for 1 day and see how it feels

Spook
Spook

Why is it that people love New York for shit like this? A Masters in Life? Give me a f'en break. You get insights from mentally ill people on the streets so you love New York?WTF?

Boston2lalaland
Boston2lalaland

We never really do know a persons road. Thanks for sharing this. More so, thank you for having the compassion

JK
JK

It appears you are getting your wish to severely cut federal spending on the mentally ill (http://www.nami.org/Template.c... however, it's not clear to me that cutting some single-digit number of billions is going to cure the financial woes we currently suffer from.

Furthermore, speak for yourself.

JK
JK

I didn't find that entertaining at all, you insensitive clod!

Kristin Wolke
Kristin Wolke

Solange - I just wanted to say that I think you + Cosmo are brave to have someone write a story about your lives... Have you looked into the federal program HPRP (Homelessness Prevention Rapid Rehousing)? I work at the Rescue Mission upstate but still have contacts in the Brooklyn area (I moved up here 3 years ago). Please feel free to contact me via facebook; I may have some info that you could use to get out of that place. The HPRP is a federal program that (once you find an apartment + show that you can afford it after they help you) will pay for your security deposit and up to 3 months rent in advance to your landlord. That will give you and Cosmo additional time to save a little nest egg for future rent, etc. The contact person in NYC is the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, City of NY. Her name is Eileen Lynch and her email is elynch@dhs.nyc.gov (212-361-7957). I hope this helps you to get out of that "adult home" ASAP. best wishes!!!

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

"The" mentally ill is not entertaining, no resepectable journalist ought entertain it. As I wrote: "it is inaccurate, imprecise. Please say what you mean, those words do not do it."

Harold

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

Writers and editors are entertained by the form, or they wouuld not employ it, I am not.

JK
JK

You called it entertaining. I feel like you've stepped over a line here.

 
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