Bipolar disorder led Dallas man to wilderness, but now he’s out of the woods, off the streets


Glenn Billingsley finds solace from his bipolar disorder in carpentry work. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

Glenn Billingsley sat in his beat-up Grand Marquis on the side of the highway, somewhere past Weatherford, overwhelmed by the present, scared of the future and drawn to his past.

He’d just learned he would be kicked out of his Knox-Henderson house in six months. He would lose his wood shop and the calming influence carpentry has on his bipolar disorder.

Billingsley paced alongside the road, traffic flying by, trying to untangle his options.

When he was younger, Billingsley would sometimes slip into the woods for months at a time, foraging for dandelions and sleeping on the ground, finally emerging in a new city to start a new life.

Now, at age 54, he’d spent the last seven years in Dallas trying to break the cycle of five decades of mental illness, turning to his woodworking for stability.

For decades, Billingsley had no name for his disease, one of the most commonly misunderstood mental illnesses.

He now receives help from Metrocare Services, which treats about 12,000 people with bipolar disorder every year.

This week, Metrocare is hosting its second conference on the disease at the Communities Foundation of Texas, and correcting misconceptions about bipolar will be a key focus.

Building furniture, like this table in his home, keeps Glenn Billingsley's hands, and mind, busy. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Building furniture, like this table in his home, keeps Glenn Billingsley’s hands, and mind, busy. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

For example, experts say bipolar patients are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than anyone else.

“If you have bipolar disorder, you’re more likely to be a victim than be an aggressor,” said Judith Hunter, a forensic psychiatrist for Metrocare.

What’s more, Hunter said, the disorder isn’t linked to any specific group of people.

“Bipolar is not a respecter of social class or income class or intellect,” she said. “It’s equal opportunity.”

As many as 62,000 locals are believed to suffer from the condition. Some, like Billingsley, end up on the streets.

Starting over — over and over

It wasn’t until he was 47, living homeless downtown, miles from the wilderness where he’s most comfortable, that he found the help and the diagnosis he needed.

“I could spend months by myself in the woods, but being alone in downtown Dallas was hard,” Billingsley said. “No one really gives a damn.”

Billingsley’s illness always interrupted whatever life he tried to build, luring him away from society and into the wilderness.

He first tried to settle down in Richland Hills. He married in his 20s, had a baby and held down a job as manager of a fast-food restaurant.

Wires are strewn about Glenn Billingsley's car, which he must hot-wire because he lost the keys. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

Wires are strewn about Glenn Billingsley’s Grand Marquis, which he must hot-wire because it won’t start with a key. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

But paranoia crept in. He had delusions of mind reading and was certain his life was an unsolvable maze.

So he walked away from his wife and his daughter, not even 8 months old and destined to grow up never knowing who her dad was.

He would stay in the woods — often the Rocky Mountains — for as long as six months at a time, sleeping under leaves, setting up traps to catch food.

But he always made his way back to Dallas to be near his family.

Each time, it was harder and harder to rebuild, to reconnect with the people he loves.

“You disappear every two years, you go off in the woods … you’ve cut ties so many times that they stop tying them,” he said.

Nowhere but up

After years hopping from Colorado to Texas to Louisiana, Billingsley moved back to Dallas sometime around 2007. He had nowhere to live and no experience of urban homelessness.

In Dallas, 40 percent of homeless adults are severely mentally ill, like Billingsley.

He sometimes stayed in shelters. But mostly he avoided people and stayed on the streets or under bridges. He didn’t bathe. He scavenged for food in trash bins.

He reached rock bottom when someone saw him digging in a trash bin behind the downtown McDonald’s and called the police. He said the officers argued over who would have to drive him to a hospital because he smelled so bad.

But from that low point, he started to bounce back.

After he was picked up by the cops, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was the first time he was given a diagnosis that made sense.

Working on a bathroom repair job, Glenn Billingsley has found work as a handyman. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

Working on a bathroom repair job, Glenn Billingsley has found work as a handyman. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

He was finally diagnosed with dual-cycle bipolar disorder at age 47.

Billingsley’s bipolar disorder is somewhat more extreme than other cases because he also experiences delusions and paranoia. But knowing what ails him is a comfort.

His therapists helped him develop a routine, which keeps him in check. They taught him how to take a step back from his manic thinking and see reality. They gave him a place to live.

Billingsley has been in the Metrocare housing program since 2011. Counselors regularly check in with him, and he even served on the nonprofit’s board.

He earned a peer mentoring certification, which he hopes to use to teach woodworking to others like him.

For the first time, he felt like a regular member of society.

Building a foundation

The last seven years are the longest stretch of stability in Billingsley’s life. His paranoia and mood swings feel more like challenges rather than crises.

Billingsley has assembled a patchwork family in Dallas, through church, the housing program that helps him live here and through his trade.

He’s now known in his circles as the soft-spoken man who offers handiwork in exchange for tools and knows his way around a bathroom tile job just as well as a garden bed.

Glenn Billingsley has found stability in his work and the circle of friends he's built. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Glenn Billingsley has found stability in his work and the circle of friends he’s built. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

“I know everyone’s talking to him asking for his advice on flowers,” said Mary Goodenow, who suggested Billingsley rent the house next door to hers after a friend in University Park recommended his services.

But last fall that peace of mind was threatened when he was told he had six months to find a new home.

He wouldn’t have a place for his woodworking, which has become part of his identity, his connection to his neighbors and crucial to his sense of normalcy.

So one day in October, he just left. He hot-wired his Grand Marquis — it won’t start with a key — and headed west.

His counselor called. He pulled over and listened to the advice: come home, get checked out, look at new housing options.

After he hung up, Billingsley got out of his car and walked along the side of the road. It could’ve been an hour. It could’ve been longer.

Then he went back to his car, wired the engine on and turned back, headed east to Dallas.

This month, he was told he could stay in his home.
Source: Bipolar disorder led Dallas man to wilderness, but now he’s out of the woods, off the streets