When you tumble from middle class to homeless, time and space isn’t flat as it is for most people, it bends and curves just as Einstein predicted – even if in ways he hadn’t anticipated – and it requires a major effort merely to remain upright.
Real and imagined slights, things other people might not even notice, cut intensely and take on monstrous, totally distorted, proportions.
Highs – as few as they are – send the spirit soaring in a dizzying climb towards the stratosphere. But the feeling only lasts briefly because a stomach-knotting low worse than the first drop on the world’s most terrifying coaster ride is always lurking, ready to scare off hopes and dreams.
So, emotions always lurk just below the surface, all raw and rough and ragged, and triggered with no warning: An IKEA commercial about how much people love their home; that’s because it’s always there for them. Watching Modern Family; it wins Emmy’s for Best Comedy but is too poignant to be funny for anyone without a family or home, modern or otherwise. Overhearing somebody mention a “family dinner” or “house warming party” as I pass them on the street; at times, I start weeping uncontrollably.
Janis Joplin was right: Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
“If this is freedom, then lock me up,” sighs Wendy, a 30-year old mother who has been raising two boys under the age of eight alone since her husband disappeared after their youngest was born. She’s been homeless for the past five years after her house in the New York City borough of Queens was foreclosed in late 2007. When I spoke with her and mentioned the Joplin hit, she snorted, “There’s nothing left for us to lose but I don’t feel very free.”
During periods when she and her children aren’t able to live with relatives or friends, they’re forced into a tawdry motel room not far from their former house or enduring prolonged stays at roach- and rat-infested city shelters. Although the boys still attend their old school, keeping them there means Wendy has had to move frequently inside the school’s boundaries.
Meanwhile, she holds down three part-time jobs all over New York to add to what little the family receives from assistance, food banks and SNAP, soup kitchens and charities. Depending on the day, she toils as an office cleaner in Manhattan, a waitress in Queens and bartender near LaGuardia Airport.
To Wendy, at times the struggle is overwhelming. “It’s only the boys that keep me alive. They’re all I have left. Without them, I wouldn’t have a reason for living.”
In a perverse way, Wendy is lucky because her kids give her a reason to continue battling.
For far too many other homeless people, depression becomes deadly, sinking them into an ever-deepening hole from which death becomes the way out. When the American Public Health Journal reported in June, 2012 that suicide now kills more people than car crashes every year, few activists and doctors who work with homeless families were surprised.
“For people who’d been living a fairly good life, however they defined ‘good,’ every material thing they valued got yanked away,” says psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Wolkoff whose patient list includes men and women who became homeless. “They’ve gone from living well to living at the bottom of a well, barely surviving at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy and can see no clear path to things getting any better.
“Suicide starts to seem like a happy alternative,” he concedes, sadly.
Dr. Wolkoff is correct: I’ve been there, tried it, failed miserably.
Within a few weeks of being hit by a car in 2011, I saw what was coming. I’d be losing my house, money had run out and I couldn’t find work, food was scarce, everything in my body hurt, my brain wouldn’t work properly, days were filled with painful physical therapy and frustrating doctor’s appointments while nights were lonely stretches of blackened emptiness.
One evening in mid-January, I slipped Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the original BBC version with Alec Guinness – into the DVD player to watch one last time, began swallowing every psychotropic and prescription medicine I had in the house, and slit my wrists. The pills were washed down down with generous swigs from a bottle of a single malt Scotch someone once gave me as a gift but I’d never opened.
Earlier, I had written letters to my lawyer and my doctor with a large “privileged communications” on each envelop to discourage snooping by police; I knew they’d be called eventually and was a reporter long enough to know they’re almost all corrupt. I placed a large sign prominently inside the door directing whoever found me to call my friend Lisa. She’d agreed to put my pooch Prince down if anything ever happened to me rather than having him caged and carted him off to who-knew-what-fate at the Inhumane Society.
At some point, I drifted off.
Unfortunately, I’m not a bleeder and although I was unconscious for 14 hours, the blood coagulated too quickly to nudge me over the edge. Nearly a full bottle of Scotch coupled with the meds wasn’t strong or sufficient enough. I came around hearing Prince barking, telling me he hadn’t been fed or let out.
I wasn’t successful at living and was just as big a failure at dying.
Losing It All
Me and Bobby McGee is more than a song from a time long ago and a land far away; it’s a kind of bitter anthem because I have nothing left worth losing except my dog and the clothes I can carry with me. It’s a common feeling.
“We sold what we could, packed the car with as much as we could, and then drove away,” recalls Jaden Monroe who, along with his partner Celia, lost their home some 18 months ago. He’s 48 and had built a 20-year career as a manager at a food distribution company where he earned $60,000 annually, plus benefits, until the company was sold and he was let go in . Now he works in a food warehouse earning $14 an hour but no health insurance or 401(k) plan.
“We lived modestly but were always two, maybe three paychecks away from the poor house,” Jaden admits. “When I got laid off and couldn’t find another job, we were trapped.”
Now the couple lives in a rusting Winnebago parked behind an abandoned factory near Buffalo, New York. Celia admits that, “Everything’s gone and most days I wish I was dead.”
Celia tells me by phone this includes “our family photos, my grandmother’s China and crystal, most of our clothes. I still cry when I think about it.”
I know all too well what she means.
Gone is my house, my bed, nearly 2,000 books, a collection of movies and BBC dramas on DVDs, boxes of family photographs, my dad’s Navy officer cap from World War II. Gone is my clock radio, most of my clothes and even a towel to dry myself with after taking a shower. Gone, too, is the hand-written family recipe book started by my great-grandmother and added to by family members who followed, including me. Gone are the cake pans and cookie sheets and pie dishes I’d use when recreating Granny’s recipes.
Gone is a large box containing five unpublished manuscripts I’d written over the years, including two thoroughly mediocre novels that will never see ink-on-paper after my death because I am no John Kennedy O’Toole.
Gone, especially, is the feeling of security that comes from knowing that, whatever happened during the day, I could go to my house, lock the door and shut out the world for a few hours.
Even Prince lost his box of toys including a favorite, an old, knotted up sock he loved to tug on as I pulled the other end. I still have socks but too few pairs to turn one into a dog’s toy.
In the face of any adversity, one of my grandmothers would proclaim, “At least you have your health.” Sorry, Mildred, but you were wrong. Good health may be a baseline but it’s not nearly enough. People need something to stop time and space from bending.
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