My Rise to the Bottom
Sitting here in the public library, to make use of the free computer, trying to think of the story I want to tell this week, seems almost impossible. The fact is that over the past month since I’ve become homeless I have learned more than any other point in my life.
I’ve learned more about myself, my fellow man, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our uncanny ability to adapt in just about any situation.
Just a month ago I was terrified. I had awakened from what seems like a ten year dream, and everything that I had was gone. Now in all fairness I did see it coming, for a long time, but my PTSD and severe depression just wouldn’t allow myself to do anything about it. Never seeking the help I needed until finally one day I’m now standing in the street, with everything I own, wondering where to begin to put my life back together. It was the single most terrifying moment of my life. Yet now when I look back at it, only a month later, I realize it was probably the best day of my life.
I say this because sadly that is what it took for me to finally seek help, and I say it because it was the day that my eyes were truly opened, as if for the first time.
Going forward with a “normal” life, you are blind to so much around you, and you are sheltered by preset notions of stereotypes and the very small parameters of your understanding of the people around you.
It took my losing everything, to realize the difference between things that we want and things we need. It took losing everything to see the humanity around me. To be able to see the beauty in something like watching someone recently out of jail, standing nervously in front of a group of men, struggling through reading a passage from the bible, that he had been practicing since 5am. Knowing this person is trying harder at fixing his life and finding peace, then most will ever work at anything. Yet most will clutch their bag when passing him on the street.
It took this to understand what people with addictions really go through on a daily basis just trying to stay clean. Sure it’s easy for us to say they choose to do it, but after talking with them, and seeing the truth and suffering in their eyes, you realize it’s just not that simple.
Even the very concept of honesty. When we are brought down to this level, there is nothing left to hide. The stories that I’ve been privileged to hear, and even the raw truth I’ve shared with others, is on a whole new level than I’ve ever shared with anyone. When all of us as a group have nothing left to loose, nothing more to hide, no reason for secrets and inadequacies, the truth becomes something that you’re more comfortable with down here at “the bottom” then you ever possibly could living a “normal” life.
The freedom and the power that comes with this is mind blowing, and the clarity that you suddenly have is truly a gift, and raises the question of what do you now do with this new knowledge and clarity.
This is a question that I ask myself on a daily basis now, seeing as once I’m housed and back on my feet, can I simply just move on like it never happened. Will I once again be able to go about my day pretending that everything is good, and those less fortunate don’t need our help. What about the people who don’t have basic things to regain their lives simply because they don’t know to seek the help the help they need? Can I simply move forward and be comfortable saying “They’ll work it out”?
I really don’t see how.
Since my time in the shelter, I’ve moved through about a 6 month process of paperwork in 2 weeks, just because I know how to do the homework, and get the advantage. Now that I find myself in this holding pattern waiting for my stuff to get processed, I’ve taken to helping others get a leg up as well.
In the past two weeks I have taken 5 people down to the Dept of Transitional Assistance. These are people that are hungry, have case workers, yet don’t realize they can have $200 a month in food stamps. Or people that are stuck in a holding pattern waiting months for simple tests at clinics, not realizing that they can have Mass Health and go to the Hospital.
While the experience as a whole is wildly frustrating, I feel at this point to just sit back and not help is negligence, and almost makes me part of the problem.
I’m not saying everyone has to go out and help someone, and I’m not even saying that every can be helped, but when you see opportunities in life to do simple things that can make a huge impact on another human being, there comes a point where we have to feel some sense of obligation, and if not than that is in a way our own insecurities and weaknesses to deal with.
The people I’ve met, and the friendships I’ve formed since I hit “bottom”, are more genuine than I’ve experienced in my life. The self awareness I now have is stronger than any point in my life, and the compassion and understanding of my fellow man is a new gift that I’m still adapting to.
This would be considered the “rock bottom” part of my life, yet I cannot think of a more rewarding time in my life.
There’s a wonderful Dr. in New York that taught me a very valuable lesson. What you need is always there. The “wants” in life are something completely different. I look forward to getting back to more of the things that I want, but right now I have everything I need, and helping someone else get what they need just now seems more important. I hope you see this one day as well, without having to hit the bottom. We’ll all be better people because of it.
So as the late George Carlin once said, “Take care of yourself, and take care of someone else”
For now, still John Doe
Gimme Shelter (My first published article)
Everyone at one time has experienced that feeling of waking up in a new place, which can be almost delightfully unsettling at times; say as on a vacation, or a new apartment/home. However imagine that first morning when you wake up and you no longer have control of your day. Your morning “routine” is no longer yours to enjoy. You’re now up because a stranger yelled through the dorm that it’s time to get up, and you’re morning shower is now scheduled and authorized by someone else. Maybe you can have that second cup of coffee, and maybe you can’t.
However the most frightening aspect of the morning is that for one reason or another--and there are many—you’re lucky this very morning that you have a shower or coffee at all, regardless who is in control of the surrounding circumstances.
For me, this is that morning. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to instill fear of the shelter system, because quite honestly I had my own fears and apprehensions of what I would be walking into that first night, and frankly the experience was reassuringly pleasant. Which I’m grateful for, but especially in these trying economic times there are more and more people each day finding themselves ready to face that first night in a shelter and don’t know what to expect, or even worse preparing for that first night on the street.
There’s a great misconception that homeless people are all “drunk or crazy” and therefore swept under the social carpet and ignored. This is not saying that a large percentage of the homeless population does not suffer from addiction or mental disabilities, but the frightening truth is we are all at risk, and someone who is sick and without home is no different than an executive with a substance problem that is forced into a program by their job. The ONLY difference being someone caught it in time and forced them to seek help.
I myself fall under the mental “disability” category, and to speak to me you would never know, but I suffered quietly through my problems afraid and too depressed to seek help, so I never got that push till it was too late. Now I stand waiting for the shower to be available wondering where exactly I should start my day, seeing as everything that will follow now holds the key to the outcome of my entire life.
Now I’m done trying to scare you into reflecting on your own vulnerability, or preaching the value of every human life. At this point I’d rather turn this into something that hopefully could be useful to someone, because especially if your newly homeless, like any other chapter in life, the first question is the biggest of all… where do I start?
The events leading, and even the experience of the 72 hours before checking into the shelter really is a story on it’s own, but I will tell you that by the time I checked into the Salvation Army Mens Shelter in Cambridge, I was tired. I don’t just mean physically tired, I mean I was drained emotionally, spiritually, and physically in a way that I had never felt before. I had literally spent the last 72 hours being forced to address and take on all my demons, all my fears, and all my weaknesses at once, and when you reach that level of all out “human exhaustion”, all you want is a bed, a shower, and a meal.
However now after all that I’m now bracing for another trip into the unknown, a homeless shelter, because this is now all that is left to me to obtain these basic needs.
Now the good part of the story, after all that I experienced, and the fear I had walking into the shelter, it was all washed away fairly quickly, because it became instantly obvious, that everyone there just wanted the same thing, shelter.
Now one of the main ingredients to a “good” shelter, is sobriety, or what is referred to as a “dry shelter”, and that is exactly what the Salvation Army is. Let’s face it, a sober environment can’t help but be a much safer and cleaner environment. So after reading some horror stories about some of the “wet” shelters, my apprehensions were instantly washed away seeing just a bunch of friendly faces down and out on their luck and really not much different than myself.
I was greeted by staff and the moved me through the check in process relatively quick because they could see that I was awake for days. After a quick breakdown of the rules, which were all relatively fair in my opinion considering the given situation, I was shown my bed, given cleans sheets and a blanket, and told that dinner would be served in a few moments if I wanted a hot meal.
Now honestly at that point all I wanted to do was sleep, yet the idea of a HOT meal sounded fantastic to me, so I figured I’d force myself to stay awake a few more minutes while I got nourished.
Before dinner was served we were told to remove our hats for a quick prayer. Now I’m not a religious man, yet at that moment I took comfort in unified feeling of gratefulness for the food that we in fact about to receive, so I bowed my head, and indeed acknowledge with an amen at the end.
From there, to my surprise, I was given a tray with a nice big serving of Shepherds Pie, with a side of mixed baby greens with a little crumbled egg yolk, and a piece of bread, all served and prepared by one of the friendliest and delightful women with a smile that lit up the room. She volunteers there, and her sincerity in wanting to help others is apparent in her eyes. She was comforting, and her food was comforting.
From there the rest was pretty laid back. Hung out in the main area a bit watching some sports with the guys, talking a little smack, while mixing in a couple of cigarette breaks out back, and generally getting to know these guys, and quickly learning that they were for the most part good guys, and we all just lost our way in one form or another.
Soon it was lights out, and everyone went to bed and that was pretty much the end of the first nights exoerience. Granted I could sit here and tell you comical stories of the sounds emitting through the dorms all night, but hey, it’s a shelter housing 40 men, what do you expect, we’ll let that slide and just leave that goofiness for my blog.
I guess when all is said and done, if I’m trying to deliver any one message to anyone reading this who finds themselves in a situation where they may be facing the same options, it’s like anything else, do your homework. Go online and check and call shelters and ask questions. Make friends with homeless people and ask them, but don’t feel you need to just stay on the street because that is not the healthy answer, and whatever it is that got you to this point, or whatever you have going on in your life that has you in denial thinking it could never get this bad, the only way to stop it from getting worse, is to get the professional help you need. When you combine taking care of your mind and body, and utilize the help out there available to you, you absolutely do have the tools to take your life back, or even better, maintain it rather than loose it.
As for me, I lied, it’s not really the first morning anymore, it’s a week later, and I’m well on my way with the medical help I need, that much closer to financial assistance to get me back to being a productive, and self sufficient, member of society, I’m in a new shelter that is even nicer, to the point of almost being fun, and most importantly taking my life back. So I hope a week after reading this article, you can say the same.