Not all of my statements concerning my transition to indoor living should be regarded as universal. All of us are unique. Different people get inside in different ways, and for different reasons. But there is one thing that a lot of us have in common. Many of us who have lived on the streets have been scarred for a lifetime with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
PTSD is unlike other mental health conditions. For one thing, it doesn’t evidence a continuous baseline state. In this way, it is unlike Major Depression or ADHD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder makes itself known in “triggers” that occur out of the blue, often in a way that is completely unexpected. These triggers relate to “flashbacks” in which a person will suddenly relive a traumatic experience from the past.
This is fresh on my mind, because one of these triggers happened just the other day.
As a person interested in the religions of different cultures, I attend a number of philosophy and theology groups. Last night I was at one such function. There, the guest speaker was discussing his experience at a sun dance among Native Americans in Montana. I was enthralled by his account, and feeling perfectly welcome at the occasion, as usual.
Afterwards, a woman came up, seeming to show an interest in me. Sensing that something odd was in the works, I told her truthfully that I had a deadline to meet the next day.
“Oh really?” she asked. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m . . . uh . . . retired. But I write for social justice newspapers, and my monthly column in one of them is due tomorrow.”
“How interesting!” she cried. “What paper is that?”
“It’s a. . . um . . . street paper in the Bay Area. It’s called Street Spirit.”
“Oh! Well, what are you doing Saturday?”
“Er, uh, Saturday I have rehearsal for a musical I wrote.”
“What’s your musical about?”
“It’s about youth homelessness in urban America.”
“ARE YOU HOMELESS?”
I felt my heart begin to race as the inevitable question arose. “No, not at the present time,” I stuttered. “I was, however, homeless for many years.”
“Fascinating! Let me give you my card.”
She then handed me a card identifying herself as mental health practitioner. “I’m accepting new clients, and I take everybody—regardless of their ability to pay.”
Immediately, my blood began to boil. The inference equating homelessness with a mental health condition was glaring enough, without the sense of classism involved. In an instant, I was not only reliving the experience of being considered insane. I was experiencing the stigma of it being assumed that a person like me couldn’t afford to pay for counseling. (Which I can’t, by the way. But that’s another story.)
In my mind, I was storming the streets of Berkeley, hurling curses at the Almighty, as many who remember me from that period will attest.
As the PTSD trigger became more and more powerful, I flashed on how many people called me a “wing nut” when I was experiencing homelessness in Berkeley.
Here I live in a small artistic community where absolutely nobody thinks that I am crazy, and yet I found myself reminded of a former state of affairs where by and large, people equated homelessness with things like insanity. As practically any person experiencing homelessness can affirm, homelessness is the condition that arises when a person no longer has a home. That anybody would equateit with anything else is demeaning and insulting.
“Thank you,” I said, as she handed me the card. I then made the internal decision to keep my mouth shut. This is something I’ve learned to do whenever I realize that my PTSD has been triggered.
Silently, I went to my diary and began to write frantically. Then I texted my therapist, and also a peer counselor at the Recovery Center where I volunteer. Long story short, with their help, I was able to see the situation in a clearer light after about an hour. Seriously, it took me a good hour to realize that this woman probably gives out her card frequently, and probably says the same thing to everyone to whom she gives the card. Of course, there was nothing personal about her approach!
But during that hour, before the simpler reality dawned on me, I was in an uncontrollable rage. Mercifully, I restricted the arena of that rage to Facebook messaging and smartphone chat. But in my mind, I was storming the streets of Berkeley, hurling curses at the Almighty, as many who remember me from that period will attest.
PTSD is real. And it doesn’t just “go away.” My dad would wake up once a month or so screaming, because in his mind the Kamizaze plane was splitting his ship into two. It lasted the rest of his life.
We also tend to think of PTSD as something that is reserved for veterans returning from combat, or for those who have been specifically severely physically or sexually abused. But I think we need to consider that the overall components of homelessness can easily induce Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, on numerous grounds. I don’t doubt that my own PTSD will last me for the rest of my life.
The irony is that, when I was homeless, I was in a constant state of shock. Now the “shocks” are only intermittent. This is the essence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In my case, it makes me sometimes wish I were in a total state of shock—so total, that I would never have to feel. But that’s not the way life is. In the long haul, I can be glad it isn’t. It’s a lot better to be able to feel—even though some of the feelings are challenging—than to be forced into a situation where it seems impossible—or even ill-advised—to feel anything at all.
Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.