Whilst watching the rowdy soccer fans last night I was not thinking about how sports obsessed Melbourne is (I do that way too much) but of how difficult it is to re-adjust after you’ve successfully navigated your way out of homelessness.
When you’re homeless there are many things you don’t have access to that other more fortunate people do. I refer not only to the physical luxuries of four walls, a roof, bed, refrigerator and a steady stream of edible food complete with the utensils to cook them on. I speak also of the more metaphysical things that are often taken for granted by wider society; things such as a future, belonging, purpose and sense of self. All things that a homeless person does not have access to.
Homelessness and mental health are both cause and effect. Someone with a mental health disorder has a greater chance of becoming homeless than someone without, whilst a period spent homeless (whether it be eighteen days or eighteen months) increases the chance of developing a mental health disorder (such as PTSD or depression) due to the brutal and lonely life a homeless person needs.
In the event of securing housing and finding yourself an ex-homeless person you are thrown headlong into a whole new set of issues. Instead of spending each day trying to survive you suddenly find yourself with all that you had been dreaming of – and contrary to popular opinion, this can be a very difficult thing to deal with.
It isn’t suddenly all angelic choruses and hopping bunnies with tiny wee bows tied round their floppy ears. Just because you have a home does not make the demons go away. Trauma doesn’t work like that. It sneaks up on you like that bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail! And unlike those brave knights, you don’t have the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to obliterate it instantaneously.
It’s a long and hard climb back to life stability. Instead of dealing with the problems of food and shelter, you are dealing with the problems of inner self and well-being; and as most discover early in life, matters of the heart and mind are far more difficult to deal with than matters of the body.
Society believes that once a person is off the streets the job has been done. It hasn’t, securing housing is only the first step in the long road to recovery.
When I managed to secure transitional housing last year after several months on the street the first few weeks vanished in a haze of flashbacks, tears and emotional agony. Being off the streets felt simultaneously sublime and terrifying. The questions of what now, where to, how come, huh all raced through my mind on a daily basis. I felt like Alice after she took a tumble-down the rabbit hole.
Learning how to overcome the trauma my mind presented me with was a terrifying and lonely ordeal. Few could understand why I hadn’t become Dick Van Dyke and resorted to tap dancing everywhere I went with cartoon penguins or cheerful chimney sweeps. The trauma and nightmare I had to live with was my own, and as with all things, had to deal with it alone. In time I began to slowly readjust, to re-acclimatize myself to living a ‘ life’ rather than merely ‘ existing’ on the streets but the thought that I had a future daunted me.
Which is why I write this handy (slightly tongue in cheek) guide to dealing with those first few weeks of living as an ex homeless person. Whether this works for others I don’t know, but it kinda helped me, so I thought I would share.
Addy’s (Slightly Tongue In Cheek) Guide to Dealing With Having A Home After Being Homeless
1. Accept you’re human. You need to remember that it is okay to feel weird, it is okay to feel emotional, it is okay to cry, it is okay to feel like shit. The last thing you need when trying to readjust after trauma is to throw self-guilt-kerosene onto the bonfire that is your soul. You’re a human being and allowed to feel whatever the fuck you want to feel, whenever you want to goddamn feel it.
2. Pace yourself. There will be a temptation to do as much as you can as soon as you can. You may feel like beating yourself up about not unpacking or doing laundry or cleaning the entire house the very moment you settle into it. Just don’t.
3. Set targets. If you have hundreds of thousands of boxes you’ve pulled from storage (unlikely, but it feels like that amount sometimes) don’t feel the need to do them all at once. Now you have a home you have all the time in the world. Set out by doing the essentials, and then do whatever you feel you’re able to do. Aim to sort out one or two a day and then increase when you feel you’re able.
4. Don’t beat yourself up. If you find yourself having an unproductive day where all you’re doing is lying around listening to Vanessa Hudgens or Rolf Harris, so what? Does it really matter you haven’t solved all the world’s problems as well as your own before breakfast? Of course it doesn’t, all that matters at this point is you’re ok. So be ok. If you want to listen to Rolf Harris whilst surfing the net looking at porn, do so, and feel good about it!
5. Cry – and enjoy it. Damned good release is crying ;)
6. You – are – not – homeless – anymore – ! Think about those five words. How does that feel? Daunting, scary, amazing, wonderful? All and more, without doubt. But the one thing you didn’t have on the street you now have; freedom. You are free to do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. If you still don’t understand how awesome that is here’s some ideas:
The point is you are free to do whatever you (legally) want to do. It will take time to accept this, but remember you – are – not – homeless – anymore – !
7. Ask for help. Remember when I said, just because you have a home does not make the demons go away? I meant it. We’re all human. We cry and feel and scream and panic and dance and hate ourselves and spank and take on way too much all the time. If you need help for anything don’t be afraid to ask for it, a true friend, be it in person/phone/email/tweet/morse code will listen and help however they can. That’s what they’re there for. Ditto doctors, NGOs, MH professionals, hairdressers, radio talk show hosts and dogs. You could try cats, but they’re usually too busy drilling behind the sofa, and as for goldfish, don’t even bother with those selfish creatures!
8. Presto! After losing it several times you’ll wake up one morning after the longest sleep you can remember in living memory. You’ll crawl out of bed naked (if you’re following my advice) and wander toward the kitchen to grab a glass of water. As you do you’ll slow, stop in the middle of the room and realize for the first time that everything has been sorted. Posters will be on walls, books will be housed on shelves, pans will be in the cupboard and knickers strewn on the floor where they belong. Standing there with a perverted dustman checking you out through the window you’ll realize something and it will make you smile more than you’ve ever smiled in your life: this is my home.
Okay, so perhaps it’s not great advice. I still live on the streets so what do I know? Perhaps you have better (less tongue in cheek) tips, if you do there’s a comments box below. No-one likes someone who won’t share the knowledge.
All I can say for certain is that at some point as you fight through the nightmares, trauma and miscellaneous related bullshit you will say to yourself it was so much easier back on the streets.
And when you say that you really will have to spank yourself because
- Christine Schanes: Homelessness Myth #15: Just Pull Yourself Up From Your Bootstraps (huffingtonpost.com)
- Alberta to launch ID cards for homeless (theglobeandmail.com)
- ID cards remove barriers for homeless (calgaryherald.com)
- After 25 years, Rolf Harris is back in an Aussie ad (mumbrella.com.au)