…and the valuable lessons I learned from the experience.
Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)
It was a long and tumultuous journey that led to me living in a semi-functional 25-year-old Camry for the end of 2017, and much of 2018.
It was also wildly unexpected.
I’d graduated college with a decent GPA, had a semi-impressive career in marketing, threw charity fundraisers, volunteered and held positions on non-profit boards, cared for my people, and made sure they knew it — I had trouble managing sometimes, but did alright and was giving life my all.
And, up until my late-20’s, I seemed pretty healthy. I knew I’d had a cacophony of seemingly random issues my whole life, but they didn’t interfere with things too much and were basically hideable.
Then, in 2009, I attended a get-together that left many of us with H1N1, or the “bird flu.” (I didn’t have the wherewithal to get to the hospital, but several of their cases were confirmed.) After that harrowing experience, the aching body pain never went away; and while I’d always seemed to be more exhausted than those around me, it got much worse.
Unfortunately, I’d have been screwed even if I’d missed that pandemic, as there were already several other health issues going on.
Physiologically, I was a walking timebomb.
For one, I was born with a B12 deficiency, which was prolonged by a homozygous MTHFR mutation. This means that my nervous system was slowly demyelinating, losing its protective cover, and causing random issues throughout my body.
Some of these are kinda funny in retrospect, like my not being able to taste salt very well, which led to me using it excessively. (In my teens, movie theatre coworkers once pranked me, dumping a “ridiculous!” amount of salt on my popcorn while I was away — I didn’t even notice. Mmmm.)
Others weren’t funny at all, and still aren’t.
These issues mostly had to do with mental health (and unhealthy coping mechanisms), but those issues had another massive factor — undiagnosed autism.
I wouldn’t know it until 2020, but I’m a great example of what’s presently called, “the female autism phenotype,” which can present in any gender. Though there are many differences in this presentation, the key difference is having a better ability to adjust to social situations by doing something called masking, essentially faking normal; which helps cope in the short-term, but also creates a host of mental and neurological health issues.
I have another mutation that makes me high-risk to pandemic flus, so the physical trauma of H1N1 certainly played a role, but that aching pain I had, often diagnosed as fibromyalgia, is common in women with autism.
I finally got my fibro diagnosis right before homelessness, about a year and a half after the B12 deficiency was diagnosed — them telling me, “132 pg/mL is very low, you’d have been paralyzed within a few months and dead within a year.”
By my B12 diagnosis, late 2015, I was already basically on bed rest, but stabbing myself every day with a form of B12 called hydroxocobalamin — after learning the hard way that the cheaper, more common, cyanocobalamine can lead to panic attacks, yikes — was leading to many of the random symptoms to drop away.
Things were starting to improve, but since I was missing key diagnoses, I didn’t know what I needed to do to heal. I regularly overdid it, which would result in weeks of make-you-cry pain — but I had no idea that’s what was happening because the symptom flares can come up to 5 days later. Plus, it’s also really hard to tell when I’m pushing it, and the weather is a huge factor; which took over a year of seasons to sort out on my own.
It was maddening. (To be honest, still is. Fibro is no freakin’ joke.)
I was in that bed for about 20 months.
I wish I could tell you that’s how long it took me to get better, but that’s how long it took me to lose the bed.
I did everything I could to earn, but I just couldn’t keep it up. I’d get more productivity hours as time progressed and my intensive wellness regimen did its thing, but that first year I had a marketing client that could afford just 9 hours a week; and I was repeatedly overdoing it trying to do that and keep up with life, my never-ending UI case (that looked statistically bleak due to my being young-ish, 33 when I applied), doctors appointments, prescriptions, etc.
Shit, just going to the grocery store very often led to public meltdowns that meant recovery days of no productivity and horrendously intensified symptoms.
I had a handful of good health days that coincided with an event or visitor so got to go out into my old world a few blessed times (usually aided by self-medicating with wine) — but the vast majority of my days, I was all alone in my isolated apartment, all day, all night. (Homelessness aside, I’ve basically been in lockdown since 2016.)
I regularly went several months without seeing a friendly face, or even talking to someone on the phone.
The idea of ‘peopling’ was nearly always just too much. Plus, I didn’t have very many friends in my newish city; most of the people who loved me were back home in Alaska, hundreds of miles away.
So, it was just me and me, alone in that apartment.
Me and me, trying to heal. Trying to get through physical therapy. Trying to remember to take too many pills that did too little. Trying to navigate systems that very literally make my head feel like it’ll explode. Trying to stay on an intense allergen-free plant-based diet on a teensy budget.
Trying not to cry all day, every day.
And trying like hell to avoid homelessness.
On that last one, we didn’t succeed.
The Bottom Falls Out
Though more (very part-time) clients teamed up with donations from friends, acquaintances, and total strangers, as well as my very patient landlord, to keep me homed for nearly two years — I lost that studio apartment in the summer of 2017.
I’d been told by several health professionals that moving from rainy Portland, Oregon to a drier and hotter climate would help my condition, so it seemed serendipitous when a friend I hadn’t seen in well over a decade offered to let me stay with her in Los Angeles county.
This outsider feeling extended to my night in a homeless shelter, where I learned just how privileged my upbringing, my life, had been.
That climate advice was spot-on, and my symptoms decreased dramatically in the hot summer weather; I don’t believe I’ve had to use my walker even once since the move, which I’d been largely dependent on. However, living in someone else’s home had the opposite effect on my undiagnosed autistic brain, and I went into what I now know is autistic burnout; leaving me holed up in my dark, quiet, A/C-free room most of the time.
The housing situation ended a week or so after I climbed out of that then-mysterious mental hole, and a couple of days after I was directed to Skid Row, where I discovered the public housing waitlist was 11 years — and there was a lottery to even get on the list.
Once it really hit me that it’d finally happened, that I was really homeless, my mental health became dangerous to my safety. Having lost my mother to her own hand and fearing the same fate, I checked myself into a mental health ward for the second time since the health crisis started. (But that’s another tale.)
And when my 72-hour hold was up, my 7-month misadventure in homelessness really began.
A Whole New World, Sort Of
In spirituality, we often say the phrase, “in the world, but not of it.”
Homelessness is kinda like that.
The outside-looking-in sensations of living with undiagnosed autism were infinitely multiplied by being in the same spaces as others, while also not being like everyone else in it — having a secret likely get me scorned, shamed.
I used face cleansing clothes and dry shampoo to help keep me looking like I belonged in our society, but I’ve never felt more like an outsider. (And I’ve felt like an alien my whole life, so that’s pretty bad.)
Though warmer, this outsider feeling extended to my night in a homeless shelter, where I learned just how privileged my upbringing, my life, was.
Every shelter I called was full, which is normal — if you haven’t caught on by now, our safety nets are broke, really effing broke — so I was lucky to get a spot in one. It happened to be Thanksgiving, which felt like an extra blessing, as I’d been fearing the holiday all alone. I was overwhelmed with the sensory environment, being around people, and my usual symptoms; so I mostly just listened as they talked.
Some shared their relief for a night off the streets, talked about how rough it can be. Many had been in-and-out of homelessness since childhood, so this was a pretty normal experience for them. I thought about my experiences of financial struggle growing up, which weren’t even in the same league. Things were scary sometimes, and it did have a long-term effect on my mental health; but I always had a roof over my head, I always had nutritious food to eat.
It helped set a grateful tone for the experience, after all, at least I had a semi-functional 1993 Camry to sleep in — providing shelter, storage, some privacy. Many of these (kind, funny, truly alive) women didn’t even have that. Plus, coming from a community where people were generally having an easier time financially; I had people helping me along, helping ensure I wasn’t literally sleeping on the street.
But, the attitude of gratitude can only go so far — it was still the hardest seven months of my life.
My days were spent trying to improve things, often working until the array of bodily symptoms and mental fatigue would start to make me cry. I didn’t have an unlimited internet plan on my phone, so most of my time at night was spent lying down in the back seat of my car using meditation and visualization to take myself to a more peaceful place.
Of course, many other nights it was just crying, feeling terrified, and wondering how I’d ever get out of that mess.
I’d eventually pull myself out of homelessness when the symptom relief of warmer weather coincided with a referral for a job working for someone who was incredibly understanding about the accommodations I needed, which wound up leading to regular writing work.
And in the summer of 2019, nearly four years after I originally applied for disability payments; I was awarded about two of those years, anyways — allowing me to repay loans that helped me survive, get a working vehicle, and finally move to a place that’s a bit more compatible with my extensive sensory needs.
I’m still disabled and life still has its challenges, but even 2020 had nothing on living in my semi-functional car whilst broke and horribly ill.
It’s been almost three years since it ended, but I’m just starting to feel like I’ve moved on.
It was both traumatic and eye-opening.
It changed me.
It changed me in negative ways, like increased C-PTSD symptoms; but it also changed my view of the world, my level of consciousness in regard to what really happens in our society, and my perception of what I can handle, what I can overcome. (Plus a real random one, just ‘cause life’s lessons can be like that.)
5 Lessons from My Homelessness Experience
- I’m a bit of a badass. When you have an invisible disability, people are constantly questioning the authenticity of your condition, as if they’re thinking, “It can’t really be that bad.” (Without the #spoonie community all the gaslighting may have driven me off the edge.) It’d gotten to me, just as all the years of strife before had gotten to me. I felt meek.
Then, while homeless, I fell and shattered my foot, but walked on it for 10 days because it hurt less than the rest of my body — so I figured I was fine.
That’s f**king fierce. (Fibro fighters and autistics are fierce in general, and society has no clue.) And I stayed pretty darn positive too, I remember a drug store employee commenting on how I was smiling despite needing crutches and thinking, “You have no idea what else I’m smiling through right now.”
- There are heroes and helpers everywhere. There were so many times I hit obstacles that seemed completely insurmountable, but people continuously helped me out.
My home/car died repeatedly and a few people fixed it for cheap, one even doing it for free; and when I lost the apartment, friends, acquaintances, strangers donated enough to get the $500 car itself, then helped keep me in gas and internet-giving coffee purchases, as well as connecting me with creative work and donating occasional hotel stays that helped revive my spirit and get a good night’s sleep.
Despite being so far away from the people who care about me, despite it being a physically solo journey — I didn’t go through it alone. As the woman who created the great Fred Rogers would say, when faced with scary things, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
- But people who leave piss on public toilet seats are the scum of the earth. That’s it, that’s the lesson.
- There are two Americas. And, even though it was still really effing hard, I’d been living in the comparably easy one. When you’re living in the easy one, things can “seem fine” for folks, but this is a result of the other America being overlooked, ignored, and full-on lied about. If you’re still in the easy one, please try to learn from advocates what it’s really like for people in poverty, and please call others out when they say disparaging things about those who need help.
- There aren’t safety nets, not really. I thought there’d be some kind of program to help disabled homeless folks find stability, someone who could help me find an adjusted place in our society. But the homeless center heralded as best resource in LA county was more like a massive mostly-empty waiting room outside of mostly-empty offices that offered pretty normal apartment listings, and a communal shower. I couldn’t even get mail there.
I appreciated the showers, don’t get me wrong, and the humans there were wonderful; but the way “our federal safety nets” had been described to me all my life, I thought, you know, there was something to catch us when we fell. It’s not true. Our programs are archaic, under-funded, and frankly seem to be on the verge of collapse.
If something happens to you and you proverbially fall, even if it’s not your fault, odds are that the government — whom you’ve given 30% of your life’s income to — will not be there to catch you. That is a toxic societal myth, and retelling it has very dire consequences for our most vulnerable people.
Sending you good vibes in dealing with whatever scary thing life’s sent your way, may we all find and be the helpers in this world.