Many of you have read my story about living on the streets, but this story, which was published several years ago, covers a lot of area that I haven’t covered before. Because of its length, I originally planned to post this over a couple of days but decided against that. It would affect the impact of the story. Why do I need to post it now? I have no idea, but I was compelled to do so and followed my instincts.
Flat broke and rent past due I was days away from being on the streets. For the first time in my thirty-five years of working, I was fired from a job. The racing thoughts and distraction of mania made it nearly impossible to focus on the intricacies of my job in computer programming. I had been warned several times that I needed to be more productive, and I tried. I had never worked faster or harder, but I continued to fail. My inability to focus resulted in many projects started, but few finished.
I had no idea my efforts were being hampered by mania. I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My employers gave me a generous severance package but, unfortunately, I was on a manic high when I was fired. Typical for me, the money was spent quickly and frivolously. Within a week, my only financial buffer to protect me while I searched for a new job was gone.
I thought I was prepared for the worst until I met Scott at a bar at closing time. Knowing my predicament, he offered to let me stay on his couch, but I quickly learned that his generosity came at a heavy price. Scott expected sex in return for providing a roof over my head. I believed I had no other option than to oblige.
My child support payment was coming up and I had no idea how I was going to pay it. Of all the money I owed, this was the one thing I refused to accept I could not pay. Fortunately, because I’m a recovering alcoholic, which is considered a disability, I qualified for emergency income through Social Security. Just in time, my first $600 was deposited into my account. My child support payments were $500. I took the money from my account and made plans to get a money order the next day.
The following morning there was a monsoon where I lived in southern California. The deluge of runoff water turned the streets into raging rivers. I put my wallet in my back pocket and headed out the door for the money order. Three blocks away, as I neared the bus stop, I reached back to get my bus pass, but my wallet was gone. Did I forget it? I knew I hadn’t. I then discovered I was wearing my jeans with the hole in the back pocket. Only, it was no longer a hole—there was no longer a bottom to the pocket at all and I realized my wallet must have slipped out and likely would be back in my bedroom. As I ran back to the house, I watched the gushing water flow down the street and pour into the sewer grates. Knots were forming in my stomach and I prayed my wallet was still in the house. It wasn’t.
Angry and scared, I gathered some hope and went back into the torrential rain to try and find the wallet. I retraced my steps up the hill to the bus stop, but the wallet was nowhere. I retraced my steps back down the hill, but still could not find it. Reaching my breaking point, I stood in the middle of the street in utter disbelief, my anger turned into despair as the pouring rain beat down even harder. Cold and soaked, I looked around. The only dry spot I could see was a small patch at the door to the church I was standing in front of. I walked up the steps to the door, put my back against it and slid down to the concrete below. I wanted to scream at the world, scream at God, but I didn’t. Instead I put my arms around my knees, bowed my head and cried. I pictured what I must look like to all those passing by and all I could think was, “How pathetic.”
In the days and weeks that followed, I continued to think about how pathetic my life had become. Although I was not yet diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had been diagnosed with depression when I was fourteen and I could feel it coming. I decided I could no longer sell my soul for a place to live. With great fear of the unknown, I packed my duffle bag and left with no idea where I would live. I never saw Scott again.
Now homeless, each morning began with me having to find a place to hide my duffle bag. It contained all my belongings but was too heavy to carry throughout the day. Besides, the last thing I wanted was to appear homeless. I didn’t want to look like those people. After hiding my bag, I had to find food, turn in job applications, and because I had nowhere to go, I usually attended three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a day. This much I accomplished on my good days.
Many days my depression was too strong to fight. I didn’t want to kill myself—that would require too much effort. I just wanted to curl up and die quietly. On these days, I had to find a place for myself as well as my bag. Usually, I was hidden between shrubberies on the grounds of city hall. I would toss my bag on the ground, curl up next to it and use it as a pillow. I’d cry until I was too exhausted to cry any more. Was my depression worse because of my situation or was my situation worse because of my depression? I never was sure where the horrible cycle began, I only knew I was trapped.
I struggled equally with the nights. The best nights were when I had spare change because I could use it for bus fare. I knew the longest bus routes in the city and used that knowledge to my advantage. It was the optimum way to get a long stretch of sleep until the bus reached the end of the line when all passengers were required to get off the bus for fifteen minutes. The driver took her break and turned the bus around. Then it was back on the bus for another stretch of sleep.
Additional fare was required to take the bus back to the other end. This meant I was frequently stuck because I’d run out of money, trapped in one of the seedier areas of downtown Los Angeles or in downtown Santa Monica. Being in downtown Los Angeles, near the area called Skid Row, was terrifying. I would have to find a doorway to curl up in and guard my duffle bag the entire night. Falling asleep was too dangerous. Sleeping provided too much of an opportunity to have my belongings stolen, and many of the other homeless around me were willing to cause physical harm to get my stuff. If I stayed awake I was able to protect myself, and my bag.
Downtown Santa Monica, on the opposite end of the line, was a much better place to be stranded. It was downright luxurious in comparison. City ordinances outlawed sleeping in doorways or parks, but benches were open season. I was never able to find an empty bench downtown, which left me with only one option: the Santa Monica Pier. Although the pier is a tourist attraction, I was surprisingly left alone by the police and security guards.
I always chose a bench under the Ferris wheel even though it was more exposed to the cold ocean breezes; it was a bit more isolated from the other benches, which allowed me some privacy. Looking outside myself, I could see my life and I was disgusted with how far I had fallen. I knew I needed help; the depression was killing me. In time my cycle changed to a state where I was more balanced. Temporarily safe between mania and depression, I was finally in a frame of mind to seek the help I needed. I went to the closest L.A. County mental health clinic and waited an entire afternoon to see a counselor. The day ended, and I was turned away, and told to arrive earlier the next day. As instructed I went to the clinic at the time they opened the next day. Once again, when it was time to close, I was turned away and told to try again the next day.
Finally, on the third day at the clinic they called my number before closing. I spoke with the admissions clerk for approximately fifteen minutes before he excused himself and walked away into a back room. I didn’t understand that he was not a doctor; I expected him to return with a prescription. After another fifteen minutes, the clerk returned with the news that they would not take me as a client because I was too high-functioning. Too high-functioning? I was living on the streets, scavenging each day for something to eat, yet they considered me too high-functioning! I asked if I could please speak with a doctor but was refused.
The clerk then proceeded to say the saddest words I had ever heard: “When you get worse, come back and we’ll see if we can assign you a doctor then.” He did not say, “if you get worse,” but, “when you get worse.” I was in shock. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to get worse. Homeless, jobless, and now refused medical care? Suicide started to look like my best option.
After a month of being homeless, I had a conversation with a man at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I’d seen him around, but never said more than hello. After we talked for a few minutes, he excused himself, talked to some people I knew and had them take me to the emergency room. I had no idea the man was a psychiatrist, nor do I recall what I said to him, but whatever I said clued him in that I was suicidal.
When I arrived at the emergency room, the admitting psychiatrist had me placed on a 72-hour lockdown suicide watch. On the third day, my stay was extended for seven more days. On day nine, the day before being released, a psychiatrist called me into his office and told me I’d likely be on antidepressants for the rest of my life. It was not a surprise. He wrote me a prescription and told me that I’d been assigned a doctor at one of the county mental health clinics.
The clinics in my immediate area were understaffed, so the only clinic where they were able to place me was a 3-hour bus ride each way. The long rides gave me too much time to think about how far I had fallen. I nearly gave up, but fortunately the medication made me more stable than I had been. I was able to secure a job as a telemarketer, which allowed me to pay my child support and secured me a bed in a sober living facility. My circumstances were not where I had envisioned myself at forty years old, but I finally had hope, and that was more than I’d had for a very long time.