After joining the military at age 17, I was targeted multiple times for sexual violence at every duty station. In addition to physical injuries that I incurred, the incidents left me with some challenges that make it hard to sustain my self independently at times. So, when I was discharged, I experienced depression and a loss of a sense of who I was and what direction I wanted to go. So I just floundered and went wherever the wind blew me I guess. I tried school and I couldn’t handle it. I was a Criminal Justice Major but couldn’t be around men in uniform so I quit that and floundered some more.
Finally after six years I got a service connected disability rating that allowed me the opportunity to go back to school - what I always wanted ever since I was little. I wanted to go to college and get the highest level of education I could achieve, a major reason I went in the military in the first place. With a second chance and went full force and while I was trying to do that I was finally able to get care at the VA. They loaded up me up with all kinds of meds, hydrocodone for the pain for my back and my hip, and psychotropics to help with the nightmares and the night terrors. So then, I just turned into a walking vegetable and failed a semester of school, because, sure….maybe I slept through the night, but I was always sleeping and I couldn’t really feel anything. I felt like I didn’t exist so I stopped taking everything and made a commitment to only use natural means to heal so that I wouldn’t set myself up to fail.
I tried relationships. They didn’t quite work out and ended up in some abusive ones. One in particular led to my experience of homelessness, so the combination of service connected disabilities, marrying a prior service member who also had his share of service related challenges and violence, was a bad cocktail.
After I turned him in for a crime that he committed, he went to jail and I had two weeks to get everything out the house, I had nowhere to go. I could have gone to be with my mom in another state in a bedroom community where I had no work opportunity and would just probably be stuck. I said yes to Mom's house, and just as I was regretting driving to her house I got a call for a job interview as a therapist on a behavioral health unit back in the town I lived in when all this awful stuff happened. I decided to take the job and had to drive four hours each way from my mom's house to the job site.
After my husband was released, I went back to him and we were homeless. He got accepted into our local VA program for homeless veterans. There was a jail diversion program that they had offered among other things that could potentially benefit our family. We began as childhood friends and I was not going to leave him behind in this situation no matter what he did to me as a husband, so I decided to enter the shelter as well so that I could keep my job and work through this as a family. It turned out he was struggling with addiction. I felt pressured by my colleagues in the social work field for me to "stick it out" and I wanted to anyway because I don't give up on people. Also I felt if I’m in the field that changes people's lives, I can’t be a hypocrite and not believe his could change too - I didn't want to abandon him in it because that didn’t seem fair to me.
Through this journey I have found myself experiencing homelessness three times. Actually, being disabled the way that I am makes it hard to have steady income. Sometimes work situations are untenable so there’s always that risk of losing everything, and sometimes that risk becomes a reality. There are resources out there. Many of them are imperfect and there is always hope for improvement. If you do find yourself in the situation of couch surfing or living in your car, or having to enter a shelter that may not be safe; social workers, psychologist, they’re there….they’re supposed to be helpful, they’re supposed to be safe people and they are supposed to help keep you safe and many of them will. And if you're about to lose your home, or your fleeing from abuse or whatever the reason is that you may end up on the street or without a place to be safe and stay, look for the helpers...Now see, this is where the social worker in me I feels obligated to be honest. A lot of the services out there are full or inadequate so your stuck, and that's not ok. It needs to change.
Even being homeless, I kept pushing forward to make my life better, I was accepted into the PHd program at Saybrook University and I went for it, even though I applied from a homeless shelter. My marriage ended up not working out. He relapsed and things got horrific again. That’s when I fled and stayed with some people or in my car. Thankfully there was a program for veterans fleeing domestic violence to get an apartment and start fresh. If not for that program, I might then have gone to street level for a long time. Now here I am, closer to achieving my Ph.D. - less than two years to go!
What kept me pushing forward and got me out of being homeless? There have been multiple turning points. It's like each time I had been hit by a brick wall, where it seemed like I couldn’t, I just couldn’t change my situation no matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I was working, there was still poverty and still abuse and cruelty and all that. But I was a parent figure. I was a step-mom. And I could not look into the eyes of those beautiful, beautiful children and be hopeless. And so it was…It was them. They deserved to have a healthy step-mom, and they deserved to have another example of a woman enduring oppression, rising above it, growing through it, and getting stronger. They deserved to be supported in that way and that is what I wanted to be for them.
I have learned a lot through these difficult life experiences. I would tell someone if they are going through something and it's horrendous, that it's ok to feel hopeless and angry about it. Maybe it's close to what I have been through, maybe it's not. Ultimately, people need to know it's okay to feel this way. Sometimes the situation is hopeless, sometimes there is no one there for you. But I learned no matter how long it takes, or how painful it is, if you're all you got, you keep digging until you find whatever it is inside of you that keeps you going that makes you want to take the next breath, whether it is love for a child, your faith, anger or rage - whatever. Righteous indignation is good. It's normal and healthy to be angry to an extent. It can be helpful to use it as fuel to get yourself up off the floor and take the next step and next breath. And when people show up in your life who genuinely do want to listen and help you in the way you need to be helped instead of the way they think you need to be helped - it’s okay to let them and it’s okay to let that love inside.
From a gut level, soul level, I would tell people, don’t let anybody treat you like you're nothing and don’t let anybody treat you like trash because you're not. You are worthy of every ounce of respect and love and care and compassion that any human being is worthy of and no matter how anybody puts you down about yourself, don’t believe it. Take responsibility for your actions, yes...hold yourself accountable, yes. Do what you need to do to grow as a human being, yes. And don’t ever let anybody abuse you with blame and shame.
Life will surprise you….if you let it. You can see the ugliest and most beautiful parts of humanity in the same human being - and in ourselves when we look in the mirror. We are one.