During the spring of 2011, I started to research PTSD. My Lover and I had gone through three months of homelessness at that point, but then we had moved in with a friend and were living comfortably in an apartment. We were under the impression that our time of sleeping in the car was over and done with — the events that would transpire during the summer of 2011 is an entirely different story.
As soon as we were living in the apartment, I started having difficulty sleeping. I would frequently wake up in a full-blown panic attack, and my emotions would veer wildly out of control. However, everything that I read about PTSD was unsatisfying — most of the articles I found focused heavily on veterans or on people who had been the victims of extreme violence. My experiences of living in the car didn’t seem to compare to that, since my Lover and I had never been in any danger of coming to harm.
Then, a rather stressful event happened with the friend, and it became prudent to move out even though we didn’t have anywhere else to go. We lived in our van for five more months after that, which was the darkest period of our homeless experience. At the end of December 2011, we met someone who asked us to move into their garage which was well insulated. Once we were moved in, it felt a lot like a little apartment that happened to have a cement floor.
The panic attacks came back, and they were worse than before. Every time I woke up it would take me awhile to figure out where I was. I had an extremely hard time motivating myself to do anything, because I was constantly paralyzed by fear. I undeniably had PTSD, even though I had never been in any danger during my months of homelessness.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of experiencing something that one lacks the experiential framework to process. Because your mind can’t process what happened, you get mentally stuck in that event, going over it again and again while your subconscious tries to assimilate it.
For a period of time during our homelessness, my Lover and I parked our van in a run-down neighborhood that was full of the stereotypical trailer trash. The “neighbors” liked to get drunk on a near nightly basis, and every time they did they would have screaming fights until nearly dawn. I had never seen anyone staggeringly drunk before, or heard people scream at each other like that before, and I had certainly never seen anyone hit another person before. I remember being woken up at three in the morning during a particularly bad fight where one of the participants had a gun in their car, and feeling terrified that I was going to witness a stabbing or a shooting.
During another night, at a different time in a different state, my Lover and I were woken up by knocking on the window. It was a police officer, and there were three cop cars parked behind our vehicle. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside, around 2 AM. We were interrogated by two officers while the temperature inside our car plummeted to below freezing because of the open windows. Eventually, after many repetitions of “What are you doing here, and what’s inside your car?” they told us that we had done nothing illegal, and that we weren’t in any trouble. When they left, I felt harassed and betrayed. I had never expected to be targeted by the police when I had not broken any laws.
There was another time when I walked out to our car to check on the cats and discovered a police officer there waiting for animal control to show up so that he could break in the window of our car and take the cats. I talked to him, was again told that we hadn’t done anything illegal, and he left — he was only there because a nosy individual in that neighborhood had called him about “animal abuse”. I felt overwhelmed — if I had been ten minutes later, our family would have been torn apart and our way of living destroyed. It was at that moment when I realized how fragile our situation was, and how easily it could be lost.
Events like these all combined together to rip away my sense of security. Every noise, every passing car or person, was a potential threat that could change my world for the worse. At times, it felt like everyone around us was determined to take away what precious little we had, just because we had so little, and nowhere to go. I had grown up in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, so nothing had prepared me for these experiences, or for the world view that resulted from them. Mentally, I became stuck in a conglomerate of these events.
In order to help my recovery, I do a lot of things that remind me that I am now living in a home. I shower, do my hair and makeup, and work on keeping our living space organized and clean. I also meditate and practice yoga nearly every day to clear my mind and relax my body, and I take supplements, like fish oil, to help repair the mental damage that was caused by stress. I still have days when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety, but they are becoming less and less frequent. As long as I keep doing my part, then time will do its part as well.
If you’re wondering, moving into that garage was not the end to our misadventures, but rather another step in them. Of course, that’s an entirely different story.