How to Become Homeless When You Once Made Six Figures
Tomorrow, August 15, 2021, I will be officially homeless.
It’s important to mark this day because it is a critical milestone in my life. The truth is the space between being on top of the world and being on the bottom is minuscule. All it takes is one great event, one moment of being shaken up and thrown down, and most of us find that the hold we had on security slips quite easily. It’s true that most of us are closer to the streets than we think, even when we are seemingly doing well.
Eight years ago, I was on top. I was in my 30s, living in a beautiful loft apartment with brick walls, old factory windows, and a high industrial ceiling. I worked in Manhattan. I felt young and beautiful and alive. I had a shoe collection to be envied and a walk-in closet that would be Carrie Bradshaw approved. But all of that pretty dressing was just a distraction from all the pain and emptiness I’d been harboring deep inside. They were temporary happiness to fill in the void.
The truth was, I’d been incredibly unfulfilled at my job and I’d never felt like I fit in. I faked at being “one of them” but inside, I knew I was still just a poor, immigrant kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’d just been smart enough and lucky enough to elbow my way to the top. Corporate life felt like a continuation of college Greek culture, of Brads and Joeys and Beckys and Amandas. It was hard enough to be a woman in a male-dominated industry (tech), but add to that also a minority and a poor kid to boot, the social challenge to connect and be relatable to my peers was difficult. We just came from very different worlds.
I remember those early days when I worked at Audible. The few Asian coworkers and I created the “Asian Coalition,” our little lunch group where we’d find a bit of comfort in our familiar backgrounds. It was a 30-minute respite where no one would wrinkle their noses at our lunches or think it strange to talk about how we longed to see the mist roll over the karst mountains. The distance and space between America and our ancestral lands were so much further than just miles.
But it wasn’t just the pressures and emptiness from my job that brought on my depression. I’d also suffered a lot of childhood trauma and abuse. My childhood memories were mostly blank, except for flashes of fear and moments of pain. My parents suffered heavily from PTSD, being survivors of the Secret War, watching so many of our people die; and in those early days, their trauma leaked all over me and my older brother in anger and fists. We weren’t just immigrants; we were also war refugees. My dad suffered most of all. He’d been a child soldier. All he’d ever known was brutality, death, blood, and war.
Then, five years ago, it all caught up to me, every dark and dirty part of my history came knocking on my door and I could no longer avoid them. I’d been injured and needed surgery and diabetes complicated the healing process. What should have been a few weeks' recovery became four long months of sitting in my dark living room, my leg that had swelled up painfully to three times its normal size making it impossible for me to even bathe myself. For those four months, I found myself sitting alone in my shadowed apartment, just sinking into myself.
Because I couldn’t meet with clients, I lost my job. I’d been out too long, even with doctor’s notes. I could have sued for wrongful termination, but in my heart, I didn’t want that job back anyway and I just didn’t have the fight in me to do it. And that’s the thing that is hard for people to understand about depression…it’s not that you “can’t” physically do something. You technically could. It is that you no longer have the will to do it. Couple that with fear and anxiety and trauma, and simple things become impossible. It is completely a mental game.
Eventually, the money ran out. All of my life’s savings sunk into just staying afloat, paying for an overpriced apartment, paying for a housekeeper to come by twice a month, paying for a dog walker, paying for medical bills out of pocket. It went so fast, even as I streamlined expenses. I still wasn’t able to walk, as my legs had atrophied from being in a prone position for months. Walking would be another three months of physical therapy, also out of pocket.
I was drowning and fast. I could feel myself go under and I didn’t know what it was. I’d never been here before. I didn’t know how to reach for professional help. Instead, I felt my fingers slacken on the rope holding my life together. I could feel it as though it were physical, letting it all go, allowing parts of me to slip and sink.
It’s odd how your entire life can be fit into a 10x10 storage unit, how eighteen years can be jammed into such a small space. When the money ran dry, the apartment went with it, and I ended up on my ex’s couch. I’d been with him for most of my adult life, so I thought of him as more than just an ex. I naively thought of him as someone I could count on if I was truly desperate. And I was.
Desperate, lost, and drowning in sadness and misery that I couldn’t figure out how to pull myself out of.
Even as I moved in and onto his couch, mentally, I was no better. I was still locked inside a damp dark cell of my mind. Outwardly, I pulled myself together enough to not look the way I felt, and I pep-talked myself every morning to convince myself that I could do this. I could beat the odds. I could pick myself back up and get that glory back, but there was always that voice in the back of my head saying how tired she was, how scared she was, how anxious she was, but most of all, how difficult it was to keep going.
And then my ex raped me.
Depression was the cliff’s edge and my ex shoved me over it. I tumbled headlong into numbing pain, into losing my sense of self, and into the death of my dignity. In the aftermath, I laid there on his couch, the cold winter air prickling my naked body, and I wanted to stop existing. There hadn’t been anything romantic between us in years. I hadn’t felt attraction for him or even much love for him in a long time. All that had been left between us was just the trauma bond of having survived some tough years together. But, as I was at my lowest low, he felt that providing a roof over my head entitled him to the use of my body.
As I felt the hot tears trickle down the side of my face, I felt what little remained of me float away, even as he said to me, “This is what you wanted. I know you wanted this.”
I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. I’d lain there, after telling him no and to stop. I’d lain there and let him finish. I’d let my arms and legs be jelly and let my eyes focus on the ceiling, on faraway places. I’d let my heart stutter in its protest even as I sunk further and further into the hole of my soul. The space there at the bottom, it isn’t cold. It’s also not hot. It’s just a void. It’s hollow and empty. It’s murky and, in some ways, comforting because the darkness becomes a friend. It is the most constant and dependable of friends, one in which you will never face disappointment. It’s silence.
My ex, he’d never been a man who respected boundaries, and that had been a long contention between us in the fifteen years of our relationship. When I’d met him, I was a sheltered 18-year-old and he was 28 and had already been divorced once before. I didn’t understand back then what power dynamics were nor did I understand how valuable life experiences would be for understanding what love should be. What I saw was a charming smile, tousled curly black hair, and a wounded man who said he needed love.
In those fifteen years together (with three years separated), I could no longer keep track of the lies and the cheating. There were no moments in my relationship with him where it was just the two of us. His door was always open for ghosts of girlfriends past and for any other woman who’d like to walk through. But when you’re young and inexperienced and he’s all you’ve ever known, and you’re raised to believe in staying by your man no matter what, you shield your eyes and you tough it out. That’s what good girls do.
I’d find later that as I told my story to others, I’d have to justify why I asked him to take me in. Frankly, I was desperate. There was nowhere else to go. I still thought I could pull myself up. My family lived across the country and I was the black sheep. And when you’re in that spiral of depression, you already feel so alone. I’d never asked for anything from him before, and I thought maybe he’d see how bad off I was and he’d care enough about me to just take care of me. To let me sleep, let me feel safe, and to let me recover.
I didn’t know how wrong I’d be or how poor my judgment of him was in my weak moments. I should have known better. In part, I blame myself every day for what happened. If I’d pulled myself together, been more resilient, been tougher…If I’d been able to pull myself back up, I wouldn’t have gotten raped. I wouldn’t have been suicidal. I wouldn’t be here now.
Afterwards, I think I cried every day for a month. Hard, body-shaking sobs. I’d cry for miles as I walked my dog late at night in my tree-lined neighborhood. All these beautiful old houses, so much privilege with their white picket fences, and I was a rotting, walking corpse, bemoaning my pain on their sidewalks in the deep hours of the night. The rows of old Colonial houses with their twinkling candles in the windows and their manicured lawns, it was a world I always felt like I was an imposter in, and now I was hardly more than a ghost haunting their streets with my sobbing and moans of pain.
I would return to my family in Minnesota to help care for my dying father and my family’s farm, but I dragged with me a lifetime of trauma and pain, every day a struggle to want to live. It’d be a struggle to unpack it all with countless therapy sessions. After my father’s death, I found myself back in New Jersey, trying to pick up the pieces of my life and to get my career restarted, but then the pandemic hit and I found my way to California.
And now, I’m losing my housing. Tomorrow will be my first official day without an address. Even as I sit here writing this, I feel the maw of space grow inside me, a deep sinking in my chest. It’s an emptiness that I’ve been struggling to fill these last few years as I try to claw my way out of the dark.
I suppose I’ve been lucky thus far, to have found writing, to have found housing to huddle under during the pandemic, but what I haven’t found is my old self. She is who I miss most of all, that courageous girl. Underdog, survivor, resilient. Maybe she’s still here, still fighting because I’m still here.
This last year, I’ve learned to let go of all my material belongings. I’ve learned to live on very little and I’ve learned a great deal about being on the bottom and about human capacity. Come what may, in the end, I’m holding tight to what matters most. With every breath, I blow it to nurture the flame of life, to want to live again, and to find my way back into the sun.