The main reasons I prefer to work in downtown Washington, DC is, of course, all the colorful characters I get to meet. When I was 19 and landed my first temp job in the city I had to walk to the bank to make a deposit everyday, and everyday I would take the long route. It was on those trips I met a homeless guy named Ron that was kind of crazy in the head but totally loveable. For whatever reason, I have softness in my heart for the homeless and hungry. It physically hurts me to watch others walk by everyday as if the homeless don’t even exist. As if their speaking voices are on mute or another frequency from that of the rest of the world; no one is listening.
I understand on some level that it’s not always feasible to give away cash to those in need, but I am not always comfortable sayings that to someone’s face. Of course, as a 19 year old with her first job, I blew through a lot of cash and was unable to give most of the time. My main question for Ron, “What can I do besides money? What do you need from me?” His answer, “Just continue to talk to me—some people don’t even treat us like humans.”
I never forgot it and I always try to practice and remember those simple instructions—even when I’m in my bitchy DC mode and running late for the next metro train. Because of this advice I’ve met so many friends in almost ten years working in the downtown area. One man I remember so vividly because I picture myself as him. He was outside of the building I was working in during a temporary assignment. This was a job I’d scored after being fired from my career of 8 years, so I had no health insurance and very little cash flow. I would hurriedly walk passed those asking for change while mumbling that I had none to spare. However, I tried to make up for this by giving large sums of money when I actually did have any cash on me. This man intimidated me; he was usually posted up directly outside of my building, the look in his eyes alternating between vacant and wild. He talked to himself and it was clear he was suffering from some kind of mental illness. I swallowed my fear and gave to him whenever I could. One day I was so poor and I hadn’t given him anything in awhile. I felt so bad about it I walked right by him without even saying hello.
“Excuse me…Miss…?” I heard a hesitant voice call from behind me.
I slowly turned around to face him. I had never heard him speak so clearly…only random mutterings to himself. His voice waivered and his face twitched as he slowly articulated, “Do you have anything for me today?” My heart broke into a thousand pieces. I recognized the twitching of the face and the slow deliberation—he was trying to break free. I know because it has happened to me before, and just the thought of it scared the shit out me. I make jokes, I laugh about myself at my random crazy life and strange thought processes and bouts of depression but it’s all just a distraction. The truth is: I have been worse. It is one thing to struggle with being sad for the rest of your life, but quite another to feel as if you’re battling the onset of psychosis.
At my worst I had left my husband and was living the Super woman lifestyle. Eventually the stresses kept piling up; I couldn’t afford my rent, my electricity was cut off, I was terrified to sleep in my house alone, I had to move in with my parents, I fell in love, I made reckless decisions, I became pregnant, moved again… got my heart broken—it never ENDED!! I became buried in sadness and for several months I completely lost myself. I always describe it as a heaviness to my brow. I always felt as if I carried around another person with me. A dark individual that would whisper evil in my ear. “You will never get better; you will never be free; death is your only freedom…” I would lie awake at night and repeat to myself over and over, “There is a demon that follows me, and I can’t escape it.”
Finally, one night I couldn’t keep it to myself, I couldn’t hold the crazy in any longer. I rocked back and forth crying softly to myself and whispering, “There is a demon that follows me, and I can’t escape it.” I was that man, that homeless man trying to break free from the trap of his own mind just to connect with the outside world for the sake of survival. My boyfriend at the time just held me as I rocked…possibly a scary moment for him…but his touch only made me feel more alone. It made me wonder if the homeless man’s choice to escape his own world for just a moment to engage me made him feel just as lonely.
There is a history of mental illness on both sides of my family, as well as a history of self-medication through drugs and alcohol. I live in fear of slipping away to those dark places and somehow not being able to return. When life came to a point of being too much for me, I checked myself into a mental institution. I don’t think I’ve told this to anyone, but while I was there that place felt like home to me. How ironic is it that one of times I’ve felt most free was when I was institutionalized?
There is a demon that follows me—I am getting better, and I will learn to escape it.