Let’s zoom in on that one specific I still consider to be ‘the’ D-day. 19 years old. This was taken a couple weeks later:
My best friend’s taillights flashed red as she paused before turning onto the main road and disappearing from view. I breathed deep to clear my vision blurred by that gunky salt water that fills your eyes before you start bawling. Now was possibly the worst time in the world to show any weakness. It was almost 10pm, the designated curfew. I turned and without giving myself time to consider what I was doing for the millionth time, walked into the homeless shelter.
After the staff decided to do my check-in the following morning, I waited in the lobby for them to wrap a few things up before taking me in back and explaining the rules. I was staring absently at an armchair and I felt it: some part of my sanity felt like it was physically moving up in my brain driven by grief and panic. I’ve never felt anything since, but it has redefined what it means for me to lose my mind. My anxiety faded, my fidgeting stopped, and I grew calm. I wasn’t at all reassured; I just suddenly no longer cared about my life.
Grabbing my sad tiny backpack, the worker tossed it onto a cart. The wheels squealed as my mind churned slowly, exhausted. The human services worker with me rolled it to a stop and turned to unlock a storage room full of donated bedding. Pulling down a random quilt and a few sheets, she paused to look at me inquisitively. I had been quiet, timid and reserved since the night before, when I had sobbed for hours and tried to sleep on the sloshy water bed at a friend’s house. She may have asked me if I was ok, but I was so clearly not that I didn’t bother to answer. I don’t know how else to describe how I felt that night besides to say it was a soul-exhausted feeling. She closed up the storage room and led me through a key-card guarded door, explaining that we were cutting through the family wing in order to get to the women’s wing. After shortly rounding a corner, she used the same key to open a second door labeled Women’s Wing. We had arrived.
We rolled past a small living area with some ghetto-looking recliners centered around an old box TV, past two rooms and to the last door in the hall. The was a strange smell, like someone tried cleaning up urine and vomit with a ton of bleach. Knocking, she called out that she was entering and swung the door open. I had had a mental image of what a homeless shelter looked like on the inside, but this was not it.
Four bunks filled the small room, draped in the colorful belongings of my seven new roommates. They all peered out from their beds, looking as if we had walked into a personal discussion. I was surprised to see that two of the women looked younger than the rest. They appeared to be mid-twenties and the other five seemed to be in their forties-fifties. The room seemed warm and homier than I would have ever pictured, but I was too depressed to do anything other than clamber up on my assigned corner bunk, make the bed and lie down. I was vaguely aware of the girls asking me questions about who I was and where I came from, but I didn’t answer them. I was afraid if I opened my mouth, only the sounds of heartbreak would come out. The staff member gave me a key for a small cubby and pointed out I could use a drawer under the bed. She left, reminding me to complete in-processing with her in the morning. I lay back down.
The ceiling was only a couple feet from my face. I remember staring at the dirt and cracks, probably from the countless other women who had lain in this same bed, and tried to imagine how I could save my own life. I was nineteen, skinnier than I had been in a very long time and in Michigan, the worst state possible, during the Great Recession. Even IF I’d had a degree, I’d still have been hard pressed to find a part time job waiting tables. As it was, I was a recovering junkie with worse than no family. All I had were withdrawals, a really bad situation and not a penny to my name. I closed my eyes, reopening them slowly, unfocused. If the girls in the room were still talking, I didn’t hear. One thought loudly reverberated inside my head, becoming a realization and settling into defeated belief: I was going to die here. I truly needed a miracle, and my experience had led me to believe the world was wholly in opposition of making that happen. I was done; my eyes slammed shut.
The P.A. system in the room blared, making some kind of announcement I knew I should care about but didn’t remember. My eyes cracked open. I had been dreaming so heavily of being in college, my biggest goal, so realistically that I had forgotten where I was. I didn’t remember the catastrophic events of the past couple days and for a few seconds, I blinked, confused at where I was or why there was a ceiling right in my face. For a second, I thought I was back in boarding school. Then it all came rushing back. I remembered seeing all my belongings out in the cold February air and my dad, leaning in the window of my best friend’s car, telling her she needed to pick better friends than me. I remember her terrified look at he walked away and chasing him to the side door of his house, screaming in rage for him to hand over my birth certificate, passport and other documents. I remembered the hours of sobbing and my best friend taking me out to ice cream to try to cheer me up. My memories zeroed in on a mentor of mine, Julie, coming to my rescue and letting me stay the first night with her and even taking me out to dinner. As we had sat in the nice restaurant with my tears blotted all over the cloth napkin, she explained to me that she realized she had had to make a choice between supporting my parents as friends and supporting me, and that she would be there for me through this. I had spent the previous night at her house on the water bed that had completely freaked me out. There was something about punctuating every movement with a slosh that had me sleeping on the floor next to the bed with her small white dog, Sporty, sleeping on my back. I had awakened in shame and texted my weed dealer to come pick me up and take me to the community college, where I met Charish, my best friend. Once she was out of class, we had still come up with no ideas and finally, I had called the shelter. They told me to come pick up a Wants and Warrants form to have the police sign, ensuring I wasn’t a wanted criminal. I had swallowed heavily and we went to get the papers. At one point I had tried to make a call and found my dad had already called to have my phone disconnected.
Remembering the darkness that surrounded that day, I am sure now that the only thing that got me through it was the deep depression I had sunk into; it didn’t feel real.
I sat up and felt the weight of certainty that I was doomed settle onto my shoulders, and I fell back. I couldn’t believe it. Nightmares were what people woke up FROM, not to. I sat up again, hunched over, and drew the weird-smelling blanket around me. I reached for the small dark blue backpack I had salvaged from the mountain of things my dad had thrown outside and took instant inventory. Two changes of clothes and my precious laptop (mind you, this was the age in which a laptop was something that mostly only the upper class had. I was the only one in the shelter with one). At least it was something. My roomies were all up and gone, with beds made and valuables out of sight. As I climbed down from the bunk, I noticed one of the beds had several stuffed animals arranged in sexual positions. My new classy crowd.
I changed into one of my spare sets of clothes and meandered to the small cafeteria. They had coffee so watered down I hesitate even to dub it coffee; I poured myself a cup and sat down across from the cleanest, friendliest looking lady I could find. She was casually flipping through the paper as if she was sitting in her own kitchen on a Sunday morning, and it bothered me. No such situation deserved such normalcy! I couldn’t help myself:
Me: What are you doing?!
The woman carefully set down her newspaper and peered at me inquisitively. Obviously she was reading the paper and drinking the water-coffee. I was on a roll; I didn’t care. Her casual attitude was confusing and almost an affront to my despair.
Me: How can you act so normal?! Don’t you get the we are in a homeless shelter? How are you acting so….so… OKAY?!
She gave me an oddly sad and motherly look and folded her newspaper shut.
Woman: Honey, listen. It’s not ok. We are homeless. None of us know what is going to happen to us and most of us would rather not know what already has. Without this (she held up the paper) and this (gestured to the water-coffee) I have nothing. You won’t survive unless you can have something normal.
I stared at her. Was she kind of highly educated angel? What was SHE doing here? I had so many questions for her, but a staff member came in and announced the cafeteria was closed and everyone at the shelter had to leave until lunch. I quickly sprang up to get one last cup of water-coffee and ran back to the table. The woman was gone. I never learned more about her than her name and in spite of years of searching, I never found her again.
I had to complete my intake, so I was exempt from having to leave. I returned to my room numbly as the PA blared the announcement that residents had to leave. I picked up my meager little backpack. A passing woman gave my laptop a much longer stare than was safe and I decided I would carry it everywhere and sleep with it. Somehow I got back to the admin office located at the entrance. It resembled a fish tank, glassed to the ceiling in what I assumed was bulletproof glass. The police were there. After being a trafficker, it raised panic, but they were there for something else. Turns out they were there every day, sometimes for most of the day. We were the closest homeless shelter to the state prison. When prisoners were released, they didn’t usually return to Detroit; they came here, to my hometown cut out of a Hollister magazine to start fresh and immediately checked in to this place. Gang members, sex offenders, you name it. I bunked with the best of them.
The residents were entering the office one at a time for medication, so I waited on the couches in the lobby. It was quite a wait, but I didn’t feel time anymore. I was just there, sitting dead in my body. I had been through assault, heartbreak and almost every possible kind of abuse, but I had finally been pushed past my breaking point. Only two people knew I was there: Julie and Charish. Charish was at her wits’ end with me; after the drugs, the trafficking, and the pain and rage I had pent up and failed to suppress, she knew anything could happen. They both loved me anyways.
I heard my name and was roused from my trance-like state of nothing. I stumbled to the office entrance and was led down a hall to the first door on the left. Let’s call the human services worker Cindy. She was the same one who had led me to my room the night before. Looking over her papers, she glanced at me. She was cold and businesslike but somehow couldn’t quite hide the motherly glow. She asked me why I was there. Man did I hate crying in front of people. I opened my mouth to tell her the story and a sob slipped out.
I sat there, bawling and sobbing for quite some time. Like I had tried for the past few days; I tried to put a lid on it…. then I failed. Honestly, I don’t remember how long is was before I was able to communicate through the waterfall, but I gave her the gist:
I had decided to join the military and my parents had thrown me out after calling my recruiter. They had told him that I was suicidal, homicidal and heavily medicated. Thankfully, he didn’t buy it. He had seen controlling parents before and since I had met with him numerous times, he could tell I clearly wasn’t medicated. When I had returned to the house from my damage-control meeting with him, I came home to a February early evening nightmare: my folks had tossed all my belongings onto a tarp over the snow. My friend Julie picked me up in response to my SOS. 24 hours later, Charish left me at the shelter entrance at curfew.
Cindy seemed more annoyed than anything about my tears slowing her process. She said a few things, write a couple things down on my intake for and thrust a camera in my face, capturing every bit of my grief. Great. It was going to be my ID photo. She escorted me out.
I didn’t know what to do with myself so I started doodling on newspapers in the cafeteria, where I could clearly see the entrance of the shelter. After a while, an older, goofy looking guy with a heavily pockmarked face slowly duckwalked in, dragging a carry-on suitcase. He started his intake right away. I watched through the glassed off walls of the office as Cindy sat across from him. I got bored, numbly doodled a little more and started wandering to the main doors to smoke. As I passed the office, I saw the suitcase opened wide on the medication table. It was full of easily hundreds of bottles and bags of medication. I could hear the Cindy’s worried voice:
Cindy: Fred…If you don’t even know how you’re supposed to take all of these I don’t know if we can sort through them all!
For the first time since D-day, I snickered. It felt like a small victory over the cold woman who treated me like an inconvenience. I smoked, sat blankly in the snow and meandered back inside, returning to my seat in the cafeteria. I had gone from being unable to stop the flow of emotion back to being a completely empty shell. I not only felt numb but I didn’t even have thoughts. Nothing was running on the thinking banner in my mind; complete lights out. As I sat there staring blankly at the wall, Fred, the other new guy, came in and sat down next to me. He pulled out a bag of loose tobacco, rolling tubes and a roller. His hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t pack the roller. He grumbled. An idea formed in my mind. Survival instinct kicked in:
Me: Hi. I’m Skye. Need help?
Fred: Uh. Yeah. You roll ciggies?
Me: Yeah; I’m pretty good at it. If I roll you a couple packs, I’d like to roll myself one.
It hadn’t taken me long to realize that in this new world, cigarettes were currency and I was just about out of them. He grumbled, tried in vain to roll another cigarette and sighed. He pushed the materials over to me and I got to work, using my sweetest possible voice. We chatted as I rolled the three packs. He was very friendly in spite of his gruffness and was soon telling me a story I’m sure wasn’t real about his old comedy show. I needed him to like me. Being charming and sweet was the only way I was going to survive; I was too small and vulnerable here to do it on my own.
As I listened, his voice suddenly seemed to get heavier. I looked up as he paused. He was staring off into space, not hearing me. I said his name. Nothing. I poked him in the shoulder. Nothing. I started to push my chair back and suddenly his head dropped. He launched into the most violent seizure I had even seen. I stood there, panicked. Usually when people got hurt around me, I was the one inflicting the hurt. Finally I ran out to the office and shouted for help. When I ran back into the cafeteria, he was still. I didn’t hear or see his breath. One of the staff told me to go back to the women’s wing.
I stumbled down the hall, backpack swinging in hand. Climbing on my bunk I stared at the gritty ceiling. I knew he wasn’t coming back.
TO BE CONTINUED