When you are homeless, and finally arrive at a shelter, it probably will not be the place where you can complete rehabilitation. But it can prove to be a starting point. At the Worthington Street Shelter I came into contact with a group called Health Care for the Homeless, and through them was able to get a psych evaluation. The end result was that the doc came up with a Bipolar diagnosis and prescribed a medication. This was an important–a vital—first step for me on the pathway to recovery. (Now, sixteen years later, other aspects of rehabilitation continue.) But Worthington Street was a temporary stop gap for me. I moved on to a shelter in Westfield, Mass. For the summer, and then on to Northampton, where I was admitted to a more rehabilitation-oriented, halfway house setting, where I could settle in to some extent, and go out looking for a job. It took me about a year before I had stabilized enough to rent my own room, while continuing to work two part-time jobs.
You must persevere to get better, when you have a major illness like Bipolar or an addiction like alcoholism. It can be frustrating. But eventually you will probably reach the point of reconnecting with family members, as I did, finally, beginning with my son, who was in graduate school at the time. You rebuild old family ties slowly, and some family-related wounds from the past never heal, and that fact can haunt you. That’s why you may need good counseling or therapy, to deal with old trauma. I have gone through that process, haltingly. Right now I have an application in my drawer for treatment with a pastoral group of counselors. Since spirituality is important to me, I feel a need for a counselor or therapist with a spiritual orientation. I am interfaith, so I need a person who understands and respects that point of view.
Old trauma can be triggered during the homeless experience. When I walked from the rehab shelter to downtown Northampton, I had to pass the now boarded up Northampton State (mental) Hospital relic of a building, with broken out windows. It reminded me of having to put my mom in a couple of state hospitals when I was in college for treatment of her mental illness. Of course, this experience of “walking past” triggered a lot on hurtful memories, including guilt that I could not do more to help her in her journey. For one thing, I was struggling myself to maintain stability. But that fact provided little solace.
One time in Springfield I was walking down the highway from town to the truck stop where I was taking up temporary residence. I passed a bunch of old baseball cards lying on the shoulder of the road. Since I played baseball growing up and loved the game and even had dreams of playing professionally someday, these cards triggered a strong feeling of regret, as well as the sense of having lost my youth and dreams. Such memories that are triggered during the homeless experience need to be dealt with through counseling/therapy and/or a spiritual practice like meditation or in-depth contemplation.
So recovery from such life crises as mental illness, alcoholism or homelessness is not an easy thing, and it requires time and effort and help from others. You don’t just snap your fingers and your life goes from chaos to order or from a state of utter aloneness to a life in which you have at least a few good friends or a loving partner, or both. Self-confidence and self-regard are rebuilt gradually through a series of responsible activities. You gradually learn to be genuinely concerned about the fate of others; over time you become less self-involved and you get to the point where a prime goal for you is to become a contributing member of society once again.
But change does happen, if you work for it. And hope is regenerated. And one day you wake up to discover that you are no longer completely isolated. You have regained the capacity to open yourself to others, and you care enough to be receptive to hearing about their hopes and dreams and deep concerns and fears.