… all of our experiences, good and bad, have the power to enrich our lives.
How many of us have personally known homeless folks? If you’re like me, you may have passed them on the streets of New York, Nashville, or Los Angeles, looking tired, dirty, and hungry. You may have heard stories about folks fallen prey to sad sack stories of the homeless needing money to visit dying mothers, or to buy food for their kids when all they really wanted was the next high. Let’s face it, we’re all a little uneasy about offering a helping hand because, unfortunately, we live in a dishonest world.
I’ll admit I haven’t always been the best judge of character. I was born believing that everyone is good at heart. I’ve suffered many a disappointment and heartbreak by finding out the hard way how untrue that can be … including lessons learned about my own nature. With that said, I still hope and believe that every bum, stripper, burnt out wrestler, and dirty, scary looking teen out there isn’t inherently bad. I look into their eyes and search for a kernel of good, something deserving of my hope, love, and understanding.
Besides being born naive, I also do this because I can’t forget the moments when people (some strangers and some closer to home) have looked at me with disgust and hatred as if to say, “You deserve what you got!” Maybe I did, and maybe the bum I saw during my recent visit to Times Square did, too, but maybe, just maybe, there are times when a storm catches us, spinning us out of control, and flailing and grasping to steady ourselves, feeling sick and confused, we just do the best damn thing we can. And our best isn’t that great by the world’s standards, but it’s the choice we grab hold of to pull ourselves through. If we’re smart and full of heart, sometimes the circumstances we land in can show us the final path out.
Well, I’m pleased to report that parts of our world are still honest. The newest member of Aberration Nation found herself in a destructive relationship with two young daughters, and she made a choice. Margay did the best she could at the time. She got out of a storm but ended up homeless. Then she was hit with a few other aberrations. Like many of us, she was forced to deal with several life-altering situations at once. The shit hit the homeless fan, so to speak. When you read her story I’m sure you’ll agree that, under the circumstances, she did a fantastic job of leading her family to a better place. Margay’s story shows us that not all who are homeless are heartless. When armed with the right amount of determination, any system can work.
Many of us have more than one aberration. If we’re lucky, we get to deal with these one at a time; however, life doesn’t usually work that way. At a certain point in your life, you were hit with several overlapping issues. Can you tell us what happened?
Well, after a series of events that started with me losing my job after 9/11 and ended with me living in a homeless shelter with my two young girls, I found myself facing two very frightening events for any mother. My younger daughter and I both fell ill and went through a series of tests and doctor visits and hospitalizations before we discovered what was wrong with us. the strange thing is that the two conditions, while very different, ran parallel to each other, and still do, at times. My daughter was hospitalized first, in February of 2003, with a stomach problem that, we learned at a later time, was linked to a mental health diagnosis that wouldn’t come until much later. While she was in the hospital, the symptoms that I had been feeling for at least a month before–numbness, tingling sensations, the inability to hold something in my hand for more than five minutes without suddenly dropping it–culminated in me taking a terrible spill outside of the hospital on my way home one night. Still, I wasn’t able to get to my own doctor until my daughter was out of the hospital. Several appointments with three different doctors and a hospitalization later, I was told that what I had was Multiple Sclerosis. That was in the Spring. That June, we received the devastating news that my younger daughter had bipolar disorder. It would be five more years before it was determined that she also had Asperger’s Syndrome.
It was difficult because there is no privacy in a shelter. You may have your own room to go to, but still, everyone knew everyone else’s business and everyone liked to gossip, or so it seemed. But, in what I now perceive as a life-saving stroke of intuition, when we first entered the shelter, I had arranged with my counselor to get therapists (a separate one for each, another good idea, as it turned out) for my daughters and myself, just to cope with the struggles of being in a shelter. As it turned out, that move saved our sanity. Having someone to talk to, outside of the shelter, about everything that was bothering me, including life at the shelter and all that entailed, was crucial. I think that is what kept me from giving in to despair. That, and visiting my mother as often as I could. She kept me grounded, kept me from giving up by reminding me what I had to lose if I didn’t push through this terrible period in my life. Another thing that made it difficult was the debilitating symptoms of my condition. I was tired all the time, my legs were totally numb before the steroid treatments, and I just wanted to sleep my life away. So of course, those were the times when my younger daughter had her worst episodes with the bipolar disorder and often had to go in for psych consults. Eventually, they put her in an A.R.T. program for a few weeks, but in my opinion, that didn’t do anything to help her. And through all of this, I was trying to give my older daughter as much stability as I could, under the circumstances. It was the most difficult time in my life.
You’re no longer homeless. How were you able to pull yourself out of that situation?
One of the requirements of living in the shelter is that you have to send out applications to every housing authority and low income facility on the packet they provide you. I did so diligently. Still, I was in the shelter for about fourteen months before an opening became available in a family housing project in my old home town. I have since moved on to better circumstances, but I am so grateful that I had that opportunity to start to rebuild my life.
Many people think of homeless people as lazy or mentally deranged. Did you happen to meet other homeless folks, and if so, what did you learn about them? Did your own ideas about homelessness change after being in those shoes yourself and meeting others like yourself?
The shelter that I lived in housed fourteen families in total, so there were a lot of people there and although some might have fit the preconceived notions about the homeless, the majority didn’t. The majority were people just like me; people who, through circumstances beyond their control, found themselves in need of a place to stay while they got back on their feet. I have to admit, my own opinion might have been colored by other’s perceptions at one point, but I soon learned differently. I met a lot of wonderful people at the shelter who were just victims of a bad turn of luck and wanted to do whatever they could to get beyond it and make a better life for their families. So I guess you could say that my perception did change. Nowadays, whenever anyone makes a derogatory remark about the homeless, I am quick to defend them and to point out that everyone is just one paycheck away from being homeless. This is especially true in today’s economy…
How did your younger daughter come to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome?
Well, we had been dealing with the bipolar diagnosis for about five years at that point and she had gone through a series of therapists/psychiatrists in those years. When we moved out of the shelter, I set her up with one who was closer to where we lived and who also was willing to meet with her clients in school. She was with that therapist for three years before the therapist decided to go into private practice and referred us to another therapist within the same agency. After meeting with my daughter for about three months, that therapist, in conjunction with the psychiatrist, presented the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, in addition to the bipolar disorder.
How were you able to cope with this new kink to the family system? Did you find the strength to take deep breaths and properly cope? If so, how did you muster that strength? If not, how did you eventually get a grip on the situation?
This is going to sound odd, but it wasn’t a shock to me. I have a friend who is a special education teacher and while we were still living in the shelter, she told me that, upon doing some research of Asperger’s in anticipation of a new student she would be having in the Fall, she began to suspect that this was what was ailing my daughter. She even sent me a copy of her research and I had to agree with everything she highlighted. So when the therapist said, “This is what we think we’re dealing with,” I just nodded and felt an extreme sense of relief. I think I just barely kept myself from shouting, “Finally!” because I suspected, even before my friend sent me the information, that there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. I think my daughter was relieved, too, because we finally had something to call the way she felt in school and social situations. So it was a good thing for us to get that diagnosis. I’m not saying that it has made the situation easier to handle, because it hasn’t, but it has helped us to understand it better. Understanding is the beginning of change. As for mustering the strength, I have a wonderful support system and it starts with my mother who keeps me grounded and helps me to make sense of everything.
Multiple Sclerosis is a serious disease, and one that progresses. Are you concerned about the future for your daughters? What is your current philosophy in terms of what types of outcomes you wish for them?
I am always concerned about the outcome for my daughters. Even before I fell ill, I worried even more so because they were abandoned by their father when I decided to end the marriage because of his alcoholism and drug abuse. I worried that I didn’t do enough to help their father even though he was beyond what help I could give him at that point. I worried that I had damaged them by denying them their father even though it was his choice not to come around anymore. So of course my concerns magnified when I was diagnosed with M.S. Fortunately for me, I am managing my symptoms and it’s in a sort of holding pattern right now, so we’re able to plan for the future just as if I wasn’t ill. The last thing I want is for either of my daughters to feel like they have to put their lives on hold to care for me. As a matter of fact, my older daughter is in the process of preparing for college next fall and I am preparing to home school her sister because her current situation has become such a toxic situation for her that she developed school phobia and suffers from severe anxiety at the mere thought of having to enter the building. My philosophy is that I want them to prepare for their lives the same way they would if I didn’t have M.S. I don’t want my condition to deter them from reaching their goals, just as I am not allowing it to deter me from reaching my own. As a result of that philosophy, I achieved one of my major goals in life this past November when I had my first book, Nora’s Soul, published.
As I often say, sometimes life sucks–that’s the nature of the beast. But life is also beautiful and poignant. Through it all, what are the beautiful things that you have seen? Tell us what gifts have resulted from the struggles that you’ve lead your family through.
I couldn’t agree more! There is so much beauty yet to be seen and enjoyed, whether it’s a sunset, the first spring blossom, or the fiery foliage of Fall in New England. (Can you tell where I’m from?) Beauty comes in many forms and perhaps the most beautiful thing that I’ve witnessed on my current journey is the strengthening of the relationships in my family, particularly between myself and one of my sisters, who also has bipolar disorder. She has given me such great insight into the machinations of my daughter’s mind, but she’s also encouraged a special relationship with my daughter because she truly understands how my daughter feels – right down to the stomach problems that still plague her. That is the true gift here.
Of course, no one wishes tough times upon themselves. With that said, do you believe it’s better to live a perfect life atop a silver platter, or do you believe that the struggles we face ultimately enrich our lives if we allow them to?
Who wants to live on a silver platter? It’s cold and everyone looks at you funny. Seriously, though, all of our experiences, good and bad, have the power to enrich our lives. It’s all in how we perceive them. And if we don’t accept the bad, how can we appreciate the good? The struggles we face are what define us as people and bring out our true nature and teach us how to be better people, if we but listen. Although I don’t enjoy some of my circumstances and don’t relish what I have to face on a daily basis, I wouldn’t want to change the circumstances that have led me to where I am today. Everything I have endured has made me the person I am and has put me in the path of some truly wonderful people that I would not have met otherwise. I do believe that my life has been enriched by my circumstances and I wouldn’t want to change that.
Many people are struggled today due to our poor economic situation, among other things. If you could say anything to the world in regard to coping amidst multiple pressures and heartaches, what would that be?
Your worries will crush you if you let them. Don’t let them. Take care of yourself and your mental health because if you don’t, your body will start to break down and then you will have another issue to deal with. Don’t be too proud to seek counseling if you’re depressed; shatter those taboos about therapy. A good percentage of people in therapy are people like me who just needed to talk to someone about their situations; just because you see a therapist, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. (And keep in mind that people who are mentally ill aren’t wrong, either; they’re just wired differently.) Even if you don’t talk to a therapist, talk to someone. Don’t keep it bottled up inside; eventually it will explode and the results can be disastrous. And try not to give in to the mentality that the world is ending because you’re facing all of these crises at once. It’s not. Have faith in yourself, believe that you are strong enough and capable enough to handle it, and you will get through it. You just have to believe.