ANOTHER EMPTY HIGHWAY – Part 4: The Purging
I was a couch surfer (as opposed to homeless vagabond) from late-June 2020 to February 2021. I moved from home to home, couch to couch, floor to floor, and slept in my car when I couldn’t find a place to stay. On the surface, couch surfing sounds cool, hip, adventurous, untethered—living the life of a nomad, a hippy or gypsy—not bound or tied down to anyone or anything. I would have loved this lifestyle in my twenties, but couch surfing was far less glamorous in my forties. The next unknown, unknown further fueled despair, desperation, frustration, and anxiety. I’d check in now and then, cry myself to sleep before waking up the next day and trying again.
During peak heat and cold seasons, I landed temporary places to stay with old friends and distant relatives. I honestly don’t know how many times I moved, where I lived, how long I lived there, or why I left each place. I felt like I was living in a nightmare—a Groundhog Day lasting 18 months, making the 900 days of March look like a weekend. There was no difference between night and day, weeks, months or seasons; every day and night were the same, my dreams the same, and every day ended with the same outcome. It is like having Alzheimer’s disease where I’d forget I went to bed defeated and waking up with believing today will be different only to go to bed defeated again. After a few months of moving from place to place, I lost touch with myself.
I never lived in one place too long to avoid causing unnecessary stress with non-familial relationships. Accepting another adult into a home with an existing family nucleus is difficult; however, coupled with a pandemic, lockdowns, fear of transmitting or catching COVID-19 and unemployment? A stress beyond anything I can depict on paper. I kept my visits short—no longer than two weeks before I packed up my belongings and moved on to another location. I carried from place to place the few belongings I had left—everyday clothing, interview clothes (hoping I would land an interview) groceries and my hygiene products. Although I kept my visits short, it didn’t change the feelings I had about myself when I moved my belongings into my new temporary space and out again two weeks later—a homeless vagabond, a bag lady, a nobody, a failure, a loser and a burden.
Likewise, in families with interpersonal relationships and strong work ethics, I faced a kind of well-meaning cold hard truth. I am a single woman and very educated adult who should work, have a place of my own, be independent and pay my bills and I certainly should not be couch surfing. I certainly shouldn’t be sleeping on couches with various friends and family members. Homelessness in my situation was far more complex and wasn’t about my inability to live under my parents’ roof, finding employment, being self-sustainable and being a normal productive adult because that is so simple, right?! The reality was I had more declination letters from employers because essential jobs were for people who “needed” the jobs (which is what employers told me). I was an over-educated, overqualified, but not certified nobody that no one would hire. It’s easier to tell someone like me to “suck it up” “take the first available job—even if it is at a gas station” and “make it happen” when there were so many variables that prevented me from moving forward with the pandemic, making it exponentially more difficult. I know they meant well, but I knew my circumstances wouldn’t change until federal, state and local governments had a better handle on the rapidly spreading virus.
Everywhere I went, people talked about the growing homeless problem—WITH ME THERE! People tried to understand the complexities of homelessness, potential solutions, and local policies that positively or negatively affected the homeless population. They would talk about how they couldn’t understand why they stay homeless after so many months or years. I am like, “Hey, let’s talk about the elephant in the room! Why don’t you ask the homeless person sitting right in front of you?” I found people responded to homelessness in five ways; you’re pathetic and people feel sorry for you, assume you have mental issues or have a drug problem, assume you choose to be homeless, or you failed at life and failed miserably. It is easy to lump all homeless people in the same category. Homelessness is far more complex, and each person experiences their unique circumstances that led them to their inevitable doom. Although people care and mean well, they scarcely understood or showed compassion.
I can’t really blame anyone or anything for my circumstances—although that is easy to do. It is easy to blame my neighbor for his bug problem because this is where it all began, I can blame myself for shitty decisions, I can blame the pandemic for all the system failures, and I can blame God for not being there when I needed him the most—and rightfully so! However, pointing fingers and blaming exasperates the self-pity, feel sorry for me, victim mindset that keeps people like me trapped in mental prisons of injustice. Sometimes—things just are, bad things happen and this is just life. What I was facing was another facet of human experience, fueled by complex circumstances. Every day was a war against doubt, anger, and hopelessness. I couldn’t believe my situation was forever and held onto the hope that this troublesome time would pass, but some days were harder than others.
These experiences perpetuated a feeling of separation, disconnection, loneliness in a way that I can’t fully explain. I was a stranger to my former self, my family, my old friends and distant relatives. I lost so many relationships and said so many goodbyes. When I thought I was moving, I cut ties with any relationships I developed and didn’t look back. The truth was, I handled separation from my relationships the same way I handled them in the military—rip the bandage off, bleed now, move on and cry later. Loss was painful and over time, it became easier and easier to accept relationships (to whatever degree they were) on a “limited time only” basis. I never allowed myself to get attached to people because connection meant inevitable loss and loss meant aloneness and pain. After a while, it was just easier not to form attachments at all—when it was time to go; I didn’t look back or say goodbye. Ultimately, I can’t say I regret cutting the relationships short, but I can say doing so added to one of the loneliest times of my life. This was my mindset during a pandemic that took the lives of millions of people globally—there was no certainty any of my close relationships would be there tomorrow.
Like COVID-19, loneliness was widespread during the pandemic. Loneliness touched everyone’s life in some form or fashion. For me, deep meaningful connections, comradery, companionship were not a necessity—I so focused on getting through the day. I was in survival and only concerned with meeting necessities—safety, food and shelter. I jumped on the survival jolly train in September 2019. I lived out of bags (going back as far as the pest infestations in Los Angeles) and trying to satisfy basic (minimal) human needs (food, shelter, shower). I existed in survival for so long that I forgot what it was like to be human—I forgot what it was to want—to want connection, intimacy, to be a woman and enjoy flowers, dresses, glittery nail polish, and makeup. The few times I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a genderless nobody—I was neither ugly nor beautiful; I was neither masculine nor feminine; I was neither alien nor human—I was no one, nowhere, nothing, and no time.
Despite my inability to form attachments, I took losses really hard. I lost my support group, my community, my place of worship, my friends and my dearest of all friends. Similarly, I lost my possessions, which I sold, donated or threw away because I could no longer afford to hold on to them. As my possessions disappeared, so did my hope for the future. When I thought I couldn’t bear another loss, I lost more.
In mid-September 2020, I received a storage rent increase letter. It was one of those letters that I knew was coming, but didn’t know it would be that bad until I opened it and read the contents—I literally thought my heart stopped. I guess I was thinking my rent would go up maybe 5 to 10 percent. No! My rent increased a whopping 45 percent! It was at this moment I realized affordable housing was out of reach and I needed to find a job outside of my home state. Unlike California, there is no rent control where my parents live. The cost of housing increased 30% over the last 5 years, making it more and more difficult for locals to find affordable housing. This is when I lost my will and my fight to keep going. Any hope of having my life back finally slipped away. The life I had was finally over. I had nothing left to look back on, nothing to look forward to. I had nowhere to be and nowhere to go.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I spent countless hours in the storage, sorting through boxes and getting rid of everything I could not fit in my car. Memories associated with the items passed through my mind the same way the items passed through my fingers, but I could scarcely cry. One by one, I tossed the items in the trash or put it in a box for donations. When my car was full, I numbingly drove to Goodwill and watched as employees pulled them from my car and tossed the items into blue bins. I felt nothing. Inside, I was emptily watching the remnants of my life slip away. It was the first time I understood that my desire to hold on to the items was because I wanted those people and memories back. I wanted that life again. The letting go of these items came with a sense of permanence to those goodbyes.
My family would try to encourage me, saying, “Well, think of it like decluttering or a cleansing. People always feel good after they declutter their house,” or, “I wish I could simplify my life too.” Their encouragement and sentiments didn’t make me feel better. To me, it felt less like a cleanse and more like a purge. Cleansing is by choice. It is a systematic process of ridding oneself of waste. Purging not by choice. Purging is by force and it is violent and painful.
It was a cold early autumn morning in late September when my son and I finished vacating the storage unit. We numbingly loaded the remaining oversize furniture and boxes into the truck and swept the storage clean. With the truck full, we mechanically drove to Goodwill where we waited for men to unload the items comprising clothing, pictures, paintings, and furniture. We couldn’t even cry. All we could do was watch what remained of our life slip away.
The emptiness that ensued touched every part of a part of our souls. Our drive back to my son’s place was as ominous as our departure from Los Angeles. We drove down another empty highway with the sun setting behind the mountains with hues of gold, pink and purple strewn across the cloudy country side—the highway was empty, and our faces bore the same forlorn expressions we had as we drove emptily through the Mojave Desert back in March. Like before, an endless deserted highway and barren deserts stretched out before us and we drove on to nowhere with no sense of purpose or meaning. Our lives were slowly and methodically peeled away, much like our hope and confidence that things would turn around and our lives would find some normalcy. We drove away and the uncertainty about the future seemed more real to us than ever before. My heart ached, but my eyes produced no tears.