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Illustration by Katherine Jeanne Wood

Shit! That was the only interjection that could convey how I felt when I found myself living on the street in my car. It is amazing how menial divorces, deaths, loss of jobs, family disputes, and all other unpleasant events seemed when faced with survival. My world view changed — forever. I had a new perspective on life, love, money, and bathrooms. Money became the most important thing in life and the love for bathrooms the second.

I remembered what a Vietnam veteran once said to me when I was a young woman. He told me that when you are forced to kill and live under horrific conditions, you have to play mind games. He told me that he survived Vietnam because he collected ears. He said that he chopped the ears off his enemy and made a necklace out of them. He strung them on the chain of his identification tags. All his friends did the same. They took a horrible, unfathomable situation and made a game of it. He told me that they had a contest to see who could collect the most ears. It made them feel more “normal” about killing and protecting their lives. Crazy! But given the same circumstances, what would you do? That Vietnam veteran had a decent job, a family, and a home, but he will never forget living in the jungle and becoming an animal.

Remembering what that Vietnam veteran told me made me think of all sorts of horrendous deeds that could happen at nightfall. I became frightened of every sound that I didn’t recognize. I imagined being found in the backseat of my car by a hunter looking for a victim. When you are faced with the possibility of being killed, you can’t sleep. My life did not compare to what the vet went through, but I came to understand him better. Sleeping was a severe problem. No matter where I parked, there were noises, lights, passing cars, and the fear of being raped or murdered. My favorite spot to park was between Cardiff and Encinitas. It gave me relief from my worries. I selected a spot high on the bluffs and watched a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I forgot for a moment about the perils of sleeping in my car until the locomotives startled me as they rolled by. Sometimes, my eyes followed a lit passenger car. In those few seconds, I saw people reading, talking on cell phones, and typing on their computers. They were going somewhere, probably home, and I was envious.

A residential area was the safest place to sleep; however, the street lights glared into my car like spotlights used for a Broadway play. They said, “There you are. You can’t run or hide. ‘Homeless’ is the role you are playing.” Between the ages of 18 to 28, there would have been the luxurious feeling of freedom and choices. Between 28 to 38, it would have been a wild experiential adventure. At age 38 to 48, it was plain survival and sad. I told myself that I always wanted to go on a long road trip. I told myself lots of things to keep my sanity. And I realized laughter was the best medicine, besides alcohol.

“No one wants me.”

I was not a big drinker. Alcohol did not agree with me. But I have to admit, living on the street did make me drink more. It heats you up. And that was a good thing, but an unhealthy thing as well. What was it doing to my kidneys? When you drink, you get dehydrated and your body temperature rises. My body became an electric blanket, warming me on a cool night. I have a theory that homeless people become dependent on alcohol in order to get through the night. Also, when I drank, my bodily aches and pains went away and I was able to sleep a little more. It was a sedative and a muscle relaxant. I drank for medicinal purposes.

You may be asking how I ended up on the street. I was not using drugs, drinking, or diagnosed with a mental-health condition. It occurred to me that a person may find him or herself on the street because of low self-esteem or confidence and the lack of family support. At least that was my situation. It was not as if I didn’t prove to be a capable, upstanding citizen with some impressive accomplishments. I earned a master’s degree. I worked as a librarian who managed youth departments. None of those things mattered in the world of the homeless. People did not see me for my accomplishments. They looked at me for who I was right there at that very moment. And I was living in my car. How much respect do you think I received?

When I lost my job, it was such a shock that I could not quite get it together. My whole career vanished. Who wants to hire someone who lost their job, especially when they have so many younger candidates to choose from?

During times like these, a strong family background is crucial. Without it, unhealthy patterns of belief return. My childhood replayed in my mind during the long overnight hours in the car. It started the day my mother left when I was five. Then there were slaps, kicks, degrading words, and other abusive methods that my father employed. I looked like my mother and he hated me for that. My older brother added to the abuse. After all, his role model was my father. My family taught me that the world was cruel, cold, and heartless. I believed my life was worthless and less valuable than all others, because it held no value to my family. This thought became a habit.

Intellectually, I understood how negative thoughts affect my life. It was simple science. Unhealthy habits are created by neurological patterns. Neuroscientists discovered that the basal ganglia portion of the brain is where you develop emotions, memories, and patterns of recognition. A habit is formed once a thought is repeated several times with the same cue. Then it becomes an automatic response. The cue could be a memory. A memory is triggered by smells, sounds, images, situations, or any other association. To simplify it even more, a habit starts with a repeated thought or emotional reaction to a cue, which the basal ganglia stores. This is not that hard to understand, but it is very difficult to change. Changing a habit, especially one repeated since childhood, is very difficult to kick. Some scientists say that going on vacation can help. A vacation changes routines of behavior. But going on vacation is difficult without the luxury of the Almighty Green.

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Comments

teachersetup March 2, 2014 @ 8:26 p.m.

Nica, the fact that you were working with children and you were living in your car shows responsible individuals the following; #1 is not an excused to stop living

2 it is not an excuse to become a negative charge to our society

3 it shows will power #4 in spanish your story illustrates

No escusas, no disculpas y no pretextos.

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arbedeycal March 4, 2014 @ 4:28 a.m.

As an ex-homeless person, am I allowed to say that homeless persons with cars are lucky?

I did not have one.

I am glad that your story has a happy ending and I hope it gets even better for you.

I would have gone mad without books and the public libraries that provide them, since when I was homeless, I certainly couldn't buy them. (Making up for lost time now )

Never give up as the wheel of fortune will rise again.

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