True Story: I Went From Being a Writer to Being Homeless
I thought my writing dreams were closer to becoming a reality in 2005 when the now-late Tim Russert chose my essay about my 15-year estrangement from my dad for his book "Wisdom of Our Fathers: Letters and Lessons From Daughters and Sons." The essay, Russert said, was the reason he decided to include a chapter on forgiveness.
But shortly before Russert's book came out in 2006, my father died of a brain tumor, never having read what I'd written. Depressed and devastated, I quit my job as a newspaper editor in Colorado. I bought a 1975 Chevy van with plans to travel and work as a freelance writer and photographer, grieving my father's death along the way. Maybe I'd even craft my own book from the experience, I thought.
My plans, however, went terribly awry. My attempts at financing my extended camping trip failed when my freelancing work ended and I couldn't find more. So I took a temp job instead, making minimum wage. I decided to get a cheap apartment and put my road trip on hold.
But on my pay, finding an affordable place in Denver that would take me with my cat and dog was impossible. To move into an apartment within my budget, I'd have to give up my animals or put them down. And losing them was something I refused to do.
So, I kept my pets and decided to live in my van -- only for a month or so, I thought.
Initially, it wasn't a big deal. I'd car-camped all my life. I assumed it would just be a few weeks of "van dwelling" in the city until I could save enough money to drive north, or find another job, or get more freelance assignments.
What I didn't count on was people assuming I was "homeless" -- and what that meant when it came to my own self-image.
Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. The unwavering perception that I was a "bum" to be spurned and harassed was beginning to wear on me.
I began to believe I was homeless and worthless even though I was employed full-time, didn't panhandle and rarely used social services. I showered, worked and did everything I could to appear normal.
But mine wasn't a normal life at all. The belief that I was homeless turned into a reality -- my reality. I started acting homeless too.
I cooked all my meals in the microwave at work or bought fast food. Police pounded on the van at night to tell me to "move along." If I couldn't find a bathroom at three in the morning, I used a bucket I kept in the van. Eighty- and 90-degree temperatures in summer and zero- to 20-degree cold in the winter had me sweating or freezing when I wasn't at work. I spent most of my money on repairs to the van -- which had no air conditioning, insulation or radio -- and kennel fees for my pets so they'd be out of the extreme weather.
I didn't have an alcohol or drug addiction, but I was severely depressed. As my depression worsened, I sought help from a clinic for the homeless, but the prescription they gave me only made me suicidal. Just months into what I thought was an opportunity, I instead had come to identify myself as a homeless woman and a failure who was doomed to a life of self-destruction. I had forgotten my dreams.
That changed when a friend called to tell me that Russert had been talking about me on CNN and C-SPAN as he promoted his new book. Russert didn't know I was homeless -- and he was talking about my essay! I went to a bookstore the next day, found his collection and re-read my work. It was then that I remembered who I was.
I stood in the store and cried. Rediscovering my true self changed everything. I left the store a writer, not a homeless woman.
But as much as I would have liked to, I didn't get off the streets right away. Instead, I made small strides toward getting out of my current situation. I borrowed money for gas from my brother and moved back East. Eventually, I landed a job with a newspaper, found an apartment and got my life back.
And yes, I did become a successful writer. Within three years of moving into a van and living in a Walmart parking lot, I was speaking at a prestigious writers' conference in Oxford, England, part of an all-expenses-paid trip I'd won for an essay I'd penned. It didn't stop there. More and more people seemed to want to read and hear my story of homelessness. So I continued to write and give talks about the experience.
In the end, I did become known for being homeless. But that's OK. It was homelessness that helped me see my dreams of writing to make a difference come true.
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