Earlier, when I created a talk on this theme, I did not believe I could capsulize my thoughts into a single blog post. So I talked for a half hour instead.
I’ve since changed my mind. It’s taken over a week for me to discover how to present these ideas more succinctly, in a logical order. The first thing I would like to address is that people are generally unaware that homelessness — with all its confusing, unpredictable, and dangerous components — is as much a breeding grounds for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as situations arising in combat or from having been physically or sexually abused.
PTSD is triggered when something happens to remind a person of past trauma, the memories of which are often buried. When the reminder occurs, one leaps into the context of the trauma formerly inflicted. And then, one begins to relive the entire circumstances involved in that traumatic event.
Severe abuse comes with the homeless territory. A person who is exposed, out in the open twenty-four hours a day, is a visible target. This person is made even more vulnerable when they are sleeping. When I was homeless, I was pistol-whipped, subjected to strong arm robbery, sexually abused, subjected to arson, and physically abused multiple times. Any one of those situations can lead to PTSD — let alone all of them in confluence.
Because the first of these traumatic events was a sexual violation that took place on a very hot day when I could find no way out of it, I have been triggered on extremely hot days when I was lost and did not have clear directions to where I was going. My PTSD counselor and I worked out a series of steps that I would take automatically if I felt that the PTSD had been triggered. I would stop and take a number of deep breaths while looking for a shady spot. Then I would sit in the shady spot, no longer moving around or looking where I might go, until the PTSD had subdued.
The reason for taking such steps is because I was reliving the horrific event of a sexual assault. When the horrible event was over, and the rapist disappeared, I was so freaked out that I ran five miles in 90F degree weather. That single event has affected my sexual attitudes for life.
But that was only a solitary example of numerous violations that were to ensue during the twelve years when I was homeless and “borderline-homeless” — by which I mean staying in motels, residence hotels, and other sketch indoor situations. The overall experience of homelessness carried with it its own set of triggers. By and large, these were based on two things:
(1) A sense of inequality with, and inferiority to, the people around me.
(2) A sense of being fully exposed in a context where most of the people were concealed.
An example of something that triggered me was the event of having a story of mine published on a news site that permitted comments from its readers. All of the readers had usernames and avatars. One of them referred to having known me personally — but I had no idea, nor was I able to learn, who this person was. This bore enough resemblance to the homeless context that I began to relive my homeless experience.
More information about PTSD triggers may be found here, for starts. An excellent article exploring PTSD among the homeless may be found here. And of course, further information on the Homeless Experience can be found all over this blog.
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