And also, that time that homelessness made my mental state healthier.
September 2015, the start of my final year at uni. I’ve already decided that I’m not going to enjoy it and plan to take a cheap flight to the Canaries to escape fresher’s week, and maybe a few weeks after that too.
I’d spent the summer in my university town working three jobs, partying ridiculously and hardly sleeping. My mental health was in the worst state of my life and had been for about three months. I couldn’t eat with anxiety, couldn’t work properly with worry and would wake up crying if I had been lucky enough to sleep.
I was behaving recklessly, getting into fights, and calling the police or an ambulance at least three times a week. Looking back now, there are already moments of that summer that I had a lot of fun with – I met a lot of people and even though I was sometimes crippled with fear, my confidence grew drastically. Essentially though I had no more fucks to give.
Regardless of the chaos in my studio flat in Devon I managed to organise an inexpensive flight with EasyJet to relax, or whatever. I packed my backpack and slammed shut my front door, posted the keys through the letterbox. I don’t know what I was thinking but figured I’d sort out a way back in when I returned. If I returned.
I had not arranged any travel to the airport, and absolutely nothing for a comfortable arrival. I had a vague idea about where I was going and what weather to expect. Mostly though, I was relieved to be exiting the UK, the chaos of freshers week and the madness of my own mind.
In the Canaries I did sleep rough, but I don’t think it counts when its camping on a beach, or snoozing in a hammock outside a hotel in the middle of the night. I spent a few nights on the roof of a hostel, hanging out with some Americans who claimed to be surfers but never joined me in the water.
Nonetheless, as you all know, we cannot run from our problems, and within a week it was obvious my head was in a weird place. I just woke up crying on a beach instead of on my own sofa. After a few foolish and irrational events which I’ll save for another blog, I was politely asked to leave the country and was escorted to the airport where I jumped on the first plane back the south west of England.
Back in the UK, I had no idea what to do. I was an hour from the nearest train station, and an hour’s train journey from my flat, which I did not have the keys for anymore. Nonetheless, I had no plan, and had managed to push away everyone else who had cared for me in the months leading up this newest failure, so I started hitchhiking to the train station – and walked all the way – then popped on a train without a ticket – and got a fine.
I’m standing at my own front door, I’m looking inside through my own windows. It’s dusk, end of Septmeber, just starting to get cold, and I’m feeling the temperature drop especially since enjoying the sunshine 2000 miles south. I consider breaking the window but I can’t bring myself to do it. I wonder around to where my friends used to live but they are not in.
So I march up to the university, sit down at a library computer and begin fretting about my new timetable. I have only 4 contact hours a week and too much work that I do not understand.
Within seconds the tears have emerged out my eyes from the sickening feeling in my gut. I have pins and needles in my feet and spreading into my hands. I’m out of breath, my face is stinging, I can’t hear anything except the blood rushing around my sorry head.
The library has rooms littered with huge bean bags that allow the university to be 21st century ‘cool’ – luckily as it’s the evening and the beginning of term, nobody is studying, so I crawl into the beanbag and let the polyester cushion and plastic beads hold me in support, completely paralysed and overwhelmed.
I’m woken by the security guard who is trying to close the library, he looks exhausted from battling the drunken rambling of young adults. I face eight hours outside in the UK, on a club night, in a university town at the beginning of term. There’s no way I am going to a club to party the night away and I don’t want a drink either.
So, the night begins with my backpack in the toilets of a McDonalds putting on every piece of clothing I have – not a lot when you packed for 30 degrees of sunshine and surfing. After some French fries, I adopt a cold step under a footbridge. It is notoriously home to other rough sleepers but I figured it’d be safer to stay near a group of others than be completely isolated. I can hear the thud of music from clubs each side of this tiny city, the shrieks of laughter from schoolgirls pretending to be grownups and there’s a woman peeing in a doorway about six metres away.
None of it seems to bother me, I feel the exhaustion of the day defeating me, and like the last few months, I simply do not care about anything or anyone. Eventually I fall into a calm state of semi-sleep and even feel proud of my stamina surviving the last few weeks.
I can hear the thud of music from clubs each side of this tiny city, the shrieks of laughter from schoolgirls pretending to be grownups and there’s a woman peeing in a doorway about six metres away. None of it seems to bother me, I feel the exhaustion of the day defeating me, and like the last few months, I simply do not care about anything or anyone. Eventually I fall into a calm state of semi-sleep and even feel proud of my stamina surviving the last few weeks.
Throughout the night multiple events occur – a youth throws me a half eaten burger and I attempt to throw it back but miss and within a minute it is eaten by a dog out for a night time walk with a horrified pensioner. All the clubs appear to liaise with each other about chucking out drunk children at the same time and I witness far too much vomit and stumbling in vomit and kissing in vomit.
A fellow homeless man begins a conversation about the failures of democracy and I participate eloquently (this remains one of the most knowledgeable and articulate conversations of my life) and another homeless man with a shopping trolley asks why I stole his spot under the bridge but offers it to me regardless ‘because you’re a newbie’.
Finally, at about 4am, two young women approach me through wide eyes, hover over me for ten seconds before squatting to my level and politely ask if I would like to join a Jamboree on the street. Why not? I reply, and all three of us walk over to the main shopping street, now empty of wanabees, littered with cigarette butts and vomit scatter but totally and completely ours.
The event suddenly begins with loud banging and singing. A homeless busker is playing a guitar, and another is playing the spoons to The Real Slim Shady. In the corner of my eye I notice a few men are going through the large bins on the street – they are practicing freeganism and return later with a hoard of food wrapped in plastic. We feast and we sing, I skip and dance in circles around couples having intimate conversations and men teaching each other to repair their clothes and their shoes.
I suggest starting a campfire, because for a moment I forgot we were in the street in the city centre and genuinely believed I was enjoying a countryside retreat for hippies, so obviously we didn’t start a fire. And there, for those few hours that we all danced and mingled and nibbled and cuddled, I realised just how pathetic everything else was.
I had been riding on an exceptionally long manic phase and had managed to exclude and push out everyone who loved and cared for me along the way. I had locked myself out of my own home, had tried to hitchhike and run and fly away from my problems that were under my hat all the time and now I was finally relaxing after half a night rough sleeping surrounded by complete strangers, totally sober, completely at peace.
The man playing spoons only knows Eminem songs – its all quite ironic really.
The sun starts to rise and the street cleaners are dispatched so we all spread out and go our separate ways. Many head to the public toilets and train station loos, having just been cleaned, where they can all wash in the sink. A few go to McDonalds, where I had started my night, for a breakfast muffin. Me, I suddenly have a responsible approach and a reasonable attitude, and I walk calmly to the university library to charge my phone, email my landlady and wait patiently whilst reading a novel for someone to come with a key to let me in.
It’s 9:30am, I’ve had one of the best nights of my life and somehow feel completely free of any anxiety or mania. This night and spontaneous meet up reminds me of many subsequent gatherings I have had with others who live in their campervans, as I have this past year.
Perhaps, being forced to get out, to confront the horrors we try to avoid – in my case the freshers and the university, is the cure for anxiety. I had no choice but to function properly and functioning properly on the streets involves a lot of people-watching, negotiation and fun!
Had I been in a healthy state of mind at the beginning of the night, I may have realised the danger I was putting myself into. Obviously, I am aware that being homeless and sleeping rough are perhaps the most challenging and scary times of anyone’s life who is unfortunate enough to endure it.
According to homeless.org.uk, the number of people sleeping rough in the UK has continued to grow every year since 2010 and realise that the causes of homelessness vary from mental health issues and unemployment to relationship breakdowns.
There is no single cause of homelessness. Everyone I met that night had positive attitudes regarding their situation-many had lived like this for years and enjoyed their way of life, others were trying hard to get clean, or get a job, or move away.
None had a defeatist attitude, none blamed anyone else for their situation and everyone offered support and care for each other. Perhaps, this is why I have felt so at home with the house-less community of van-dwellers this year.
Regardless, being mentally ill caused me to spend a night on the streets and spending a night on the streets snapped me out of my mental funk, got me ready for a final year of uni, and helped me apologise to my friends and family.
What I learned from the experience:
I have an incredible stamina to endure my own energy for long periods of time. I was so manic for so long but managed to work through it and that’s something I am proud of. Now, my energy and resilience is noticed in my work – I can focus on projects for a long time and juggle multiple jobs with an honest and enthusiastic approach.
People are mostly good. I had pushed away everyone that cared for me, and every single person living on the street was kind to me. Now, I trust that my friends do care for me, that most people don’t want to fight or confront me, and that generally, everyone just wants everyone else to be happy.
- Homelessness caused by mental illness and lack of support is growing. Obtaining and keeping a job whilst battling mental illness is tough. Mental Health services in the UK are being cut and state help for the homeless is diminishing. These are facts, and I want to change this.
This blog first appeared in You Me and Anxiety