Wednesday, November 23, 2005

ptsd, race, class, homelessness, and money

I am very fortunate. When my ptsd got bad and I had about 120 flashbacks that looked like seizures over the course of seven weeks and was completely incapacitated, I had very good friends and family (not my family of origin, though) that supported me and got me through. Left alone I would have surely killed myself or ended up homeless, babbling on the street. Iwas staying in a big city at the time and would see homeless people, often with that thousand mile stare, and feel how little it was that separated me from them. Many times I felt like just walking off and joining them, just giving up. I realize that there are all sorts of reasons people become homeless. For a while in my addiction I was too, so I am not just romanticizing or being dramatic. I believe that many of the homeless are people who suffer from acute, untreated ptsd. Lots are vets, a population at high risk for ptsd. Many show the symptoms. The lack of trust in homelessness resources, hypervigilance that people with homes perceive as scary paranoia, the "crazy" looking behaviors, the empty broken look in their eyes: all of these could be from ptsd, a way of coping with overwhelming trauma.

Like I said, I am very fortunate. I was able to go to a treatment center for ptsd for seven weeks. We did not have the money to be able to afford all of it, so we borrowed from friends and my partner's family and ran up the 0% credit cards. Help came from unexpected quarters. A loan here, a gift from an unexpectedly supportive source, a plane ticket to the treatment center, a friend to accompany me there when I might not have been able to make it on my own, even the treatment center gave me a week-and-a-half "scholarship" at the end so I could get the most out of it: All these came through.

My parents, in complete denial about the emotional, mental, and sexual abuse that took place in our family would have nothing to do with it and refused to help. When I told them I was suicidal and needed help, they asked if I had gotten a second opinion ... Like a bad Rodney Dangerfield joke or something. Iwas so familiar with their ways that I already had gotten one, and a third and fourth one too. All recommended treatment if it was possible to go. The 'rents asked if I had talked to anyone that disagreed and refused to help, basically saying that no one else in the family had ever said there was abuse (this was not actually true, but denial is a wonderfully effective tool) and that I was making it up and under the control of evil shrinks! It is still tempting to cave in to their way of thinking -- especially if I have contact with them -- which is that I am just incompetent and lazy and kind of brainwashed. For that reason, I don't keep in touch any more. I just cannot deal, so I don't.

So anyway, the treatment center is in the southwest. Pretty much everyone there was well-to-do. A few were covered by insurance (I was not). Everyone was white. Not a single person of color among the clients. There was one Chicana and one part Native American woman on the part-time staff, but otherwise, all of them were white too. The drivers, janitors, and housekeeping staff were all Mexican, though. Nobody seemed to notice. That is just the way things were (and probably still are). Clients in groups would waste time on BS to avoid dealing with trauma issues, which really made me angry, because of all the sacrifices we had made for me to be able to go. When I got angry about this, they got mad at me that I was minimizing the connections they were making. Maybe that is right, I don't know.

I have a friend, a woman from the Caribbean who has ptsd from political violence, and she came to visit, curious if there was anything there for her. She noted that everyone was caught up in their own little worlds...all the trauma, including mine, was very individualistic. There was no awareness of racial or class differences even though they were really obvious if anyone took the time to look. And it didn't seem as if socially inflicted traumas from war, political violence, or poverty were anywhere on the horizon of their consciousness. I wonder if that has changed at all with all the Iraq vets coming home and developing ptsd.

Anyway, Like I said, I am very fortunate. Fortunate to be a white male. Fortunate that I was in a place where I was able to scrape together the resources to get help. Fortunate that my traumas were generally within the scope of what they deal with (although I think I was the only one there at the time who had ever been poor or homeless). Fortunate to have such a great and supportive network of friends, my family of choice, something that a few years earlier I did not have at all.

With all that good fortune though, came the realization that many -- maybe most -- of the people suffering from ptsd just do not have the resources to get the help they need. That really says a lot about our society, that the people who are most vulnerable and in need, the people most traumatized by structural conditions like racism and poverty, are just left out of the picture for the most part. There are token efforts and some volunteer efforts to reach them, but the Bush administration (regime?), his cronies in Congress, and the Army are putting current veterans' benefits under siege. You can forget about serving 9/11 or Katrina survivors -- Bush's response is to pray for them. And a discussion of structural poverty that results from greed and racism and leaves thousands traumatized or homeless or drug-addled or poor or all of the above is nowhere on the horizon. Maybe its time to start having these discussions. What do we do? Especially those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford and have the support to recover somewhat. Don't we owe it to those that don't have the resources to try and change things? But how? PLz talk back.


  1. AnonymousJuly 10, 2006

    Ok, I'll talk back, but you pretty much said it all. I'm homeless, in part, due to episodes of post traumatic stress. I'm so stupid that when I tried ot explain, I'd say, it's like Viet Nam Vets with PSTD. Something today reminds me of the past. Amazing all the years when I'd be caught staring into space at work, yet managed to appear 'normal' and keep myself homed. People are really only wrapped up in their little (or large, as in the case of GWB) worlds. Life is more or less a do-it-yourself job, sink or swim. Some of us drown.

  2. This is interesting.

    I want to share my experiences working with homeless youth - I learned a lot of very helpful things in spite of the fact that my coworkers ended up triggering me so badly due to previous traumatic experiences with therapists/social workers + Christians + etc that I ended up having to quit & am now working through a diagnosis of PTSD.

    Maybe it was different when you wrote this post, but they trained us to assume that every single youth who walks through our door has gone through a trauma of some sort. They made sure to emphasize that it could be an individual trauma, such as childhood abuse, or that it could be a social/group trauma like racism or being a refugee.

    They told us that trauma is very complex, and they went into all of the misdiagnoses that these kids had probably received. Such as ADHD.

    I really appreciated knowing that they had such a nuanced view on what causes homelessness.