05 January 2013

Things I've Learned from Living in Extreme Poverty

Here I am facing the possibility of living on the streets again. Tuesday's rent day and I'm nowhere near close to having enough. I've been trying to remain hopeful toward the new year, but I won't lie, on days like today, depression begins to seep through the cracks in my resolve. I even have thoughts of suicide. Not in a morose, dwelling-on-it kind of way. More of a fleeting thought,  a back-up plan, "If things get bad enough, I can always..."

But giving up isn't like me. It isn't what I want to do. I've been through way too much already, so in times like these, I give a little thought to what I've learned from my experiences:

1. You can survive it. I've proven it. It hasn't killed me yet and believe me, things have been bad. If I've survived all the shit that has happened so far, then I can keep surviving no matter what befalls me.  So can you.

2. Ask for help. You may have heard the saying "If you don't ask, the answer will always be no". Sometimes it's fucking hard to ask for help, but do it anyway. The answer will be no, a lot. Believe me I know. But sometimes it will be yes. You might be proud, but your pride isn't more important than your health and well-being. You can recover your pride later, when you're in a more stable position.

3. You can go without food longer than you think. I don't recommend it. If you are hungry, do your best to find food. Food bank, soup kitchen, dumpster... something. But some people live in a food desert, and don't have ready access. Last year, this was the case for me. I went without food 2-3 days nearly every week. The longest I went was five days. Hunger hurts, it's isolating, and it's depressing.  You'll do crazy things just to get a flavor on your tongue, like eating salt or a fuzzy mint you find in a long-neglected pocket. You won't get used to it, nor should you. It's not a fast - people who fast on a regular basis, tend to have healthy diets the rest of the time. You don't -  you're poor. Don't accept starvation as the status quo, but do survive it. A few days won't kill you (unless you have an illness that says otherwise, in which case, get to an ER), but don't stop trying to get food.

4. You need rest, sometimes. I know how it is. You're willing to do just about any goddam thing for a buck. You'll take miserable low-paying casual work. You'll crowdsource for pennies until your eyes fall out. When you're not working, you're looking for work. And you feel guilty if you stop, because you can feel the streets beckoning you. But look, you gotta rest sometimes. You can't maintain the level of stress that comes with the hunger, the sleeplessness, and the relentless schedule you set for yourself. It's hard to allow yourself some downtime, especially with the voices in your head (and quite frequently, outside your head) telling you that you are poor because you are lazy, inept, stupid and morally corrupt. You want to prove the voices wrong by working yourself to the bone, and let's face it, you fear the streets and the hunger. But when you work yourself into a frenzy, you stop thinking clearly. You fail to strategize. Working all night at a crappy crowd-sourcing job may feel like progress, but if you're only making a dollar or two an hour at it, it isn't going to keep your roof over your head. It's better to get a good night's sleep and approach the problem with fresh eyes in the morning. Also, a life of poverty is already killing you. You're losing your health to stress, to hunger, to depression, to anxiety; don't make the situation worse by working yourself to exhaustion.

5. Don't lose sight of the future. This is a really fucking hard one for me. But it's still important. When you're poor, you're focused on the immediate. You have to keep a shitty flop-house roof over your head for one more night. You need food for one more day. If you're like me, you have pets to feed for one more day. The future seems far off and sometimes, damn near impossible to consider. But if you give up on your future, then you're giving up hope. Try to do one thing to better your future, if not every day, then at least every week. I'm not going to tell you to save money because I know just how fucking crazy that would sound to you. If someone told me that, I would laugh in their face - there are no more corners left to cut. But do something. Practice a skill that you can carry forward into better work. Learn something new . If you stop thinking about the future entirely, you'll stop trying to make your future brighter; you'll just become a survival automaton. Don't go there. It sucks.

6. Don't lie to yourself. I know you want to tell yourself it has to get better. I know you want to believe it can't get worse. Well, guess what. It can get hella worse. But it also can get better. We just have to keep fighting.

7. Appreciate the small things. Appreciate the moments. Sometimes I'm really astounded by people who have so much and appreciate so little. People like us, we have next to nothing, and what little we do have, we may lose tomorrow. It's important to give yourself a moment now and then. For me, it's my cats. I know I could lose them tomorrow. I may be faced with the real possibility of having to find a shelter or a foster home for them, should I lose my shabby flophouse room. So I have real gratitude for every moment I have with them. I try to take a little time to focus solely on them each day, to enjoy their company and bask in their unconditional love.

8. Stuff is just stuff. Sell your stuff if you need to. Don't cling to it. It's just stuff and you can get more stuff one day, maybe. Yes, I know how demoralizing it feels to watch your life being eroded that way, to trade your stuff bit by bit for food, for shelter, for medicine. But your health and well being come first. However, there are some exceptions. Don't sell anything that makes you money, and try not to sell anything that keeps you sane. I've heard idiots (who have never been poor, obviously) say, "Well you're online. Just sell your computer". Yeah sure, I'll sell what pretty much amounts to being my only source of income, for not even enough cash to keep a roof over my head for a week? Don't be a dumbass. Then there's the stuff that keeps you sane. Right now I'm struggling with whether to sell my kindle. It was a gift, and one that I am extremely grateful for, because it has kept me seriously sane through some very dark times. I love to read but I don't have ready access to a library, and even second-hand books are out of my price range (not to mention, they are to heavy to lug around). But a kindle gives me access to tons of free indie books, plus it's portable. For someone who loves to read, it's a sanity-saver. But if I have to choose between it and a roof, I will take the roof.

9. Feed your soul. When everything you do is geared toward survival, it's hard to find ways to tend to your emotional and spiritual needs. It's even harder to find time. But once in a while, tend to more than just the necessities. Give yourself something you enjoy, even if it's just 30 minutes watching a silly TV show, or a moment to do something creative. Get a new, free, kindle book and take a moment to read a chapter. Take a walk. Did you just get some food stamps? Fuck what those assholes say about how you should just spend it on necessities. Get some fucking chocolate and enjoy the hell out of it. Maybe they want to treat you like mindless, meat-based, eating/pooping machine, but you know you're more. You might not get to treat yourself as often as they do, but despite what they say, you are allowed something nice for yourself once in a while. Which leads me to number 10.

10. You are a person of worth. Don't let those assholes tell you otherwise. You aren't lazy, you aren't stupid, you aren't morally flawed. You're quite capable of thinking for yourself and you don't need your body and your actions constantly policed by people who are better off than you, just because they're better off than you. If someone gives you money, it is  yours  to do with as you please. Only you know what you need most at any given moment. Only you know what will sustain you. Don't let the Mitt Romneys of the world tell you that you are a moocher only looking for a handout. You've been through far too much to buy that kind of crap off of anyone. There are enough people who look down on you, so don't look down on yourself. Those other people have no idea what you go through every day just to survive, so they can fuck right off. You have something else they don't have - compassion for others who are in your situation. Don't let that go to waste. Stand up for each other, speak for those who can't speak for themselves, and support one another in any way you can. We all deserve equal opportunities, and to be treated with dignity and respect - let's help one another get it.


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