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Elizabeth’s Garden

Network, Spring/Summer 2005

For a year, I was living in shelters. Some people have accepted that way of life, which is really sad. You’ve always heard of the woman, the bag lady, who won’t succumb to the system – well, a lot of that has to do with how hard it is to be in shelters. There’s a lot of theft that goes on. Survival is all that you have on your mind, survival in terms of money, in terms of self-esteem. You could say it’s like a jail mentality.

Everyone has a tough exterior so they don’t get screwed with. You have to be very selective who you decide to be friends with, because you don’t know their history. Everyone’s there for a reason, and a lot of it has to do with what society calls working class or impoverished, or disabled, or even criminal. Or abused women. Everyone there is in crisis.

There are times when you self-medicate with marijuana or Tylenol. I’m not saying everyone does, but it’s very common. For me it’s not a good place to be, because I’m taking antipsychotics. You don’t think about that when you’re just living day to day. You’re not thinking about the future. You’re just hoping you don’t lose what you already have. You’re horrified, even if you take all precautions for it not to happen, you’re still horrified you might end up on the streets, in some park, sleeping on a bench. My biggest fear was being a bag lady, and I came really close.

My mother was schizophrenic. Paranoid schizophrenic. But she was untreated, as far as I know. She died in 1997 of a brain tumour. She was never a bag lady, but my aunt for a short period was. It seems like the women in our family get the genes, become mentally ill. My brother’s just fine. He never had a breakdown, per se, or heard voices. But my mother was victimized at a very young age and she passed that on to me.

I was lucky when I was younger. Actually, it wasn’t luck – I was singing, modelling, very attractive, I had that confidence, that ‘go-get ’em.’ Of course, that’s a magnet for people. People want to be around people that are happy, confident, and outgoing.

I used to apply to live in shared accommodation a lot. I didn’t need my own stuff because they already had furniture. I didn’t accumulate anything. I was always lucky enough to live in really nice places, and they were usually big places. So I’m kind of feeling reality now, living in a bachelor apartment. When I was young, outgoing and attractive, things were much easier. Then I got older, and I was never warned that it may become more difficult to build a foundation. No one told me.

When I got connected with supportive housing, it was a rare occasion. Normally there would be a two-year waiting list, but I got in in two weeks. I was homeless and in shelters, so I was a top priority. I felt really lucky, especially after being shuffled around in hostels. I’ve been here almost five years, but it’s only in the last six months that I’ve made it my place.

It was really tough the first couple of years. Because of who I am, how I’m viewed by the public – you know, the stigma – living here I wasn’t rid of breakdowns. I would still become suicidal because the whole neighbourhood knows us, and knows us for being so-called crazy. It’s very important for me to have neighbours, so it took a lot of work, but I know my neighbours now. We’re not best buddies or anything, but I do consider my neighbourhood my neighbourhood now.

It’s not your average building, it’s supportive. We get occupational therapists here twice a week. It’s helped me when I didn’t want to go anywhere. It was right in the building, so I didn’t hibernate and isolate. I always look forward to them coming.

One of the conditions for moving into this particular building is to take a case manager for six months. We’re still seeing each other after five years now, so I guess it’s going good. I call him my professional friend. He laughs, because I haven’t had a lot of long-term friendships, to put it mildly. I kind of cross the boundaries sometimes with professionals. I want to be friends with them, and we’ve had to work through that. I’ve tried to fire him four times! A lot of it stems from paranoia, but I’ve learned finally to trust him and know that he’s looking out for me.

He’s a very conservative guy. He’s someone I wouldn’t talk to about men that I’m interested in or anything sexual or intimate. I wouldn’t get into depth with him about my delusions because he’s not a psychotherapist. But we do talk. Sometimes we go out for coffee, just kind of casual. But he’s there in crisis too, he’s my emergency contact. He’s said things to me like, ‘If you’re ever going to attempt suicide, or if you’ve taken pills, then call me’ – of course, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 – ‘and I’ll be there for you.’

He’s someone who knows me, day-in and day-out. Someone who sees me in my home environment. He knows that I’m a decent person, that I try to be moral and fair. Him knowing me in this setting definitely gives me security. We’ve had our falling outs, you know, but I trust him because he means what he says, and he does what he means. Not a lot of people do, professionals included.

Where I live is a bachelor. It’s quite small but it’s livable. I’ve painted it a new colour – it went from lavender to sherbet green. Very frosty green. I waxed the floors, and put my pictures up of my brother and my mom. The family, you know. I’ve got pictures, slides, of when I modelled when I was younger. I’m going to get one blown up to 8′ x 10′. I have never, ever had pictures up of anyone. If I had them, I always seemed to lose pictures. I’ve lost a lot of my life moving around. Tapes and books and clothing. I’ve lost my identity, and I used to console myself, ‘Well, that’s how a spy would live.’ No attachments, nothing to say who you are.

I’m going to be 40 this year. It’s like I’m starting from now. This time I’m not going to lose everything, I’m not going to throw it away, I’m not going to give up. I realize to live in this world and get by you have to compete. Giving up has a lot to do with my upbringing. Just when I thought I was going to get what I needed, it didn’t happen.

When I was a child my mother would take the rent money and renovate the place, with or without the landlord’s consent. She’d renovate everything, and sometimes we’d have to move because she spent the rent money. During my childhood, we would fix the place, move, fix the place, move. I didn’t get to keep in touch with my childhood friends.

The one thing about this housing is, I’ve learned over the years, you can screw up and you’ll still have a place. Like when I took off and didn’t pay the rent for two months, and of course they were going to evict me, but we agreed on a tribunal. In the tribunal, we agreed upon a payment plan for the extra months. And I just finished paying that, over six months. If it was a regular landlord, you’d be gone, you’d be out.

I’ve never lived somewhere for five years, in the same place. Isn’t that weird? I’m not staying here for the rest of my life, but it’s a good place for me to start living because I’ve been running away from my life ever since I can remember. It’s too scary. But I’ve learned how to put some things in place and stop doing more risky, or more shameful things. So now, it’s just a question of ‘stick-to-it-ness.’

We have a gardening project this year, so I’ll be heading that up. I’m treating it as my baby, my garden. I was supposed to do it last year but then I left. But this year I want to jump start it, and get everything growing early. I know what has to be done. I’ve never done it before, but it’s very simple. There’s not a lot to gardening – you dig up the soil, you take the weeds out, you put manure, peat moss and more soil, and plant, right? Perennials and bulbs, flowers you buy every year. We’re not using pesticides, so it’s all organic. All I have to do is learn what to prune.

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