How often have you heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”?
Well, if this were true, I’d be able to smash a mountain with my bare hands by now.
Living with chronic stress and adversity does not make you stronger. The human body was not designed to live with constant “fight or flight” hormones engaged.
Stress hormones are dangerous and raise inflammation levels when you’re exposed to them for too long. Eventually, the high levels of inflammation cause heart disease and other devastating health issues. For children raised in highly abusive situations or homes with a lot of highly stressful conditions, these hormones are engaged almost constantly, creating a platform for chronic illness throughout life.
People suffering from extreme poverty and homelessness often have a long history of stress before homelessness occurs. The catalyst for homelessness for several women I’ve known (including myself) was leaving an abusive marriage or partnership.
Being disabled and poor, we are priced out of housing. Chronic stress worsens our medical conditions, which creates a never-ending cycle of pain and an inability to function properly.
While many people turn to various pain medications, either over the counter or prescription, I have not. I wouldn’t have a liver left after all these years if I had! Those drugs only mask pain, anyway. They do not cure the underlying problem that creates the conditions. However, regardless of how an individual copes with pain, I know quite a few women with chronic illness in my shoes. Their stories are pretty much the same.
Having a chronic illness is like serving a life sentence of punishment. Yes, there are some cases where people get better and on their feet. However, to do so, you need a stable, clean, safe living environment. You need access to healthy food and quality sleep regularly. Many conditions must be met to allow the body to heal.
For people suffering from illness for decades, full recovery might not be possible. For most homeless people, there is little hope of ever recovering fully. In fact, after just a few years of experiencing homelessness, most people find their health deteriorates significantly. And that is only about physical health, not the psychological effects of homelessness. Many people have PTSD after a homeless stint, and that does not just go away. There is always an ongoing fear that becoming homeless will happen again, so you stay “ready for battle.”
Many people have seen those memes about “invisible illness” posted on their friends’ social media accounts. The reason people post them so much is to raise awareness. Yet, the general public still judges people suffering from chronic, “invisible” illnesses without learning the facts. Simply put, you cannot tell what’s wrong with somebody just by looking at them.
Most modern, chronic illnesses cannot be seen from the outside. Even cancer is not visible. In fact, you often see people suffering from cancer who look fine. I had a coworker with lung and breast cancer who appeared fine. So what makes people believe they can look at somebody with a chronic illness and think they’re okay?
Part of the problem is humans tend to judge without facts and are incapable of seeing shades of grey. Everything is “all or nothing.”
If you “look disabled,” meaning you are in some way disfigured or visibly diminished, then the public can process this and conclude that you are, in fact, disabled in some way. However, if you don’t appear that way, they assume you’re just fine, and there is nothing wrong with you. It’s staggering.
What is also true is that most people are only capable of understanding things from their point of view. If they haven’t experienced something, they are unlikely to understand it or have compassion for it. Those who are healthy and those who’ve never lost their home often cannot relate to those who are chronically ill, disabled, or homeless. This is a big part of why there is so little compassion for homeless people or for people who are chronically ill in general.
If you are close to anyone with chronic illnesses (or have any yourself), then you know we get good days and bad days. One day we seem to function well. Other days, we cannot move. This lack of consistency isn’t an act. It relies entirely on a complicated set of factors, including quality of sleep, intake of fluids, and stress levels.
For most homeless people, dehydration is a significant issue. One reason is a fear that if you drink water, you’ll have to pee, and there are so few bathrooms available in public. Most homeless people cannot get enough quality sleep. Add to that constant and unrelenting high stress due to a lack of money and fear of being chased from what you thought was a safe parking spot. Even when you think you aren’t stressed, you seem to maintain a “yellow alert” status. You are always alert to who is around you and looking for danger.
There is a truth in the idea that adversity leads to character building, and without challenges, we cannot develop and grow. However, adversity chisels away at what remains of people who have weathered a lifetime of challenges and abuse. Those challenges and adversities that build character and strength must be counterbalanced by periods of reward and relief.
It’s the joy in our lives that makes life worth living. It gives us a reason to want to weather the hardships.
If you cannot afford a nice, safe, decent place to live, and you are forced into homelessness, times of joy are rare. Being disabled for any reason, including the infirmities of age, or any chronic illnesses, makes it extremely difficult or impossible to work a well-paying job and afford housing and all its associated expenses.
I have seen firsthand cases where someone spends years homeless waiting for housing and ends up dying not long after housing is acquired. It is often too late. With waiting lists that can be many years long, even getting “fast-tracked” can take time. For many of us, it will be too late. It certainly was for our friend Mary, who died months after getting a place to live after being homeless for many years with cancer and other chronic ailments. Safe, affordable, clean housing is in unbelievably short supply. Worse, the list of people needing affordable housing is without end.