What Being Homeless Has Taught Me About My Mental Health

Hannah Skateboarding

Until very recently I was classed as homeless. In total I spent 403 days in the system. I ended up with nowhere to live due to suffering with severe PTSD. I learnt a lot during the time I spent homeless, about myself, other people and about the world around me.

Being homeless taught me that I am more resilient than I ever imagined. I have coped with not knowing where I would be sleeping, staying in strangers houses and having a negative bank balance. To top it off, I coped with all of that whilst struggling with PTSD. For a while, my brain went on autopilot. I don’t really remember making conscious decisions; I was just in survival mode. Most days I didn’t know where I would be sleeping until late in the day and I was so anxious it was unreal. It taught me how to deal with uncertainty. I couldn’t change where I would be sleeping. But I could make the best of it. I got to meet so many genuinely good people who I have remained friends with, when I could have just sat quietly and ignored the world.

I had to spend a few weeks in a flat where I did not feel safe at all. Night after night, I sat thinking I couldn’t handle anymore, but I always found ways of dealing with it. Admittedly they weren’t always the most mature ways. But I always coped until I couldn’t anymore. Then I went out and found an alternative. I ended up on my friend’s sofa for three weeks, and the daily chaos of having to hide all of my belongings was close to unbearable.

Feeling safe and secure is vital for me to work on myself.

For me this means knowing where I will be sleeping each day and knowing I will feel safe. Looking back, the times where my mental health has been at its worst is when I’ve not known where I would be sleeping, when I’ve had no consistency or when I’ve had to sleep in places which have felt unsafe. I’m in a place now where I want to make changes; I want to deal with my mental health. Now that I am in my own flat, things are starting to settle down and I’ll be able to do that.

If I don’t get enough sleep my mental health suffers and everything else seems less manageable. When I’m tired, my problems seem ten times worse. I know when I’ve had a bad night with nightmares and flashbacks that the next day will be affected massively. I have learnt to be kind to myself when this happens, and to give myself some leeway. While I can’t stop or change the nightmares, I can make sure I take care of myself afterwards.

Crying is essential.

I never used to cry and kept all my emotions inside until I couldn’t anymore. I was at the point where it seemed like nothing would get better. Crying has allowed me to get some of my emotions out. It’s a release and now I sometimes feel like I’m crying for all the years I didn’t allow myself to. I have learnt to let myself cry when I need to but sometimes find myself crying at things I would never have expected to: films which aren’t even sad; overly emotional posts on the internet and getting really good news. I used to think crying made me weak, but I’ve realised that it doesn’t. No one could be expected to go through the same as me and not cry.

Everyone I have met during the last year has taught me something.

Some have helped me. Others have taught me a lesson. I have met people living on the streets that are some of the kindest and funniest people I have ever come across. Some of the strongest people I know have been through unspeakable things. But you would never know just from looking at them. The people who have treated me badly, both in the past year and before that have taught me how to be a good person, and how not to treat other people.

Growing up I had this idea that people who suffered with addiction were bad people. But I have learnt that people who turn to drugs and alcohol have usually experienced unimaginable trauma. The substances they use to cope are the only way they have of dealing with the bad things that have happened to them. In the past year I have been exposed to crime, assaulted and threatened but I know that the people involved in these situations never made a choice to get involved with them. They are a product of their circumstances and they are surviving in the best way they can. I have gained so much faith in humanity over the past year it is unreal. It really gives me hope for the future.

For me, exercise is vital.

Even on the days when I didn’t know where I would be sleeping, I still tried to exercise. Sometimes it’s been surfing, going to the gym or for a swim or sometimes just a walk. When I’ve exercised, it brings a sense of calm and allows me to think more clearly. It also helps with my anger. When I’ve exercised I find it easier to manage my reactions to situations. At times when I’ve not exercised, my reactions to certain things have been more extreme, so exercising allows me to gain more control.

Feelings need to be felt. There’s no point trying to hide from them or avoid them. For so long I ran from my feelings or tried to dull them with unhealthy coping skills: alcohol, drugs and self-harm. These things don’t get rid of the feelings. Yes, they temporarily make you forget but they will always come back. The only way we can get through uncomfortable feelings is to let them be and learn from them.

For me the biggest challenge has been letting myself feel anger. I have been very angry about a lot of things for a long time and I went from bottling up to lashing out at things, which only hurt me. Anger is a valid emotion and only by acknowledging it can I start to deal with it. I am starting to become more aware of my anger. Although I still lash out sometimes, it’s these instances are fewer. I‘m finding more appropriate ways to manage these feelings. I am also getting better at working out why I got angry and trying to learn from it. You can only run from things for so long.

There are people out there who do understand.

No man is an island. Although everyone’s experiences are individual to them, there are always people out there who have similar ones or who you can relate to in some way. People are my biggest asset. Knowing other people understand what I am going through gives me so much hope. For so many years I thought that no one would understand, so I didn’t open up and talk about things. It didn’t happen instantly, but I eventually found people who understand me and that I can relate to. Once I found them it changed so much for me.

I have learnt how to make decisions for myself.

For so long I really struggled to make even simple decisions and always asked my friends to make them for me, because I didn’t feel able to make them myself. I think because in the past there had been things I didn’t have a choice about, I had lost that sense of deserving to make decisions. Making decisions for myself has given me so much control back over my life. For years, I felt like I had no control over my circumstances and what was happening to me. But now I am slowly gaining that control back. It also gives me confidence knowing that I have made choices for myself and that I am now in control of most aspects of my life.

Hope is Vital.

Without hope that things will get better, everything we do is pointless. I spent so long thinking things would never get better but the past few months have shown me that they can and will. The people I have met along the way have really restored my faith in humanity and truly make me believe that if we all stick together we can change things and make a difference. Hope has allowed me to come up with solutions to problems that I’ve faced, instead of just seeing the problem and quitting which is what I would have done a few years ago. Hope enables us to see a better future and makes tough situations more bearable.

These things do not define me; I am so much more than my PTSD. I am so much more than the fact that I was classed as homeless. Yes they are both a part of me and my story, but so are many other things.


Hannah Green

  

Hannah Green is a freelance writer and activist.

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