Photo by Flickr user Nicolò Paternoster
Like most of us, my life is a constant juggling act. I’m a writer, mother, teacher, worker bee, friend, sister, daughter, confidante, mentor, community member, and probably a whole host of other titles that don’t immediately spring to mind. I have a lot of balls in the air, and I keep them there through sheer force of will — and a willingness to forego sleep when necessary.
That’s normal. That’s life. We all do it.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six weeks — particularly over the last week — it’s that sometimes you need to let all the balls fall and focus on staying on the tightrope.
We’re all walking one of those, too. Sometimes it feels like rolling hills. Sometimes it feels like you’re on the razor edge, barely keeping your balance.
That’s where I’ve found myself over the last six weeks.
Six weeks ago, my dog died. Her name was Ninja, and she was a good girl. I loved her dearly. And I had to make the difficult and heart-breaking decision to end her life. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end, it wasn’t a decision at all. It was just something that had to be done. But I’m the one who did it. That decision, and the aftermath of helping my boys through their grief, felt soul-destroying. Grief vied with guilt. Sadness vied with shame. I carefully put down a couple of balls, put a tearful smile on my face, and took another step forward on the tightrope of life.
Five weeks ago, all three of us succumbed to a terrible bout of Influenza B. I’d like to think that it was just “one of those things”, but it’s hard not to feel that, without the added shadow of grief hanging over all of us, we would have avoided it. Or, at the very least, shaken it off more easily. As it was, Master Eight had a mid-level fever for eight days straight. Master Four had one for five days. And I was shaking and shivering for four.
By the time we finally recovered from the worst of it, we were all wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately, some of the wonderful members of my community provided cooked meals for us each night for a week. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have had the strength to prepare food.
Three and a half weeks ago, both boys had recovered and returned to their normal lives — albeit with a bit less spring in their step than usual. But I hadn’t recovered. My fever had gone, but I was still exhausted and pale. I developed tremors in my hands, and a wracking cough. My throat was swollen and sore, my arms and legs ached. I was pretty sure I was dying. Okay, not really. But that’s how I felt in my more melodramatic moments. My doctor diagnosed tonsilitis, and prescribed antibiotics. They made me so sick I could barely get out of bed. But I just dropped a few more balls, plastered an unconvincing smile on my face, and took another shaky step forward on that damn tightrope.
Three weeks ago, after a series of tests, I was diagnosed with glandular fever, aka mono. There is no treatment for glandular fever, save bedrest and stress avoidance. I dropped quite a few more balls, taking the doctor’s advice to do the bare minimum required in every aspect of my life. I started getting B12 shots weekly to boost my energy — or, at the very least, take the edge off the extreme mental and physical exhaustion I was feeling — and bunkered down to wait it out.
One and a bit weeks ago, things got worse.
It was Saturday morning. Master Eight went to pour himself a drink. But when he touched the fridge door, he got an electric shock. It was strong enough to make his hand hurt, and leave him feeling tingly all over, and “a bit weird” for quite a while. And it freaked me right the fuck out.
Thinking I’d play it safe until I worked out the problem, I went to turn our power off at the main power board. Since we were living in a caravan on a block of land, that meant going to the house next door to access the main power. I grabbed the handle of the cupboard housing the power board, and got an electric shock. Strong enough that I felt my heart jump, and I had trouble breathing. Strong enough to really scare me.
And so I packed up the boys and we left. We drove away from our home — a home that had suddenly turned dangerous — and went to a hotel until an electrician could fix the problem. I tried to make it seem like a fun adventure for the boys, but I was scared and uncertain, and it didn’t take them long to pick up on it. I forced myself to smile, to downplay the fear I’d felt in what should have been our sanctuary, and hoped it wouldn’t take long before we could go home.
The next morning, my landlord contacted me to let me know that all electricity to the property had been disconnected pending a large and costly repair. With the electricity off, that left me not only without power, but also without water. And while camping without power or water may be fun for a short time period, it’s no way to live. It’s no way to raise children.
It’s no way to avoid stress and recover from glandular fever.
And that’s how I found myself homeless.
I could have raged at the heavens, screaming that it wasn’t fair. But I didn’t. I could have felt afraid, or angry, or resentful, or distraught. But I didn’t. What I felt was ashamed.
There’s a whole lot of stigma attached to the word “homeless”, and even though I found myself in that position through not fault of my own, I was filled with shame. There I was, a strong, independent woman of 38, the mother of two children, completely and utterly powerless to provide a place for my children to live, play, and sleep.
I had money in the bank, and friends who wanted to help. I had people offering to put me up for the night — for as long as it took me to find a place to live. But as much as I appreciated it (And I did. A lot.), there was a part of me — and not a small part — that took every offer of help and seamlessly translated it into a feeling of helplessness. I felt incompetent. Incapable. Unable to provide for my children.
The shame made it hard to think; hard to plan; hard to breathe. I couldn’t move without doubting myself. I threw myself on the mercy of the community, reaching out to everyone I knew, because it was my only option. But every time I explained that my children and I had nowhere to live, I knew I was being judged. And I cried rivers.
The boys sensed what I was feeling, and they suffered. More because of my emotional uncertainty than because of the circumstances, I think. Master Eight was weepy and anxious. Master Four reverted to talking in baby talk and needing to held all the time. They argued constantly. They clung to me. And every time I hear the word “Mummy”, I cringed. I hate that I felt that way, but it’s the truth. It was so hard, so very, very hard, to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the razor-thin tightrope, keeping those last few balls spinning and spinning while I tried and failed to pretend I was smiling.
I had to let the balls fall and focus on the tightrope.
On Wednesday afternoon, I sent the boys to their Dad’s house. I stopped pretending I was in any state to teach anyone anything. I made a conscious decision to avoid social media (although I hadn’t updated anything since the Saturday when my life fell apart). I withdrew from all social contact except the few friends who stayed so close I couldn’t avoid their offers of assistance. I dropped all the balls.
And a miracle happened.
Through the magic of social media, someone I didn’t know told me about a cottage that was for rent. Wednesday afternoon, I contacted the real estate agent looking after the property. An hour later, I met her at the cottage. It was perfect.
If I’d sat down and written an itemised list of everything I wanted in a house, this cottage would have met every single bullet point.
Two hours later, the agent called me to say my application had been approved, and I could pick the keys up in the morning.
I had a home.
I was no longer homeless.
Relief washed over me. It tasted like hot apple pie and new beginnings.
I was only homeless for five days.
It felt like an eternity.
And it gave me a great deal of empathy for anyone who finds themselves in that situation. Through a series of fortuitous events, and the benefit of living in a highly supportive community, I found a home for my family. But when I was in it for those few days, it felt inescapable. It felt hopeless. It felt like failure.
So I’ve made a vow — one which I am putting in writing right here and now, so I can’t forget it. Once I’ve finished moving in to his new house, and when I’ve once again picked up all those balls I juggle, I’m going to find a way to make a difference — even if only a small one — to other people who find themselves in a similar situation. I don’t know how, or what, or where. I just know why.
And, in the meantime, I’m going to get my children settled into their new home, I’m going to try to get some bedrest and avoid stress and recover from this illness, and I’m going to count my blessings. And while I do that, I’ll keep singing the refrain that has been stuck in my head for a week and a bit.
“Closing Time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
— Semisonic (Closing Time)