Invisible in the Wilderness

We just returned from a family vacation, where we visited the site of my time of homelessness in 1980.

Our goal was to visit my husband’s distant relatives in North Carolina, but we chose to land in Newport News, Virginia for both the vacation options (the ocean and beach, historical sites) and this little bit of family history for me. My mother and I spent nearly six months homeless in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. I hadn’t been back there since I was 11 years old, some 33 years ago.

On our first full day of vacation, we drove our rental car to Virginia Beach, and we used the public parking facilities at the Sundial Inn – the motel my mother and I had lived in together for two months as guests of the State of Virginia – as our base of operations for our trek to the beach.

I sat on the crowded beach watching Isaac launch himself into the ocean surf and John try to keep up with him. They were joyful, and the warm sun, soft sand and my book made me happy, too. I looked up and down the beach I’d combed as a girl. I combed early in the day or late:  I’d owned only one pair of blue jeans then, no shorts or bathing suit, so I hadn’t joined the summer revelers in the heat of the day at the beach. Even in the heat, I often wore my hoodie (which didn’t have criminal implications in the early 1980s), hands crammed in the stretched out pockets, as I walked the streets. Being homeless, I always wanted my most precious clothing and items on me: I didn’t know if, when, or how we would have to move again.

Now, at nearly 45 years old, I only carry what I want with me. I don’t buy the souvenirs and junk food because I choose not to. In 1980, in this town my mother hoped would be a “fresh start,” I didn’t buy souvenirs and junk food because I couldn’t. Being a tourist in 2013, I had the klout every tourist has: my money bought me shelter and food; it made advertisers and shop owners cater to me. In 1980, as a homeless and abused 11-year-old, I was invisible. I was dirty and poor and not buying anything.

The time my mother and I spent in Virginia Beach was pivotal for me and my mother. Until then, she’d seen me as her little girl, and she’d protected me as best she could. As I grew into a pre-teen and began to look more and more like an adult, my mother began to see me and treat me as more of an adult. I was no longer her little girl to feed and nurture and protect: I was an imposition, an imposition with a decidedly selfish intention and a growing ability to contribute to the family’s needs. In reality, I had no tools to earn money. The best I could do was to scour the ground with my eyes for loose change and cigarette butts for my mom. Even now I’ll see an unsmoked cigarette on the ground and think, “Mom would have been happy to have that one.”

On our little 2013 vacation visit to Virginia Beach, I looked around with fresh eyes. I wondered who I might be seeing who wasn’t just a typical tourist on the streets. I wondered if any of the children I saw that day were children like I’d been so long ago.

I was invisible in 1980. I didn’t go to school long enough that year for teachers to see my suffering. No one on the streets noticed my emotional pain from my mother’s long schizophrenic rants and occasional hitting. No one saw that I was hungry or had no clothing to change into. My mother couldn’t see that I was still a little girl inside, one who needed her help to learn how to care for herself.

I learned to live invisibly. It seemed that since there was nothing I could do to alleviate my suffering, the best thing I could do was to ignore it. And since everyone else seemed to ignore my suffering, it also seemed like the grown-up thing to do.

The gift I give myself today is to pay attention to myself, in a way very much the same as the way I pay attention to Isaac. I pay attention through journal writing, creating emotionally-driven art, noticing what situations work for me and what situations do not – and changing what I can to make them better. When I am tired, I rest. When I am hungry, I eat.  For many years, I had to use something, anything, to make the discomfort of being me go away. I used food in many forms: excessive food; excessive food and purging; restricting food and the subsequent high of being thin and “in control”; I used smoking to tamp down my anger at the injustices of life; I used spending to make me feel happier when there was nothing in my circumstances I could see to feel happy about; I used romantic relationships to distract me from feeling lost and alone.

Today, I’ve put the addictions down. I’m paying attention. Isaac has taught me through his own need to be seen and cared for that I, too, am a child inside who needs to be seen and cared for. My mother didn’t teach me how to mother myself, and yet now it is my turn to do that job. I’m no longer invisible to myself, and for that I am grateful. Image

Me in Virginia Beach – June, 1980