What it's Like: To Be Homeless

A friend told me her name is Candice. She smokes but won't touch alcohol, the opposite of me. That's okay. I like her skinny legs and short brown hair and the way she almost—not quite—goes out of her way to say hi to me. We see each other nearly every day at Coffee Waves in Port Aransas, a small town on a small island off the coast of Texas. She reads and talks to friends. I write on my laptop. I want to meet her, but if she finds out that I live in a minivan, it wouldn't work. (Yes, I'm in a minor slump.) Nevertheless, the ball is in my court. If I don't introduce myself soon, she might think I'm not interested.

The only plan I come up with is to unload everything from my van into a friend's garage—books, clothes, food, and sleeping bag—and hope she doesn't find out how low I'm living. Next, ask Candice for a lunch date. We'd eat on the mainland, where I wouldn't see anyone I know, because "I'm so bored with the island restaurants." We'd go to her apartment because "my place is a disaster." It's an idea that might work, for a while anyway, then she'd inevitably ask about my job and where I live (probably the first date), and I'd have to lie. By the time she finds out the truth though, she may have lost interest. I may have lost interest, too.

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On the other hand, maybe not.

Candice could be the one. But even if she can get past the homelessness issue, there's an elephant in the room big enough to ruin everything: At some point she'll witness a colossal shut-down—my shut-down. I'm only in a slump now; occasionally I sink much lower. If she sees me go to that isolated place, she'll run. It's happened before. It's a problem I've had since high school. How do you pretend to be engaged in life when the sun has gone down? How do you continue a relationship after saying, "It's getting dark. Just take your things and go."

I've been homeless for almost two years. At night I park at the ship channel along the jetties or find an isolated spot in the back of Charlie's Pasture. This morning I woke up at the channel. There weren't any mosquitoes, and the spring winds felt nice blowing through my open windows. I reached behind the seat for a jug of water and watched a woman reel in a trout while her husband instructed her. A crew boat sped by, smoke rolling from the stern, heading to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Moving into my van was an easy decision. I didn't have anything left—zero energy, almost no interest in life, and little hope of getting either back.

Image: Cut out of a house with dotted line
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On NPR I hear about a doctor who's been successfully treating clinical depression with ketamine. Traditional antidepressants have worked miracles, giving people their lives back, but they're not always effective. I've tried eight, maybe 10, antidepressants, four or five natural remedies, three psychiatrists, three psychologists, five philosophies, three religions, 12 relocations, and every drug I could get my hands on. Some helped, none worked—yet.

From the Internet, I learn that ketamine has been safely used for 50 years as a pediatric anesthesia. A derivative of PCP, it's also widely used as a club drug known as Special K. But the NPR story is impossible to ignore. And Candice is impossible to ignore. So after giving it serious thought, I decide to go for it. If it works: "Hi, Candice, I'm Grady. It's great to finally meet you."

People drive around Port Aransas in golf carts, drink beer at The Gaff, and go fishing off the jetties. The showers on the beach are free; the bathhouse at the top of the sand dunes has sinks and a metal mirror for shaving. It all works, living like this on the island, but I'm stuck. The thought of improving my life, talking to people, and getting a job and an apartment doesn't seem worth it. I'd rather spend every day in my van—sweating in the summer, wrapped in a sleeping bag in the winter. But that's the depression talking. If ketamine will lift some of the darkness, I'll take it from there.

The only doctor I can find who is utilizing ketamine in his practice is Dr. Levine in Princeton, New Jersey. After several phone conversations, I cash in a small life insurance policy, spend three days driving and three nights sleeping along the interstate, then meet the doctor at his office. In his suit and tie, he looks conservative, yet he's young and open-minded. We talk for an hour and a half, then he says, "How about today?"

"What? To start?"

"Why not? I have an opening at two."

Ketamine is given to patients through an IV; it takes about an hour for a dose. Traditional antidepressants, if they work, usually take anywhere from two to five weeks to become effective. Doctors like ketamine because the drug might offer relief in 24 hours. Some patients feel the weight of depression lifting in as little as two, but it doesn't happen for me.

In my motel room that night, I fix a peanut butter sandwich. Maybe in the morning the weight will back off. If the ketamine works, I'll receive three infusions a week, then one a week, and then, with luck, only one a month. Finding a doctor near Port Aransas willing to administer it might be a problem. Worst case, I'll drive across the border and have a Mexican doctor shoot me up.

The next day I answer questions on Dr. Levine's website: "I feel too heavy to leave the house and stay in bed most of the day." A. None of the time. B. Some of the time. C. All of the time.

After he gets the results, he calls me: "I see there hasn't been much improvement. If you want, try another infusion tomorrow—if it doesn't work, there will be no reason to continue."

I'm in bed watching Anthony Bourdain. My disappointment is sinking me into a dangerous low. For the most part, I haven't left the room in two days. There's nothing outside I'm interested in; my thinking is getting irrational. I'm trying to figure out a way to stay in this room forever—sell my van, have food delivered—but at $340 a week, I won't last long.

When I was young, I memorized a poem by Rudyard Kipling and decided to model my life on it. The poem talked about failure and starting over and never breathing a word about your loss—yet in my late 30s, when I lost a small fortune in the stock market, I told everyone who would listen, and as for starting over, it hasn't happened.

Before that, I managed restaurants, sold real estate, and owned a bookstore. After the loss, I worked on a tugboat in Louisiana, then for two years at a dog shelter in the Texas Hill Country. But I wanted to live on the coast, so I moved south to Port Aransas. There I managed a bar for a year until the owner could no longer afford to pay me. That's when I bought and moved into a vehicle. As a teen, I watched my grandfather, father, and uncle, each in his turn, become alcoholics, lose jobs, lose homes, and lose families. Back then, I didn't know anything about brain chemistry and neurotransmitters, so seeing them gradually unravel didn't make sense. I saw it as a failure of the will and at times hated them for their apparent weakness. I don't hate them now.

Driving south on Interstate 95, my phone rings. It's my sister calling. "I'm going back to Texas," I tell her, but she's worried and wants more information. "The second infusion didn't work," I explain. "I'm okay though. This is no big deal. It was a new treatment, and no one expected a miracle."

Actually, on some level, I was expecting a miracle, and now that it didn't happen, there won't be any parties on the beach or stops in Louisiana to visit my family. That's okay. Getting back to Port Aransas is what I'm thinking about now: humping the load when it piles on and catching my breath when it backs off. It's what I've always done.

Twenty years ago, I drove from San Diego to Louisiana without stopping to sleep. I was wired then and I'm wired now. After driving all night, and most of the day, my goal before it gets dark is to see the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. I'll tour the grounds, then find a place to park and sleep. In the morning I'll march on, but there's no point in pursuing Candice when I get back, not right away, not after the ketamine failure. But that's okay—I have a new plan: The money I received from the insurance policy won't be needed for drug treatments and can be used to rent an apartment—not for the comfort, but for the kitchen.

I recently read a book about treating depression with diet and exercise. It's something I've never tried before, so from now on, there won't be any fast food hamburgers or hot dogs from Stripes. It'll be fruit smoothies, spinach, carrots, whole-grain rice, beets, and broccoli. If I have to do push-ups and run three times a day, then son of a bitch, that's what I'll be doing, running for my life.

Grady Sedgwick is the author's pen name. He wishes to remain anonymous as much of the information in this essay is unknown to friends and family. A native of south Louisiana, he has been picking up odd jobs and writing every day since getting an apartment.

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