Alone on Christmas

Today, recovered from schizophrenia, I remember my Christmases alone.

Posted Dec 01, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

On Christmas Day of 2006, I woke up in a churchyard where I had been living as a homeless person for ten months. The churchyard was located in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from the University of Southern California where I had once been a student. I was delusional, believing I was the next Mother Teresa, and had been living with untreated schizophrenia for a few years with very few friends.

That Christmas Day, all the students and faculty were away celebrating the holidays at home. The whole university community which was usually bustling with busy young adults was silent, and I had never felt so alone.

I got up as usual and hid my sleeping bag behind some bushes on church property, as I did not want to carry it with me all day. I decided to walk up and down the streets, looking at the Christmas decorations among the Southern California palm trees. I saw some Christmas wreaths and the occasional reindeer and Santa Claus.  

I was hungry, and carefully searched for any discarded food that may have been left, as I did everyday. Looking for food on the holidays was harder, as people who would have discarded garbage were away on vacation. Finding no food, I wandered around a nearby cluster of stores. One of them was open, but I had no money.

The voices in my mind began directing me to walk across a four-lane street, where there was no crosswalk. I crossed the street, and then crossed the street again, back to where I started, just as the voices commanded me. Fortunately, I did not see any cars.

Lonely and hungry, I walked to a local park. My hope was that other people might be there on the holiday, but I found the park gated and locked. Not knowing where to go or what else to do, I sat down on a bench outside the park entrance. I wondered where the other homeless people were staying on Christmas. Clearly, they were somewhere that I did not know about.

During that phase of my life, I often spent hours at a time staring blankly into space. Time went by quickly. That day, I remained at the entrance of the park for perhaps an hour, maybe longer. Then I left the park to return to the churchyard where I was spending my nights, as there was nowhere else to go.

It was ten or eleven in the morning. Finally, I saw another person. A young Caucasian woman was out jogging on Christmas Day. She approached me and gave me some cash. I told myself that I did NOT appear homeless, convincing myself that receiving cash from a stranger was normal.

The voices in my mind were annoying and persistent, telling me to keep walking and repeatedly cross a four-lane street again and again. I had not noticed that there was a police officer monitoring the area, and he began following me. Fortunately, his presence distracted my voices. I began to walk normally, on the sidewalk. I wonder how close I came to being arrested that Christmas Day.

On my way back to the churchyard, I approached a small Catholic church that was open. The attendees were just leaving. I had missed the Christmas mass and was very disappointed. Looking back, it hurts me to think about attending a church service as a dirty homeless person.

I placed the cash that was given to me earlier by the jogger in the donations box outside the church, because the voices told me too. I was still hungry. Fortunately, I found some discarded food in a neighborhood garbage can.

Today, as Christmas of 2019 approaches, I celebrate twelve years of recovery from schizophrenia. My life is filled with friends and family. I live in a cozy apartment. In 2008, I recovered from a brain disease that took me from being an honors student at a prominent university to a homeless person with a clouded and deluded mind. Back then, I was wholly unable to work and disabled. The disease poisoned my mind with a paranoia that led me to reject all help from family and friends to live a life outside on the streets, homeless and alone.

Finding an antipsychotic medication that worked for me after being extremely ill and spending four years homeless truly felt like a miracle. When I found the right medication and made a commitment to always take it, my mind gradually became clear. Studying molecular biology and playing the violin were once again possible.

In my recovered life, I am strongly motivated to volunteer with local community programs in order to serve others and to remember what my life used to be like. A Cincinnati church near my home runs a shelter that serves the homeless. Many of these people live outside, just as I used to.

There are always some people at the shelter who can and will pull themselves up, find work and rebuild their lives. But there are others who are like I was, sleeping outside with no possible end in sight, even in severely inclement weather, who could never work a normal job. As they stare blankly into space, they have no hope for the future. They are trapped in their situation because of a broken mind, and there seems to be no way out.

My way out was a forced hospitalization where I was strongly persuaded to begin medication. Today, I am so thankful for that hospitalization. I have a clear mind again. Effective treatment for my schizophrenia was a priceless gift in my life, worth more to me than almost anything.

As I celebrate Christmas of 2019, I pray for the homeless who have nowhere to go. It is a privilege to invest my time and my money in programs that show compassion to this forgotten community of people. Everyone should have hope for a brighter future on Christmas Day.