Out in the Cold

29 April 2014 Ben Dawes

Out in the Cold

Illustration by Kate Banazi

Ben Dawes, Ed#454, March 2014

Working as a health professional by day; sleeping rough by night.

It is 6am, still dark outside. Darkness that will provide me some cover from prying eyes as I get myself ready for work. My head is groaning from the after-effects of the night before. A night where I sat in my car eating pizza with a bottle of wine clasped between my thighs. Having no glass meant I necked the wine straight from the bottle. At night I am unable to hide from the reality of my life.

 

A few years ago I found myself alone. For four weeks I woke on the back seat of my car, and each day I was surprised to be there. In the freezing darkness I gathered my clothes from the pile in my boot and snuck into work. I hid my situation from all those around me: from work colleagues, from trusted friends and from family.

At the time I managed to convince myself I was coping, that I could handle this interruption to the smooth, planned path of my life. But the truth was that I was spiralling downwards. I had lost rational perspective and saw no incongruity between my nights sleeping rough and days working as a senior health professional.

 

I step out of my car and groan softly as I straighten. All night I have struggled with a pain in my side as I lay scrunched on the back seat. I search around the jumble in my boot for my remaining clean clothes. As always, a matching pair of socks is the last thing to be found.

I hear crunching on gravel as an early riser slowly jogs past. He is careful not to look at me too closely, his discretion making his thoughts all the more apparent. I keep my head down and busy myself collecting my belongings. I could have chosen somewhere more secluded to park. But the nights terrify me enough without isolation and I need to allow myself this small comfort.

 

Each day, as I arrived at work, I managed to detach myself from the rest of my life. I didn’t discuss my situation because I didn’t even let myself think about it. While everything else was falling down around me, my work remained a place where I could stay in control. I clung to that control because my life depended upon it.

Each day, I tried to lose myself in other people’s problems. I worked hard for my patients and listened to their fears and concerns for their recovery. I comforted my colleagues when they had bad days and helped them to work through their problems. I would love to say that I was selfless, that I was striving altruistically to support those around me. But the truth is I was scared, and they were a way for me to avoid
the need to address my own issues.

 

The puddles beside my car have frozen during the night, and small flecks of frost glisten on the tops of the blades of grass. But the morning is peaceful. The lake stretches out in front of me, silver moonlight still rippling over its surface. A few swans are already out on the water, their strange grunting echoing across its expanse. I stop and take in the view before me, pausing momentarily to drink it in. I know the moment won’t last.

Soon I will need to sneak into work and make sure I am showered and dressed before my colleagues arrive. For four weeks I have maintained the charade of my life, a charade that is beginning to weigh heavily upon me. But for now I just stop and take in the beauty.

For now, I need whatever beauty I can find.

 

At times I had an unspoken understanding with myself that this was what I deserved. The world had turned black and white, and I oscillated between self-loathing and self-pity. For many years I had struggled with depression, but this period in my life definitely represented my lowest ebb.

When my marriage ended I was at a point where each day I struggled to find the desire to see the next. I felt so close to the edge that I was afraid to talk to those around me about what was going on; afraid that any sense of disapproval or blame could be a trigger to shoot me into the abyss. So I blocked it from my mind whenever I could, avoided people who would ask questions, and waited for a time when I was strong enough to face reality again.

 

It is during the night that my thoughts return. My mind becomes the screen on which memories are endlessly projected. As I lie on the back seat of my car I can still hear my wife crying. I can still feel the kiss I gave my four-month-old daughter, feel the weight of her as I rocked her to sleep the night before. Outside the car, I can hear the wind rushing through the trees above me, stronger and stronger with each sleepless hour. But even as I hear the sound of wood cracking above me I don’t care enough to move. All I want is to sleep.

When I look back on this period now I remain shocked by my thinking. Like the man who cannot understand the drunken logic of the night before, these thoughts seem alien to me. I kept trying to tell myself that the pain wouldn’t last forever, but I was so wrapped up in the present that it was difficult to see any hope in the future. I had no way of knowing how things would turn out; no confidence that I would be able to see things through to find out.

 

There is a sign in my manager’s office that reads Keep Calm and Carry On, but I am beginning to doubt whether I can continue to manage either for much longer. Sitting opposite her I am struggling to make eye contact, but she waits patiently until I look up.

“Are you sleeping in your car?”

One sentence and all my pretence is destroyed. As I leave her office I can no longer hold back the tears. For four weeks I have struggled to keep everything separate and ensure that no one knows the truth. But as I quickly try to dry my eyes I know that what I feel most of all is relief.

 

Within the hour accommodation was arranged. Four walls, a roof and a bed upon which I could begin to put my life back together. While I struggled to keep everyone at a distance, all I wanted was for someone to offer to help me.

Since that time I have worked hard to discover why I didn’t seek the help that was available. I remember feeling that the issues were all my responsibility to solve, a result of both pride and my irrational but unquestioned belief that I should be completely self-reliant.

Gradually I have learned to let others into my life. I have learned that it is an act of courage, not failure, to be vulnerable and ask for help. The successes and difficulties of my life are now shared experiences, and my life is much richer as a result.

I have developed a supportive relationship with a new partner, rediscovered a strong friendship with my ex-wife, and felt the exquisite joy of watching my daughter play and grow.

When I reflect on my time alone I am horrified by how close I came to giving up. I suspect many people might have realised that something was wrong, but they were understandably hesitant to approach me and ask.

It took great courage for my manager to confront me. My family and I will always be in her debt. One day soon, I will tell her that she saved my life.             

 

» Ben Dawes is the pseudonym of a senior health professional working in the public hospital system. Having learned through experience the importance of emotional awareness and knowing when to seek support from others, he now runs programs for health professionals that seek to develop these and related skills.

» Illustration by Kate Banazi

This article appeared in Ed#454 of The Big Issue magazine.

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