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Starting Over After Divorce as a Person With a Disability

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Looking at Facebook’s “On This Day” feature feels alien. I see fragments of a completely different life that existed only a year ago. The photos are scattered puzzle pieces. They’re not missing; they’re just looking for a new picture to complete.

A year ago, I had just turned 31. I wanted more than anything to be able to sustain myself, but never thought I could live on my own. My autism spectrum disorder gives me topographical agnosia (place blindness). This means I can’t drive and have very little sense of direction. I get lost and disoriented in public. I had dropped out of college and had minimal work experience. I often felt helpless, which is a catch-22. To develop confidence, you need to have done things you’re proud of. To do what you’re proud of, you need the confidence to believe you can. I would get discouraged and shrink back whenever something seemed too daunting.

In the beginning of last year, I was still migrating into my new life. I was moving it piece by piece, like ants carrying crumbs one by one. My husband and I had been together for 12 years, my whole adult life. I reached a point of certainty after a year of marriage counseling and many painful discussions. I told my husband I needed to go.

My cousin was the first person after my husband to know about my decision. She and I had a long conversation on the phone. I was scrambling to bead together a plan, but the pieces were still scattered without a string to pull them onto. It turned out we were at the same turning point. My cousin had just broken off her engagement and moved into her own apartment in Brooklyn. She said she had a pull-out mattress and an open door. She promised to help me while I got on my feet. Relief and gratitude overwhelmed me.

I quit my job at a nearby daycare. While the school was wonderful and I loved the kids, my hours were too sparse to support myself. I also didn’t know where I was going to live. I had a savings account with money from a settlement, because I had broken both feet in a car accident three years before. It was enough to last for a bit, but wouldn’t sustain me for long without income. I hadn’t touched the money yet, and decided it was time.

I left for Brooklyn that Friday after an especially intense week at home. I stuffed my most immediately needed belongings into a roller suitcase and headed onto a train. I cried on the way, knowing my husband thought I had packed everything but him. The suitcase strained at the seams and threatened to pop all over the crowded subway floor. It was loud and dirty and I had no idea what was going to happen, but the map was just beginning to fill itself in.

When I left the subway and climbed the stairs to my cousin’s street, I was greeted by a sign on the chain link fence: “Where I end, you begin.” Nothing could have been more true.

When I arrived, my cousin and I stayed up talking until 3 a.m. I slept on her futon while frantically searching for housing and work the next week. I was willing to stay in a homeless shelter if it came down to it. For the next month, we developed a routine. I’d stay during the weekdays, construct my resume and apply for jobs. I’d take the train to Connecticut for job interviews. I’d take care of her apartment and run errands while she was at work. I’d return to Bridgeport on the weekend to get some things in order and try to keep things peaceful with my husband. But if the atmosphere got too heated, I’d get back to Brooklyn sooner.

My cousin helped me develop my resume and look for jobs. She told me I could do much more than I believed. The fact that I’d always been dependent didn’t mean I always would. She’s been one of the most supportive people in my life by showing me I could support myself.

I wandered around the streets in Brooklyn when I needed a little break. Google Maps helped me navigate. I loved the street art, the thrift shops, the Doctor Who themed bar. I stopped every moment to take pictures, like an overwhelmed dog stopping to sniff everything. It didn’t matter so much anymore if I got lost.

I wasn’t sure whether I would move to New York or stay in Connecticut. My cousin said Brooklyn would be a hard place to start over. Rent was high, and I didn’t have any professional connections outside my town. I decided to stay in Bridgeport. I had some job connections there. I was also involved in the spoken word poetry community and knew many people I wanted to stay close to.

After a month, I found work as an assistant teacher at another daycare. It was a few towns away and a long bus commute, but it was the first full-time job I’d ever had. I also found a tiny studio apartment for $750 a month. For the first time ever, I could live on my own.

My parents and brother helped me move into the new place. They were immensely helpful with bringing things I needed for the apartment. My first night on my own was the night after Christmas. I sat on the hardwood floor, watching a cockroach scamper across the corner. There were sirens outside, but my room was quiet. A street light reflected off the broken glass on the sidewalk. And all I could feel was gratitude that glowed and mingled with the light, because for the first time, this view was my own.

Over the past year, I’ve gathered too many stories to carry at once.

I’ve explored abandoned buildings and written poems about them.

I’ve posed for a photo shoot in an alley, sitting on a dumpster while wearing a tutu.

I’ve been paid to film an event in New Haven where a crowd gathered on a parking garage roof to sing “Lean On Me.”

I’ve had my art on display in two galleries and sold a drawing for the first time.

I’ve had a poem published.

I’ve been hospitalized for insomnia.

I’ve quit a stressful job, been unemployed, and then found work at the best preschool I’ve ever come across — and it’s right on my street.

I’ve been approached by a man in my neighborhood who was flirting with me while he bled from a stab wound.

I’ve spent $450 getting a divorce.

I’ve had a relationship with a new person for the first time since I was 19. It didn’t last, but he is a wonderfully encouraging presence in my life. I will always be grateful for the experience.

I’ve worked with 4-year-olds who needed blankets and clothes because they didn’t have them at home.

I’ve been featured as a spoken word poet at three shows.

I’ve gone to Mass MoCA and stayed in an RV trailer in the woods.

I’ve gone to my brother’s wedding in Hollywood, gotten sick on the trip, and explored Venice Beach with a 102-degree fever.

I want to reach a point where I earn more than minimum wage. This isn’t a before and after story; it’s before and during. Although there’s much more to do, sometimes it makes a difference to step back and look from a vantage point, like my first night looking out my own window. I’ve started over with a disability that branches into many parts of my life, with no college degree and with a belief, despite all reason, that it was possible. It wasn’t all because of myself. I’m thankful to anyone who helped boost me up because they believed it too.

Last year feels like the overstuffed suitcase I used to cart off to Brooklyn every week, straining at the seams with stories. After that first trip, I wrote a poem comparing it to Alice in Wonderland. Here’s part of it:

A neon sign greeted
with a Cheshire cat grin:
“Where I end, you begin.”
It’s time to paint the town red
with roses.

I won’t stop until every rose has been painted, Instagrammed, and then delivered in bouquets to a ripe and lush future. I try to keep planting every day.

Here is my advice for anyone in a similar situation. This is for people who are disabled and have few resources, and want to move out.

Plan as far in advance as you can. If you share a joint bank account with someone you need to separate from, open your own. This can be done secretly if you need to. In the meantime, save as much cash as possible. Hide it if you don’t trust the people you live with.

If you don’t have a degree but tuition is within your means, enroll in a trade school or online program. You may be able to go to university later, but this can help for now.

A state agency can provide help for unemployment and disability. Connecticut has the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. I’d suggest also exploring more options, because these agencies tend to move slowly.

You can apply to Job Corps if you’re under 25.

The Department of Developmental Services or the Department of Human Services can connect you to resources for housing, day services and employment.

See if there are any jobs you can do from home to simplify your schedule.

Even if you don’t have a steady employment history or haven’t worked in the field you want to pursue, you can build off the experience you do have and make those skills relevant to new jobs. No work experience is worthless. As long as you’re learning, you’re not stagnant.

See if you would qualify for Medicare or Medicaid coverage. If not, there are other options for people who can’t afford hundreds a month for health insurance. You can apply for a plan that would cost $50 a month.

If you think a shelter might be necessary, look into them as early as possible. They’re often filled months in advance. Every state has a phone number you can call for help with emergency housing. The number is 211 in Connecticut.

You can apply for public housing or Section 8, although those often have a long wait list. Transitional housing and group homes may be an option. Mental Health Connecticut offers homes including transitional housing, site-supported housing, and supervised apartments for people with mental health conditions. All other states have these services. You can search on Mental Health America.

Sharing a living space with college students can cut the cost, and so can renting a bedroom instead of an apartment.

If you’re forming a plan to move out, talk about it with at least one friend or family member who can help you with the details and offer emotional support. Asking for help can be intimidating, but please don’t be afraid to seek it out.

Your current circumstances may feel unsteady, but they’re not final. Your life might seem mostly unwritten. There is still time to spell it out.

Speak yourself into the world, and you’ll echo.

Originally published: March 4, 2019
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