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Please Stop Gatekeeping Hardship and Trauma

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As I was turning 18, I’d spent the past two years bouncing between psychiatric hospitalizations and ultimately spending six months in residential treatment, getting discharged about two months before my 18th birthday. What I quickly discovered, though, was that the ground I had regained in residential was immediately lost when I was thrown back into the same abusive environment that led me to develop those maladaptive coping mechanisms in the first place.

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About a month later, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was trying so hard not to fall back into where I was before being in residential, but I knew I couldn’t fight it much longer. I managed to get to an emergency room and pleaded with a crisis counselor to do whatever it took to get me out of that house. She gave me two options, a safety plan or another psychiatric hospitalization. Disheartened, I chose the latter, thinking maybe once I got there, someone would finally be able to help me.

I got lucky and was able to stay there for three months as I got things in order to get on my own two feet. I was discharged and spent two weeks each with two extended relatives before spending another three months in a motel and yet another week-long hospitalization before I finally made it into my own apartment. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was the best I could do. In the end, though, I chose homelessness over living in that abusive environment any longer, because I knew it was the safest option available to me.

Still, some hear this story and object to my use of the word “homelessness,” stating that I wasn’t really homeless because I always had a roof over my head, because I never landed on the streets or in a homeless shelter. Besides the technicality that homelessness is not a lack of a roof over one’s head but a lack of stable, secure housing, it’s concerning that people find it appropriate to gatekeep hardship like that.

Of course I recognize the privilege that exists in the fact that I did have somewhere to stay, but being 18 and living on college savings in a motel without a job wasn’t particularly the epitome of stability either. Really, though, I shouldn’t have to explain myself like that. I shouldn’t have to validate my trauma to win over other people’s approval of how I choose to tell my story.

The reality is that no one knows the full details of what I experienced other than me. No one else was there as I tried to figure out how to get groceries with nothing more than a mini-fridge and a microwave, as I refused to get off the bus without being on the phone with someone because I didn’t feel safe walking back to that motel alone. No one else knows how scared I was when I realized I was running out of money and I still didn’t have a job. No one else was there as I tried to figure out how to get clothes to wear to interviews without spending too much money for a job I didn’t know if I would get. To tell me that it wasn’t really bad enough to count and that I can’t call it homelessness completely invalidates and dismisses the hardship and trauma that I did experience without even knowing the details of my experience in the first place.

So instead, let’s try something different: let’s listen as people tell their own story in a way that feels authentic to them without judgment. Let’s offer support instead of invalidation. Let’s walk beside people through their struggles instead of kicking them when they’re already down. And above all, let’s stop gatekeeping hardship.

Getty image by Thomas_Zsebok_Images

Originally published: February 3, 2022
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