In the weeks before Tina died, she became obsessed with what she called “closing the circle.” During our high school years she read about a ritual that enclosed loved ones in a protective circle. I remember how she got me to go along with her idea that not only did I need protecting from the horrors of life, but so did my small group of high school friends. None of you are strong enough to fight on your own, she told me, and she was right.
I was bewildered by all of it then because even now I can’t remember how we ended up as a group that she thought needed protecting. Individually yes, but a group? I didn’t think of us that way, but we were, because we were all odd kids. We were artists, actors, musicians, poets. That made us stand out in a high school that was made up of the lower end of the working class and going through a period of violence, race riots, and the constant turmoil of the mid to late 1960’s.
There was no protection from that. Nor from the rampant use of hard drugs like heroin and pills. Poverty burns out the soul and sometimes survival meant blotting out the feelings enough to make it to the next day. There was no help for those who struggled with just living.
By the time I was a senior in high school I knew three people who overdosed on heroin. I knew at least half a dozen girls who dropped out because they were pregnant. I knew two who died from botched do-it-yourself abortions. I knew several who committed suicide. By the time we were seniors, many of us spent at least one night in jail, or the underage equivalent, Juvie, because they didn’t know what else to do with us. Those were the social services available.
A lot of us were poor. A lot of us came from dysfunctional families. A lot of us would never finish high school. We contributed far too many of our graduating class to Vietnam where they died. For those of us who were strong, who could fight back, who had resources to help us, we got out. But that out was often a small step forward, and one shift of the wind could send us backward, deeper into the hole we tried to crawl out from.
Our little group found strength and solace in creativity. We drew and painted our pain. We sang our despair. We wrote poems about things we wanted but never believed we could have, like love, stability, a roof over our heads, a family that didn’t abuse us, abandon us, or put conditions on their love for us. We weren’t typical teenagers. We were in too much emotional pain to ever be typical.
So I joined Tina then in drawing a protective circle around us. And yes, it kept us alive and protected in high school, but it did nothing to heal the wounds in our souls. Nothing was strong enough for that. We were on our own. And the struggle to survive met the indifference and cruelty of life in America. Not all of us were able to push our way through the walls erected in our path simply because we grew up poor, sensitive, abused, and alone.
The times then were much different as far as getting help for things like addiction, mental illness, and depression. The groups that existed all emphasized getting strong enough to fight your demons, as if we were all blessed with hidden reserves of that magical strength.
Or to rely on Jesus who seemed to be pretty much an indifferent bystander to our fates. As one of my friends was fond of saying he gets off on seeing people suffer so he can then praise them for enduring their suffering. And it gave “society” an excuse to turn the other cheek. Let god help them. God helps those who help themselves. Ask your church for help.
There was no help for the creative souls who didn’t know how to function in a world where they had to speak instead of draw, or paint, or dance, or compose music. It was assumed we’d grow up and set aside our creativity in order to make it in the “real world.” It was like expecting us to go through life with one hand tied behind our backs.
Those of us who were strong enough to crawl away managed to live a life just above the poverty level to continue creating. Our jobs supported our arts. And no matter how hard we pushed, no matter how much we believed in ourselves, our talents, our needs to express ourselves in various socially unacceptable ways, we had to crawl along with the past wrapped around our ankles. Not all of us were strong enough.
Those of you who have been following this blog know how Tina and I reached out to our small little groups of weirdos over 50 years later. I did it to honor a promise I made to help her close the circle she drew around us. She insisted to the day she died that it was important for me to go back to that time, to look at it again, to see what I missed, to try and fix something I probably didn’t even know needed fixing.
And I did. And I ended up in a heart-wrenching dead end. One of our little group went missing in 1979. It is very likely he spent much of it homeless or addicted or institutionalized. It is also likely he just chose to disappear and none of these realities are true for him. Sometimes you have to walk away from everyone and everything to heal the trauma. I did and so I don’t find it unlikely that he did as well.
But the problem in this supposedly richest country in the world became apparent when I tried to find him. As late as 2013 I was able to help someone find a lost relative through a service that was offered by social security. You could put a note for a loved one in a sealed envelope with their name and social security number on the outside. If the person was getting any kind of benefits, they would forward it to the last known address. They no longer do that. It wasn’t “cost effective.”
Another resource was the Salvation Army. They rightly assumed anyone needing food, a bed for the night, emergency medical care would pass through one of their portals. So they have a form you can fill out and they will search for the person, offer them the chance to reconnect, and honor their request if they choose to stay missing. It was free. Now it costs 50 dollars to fill out the form and have them search their records.
If you try to find someone using the internet, you will find all kinds of places who want money to help you search. I’ve never used these sites but those who have, warned me the information is often outdated, wrong, or simply a scam to take money from desperate people. You can also hire a private detective.
So yes, in America if you’re poor and end up on the street, you better hope those who care about you have deep pockets, because there is little or no help if they try to find you to offer help, love, hope, a bed for the night. And if you need mental health services, there are even less options. You’re not worth the effort. If you are homeless, you are considered trash messing up the neighborhood. If you are addicted it’s your fault, your problem, your burden to deal with. We are a shameful, disgusting country to treat fellow human beings in such a way.
My missing friend is 70 years old. Imagine trying to survive alone when your body is achy, tired, unable to support you anymore. Imagine trying to survive when you’ve spent a lifetime trying to fight back the demons on your own. Imagine living without hugs, without love, without knowing there’s someone who cares whether you live or die. Imagine being so incredibly talented as an artist, so sweet a soul, so lost in the world and no one cares.
That’s why I will continue to look, to try and find resources I can afford to help me look. No one deserves to be cast out as forgotten trash. And none of us can call ourselves a human being if we turn away and pretend we can’t see the despair all around us.
I’ve heard so many say they suffer from helper burnout, that there’s only so much they can do. I know families who have given up looking for their loved ones because of the cost, the emotional draining, the feeling of helplessness. While it’s true some don’t want to be found, and it’s also true some families should never be reunited, it’s also true that nothing in this country makes it easy to at least try to find and help those who have been abandoned by society.
Bring back the option to send a note through Social Security. Set up a free national databank of homeless and those looking for them so every shelter can provide access to it. Do something about the damn homeless problem in this country. It’s a national shame, an embarrassment, a stain on our humanity.
Find ways to help people without humiliating them, and yes, forcing them to mouth the words of the helper’s religion is humiliation. Stop passing barbaric laws like the ones that forbid you to feed the homeless. What the hell is wrong with people to come up with such a cruel law? Shame on you!
Provide a minimal shelter for those living on the street. There are many options for tiny homes, tent villages, and space to stay and feel safe. This is not an expensive proposition beyond the reach of many communities.
We have an obligation to help our fellow human beings, no matter how we justify saying it’s not our problem. It IS our problem. It is OUR problem. It is the ultimate test of our humanity whether we care about other people the way we care about ourselves. Too many of us fail at that and we should suffer the shame of failing in such a way.
It is my sincere hope that none of you ever have to experience the despair of trying to find someone society has thrown away. It’s a heartbreaking, exhausting experience. I’ve done it a couple times now. We must be better than this. These are human beings who were once loved and cherished. And now they are alone, desperate, sick, ill, and they know few care what happens to them.
I care and I will continue to care. It’s my job as a human being. I hope most of you will make it yours. It’s the only way we can close the openings in that protective circle my friend drew so long ago so none of us fall out and get forgotten.
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