Trigger warning for the trauma of homelessness and mental illness
This beautiful New York Times profile of Nakesha Williams, a Williams College graduate who died homeless on the street at the age of 46, was the first thing I read yesterday. My friend Amy sent it to me, saying it reminded her of the story I tell in my memoir, The Beautiful Darkness. Maybe I should have waited, knowing that, but I’m glad I didn’t.
I have written about the poverty and homelessness I experienced as a child — mostly as a result of my mother’s untreated bipolar and borderline personality disorders — mainly because for much of my life, and much of my mother’s, no one else wrote these stories. I imagined that I was alone in my experience. That made it all the more painful, lonely and difficult.
I had books, and writing, and education. I have been lucky, I have worked extremely hard, I have been writing my heart out for so many years. And yet, it feels like reading this story was reading my story, or the possibility of a future to my story yet to come. That is the legacy of experiencing the trauma of homelessness or being exposed to these adverse childhood experiences as a kid. They never leave you.
There are so many parallels between Nakesha and I, but more between her and my mother. We both love books and reading, we both sang in gospel choirs. I nearly went to Williams instead of Vassar.
I chose the latter because when my mother was still alive, I decided on college the way I decided on everything else: Based on its proximity to her. Attending Vassar meant I could get to Grand Central more quickly (and for less money) in case Marguerite had a manic episode. In case she ended up in a psych ward. In case she got evicted again, as she did my sophomore year, and I needed to drop everything and go to where she was and try to fix things that were beyond my years to fix.
Nakesha’s story is my worst fear for my life, though I am far from the little girl who had to watch my mother refuse medication, or fail to pay the water bill or negotiate not having enough money to buy food for days any more. Grace has kept me — along with writing — sane. But the kind of trauma that mental illness and then homelessness can inflict will never leave my body. It is a battle scar. A deep wound I am learning to befriend.
When I read Nakesha’s story, I was reading about my mother again. I kept, and still have, the lipstick imprinted letters of my mother, along with the emails that she sent me (like Nakesha) from libraries in New York and Philly. Because her life had so much potential, had so much life and joy and darkness that also taught me about beauty, I included some of these emails in my book.
At the core of this story about Nakesha, though, is the mystery of how the love, attention, resources poured out from others somehow failed to reach her. This is the part that resonated with me about the unknowables on the journey with someone who is mentally ill. This was my greatest heartbreak, the title of this blog, a line from the story about the realities of there not being a simple solution to the complex realities of homelessness and in particular, not a simple answer to the question of what happened to Nakesha.
There is no accounting for the demons, the silences, that can overtake us. All we can do is try to avoid them, try to keep going, try not to let them take us under. But maybe this story was so deeply moving for me and disturbing because this means there will continue to be many people like her and many women like my mother, and not as many people like me, who can profess, with not just a little bit of remaining survivor’s guilt, that we were spared somehow.