To be asked, “aren’t you afraid?” three times before I can make it out the door to walk my service dog, I am confronted with a strange realisation. Relatively speaking, I am fearless. After all, what is there to fear? The worst has already come, the bottom of the barrel has already given way. There’s not much left to fear at all, when one of the two greatest fears society breeds into us comes to be. But therein lies a paradox; I am afraid, but I’m certainly not afraid of what most think I should be; and what I do fear most would scarcely understand. Moreso than that, showing that fear would only make me more vulnerable to that which I should fear. Walking alone at nights brings me no pause, because walking alone at nights is how one gets from where they were to where they will sleep rough. Strangers cause me no alarm, because everyone is stranger than the last, and there are no familiar faces to which I can turn.
But no one asks if I am afraid because they themselves are afraid; rather, if I were to ask them if they’d like to walk with me and my dog at eleven o’clock at night, they would jump at the opportunity, fearless themselves. No, they ask because they care, and they have no trust for the environment beyond the secured and monitored halls of the shelter.
It isn’t the same for everyone. There are those so traumatized by experiences that the shaking thousand-yard stare in their eyes penetrates you as they respond in one-word sentences. There are those who are truly without fear, speaking every thought which crosses their mind regardless of the consequence, and throwing themselves into every risk perceived just to once again feel the glimmer of life. But for the most part, fear merely takes a different level of priority for those in shelters. One cannot fear what they feared before, as it would paralyse them immediately and completely, given the situation in which they find themselves. For those with their children, fear’s priority is replaced with defensiveness or aggression. For those with years of rough-sleeping in their pasts, fear is discarded for the comfort of a routine that would seem downright alien to the outside observer. And for those by their lonesome, fear is suppressed through remaining within a brand-new comfort zone, constructed of the promises of charity- and state-provided securities which come at the demand that certain expectations are met.
Be back in the shelter by a specific hour and no later. No drugs or alcohol. No visitors. Clean up after yourself. Meet with your case manager at least once per week. Pursue mental health assistance and be sure to take your medicine. Fill out paperwork, all the paperwork you can handle and more until you can’t tell whether your name is your name, your social security number, or the list of diagnoses the doctors have laid upon you. When described like this, it seems so simple, and yet it can grind a person to their breaking point when requested within the confines of a shelter; the stress builds up and the real fears reveal themselves. What will the faceless, nameless bureaucrat reading this think? What if I write the wrong thing? Will they deny me insurance, or housing, or food stamps? The drug-addicted muggers at the park down the street barely register in the psychological fear factor, but these questions terrify most to their core. We have nothing the addicts want, and they can smell the poverty on us as we can smell it on them; but the bureaucrats, the bureaucrats can take away what seems to be our only opportunity to regain humanity in a world governed by intricate and suffocating red tape.
And then, for many men and women, there are counterparts who strike a fear normally reserved for deities themselves; abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, sexual or financial, can leave a person but a hollow shell of their former selves and incapable of billowing the spark of life within themselves back into a sustained flame. This fear makes everything else impossible, and yet blinds us to those things which the average person would find to be a healthy fear. As one recites the word “sorry” in response to every sentence spoken to them, shivering in their breath on even the warmest days, and staring blankly into the distance as their cigarette burns on without so much as a puff to encourage it, they are consumed by that fear, that fear and little else. What is it to be struck down by a car, in comparison to being torn down by the one you love? For some, they might even think they deserve to be trampled beneath the wheels of the behemoth trucks of the road, after such experiences.
Within the halls of the shelter and throughout the familiar beaten paths walked, what should be feared goes without notice as what is feared settles in its place. Once you have lost everything, you no longer have the fear of losing it all – you only have the fear of never escaping the anti-everything which has engulfed you. Consumed by that fear, you slowly forget what it was like to be normal, and likewise, what it was like to fear normally. The best of us learn from it; but with a system so limited in resources, so suffocating in its bureaucracy, so arrogant in its regard for those it purports to wish to help, the rest of us find that the stars just refuse to come any closer.
The paradox comes in the form and shape of fears held and ignored; to fear nothing would be folly, to fear the right things would be pointless, and to fear what is before you would be paralysing. But fear one must, and fear one must accept, without being consumed by that fear. Otherwise, there is no escape. Your eyes will tell you the world is consuming you even as they lie, hiding the fact that it was your mind doing the consuming.
Postscript: This essay was uploaded from the parking lot of a car service center kind enough to offer free WiFi; for the time being, this is the best I am able to do. There is no accessible WiFi in the shelter at which I’m staying, and my phone plan, at least for the next month, offers no hotspot or tethering service. But so long as I am able to observe, and write what I have observed, I will keep publishing. I think the world needs to see what I’ve seen, and what I will see. As always, if you are able, please consider supporting my work on Patreon or with cryptocurrency, or if you haven’t the money to share, please share the link to this page far and wide so everyone may understand a little better the world below the bottom of the barrel.