By: Nicole Luongo
Winner: The Shalom Alechem Prize
The following is an introduction to a book that is not yet written:
It’s freezing. The basement window is wide open, and the wind has blown the bedcovers off of my body and onto the floor. It’s mid-December, and all I’m wearing is unbalanced it feels, having on only one sock, but I don’t want to bother searching for its partner. Trying to find anything amid the heaps of dirty clothing, rotten food scraps, and empty liquor bottles on the floor would be futile and I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be able to stand, anyways. I reach down and remove the sock. Much better. Now I need a drink. I vaguely recall that I have left a half-full bottle of vodka at my feet. Having to go get more later will be agonizing – the nearest liquor stores is blocks away, and I can barely crawl, let alone walk – but for now I’m ok. For now I have all I need. Emptying the bottle, I lay my head on the pillow and sigh with relief. The sense of euphoria that accompanies the alcohol is both instantaneous and sublime. Curling into a tight ball, I let go of my loose grip on consciousness. I drift, fantasizing about down quilts and warmth.
That month – December of 2008 – was the worst of my life. I spent Christmas Eve in an emergency shelter, sneaking nips of the whisky that I had snuck in and hidden in a toilet tank. Each time I went to the bathroom I emerged flushed and wild-eyed, growing more intoxicated as the night wore on. I was nineteen years old and knew that I was going to die. Years spent battling an eating disorder, mental illness, and eventually addiction had left me beaten, broken, and completely exhausted. Death, with its finality and the promise of undisturbed quiet, was almost alluring. I was barely existing as it was, each day spent seeking something – anything – to fill the yawning hole in my chest. Every moment revolved around the search for food or booze or whatever it was that could provide temporary relief from the emptiness I felt.
As a child I had been born with a vivid imagination. I envisioned myself becoming an artist, an athlete, a politician, my dreams not yet limited by the banal sensibilities that characterize adulthood. What I didn’t predict was that before I entered my twenties I would be homeless and barely clinging onto life by a thread. What follows is an account of my first two decades. My story won’t be completely linear – I can’t guarantee that dates will be exact or that my memory won’t distort some recollections. So much of my time was spent either drunk or in some sort of altered state. Events blur at the seams and bleed into one another, and what I’m left with is a patchy, disjointed motif of pain and trauma intermingled with brief bursts of unequivocal joy.
What I do know is that when I was diagnosed as bipolar, it made perfect sense. What else could explain the fits of glee, followed always by the crushing, crippling despair? Sadly, being told that you have a mental illness isn’t all it takes to get better. In fact, some may argue that it’s akin to receiving a life sentence. What I was given, however, was a name for what I felt. And if what I felt had a name, maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. Some people dislike the label; they feel that having it is an automatic qualifier, an invitation for judgment. Realistically, I’m more apt to be judged when my condition goes untreated. When I’m drunk off my face, for example, and wreaking havoc in society. I realized that I could live if I wanted to. And, oddly enough, I did want to. So began my journey back from the abyss.
My body is conditioned with the memory of what alcohol has done to it. A single whiff of rum or vodka is all my stomach needs to automatically begin contracting – a visceral refusal of the noxious substance that nearly cost me my life. While my body is sure that alcohol is poison, there are times when my mind is still unconvinced. This is largely due to the fact that being a functioning human being is highly stressful. I marvel at the people who do function, without ever stopping to acknowledge the logic, diligence, and sanity that it requires. How remarkable it would be to wake up each morning and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not crazy. I think that it would be wonderful but ultimately less fulfilling than the life I currently lead. Learning how to exist in the world has been interesting, to say the least. It’s messy and awkward and I tend to damage things (and people) more than I would like to. Regardless, this life is mine, and I’m beginning to understand the necessity, and sometimes even the joys, of reclaiming it as such. I’m 21 years old and I am a paradox made manifest – a strange dichotomy of feeling like I’ve experienced a lifetime’s worth of pain while still embodying the awe and wonderment of a small child who is being exposed to the world for the first time. I’ve begun to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. I’m still not completely whole, but I’m growing closer every day. This is my story:
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The Creative Writing Contest is part of Ve’ahavta’s Homeless Initiative department. Every year, we distribute hundreds of packages into the street and through shelters, containing a sign-up form, a pad of paper, a pen, and a self-addressed envelope. We ask people to write a poem, a song, an autobiography, a recipe used to survive on the street… They have the option of writing a fiction or non-fiction piece. The possibilities are endless.