My ringing travel alarm jolts me from a deep sleep. I peek at the car windows. They are covered in snow. I’m grateful for the thick comforter I salvaged from the storage unit before the auction. The skin on my face stiffens and stings from the frigid air.
How long have I been here? The limit is eight hours.
I throw back the covers, slip into my jacket and boots, and get out of my Honda CR-V. Big dry flakes glide through the air.
I walk through a foot of snow to the back of my car, open the hatch door and retrieve a snow broom underneath two folded blankets. A tow truck driver stops a few feet away and watches me brush the snow off my car.
Please don’t tow me! I can’t afford another bill. Just go away!
Maybe the tow truck driver hears my thoughts because he moves on. I sigh with relief.
The snow smells fresh. Aside from muffling the sound, the newly fallen flakes make everything look and smell clean — even in this dreary rest area 35 miles northwest of Boston.
This lifestyle is the best I can do for now. I moved into my car four weeks ago, when I couldn’t afford the rent anymore. I’m ashamed and frustrated that I can’t keep up with the bills, but I feel fortunate that at least I can use my car for shelter. Until now, I wasn’t aware of how many people work full time and call their cars home. There’s actually a term for this type of living: vehicular residency.
The people I see overnighting in parking lots, rest areas and other places don’t want to be noticed. They’ve had bad breaks like me and are doing everything they can to recover. As Frances McDormand, who plays Fern in the movie ”Nomadland,” says, “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless.”
The bathrooms are locked at the rest area for another hour, so I drive to the nearest gas station. I pull a pair of black slacks, a cream-colored long-sleeved T-shirt and a pink sweater from a garbage bag in the back of my car, stuff them into a tote bag with my toothbrush, toothpaste and comb, and carry them into the bathroom inside the convenience store.
No one notices me when I walk by wearing a pair of gray sweats, snow boots and black quilted jacket zipped to my chin. This is where I change and freshen up for the office. I don’t want anyone at work to know what’s happening to me.
When I’m done, I buy a croissant sandwich with bacon, egg and cheese, and a cup of coffee with cream at the Dunkin’ Donuts counter. I don’t have to buy lunch today because I left a half-eaten Chinese dinner in the refrigerator at the office.
“The people I see overnighting in parking lots, rest areas and other places don’t want to be noticed. They’ve had bad breaks like me and are doing everything they can to recover.”
During the drive to the office, I think about my long day ahead as a technical writer and feel overwhelmed. I need to finish writing a manual for a new device for an airflow control system. It’s due today. I have to talk to the engineers again to get whatever information they have about some last-minute features they added to the product to make the manual as complete as possible.
I can’t forget to turn off my cellphone before entering the office. If I don’t, the creditors will bug me all day. They’re never happy, even when I can make my payments on time.
After a full day at the office, I change again for my second job at the restaurant at the ski area. Hopefully the snow will attract more skiers tonight so I can earn enough tips to spend the night at a Motel 6. Maybe I can even pay a small bill or two. If not, I’ll return to the office and take a shower before heading to the rest area for another night. No one uses the fitness center that late, so it’s safe to shower without anyone knowing I’m there.
How did I wind up living in my car? My husband disappeared. Before he vanished, I stopped recognizing him. He isn’t the same loving man I knew when we met 20 years ago. He’s now in his own world, trying to escape the mysterious people he believes are constantly following him to do him harm. I wonder whether he will ever return to his old self and if we can resume the happy life we lost.
My husband was a loving, supportive man during the four years we dated and the first nine years of our marriage. And then he began to think people were following him and listening to his conversations. The turning point came when he was laid off from his job as a salesperson. The more stress he was under, the more delusions he had. I didn’t understand what was going on because his symptoms increased gradually. By the time I figured it out, mental illness had consumed his life, and our marriage fell apart.
My revelation came one night when I was moonlighting, editing a Psychology 101 study guide for a publisher in Boston. The study guide covered symptoms of common mental health conditions. When I edited the chapter describing the symptoms of schizophrenia, what I read sounded familiar — the delusions, hallucinations, loss of interest and enthusiasm. The symptoms often surface later in life and gradually, like a frog being boiled in a pot of water. It wasn’t until I read the profile of someone suffering from schizophrenia that it dawned on me that my husband was just like them.
One out of 100 people have schizophrenia, according to Dr. Jeff Borenstein, president of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Schizophrenia is a chronic brain condition that causes people to lose touch with reality and have trouble reacting to the world around them. Scientists aren’t sure what causes schizophrenia, but researchers have found that genetic and environmental factors and stress can trigger it. There’s no cure, but treatment can reduce symptoms and prevent them from recurring.
I begged my husband to go to counseling. I offered to go with him. Together, through therapy, I hoped we could heal and return to our blissful wedded life. He refused. “I don’t have the problem,” he said. “You do.”
Finally, I felt there wasn’t any other option than to leave him. I hoped that after I left he would take the steps to get help, but he didn’t trust anyone, so his condition was never diagnosed. I moved into a studio apartment near work, but after six months the landlord raised the rent and I couldn’t afford to live there anymore. Then I downsized into a room with a shared bathroom.
The bills continued mounting to where the salary from my full-time technical writing job couldn’t cover them. My husband had a credit line at a bank, which I didn’t know about until a collector called me after he missed three payments. I don’t know how he was approved because when the bank opened the credit line, he’d been out of work for five years.
More calls followed from collection agencies for other bills I didn’t know we had. When it reached the point that I had to choose between paying rent or keeping up my car payments, I moved into my car. I had to file for divorce to protect myself financially. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help my husband with his mental illness and continued to research options but learned that there was nothing I could do if he wouldn’t or couldn’t accept my help.
“More calls followed from collection agencies for other bills I didn’t know we had. When it reached the point that I had to choose between paying rent or keeping up my car payments, I moved into my car. I had to file for divorce to protect myself financially.”
Recovering financially was a long journey that lasted almost 10 years. I supplemented my full-time income by working as a server at the local ski area, picking up temp jobs at call centers, filling in for receptionists and secretaries on vacation, and landing freelance book editing and indexing projects. I’d pay off the smaller bills first, then increase payments on a bigger bill until it was paid off. I tried two different debt consolidation agencies, but both experiences were disasters. The first one wanted to draw my monthly payments directly from my checking account. Everything went well until the third month, when they withdrew two payments on the same day, which overdrew my account. I had to close out my account and open a new one.
When I switched to the second debt consolidation agency, I followed the rules and paid the agreed-upon amounts on time by money order, but two months into the agreement, three credit card companies turned me into collection agencies. When I challenged them about breaking their agreements with the debt consolidation agency, they said they could do whatever they wanted.
After that, I worked directly with the collection agencies to pay off the credit card bills. In all cases, we negotiated a smaller payoff amount if I paid in full, which amounted to 50% of each balance, and I tapped into my 401(k) to cover it. These negotiations didn’t affect my credit record, but the damage to my credit score had been done long before then.
We had two cats, ages 15 and 11. When I moved into my car, I asked their vet if he could find a good home for them. That was a hard decision because they were my babies and I loved them very much. I felt like I was betraying my two best friends. The vet allowed me to board them for almost two months, but then he called and said the oldest cat’s health was failing fast. He moved the cat into an exam room so I could see him, and I spent the last minutes of his life there, trying to hold back my tears while I gently stroked him and said, “Everything’s all right.” The tears flowed anyway.
The vet said he couldn’t keep the 11-year-old cat there any longer because he needed the space for incoming patients. When I asked him why he kept the cats there, he said, “I hoped you could get back on your feet soon and take them with you.”
I went to an animal boarding house nearby, talked to one of the co-owners about my situation and asked if I could board my cat there and make weekly payments until I could afford to rent a place. She knew me because I’d boarded both cats there a few times during vacations before my life fell apart.
“My husband and I have a place available,” she said. “It’s a tiny mother-in-law apartment at the end of our house. It has a separate entrance. You’re welcome to stay there until you can get back on your feet.”
I couldn’t believe what I just heard. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I don’t know how long it will be until I can afford rent.”
“Take the time you need,” she said. “We’re paying it forward.”
My cat and I moved in that evening, and I was able to start paying rent three months later. We stayed there for a year and a half, when I could afford to move into a larger apartment.
My ex-husband survived on the streets for 11 years. One night, someone found him passed out in a subway car in Queens. The police came and discovered that he was dead. The autopsy revealed he died of an enlarged heart. I was called to identify his body.
Body identifications at the coroner’s office aren’t the same as in the movies or on a crime drama on TV. I was escorted into a cold, sterile room with a computer on a table. My escort sat on one side of the table, and I faced her on the other with the computer monitor between us, facing her. A box of tissues was on my side of the table.
“I have a series of pictures of the body,” she said. “I will show you the first one. If you don’t recognize him, I will show another one. Are you ready?”
She loaded the first picture, then turned the monitor toward me. Although I hadn’t seen my ex-husband for 11 years, I recognized his face immediately. He hadn’t changed much, despite those years on the streets — few gray hairs and wrinkles, and no signs of balding. The only difference was he had grown a thick, tan beard. There was a hint of a smile on his face like the one I fell in love with when we first met.
“Body identifications at the coroner’s office aren’t the same as in the movies or on a crime drama on TV. I was escorted into a cold, sterile room with a computer on a table.”
I never cried over my husband’s death, and I’ve never harbored any hard feelings against him. The man I fell in love with and married was not the same person after mental illness slowly took hold and transformed him into a stranger in the same body. While we dated and during the early years of our marriage, I never imagined that our lives would change so dramatically. We had a perfect marriage, a partnership and friendship where we treated each other equally and supported each other. But over time, his paranoia destroyed his trust in me and my hopes for his recovery. I hated how much he was suffering, and I can only hope he was able to find some peace.
Sometimes I still struggle with guilt, and I must remind myself that I did the best I could under the circumstances. I’ve learned that I have more strength and resilience that I ever imagined. As a woman, I learned that, like the majority of our gender, I didn’t give myself enough credit for my own recovery and moving forward.
Today I live in a lovely apartment in the Pacific Northwest, where I wake up in a comfortable bed and can cook meals and take showers whenever I want. I volunteer on the marketing and events committee at an animal shelter; for the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate as an instructor for their classes for caregivers of people suffering from mental illness; and a co-host of a weekly Writing for Wellness group.
In “Nomadland,” Bob, played by Bob Wells, revealed to Fern that his son died by suicide on his 33rd birthday five years earlier. He said that “for a long time, every day, the question was, ‘How can I be alive on this earth when he’s not?’ And I didn’t have an answer.... But I realized that I could honor him by helping people and serving people. It gives me a reason to go through the day.”
I am proud and thankful to be a survivor. And like Bob’s tribute, I am grateful that I can honor my late husband and furry friends by giving back to others in need.
Cheryl Landes is a writer, photographer, hiker, mental health advocate, cat lover and jazz fan.