By Ann Rosenthal
The wild lorikeet sits on the branch outside the library. I read its colors like the gaudy cover of a book. It’s not a native bird. An interloper. Unwelcome in this community. A trespasser. Like me.
I am in the public library because I need the bathroom. It’s early morning, and although the camper van has a chemical toilet it doesn’t deal well with, well, shit. This is shit, and so is living in a camper van. I’m doing so because of the absurd student loan system in New Zealand, which allows me the princely sum of sixty dollars per week for rent. A single room starts at a hundred and fifty. But I can’t share a room, because of PTSD. Most students who don’t fancy sharing a room get a part-time job. I can’t get a part-time job, because of PTSD.
If I share a room, I won’t sleep. If I share a kitchen, I will be too anxious to use the cooking facilities. I used to love community life. PTSD warps you, twists your personality and needs into unfamiliar shapes. The campervan is a better option. I can lock the door and go to sleep. Well, sort of lock the door. The lock is broken, so I use a bicycle chain. It won’t stop a determined thief but it might slow them down enough that I can jump into the front seat and make a quick getaway, grabbing my keys from the side of my bed. You see, I have thought all this through. Many times. Every night, in fact.
That’s PTSD, too.
But I do sleep. Well, sort of sleep. I sleep, but I wake often. Especially when I am parked on the side of the road. The cars rumble past and they shake the van. Also, I am on what my counselor calls high alert. I am constantly nervous, watchful. I would be anxious anywhere, but am especially so with my camper van parked by the side of the road. After three or four weeks of this location, I find a local church prepared to let me park in their driveway. I start to sleep through the night. It feels like a miracle, which the church would probably call it, if miracles can happen through human kindness and common sense. I am bewildered, I notice, by the fact that they care. As if I am worth caring for. As if I am an endangered bird in need of protection, and not the disruptively noticeable lorikeet whose colors and origin offend the resident community. I feel like a lorikeet. This, I accept, is probably the PTSD too.
The Student Allowance hasn’t come through, although it is three weeks since I started my course. I use my credit card to fill up on fuel, so I can get to my lectures. These are interesting, but there is a problem. I am on a high dose of medication. It makes me very sleepy, and I am unable to stay awake in afternoon lectures. The university has a quiet space and bedroom for disabled students. You can’t stay overnight, but you may use it to nap in the day. I qualify for this, they tell me, as long as I can provide a letter confirming my diagnosis from the GP. I explain that I cannot afford a doctor’s appointment until my Student Allowance is paid. They stretch the rules, and give me interim access. I am grateful beyond measure. When I go into that room, it is the only time I can truly experience the restful experience of darkness, because the campervan curtains do not protect me from the harsh streetlights outside.
I have vivid, scrambled dreams, even more so than normal. PTSD, but there is another issue. Because I am living in a camper van, I have no access to screens outside the library. I can’t watch TV or film, so I am unaccustomed to the fast pace and dramatic narrative of our cultural media. When we watch a sitcom or a film in narrative theory class, I am overwhelmed by the brightness, the flashing colors. They flare alien and intrusive, like the lorikeet. My nightmares are filled with the memory of the larger-than-life faces, the shouts, the simulated anxiety. I cannot filter what is dramatized from what is real.
One night I get a phone call from a friend. She has a spare ticket to a movie. Would I like it? I’m not sure, but I go.
The movie assaults my senses. I am trapped. I spend most of the evening hiding in the toilet.
Later, I write up the experience of seeing the movie as a homeless person who doesn’t have TV. I am embarrassed to admit it is me, so I submit it to a journal as fiction. Creative disassociation. It was someone else who had the bad experience, I was safely home and asleep at the time. I get a kind reply. The writing is excellent, but there are two problems: The homelessness seems to go on and on without any resolution and the narrator’s situation is, frankly, unbelievable. They’d prefer a feelgood story with a satisfying outcome. No one could possibly believe in the predicament of a creative writing student living homeless in a camper van.
Living with PTSD is not a feelgood story with a satisfying outcome. The narrative arc of progress through time is constantly disrupted, through the imprisoning cycle of traumatic memory. I had hoped to slough off the exhausting cinema experience, let it go like a bird molting its feathers into the fictional domain. Now here it is, returned to me unchanged. Like bad memories. I can’t get rid of my life, even if I pretend it is a story. I feel like explaining to them that it was me, but I am too ashamed.
Ann Rosenthal’s poetry is currently featured in an upcoming New Zealand exhibition about the psychological effects of family violence. She has PTSD and this collection deals with the experience of living homeless in a camper van whilst studying as a consequence of PTSD, meaning affordable shared accommodation was not accessible to her. She also has recent publications in New Zealand Poetry, Chaleur, Jewish Fiction, Jewish Currents, and Urban Arts.