Imagine for a moment that you live in Vancouver’s SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing. Rats and disease run rampant. Violence, addiction, trauma and poverty plague the residents. You can’t remember the last time you slept soundly and when you do find security through the attachment to others, you take on their burdens and worry for their safety as well as your own. This is the hell that Cindy awakes to every day. The building she lives in no longer meets the standards of even an SRO project and a tear down in the future is inevitable. Imagine, when you write your address down for someone, you actually write the words ‘Blood Alley’ as your street name.
Disconnected from family, you survive in this world feeling alone. You have asked police to help you find your family but your request has not been a police matter and you lack the technical skills or resources to search yourself. Again, this is Cindy’s reality.
Now imagine the bitter sweet mix of emotions that come from learning you do have family that love you. Four siblings (one deceased) who love you but don’t know you. Sisters that have learned of you from your birth father who spoke of you with love while raising his new family.
Imagine seeing photos of women who resemble you – except their hair is gorgeous, long and flows effortlessly. Imagine seeing your own eyes on a familiar but unfamiliar face – your eyes – in a different place and time, living under very different circumstance. Sisters, who unlike you, avoided the family cycle of addition.
It’s actually hard for me to articulate what I experienced today with Cindy. The morning started with pure joy. Cindy was awake by 6 AM and arrived at Save on Meats early to get us a seat. Excited to learn more about her family, she was filling the waiter in before we arrived. As we approached, she was waiting outside the restaurant doing a full arm wave. With big hugs for both Miranda and I, Cindy smiled in disbelief, still amazed we had crossed paths while walking our dogs the night before.
We let Cindy know what we had phoned her sister on the way downtown and let her know that we would text or call with an update. Moved to tears, Cindy decided we should text so she could think about what to say. She recalled a moment last month when her urge to jump from a bridge was incredibly strong and yet she had surprised herself by deciding not to jump, telling herself she had letters to write. She knew she needed to write. At the time, she just didn’t know to whom. Now it became clear that she was ready to write to her sister.
We texted her family and asked for their address. Hoping they would reply during breakfast, Cindy eagerly ordered a chocolate shake and Belgium waffle with berries and whip cream. She explained she tries to be healthy but this was a day worthy of a big breakfast.
Shortly after breakfast arrived, the texts began to roll in. Her family asked if she would like to see pictures. Cindy accepted the offer. She smiled ear to ear ready to see the faces of her siblings.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw the resemblance – especially with one sister. Cindy asked about her father’s resting spot. Learning that he passed away while on vacation in the Yukon, Cindy remembered her father’s dream of seeing the Northern Lights. She smiled knowing his dream came true. She held my phone and cried looking at her brother’s photograph – her brother who died last year succumbing to his own alcohol addiction.
The photos of nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles continued to arrive. Families, looking well put together. Family. Family born to the same father but living a completely different life. Cindy, who struggles from concurrent disorder, became overwhelmed. Although she continued to eat her waffle, she was only present physically. I waited. I have seen this before and understand that Cindy can easily slip in and out of coherence, and in and out of depression. As we finished breakfast, joy returned and Cindy stated it was a good day to go for a drive. I let her know I had brought her a bag full of clothing and a new book. Perhaps we could go for a short drive before taking her home. We headed to the car.
As we drove through Stanley Park, I don’t think Cindy saw the scenery. Perhaps it was a defence mechanism blocking the images of freedom as cyclists, runners and tourists navigated the seawall. Perhaps it was mental illness. Regardless, Cindy needed to talk, needed to find meaning, and needed to understand her life on a spiritual level. We listened as Cindy talked, though we also knew she was in her own space, and speaking more to herself than to us. She spoke of God, and powerful moments that prove to her that a higher power exists. She spoke of her own stubborn streak and suicidal ideation and the knowledge that a power greater than her has kept her here. She spoke of suffering, and that through suffering we find appreciation, love, and compassion. She spoke of her dislike for most doctors – who have no basis to truly understand trauma – except for Dr. Gabor Mate. She can see that he understands suffering, and has suffered himself, and is therefore respectable as a doctor. She skimmed the back of her new book The Maze Runner and remarked – that’s just like my life. Trapped. Stuck in a maze. That’s me.
As we drove back to the Downtown Eastside, Cindy emerged from the place she had been – and verbally acknowledged the shift. Laughing out loud she shouted “WOW – that was crazy – I’m back to reality now!” She looked at me and said “We are both truth seekers. We feel things to understand.” I smiled and told her I always find her quotable. She spoke of old souls so I asked if she thought she had an old soul. She thought about it and smiled and responded, I am not sure, but I like to question the questions – so maybe I am.
Blood Alley was closed to traffic, so we pulled over on a side street and Miranda and I hugged Cindy goodbye. She lifted the big black garbage bag full of clothes and flung it over her shoulder. She clenched her new book with her sister’s contact info secured inside. Like a recording, she said out of habit “Could you spare any change – I’m hungry and could use some food.” Knowing her stomach was very full but that her next meal would not come as easily as mine, I gave her enough money for lunch, and another big hug. In sweet sorrow, I drove away as Cindy’s silhouette faded back into Blood Alley. Loved and yet, alone.