Almost overnight, after Glenn T. Schaefer was laid off from a good-paying job selling radio advertising, his life came crashing down around him. He lost the new home for which he could no longer afford the mortgage payments, as well as his new car. His wife left him. He became homeless. The friends who had been there during the good times now kept their distance. He found himself despondent, with suicidal feelings, and admitted himself to a psychiatric unit for the first, but not the last time.
This episode began a long, halting, but ultimately successful comeback journey from homelessness and depression that Schaefer chronicles in his book,Oh! You’re One of Those People ...: A Whimsical Two-Year Journey of Depression, Desperation, and Detainment. “Many people don’t realize how easy it is to become homeless,” he said. “A lost job, a broken relationship—it can just cascade. And suddenly the losses pile up, and you find yourself on someone’s couch, in a shelter, or on the street.”
Why would one describe such a difficult experience as “whimsical?” Schaefer says he wasn’t being ironic in his choice of words; he kept looking for the bright spots during the hard times. But another reason, he says, in retrospect, is that perhaps he took a self-deprecating, darkly humorous tone as a way to cover the pain he experienced during the two years he spent homeless.
After he lost his job, home, and family, Schaefer returned to his hometown to stay with his mother. This arrangement didn’t work out, and he found himself down and out among the people he had grown up with in his hometown. In some ways, he says, it might have been easier being homeless in the anonymity of a big city. It was hard to have people he had known as a youngster look down on him or pity him.
The book’s title comes from a painful episode. During the time he was homeless, Schaefer often slept in temporary shelters in his hometown, sleeping in a different host church every night. One Sunday, he attended the morning service at the Methodist church, sitting in a back pew, trying not to stand out in the crowd. During the service, the pastor asked congregants to turn and greet their neighbors. The woman in front of him turned to shake his hand, smiling, and then a guarded look came over her face. “I recognize you, don’t I?” she asked. “You’re one of those people who stay in the basement.”
Recognizing that it might be easier to start over in a place where no one knew him, Schaefer made his way to North Carolina, where he eventually found a part-time job and a temporary place to stay. But after a while, he “ran out of bridges to burn,” and felt like he needed to make a fresh start. In desperation, he called an old friend and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.” His friend sent him a train ticket to Memphis and took him in. “I was tired of carrying everything I owned in a gym bag and sleeping on park benches,” he said. “I was ready to work to get my life back.”
Schaefer had done some writing during his media career, and he started making notes about his experiences with homelessness and depression. At first, he had no plans to write a book: “It was just ‘bar napkin therapy’ for me at the beginning,” Schaefer said. It helped him sort things out, he says, and he kept writing in fits and starts. But eventually it was the compassion shown by strangers that motivated him to keep writing.
Schaefer points out that while some people he encountered reacted like the disapproving woman in the church, other people—total strangers—were incredibly kind. The day before Christmas Eve, he was standing in line at Kmart to pick up his blood pressure medication and found that he did not have enough money to pay for it. He walked away, but the pharmacist called him back; someone behind him in line had covered the cost of his prescription. Another night, he was wandering aimlessly in a snowstorm and was rescued by a registered nurse just coming off her shift. Her compassion helped him resolve to write down the stories of what he has learned from this difficult part of his life.
The message he wants to send through his book is simple, Schaefer says. “I want people who are homeless to understand that it is not hopeless. Most people need someone to tell them that they won’t give up on them, that they are a decent person, and that they can turn their life around. It helped me when people treated me that way, and it can help others.”
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post to highlight the theme of Employment. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.
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