Everything will be returned to you

This article contains explicit discussion of sexual assault, police brutality, self-harm and child abuse.

The experience is that of being cut with a knife. Past and present are severed; the future is eliminated; hope is lost. I inhale sharply, as though wounded, and a deep unseen terror grips my chest, like a memory, like a thing which will not release its hold on me.

I am reading Twitter’s email list of recommended tweets. The tweet in question informs me that another human being has died in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I feel as though a memory has crawled inside my chest and taken my heart hostage. There are tremors of pain, feelings of inadequacy, a longing for a justice that I know will not be coming.

The memory comes back in flashes. The gunshot wound: purple ripples of skin and flesh around a bandage. The bunk beds, the mattresses, the blue of the room. His face. His hands. His teeth, sharp, his smile, merciless. Him getting what he wants. My body, an object, a nothing. A feeling of fear so visceral it transcends emotion and becomes mere reality: the wobble of the bunk bed, the cars in the street, someone screaming outside.

(Like me.)

I erect walls in my mind, attempting to stop the onslaught of sensory input returning to my consciousness.  The smell of alcohol and vomit on my clothes. The greasiness of my unwashed hair. The knowledge that I am not a human being. Rather, I am homeless.

I breathe deeply. I attempt to steady myself. My name is Bradley Astra Aldridge, I mentally repeat. My breathing quickens. I attempt to slow it. The year is 2022. I look around the room, at the obvious indicators of studenthood, my notebooks and my textbooks. I am in my room on UBC’s Point Grey Campus. I attempt to re-enter my body, even as the fear grips me. And I am safe.

It is 2020. Soon the world will start ending for everyone else. Right now, it is only ending for me. I lie down on the mattress at the homeless shelter where I live, and as I close my eyes, a terror grips me. A blue terror. An unnamed terror. A terror deep and hungry. Something’s not right, it says. I’m not safe here, it says. I felt the same refrain echoing in my blood as a sexually abused child.

In 2020, I am still performing in the same play I did as a child. All that has changed are the actors filling in the roles. The roles are: The Good Child, who obeys; The Bad Child, who remembers; The Abuser, who terrorizes; and The Complicit, who enable and turn their eyes away.

My father has been replaced in his role as terrorizer by a tall man with carefully-held hands and a blank expression. He works at the shelter. The role of The Complicit has been assigned to a bubbly and friendly social worker, who expresses a great deal of faith in me until the moment in which I make the accusations against her co-worker public.

Being the object of abuse, the desperate to please, the high-grade achieving, terror-fearing subject, the one who alternates between appeasement and rebellion to ward off abuse, remains assigned to me.

It is 2020. I am disintegrating. I feel the true terror that makes itself known as something distinct from mere ordinary fear. I feel terror when a certain shelter worker jangles his keys to my room, and the reality of my situation is made clear. I feel it when I read news stories about sexual assault, and the small, meaningless details remind me of what it is I am suppressing. I feel it most of all when I lay down to sleep and every cell in my body screams, Run. Leave. Fight back. Do anything other than this.

I am learning that men other than my father are capable of being so cruel.

My hands are covered in a mixture of blood and scabs, a consequence of my untreated eczema. No one seems to care. A fellow shelter resident who has occasionally shared rooms with me has the bleak hobby of lifting up his t-shirt to reveal a gunshot wound he received at the hands of the police.

‘Did I tell ya I got shot?’ he asks, routinely, almost cheerfully. There are purple shockwaves around the bandage. It makes me sad in a way for which I have no words.

In 2022, fear of a different kind grips me. It is not the blue terror of frozen, wordless stares. It is not the inextinguishable knowledge that something is wrong, something is wrong, I can’t stay here, I have to leave. It is the reasoned fear of safety, the anxiety that something will go wrong because nothing currently is: it is the fear of one with something to lose.

Sure, my future at UBC seems to beckon to me, as though I have earned it, as though I am really here, as though this isn’t a mistake, but what about the feeling? The thing that shivers and twists inside of me, crawling up my spine, whispering, They don’t really know you. If they did, they’d disown you. No one could ever love you. You’ll never survive. You’ll have another breakdown and end up in the hospital, certified, delusional. Alone. Unloved.

I tell myself the fear is irrational. I buy notebooks with flamingos on the cover. I make plans to have breakfast with my friends on Labour Day, some celebratory christening of the school year, some belief, however weak, in my potential.

In the hospital waiting room, I am 17. In the hospital waiting room, I am 19. In the hospital waiting room, I am 23. In the hospital waiting room, I am 26. Time does not exist here. All that exists are the off-white walls, the beige patient clothes, shapeless, formless and unflattering. 

I am 17 and being certified for suicidal ideation. I am 19 and being certified for actually trying to kill myself. I am 23 and being certified for being “delusional regarding a recent sexual assault.” I am 26 and I am not certified at all. This time they tell me I am healthy.

I am traumatized and I am anxious, but this is a response to my experiences of adversity, not a psychosis.

When I was a Crazy Homeless Guy with bloody hands (‘I’m not touching that, it’s disgusting,’ said the hospital employee who refused to put a band with my name on my wrist) and an unreliable story (‘delusional regarding a recent sexual assault,’ read the Mental Health Act certificate) and people who say he’s crazy (‘We’re concerned about your mental health,’ said the Important Management Man at the shelter to whom I told my story before he called me an ambulance and said he’d call the police if I didn’t go willingly), he is not believed to the same extent as a clean human being, a middle-class human being, a Real Human Being. 

I am 26, and I am watching patients bicker and bait each other, first-timers who’ve never been certified expressing indignation and confusion at the concept that the police can pick you up and drop you off somewhere other than jail, leaving you with nothing to do other than wait, drink small cups of orange juice and hear the muffled anger of patients in the so-called quiet rooms screaming.

I am 26, and a fellow patient doesn’t want to give his phone to the nurses. 

It’s just temporary, says the nurse.

No, he says insistently.

We’ll give it back, she says cheerfully. Everything will be returned to you.

The man I do not know is defiant. He says something about a lawyer. He seems angered, willing to fight, capable of asserting himself. I know how this story ends. A few minutes later, security arrives. The nurse, now backed by ominous figures in uniform, tells the man that he will have to hand over his phone. He looks small.

He looks defeated.

I read the news stories: Crazy Homeless Guy randomly attacked people for no reason, more at 11! I read the editorials: These mentally-ill homeless people just can’t integrate into society because they’re so iIll, we’ve gotta re-open Riverview! I scroll through the tweets: these progressive idealists, who say homeless people are regular people just like anyone else, have clearly never met the crazy homeless people I see!

And so, when people tell me they believe me, that what happened to me was horrible, that I am resilient and strong and inspiring and brave, I am struck with the realization that if the people who see me now had seen me when I was just another homeless guy covered in vomit and alcohol, my hands bleeding and my hair greasy and unwashed, they would’ve flinched. They would have seen the circumstances and not the human being. 

My humanity is dependent on an act that I don’t know that I can sustain, the performance I have been giving since childhood, the I-am-just-like-you act, The Good Kid, the mandatory aura of respectability.

In 2020, I pick up my clothes from the shelter where I am no longer allowed to stay. The process is as humiliating as possible. I am not allowed inside the building, so I stand outside on the post-apocalyptic streets. 

I knock on the door several times to give back possessions that are not mine, that were given to me by mistake. The staff are hostile and disinterested. I am fooling no one. I wheel my suitcase up the street, toward the hotel room I have booked. My bleeding hands are sore. My betrayed soul is sore. Keep going, I tell myself.

For what? asks a part of me.

I don’t answer.

In 2022, I can’t stop thinking about that nurse’s words to the man who was reluctant to part with his phone. Everything will be returned to you

As though trials are temporary. As though, for a moment, we are parted from our desires. For a moment, we find ourselves bleeding and defenceless. For a moment, we wake up in homeless shelter bathrooms, the injuries we have no memory of incurring cascading across our inner thighs. For a moment, we think that God is dead, and humans are wretched creatures, and there is no hope for restitution and recovery.

Then, we wake up one day, and we are human beings. We are loved, and we are safe, and we are believed by those whom we trust, and who trust us. And we can’t quite believe it, that fortunes should change so dramatically.

I think regularly about the people I have left behind, the people who are still homeless. 

I think about the smug venom with which individuals speak on the poverty and desperation they have never experienced, declaring that people living in tents must be forced to accept alternate housing. The assumption, of course, is that there is shelter. And the assumption that the places that call themselves shelters are safe, that they could never be open hunting grounds for sadistic predators with an ease of access provided by their colleagues’ indifference.

I think about Chris Amyotte, who is no longer living because he was seen as a threat while he begged for help. I think about the fellow shelter resident I used to know, who would show me his gunshot wound.

I don’t know what it is that I have lost, but I know that it will not be returned to me. I know that tonight when I go to sleep, the blue light of night will come, and I will feel afraid. Justifiably, given the context of my life. But when this blue terror threatens to tell me that there is no hope, I will repeat to myself:

My name is Bradley Astra Aldridge. (The terror shivers. It fades.) The year is 2022. (I remember, I remember, I can’t forget.) I am in my room on UBC’s Point Grey Campus. (The fear is still there. My room is still blue. But I have something else.) And I am safe.

(I have hope.)