One morning last fall, I left the house to go do an interview for a freelance reporting job. I work from home, so it’s unusual for me to be dressed in street clothes and leaving at 8:00 AM. My neighbors, Steve and Paul, who were building a shed in my yard, were surprised to see me dressed like an adult and moving purposefully that early in the morning. I explained that I was on my way to interview a prominent local veterinarian. Steve grinned knowingly and said, “You’re stabilizing.”
Steve is involved with orgs that help people transition from homelessness and poverty. I didn’t think a lot of his remark until last week, when I went to pick my glasses up after having them repaired. The office manager and frame fitter, Linde, had a tragedy in her life a few years ago when her husband fell from the deck of their summer cabin and fractured his spine. Unlike me, he did sever his spinal cord and he’s a paraplegic. He also had a traumatic brain injury, and it was rough going for the first year. The trajectory of their life as a couple changed dramatically.
I barely dared to ask Linde how Bob was doing, but she burst into smiles when I mentioned him, and said, “He’s so much better, he has a motorized wheelchair now and he’s taking the bus on his own.” She said they were settling into a manageable routine. “You’re stabilizing,” I said with a grin.
After I got past being startled by catching myself quoting Steve, I thought about what that means. “You’re stabilizing.” What is stability, and why is it important?
My mind immediately went to the Housing First movement, which asserts that homeless people must have housing before they can be expected to get clean and sober, find work—all the things they’re currently expected to do while on the street, in order to get housing. A reliable source of income is vital to stability. So is a home, and not just a temporary place to lay your head, but a place of refuge to build your nest and be part of a community—whether that’s family, a neighborhood, a group you’re part of, even the staff and fellow residents of an institution. A routine to follow—not rigidly, but you need a basic framework for your days to default to when you don’t have definite plans.
That’s what stability is; why does it matter? For people with invisible disabilities, we need routines in order to thrive. We need a regular bedtime, good sleep, a predictable diet, physical activity when we’re able, and things to feel part of, like volunteering at the local animal shelter for me. When we have a stable home with a predictable income and routines to follow, we can use our energy more efficiently—we can manage our “spoons.” We’re better able to adapt to change and absorb the normal ups and downs of life. There’s less drama and more spontaneity. A short-notice invitation from a friend becomes a happy surprise rather than a stressor.
Unstable people are rarely at their best. I remember while I was reinventing my life after my crash. As not-ideal as the rehab center environment was, it was stable and I could concentrate on my physical recovery. When I went home, there were a few weeks of turmoil as I adapted to being dependent and having other people running my household. Wresting control back from my family resulted in some bruised feelings, but that was essential to finding my new normal.
Each milestone in my recovery brought some degree of instability that had to be dealt with. The worst was with my income. I had been in the middle of a large project when I was hit, and I held most of the institutional knowledge in my mind. My project team would do anything to accommodate my needs. They moved meetings to mid-afternoon so I could take the train in. They extended deadlines when I had bad days. They changed work methods and schedules for my benefit, even hiring extra people to take over for me when I couldn’t work full days.
After my big project ended and the Seattle Great Wheel opened, I had no work. My project team had been willing to bend over backwards for me when I held all the cards. Suddenly I was on a level playing field and there were lots of able consultants ready to step in and do my work without needing any special accommodations.
When my income faltered, my housing became precarious. I could no longer manage the double mortgage I’d had to sign on to when I bought my condo on a zero down program, and I couldn’t refinance it into a single loan. Bankruptcy (which I filed for staggering medical bills) didn’t affect the mortgages; you must either continue paying or sell the property. Aid programs won’t help you keep your home, they’ll only put you in subsidized housing once you’ve lost everything.
My move to my tiny house was a “hail Mary;” I bailed on everything familiar in order to keep from going down the expected path to ruin. Once I was in a home I liked, with the quiet surroundings I needed, able to live in a way that’s consistent with my values, everything seemed to fall into place. My blog posts got more responses and I got another freelance job by referral from the manager of a hotel I profiled in a post. My consulting work picked up again. My new neighborhood is a strong community where I get to use my leadership skills. Those fell aside when my work environment changed from a busy office with project teams to working at home alone. I’ve settled into new routines and I’m thriving. Now I’m in a position to make plans for the future, to build my career, to maintain my body at its best. Stabilizing is not the destination; it’s the trailhead.
Many people in this audience face challenges with income and housing that make it hard to be part of a community and establish healthy routines. If you’d like to talk about your barriers to stabilizing, please comment. We’re stronger when we talk among ourselves.