Friday, May 10, 2013

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Exams are over, and I have 3 weeks of freedom before I start my summer classes. I'm hoping I can finish this up in that time frame. Because, believe it or not, even though I still have a ways to go in recounting this particular time in my life, just the small portion that I have already shared has given me a sense of relief. Already, I feel lighter.

Taking the past week off to focus on school has also given me a chance to consider how I want to proceed, because I will soon be arriving at a point in my story when it becomes inextricably tangled with another story that, for starters, is not entirely mine to tell. Additionally, it's a situation that is still unresolved and is acutely raw and painful for almost everyone involved, myself very much included. I have been debating on how much to share, because parts of it are completely relevant to the story I am telling, but would require a great deal of explanation to make sense, and again, those explanations involve others in ways that I don't think it would be fair to make public without their consent and/or side of the story.

On the other hand, this related story involves some of my own, shall we say, less than admirable attitudes and behavior at times, so leaving it out entirely feels a little bit like a cop-out.

Ultimately, I decided that I will include the bits and pieces that are most relevant to my experiences over the past couple of years, but without any major explanation or background. I will omit some parts entirely. So if at any point it seems like I am being deliberately vague or mysterious, it's because, well, I am, but I am doing it for good reason.

And as far as my own bad behavior, I'll just address that right here and now. I'm human. I screw up. I let what Anne Lamott refers to as "my tiny princess self" take over sometimes. I can be irrational and stubborn and vindictive. Sometimes even willfully so. In fact, even now the vindictive side of me really wants to tell this side story in a google-searchable public forum in its entirety to unleash some of my rage at the person responsible, because she wouldn't think twice about doing that to me. (And I know that for certain, because she did do it to me.) My decision not to do so is not so much motivated by any desire to be the bigger person as it is by my desire to protect the other people involved. But I digress. My point is, I'm not perfect, I behave badly at times, and I offer no excuses. However, I will say in my own defense that the past two years have beyond any question been the most painful time in my life, and soul-crushing despair combined with the previously mentioned long-term steroid treatment would probably not bring out the best in anyone. I take responsibility for my own bad choices, but I do think there were mitigating circumstances that should, in all fairness, be taken into consideration. And I'm going to leave it at that.


With prednisone, my symptoms cleared up almost completely. I still struggled at times with the plantar fasciitis pain, which was probably the worst symptom to have linger. When your feet hurt, your whole body suffers. However, in the podiatrist ended up giving me cortisone shots in my feet, and from that point forward, other than the prednisone side effects, I started feeling okay.

I want back to my reproductive endocrinologist in September. I told him about what had been going on with me medically, and he agreed that it would be best to put my baby plan on hold until I had a chance to recover and get more money saved up. He gave me a standing order for a test I would need completed to make sure my fallopian tubes were clear, and told me to schedule the test when I was ready. After all, I still had a little over two whole years left before my biological clock hit its use-by date.

That was, actually, the last appointment I have had with him to date.

Over the months that followed, I clung to the reactive arthritis diagnosis like a lifesaver. It would clear up, it would go away for good, and things would get back on track for me. When I first started trying to taper off the dose at the end of September and the rash came back around my eyes, I panicked a little, but I convinced myself that this was just a stubborn case of reactive arthritis. I spent more time on WebMD and read about cases where reactive arthritis took up to a year to completely resolve itself. Hopefully mine wouldn't last quite that long, but it wasn't unheard of that I was still having symptoms almost three months in. It would still clear up. I was not remotely willing to consider even the possibility that the diagnosis might be wrong. If it wasn't reactive arthritis, it was likely an incurable autoimmune disease that would require life-long immunosuppressant therapy. That was not a contingency I would entertain even for a second.

It's at this point in my story that, if I were reading these events in a book, or watching them in a movie, I would lose my ability to suspend disbelief. "Come on!" I would say. "They're just pushing it too far now. Nobody has it that bad." Logic dictates that there has to be a balance somewhere, right?

But when I say that this period in my life was relentlessly horrible, I am not even being remotely hyperbolic.

When my house was broken into that July, there had been a new tenant at the rental house next door for a couple of weeks. Many weeks later, I came to find out that the woman I saw in the house was not actually a paying tenant, but rather, she was a squatter. I couldn't really pin down her age, but she appeared to have a good 20 years on me at least. The first time I saw her, I smiled and said hello, and she glared at me hatefully without responding. Understandably, I think, I did not make any effort to talk to her after that. (One of my other neighbors told me later that this woman had said something about me being an adult protective services worker and she was sure I was reporting on her because she didn't have water or electricity. In fact, I'd had no idea that she didn't have water or electricity, and I've never worked for APS. However, I did work for child protective services several years previously, which was housed in the same office building, so it's entirely possible that she recognized me from having been in the office at some point. And this is only relevant because I think it may have factored into why I became a target for her.) She was in the habit of sitting in front of the open door in a state of undress that was not appropriate for a woman her size, but I tried not to judge - it was a hot summer, and that house does not have air conditioning. After the break-in, though, suddenly the door was closed and there was no activity from that house for a couple weeks. That is, until one afternoon when I saw a girl of about twelve climb through a window in the house and open the door from the inside. A man and two younger women who were standing on the sidewalk outside the house proceeded to go inside and carry furniture out. I called the police at the time, but the people were gone by the time they arrived. However, it left little doubt in my mind about who was responsible for breaking into my house. It even made sense that a child would have been the one to climb through my bathroom window to unlock the door from the inside, because that window really would be a tight squeeze for an average-sized adult.

After the squatters were gone, actual paying tenants moved in. They really weren't much of an improvement. They were loud and obnoxious, frequently fighting in the street late at night. They had a steady stream of visitors who I strongly suspected were actually customers - I was certain that someone living in that house was a dealer. I called the police with noise complaints after midnight on numerous occasions, and was usually informed by the dispatcher that a unit was already en route because I wasn't the first caller. I did not trust these people at all, but there really was not much I could do but watch and report any suspicious activity.

Still, I felt relatively safe. Other than that one house (which I am still hoping will be condemned soon by the city as a slum), my street was mostly pretty safe. It is a very low- to middle-income working-class population, but besides the house next door and one across the street, all of my other neighbors own their homes and had lived there for several years before me, and until my house was broken into that July, I had lived there for two years without incident. And even with that break-in, I had to take some responsibility for not making sure the window was locked. Lesson learned. From that point forward, my house was sealed up like a fortress.

So I was completely stunned to arrive home from work one rainy Wednesday in November to discover that my front door, which I clearly remembered deadbolting, was not closed all the way. And I walked inside my house to find this:

All that was missing was my TV. The one that I had replaced after the first break-in. It was worth $300. But the cost of the property damage added up to about $1500.

It was enough to make me kind of wish that I had just left the door unlocked.

It was also when I started considering the possibility that flat-panel TVs are overrated and far too lightweight to be practical. I did not replace the second TV and instead did a web search to find a new converter box for the old behemoth analog TV that required two people to lift and that I had bought used from a friend who was moving a few years back for $75. I'm pretty sure that pawn shop owners would laugh in the face of anyone trying to pawn it. But it works, and it's pretty burglar-proof, and at this point, that's all that really matters to me. In fact, by now, there is really nothing in my house of great enough value that it would be worth stealing. I mean, I have fairly nice furniture and a digital piano, but I'm pretty sure that a piano or a dining room table would be a little too conspicuous to steal and difficult to sell to be worthwhile to the average drug-fix-seeking home invader.

I have absolutely no way to prove anything, but I am quite certain that the second break-in had something to do with the house next door as well. It may not have been anyone who actually lived there, but if a dealer was operating out of that house, it could very well have been one of their customers.

After the police left, my dad rigged up a way for me to lock the front door again. It isn't pretty, but it has served its function. And by a particularly cruel twist of fate, the second break-in happened right after the new policy term on my homeowner's insurance started, which meant that the deductible again applied to my second claim in less than five months. Because of that and my backlog of medical bills and other drains on my finances, I still haven't been able to afford to get the door frame and wall fixed properly, even with my insurance settlement.

Like I said. If this shit hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't have believed it could happen.

Also, aside from the cost of the property damage, this incident made me feel a bit less secure in my neighborhood.

I mean, it's one thing to have someone surreptitiously crawl through an open window in the back of your house where they couldn't be seen from the street.

Whoever was responsible for this, though, had the audacity to bash in my front door in broad (albeit overcast) daylight. That takes some balls. Or, perhaps, they were just that incredibly desperate for a fix.

Still, I reasoned, anybody who had observed my street for a week or two would know my car and could be reasonably certain when I wasn't home. I believed at the time, and still believe now, that in both cases, the people who violated my home were not motivated to perpetrate any kind of violence against me, and struck at times when they could be quite certain that I would not be home for a while, giving them enough time to get in and get out. They were looking for a quick buck, and that was all.

When my mom suggested that I consider getting a gun after the second break-in, I shot that idea down (no pun intended) almost immediately.

"But what if you had come home while they were still there and surprised them?" she asked.

"If I had a gun," I replied, "I would be one of those responsible gun owners who keeps the gun in a locked case in the closet and the ammunition stored and locked up separately, so it wouldn't do me any good if I walked in on burglars. Even if I got a concealed carry permit, I wouldn't carry a gun at work, because I work with babies. So the gun would still be locked up at home. There's no point."

I also had several friends suggest to me that I needed to move, but this was not a possibility for me, either. For starters, I was a social worker. Being able to buy a house on my income was a stretch for me, and I had used a first-time home buyer down payment assistance grant that I would have to pay back if I moved within 15 years. I would also have to pay back my first-time home buyer tax credit. I could afford to pay back neither, nor did I have the money to make a down payment on a new house.

On top of that, I felt like moving would be like admitting defeat. Unfortunate neighbors aside, I love my house. It has character. It has history. It probably has ghosts. Besides all that, there was no question in my mind that it was my house. I'd felt it the first time I set foot in my house - it was meant to be mine. I wasn't going to let a couple of assholes push me out of it. I would not let the terrorists win.

I'm happy to report that I am still living in my house, and, knock on wood, my street seems to have settled down some. (I'm pretty sure that my current next-door neighbors are cooking meth, but at least they're usually quiet.)

However, one implication of having two break-ins in such a short period of time is that, in the future, if I ever decide to go back to my foster-to-adopt plan, the safety of my house and my neighborhood might be a red flag concern. Not for me, mind you - I'm pretty confident that I would be able to keep a child safe in my house - but for the social worker who would evaluate my home environment. In any case, if I do go back to that plan, it won't be anytime soon, but it's still something that I'll have to consider.

I wasn't as concerned about my neighborhood with regards to the possibility of having a baby, though, because if I got pregnant, nobody would be coming into my home to judge me beforehand, and I was pretty sure that I could keep my child safe.

My dad, however, had other thoughts.

I want to say here that I get that he was coming from a place of love and concern, but that meant little to me at the time. And his delivery and timing in stating his concerns left something to be desired.

When he was at my after house rigging up my door frame the night of the second break-in, packing up his tools and getting ready to leave, I said something about taking the prenatal vitamins that my RE had prescribed with a bottle of beer. I thought that I deserved an adult beverage after the events of the day, and after all, I was taking the prenatal vitamins to help prepare my body for several months down the road. I wasn't pregnant yet.

He stopped in what he was doing and looked at me. "Are you sure it's a good idea for you to have a baby?" he asked.

Up until that moment, I had actually been coping pretty well with the events of the day. I was working hard to maintain perspective - at least I hadn't been hurt, my pets were okay, they hadn't broken in while I was home, etc. - and for the most part, I was managing to stay pretty positive. However, this was my breaking point. At that point in time, I was down from 15 mg of prednisone a day to 5 mg, but that was still enough to keep the mood swings going strong. I felt my anger starting to rise. "What?" I responded flatly.

"Well, with everything that's been going on, and your neighborhood just doesn't seem like the safest place. Do you really think it would be responsible to bring a baby into this?"

The anger boiled over. "You and Mom lived in a fucking trailer when I was born, and you were both ten years younger than I am now," I exploded. "Was it responsible for you to bring a baby into that?" I brought up the name of someone we both knew who was, at the time, pregnant with her second child - a person who was, at the best of times, short-tempered and socially inappropriate and who I wouldn't trust to take care of my dog for a couple hours. "It's okay for her to have babies - plural - but because I've faced some difficulties in the last few months, you would judge me for wanting to have a baby?" I went on that way for a while, bringing up clients from my time in child protective services, making the point that I would be a better parent on my own than all of them with their best qualities combined - and I still don't think I was entirely wrong.

My dad tried to reason with me, but I was done. "Just leave," I told him. I was in tears by that point. And the tears continued for the whole next day.

And, off and on, for months after that.

No comments:

Post a Comment