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Zena Ibrahim – 'Resilience Is Not An Achievement'

Everyone Deserves a Place to Call Home is an intimate collection of stories about people’s experiences of homelessness.

While studying dentistry, Zena Ibrahim experienced homelessness twice. Community and friends, and sometimes someone going above and beyond in their job, was the only thing that kept them from the knifes edge. After they graduated, they started to build financial security but, as dentists work for commission, this became impossible when the pandemic hit, and Zena’s life was thrown into uncertainty again. These experiences have had a long-term impact, and Zena is not here to share a happy ending, but their own kind of reckoning.

This project was funded by The Town of Victoria Park.

Please note there is a trigger warning for attempted suicide in this story.

Transcript

The statistics say with my intersections, I am much more likely to experience homelessness, domestic violence, mental health issues, addiction and sexual assault. I never allowed myself to think of myself in those ways, despite experiencing all of it.

I am telling a story of loss, uncertainty, unbecoming, being unanchored, yet resolute and resilient. Home is found within, and whilst that can change, I am the only constant in my life. I have experienced homelessness twice, and they never “looked” like homelessness, I never slept on the streets so to speak.

For me, having experienced homelessness, it never feels like it’s over – even after finding a “home”. There’s a deep knowledge I have now that you are much closer to being homeless than you are to being a billionaire. It is not a character flaw despite my brain’s constant attempt to convince me otherwise. The concept of safety net existing for you is a privilege, I’ve had to painstakingly weave my own.

I wanted stability, I had worked 8 long hard years to achieve that financial stability and job security, and it was ripped from underneath me. Just when I thought I had made it and it was all over. I had never had stability and reassurance growing up, not much of it anyway, that’s why I worked as hard as I did. My degree and academics were my meal ticket, my driving force. Just one more exam, another year another degree, I will never need anyone again. I will be fully independent. I was wrong, you will always need community, we are nothing without it and we can never control it all. Hard work does not equal ease in this life or society.

I had left my home in 2016 to move in with a partner at the time, who later became my fiancé. When the situation turned dire almost a year later, I found myself needing a place to sleep. It happened within the space of hours. I went from having a home, a partner and a family- to having nothing in the blink of an eye. I had just happened to speak to the lady in charge of UniHall at UWA, she found me a room I could stay in for two weeks rent-free due to someone else moving out unexpectedly. I restarted my life again and moved into a studio. Medical issues meant that moving back with my parents was needed shortly after. This was my first experience, narrowly avoided with housing instability. The fear had started then, a small little bud, a seed.

In 2019, I was mere months away from graduating, finally, after eight years as a dentist. My living situation was becoming more and more dicey and untenable. I did the best I could to cope, but it emotionally became unbearable. I left with the shirt on my back, my wallet and my phone. I stayed on my cousin’s bedroom floor for 2 weeks, I called shelters. I was rejected from Centrelink as I couldn’t prove I was independent unless I had a new address that wasn’t my parents. I didn’t qualify for Foyer Oxford, because I wasn’t on that independent rate, I fell through the cracks. I didn’t have much to my name. The fear had grown into a full flower, it had bloomed, taken over the garden and snaked its roots deep into me. I knew I had to do something, so I got a job as an assistant restaurant manager. I worked 40 hours a week whilst going to uni Monday to Friday 8-5 every-day. I tried my best not to tell anyone at university. I was embarrassed it had happened again. A few tutors were informed and the head of my year group, they showed me so much kindness. People brought me food to class, which is next level shame to feel but I wasn’t in the position not to accept it. My friend ended up letting me stay in her spare room, for very cheap to no rent until I finished and graduated. I don’t think I ever managed to properly thank her, I know I did, it just never felt enough. What she did for me was literally life-saving. I remember days I had no energy to go and look after myself, let alone be responsible for other people’s care. I felt exposed, like a raw nerve ending, sensitised and ready to jump at any minute. Ready to pack my bag and bolt.

I graduated, having to do 2 weeks of extra clinic time for all that I missed. My father came. He was in the audience, although I didn’t see him much. My mother never did, we weren’t on speaking terms. My sister and brother were not present. I looked around the shiny dresses, the freshly pressed suits, the beaming smiles, the families who had flown thousands of kilometres to see their children achieve such a momentous task. The warmth, the pride, the sound of phone cameras, the flowers and warm embraces. The pride radiated through the crowd. It was electric and I, I felt insulated. Like I was behind a glass pane. Alone, unseen, an imposter, much of what I felt in my life, distilled down into a singular moment. Like crystallised evidence at the bottom of a glass that had held too much for too long. I felt the depth of what I had lost in that moment. I felt the gaping pit in the place my stomach used to be. Family and home. The two can never be separated and remain intertwined.

After graduating, I spent 3-4 months saving and stabilising myself financially. I realised I could afford my own little apartment in the city. Which meant the world to me. Dentists only make money when they bill, or produce, or work. If we show up to work and no one walks in or books, we do not get anything. We are sole traders and usually work off commission, so you make a percentage of what you bill. The faster you work, the more you are willing to charge/bill out, the more you take home. The balance is fine between overcharging and charging what you are worth, and there is a huge ethical component to that. There is no paid leave, no sick leave, no superannuation paid. If you become incapacitated in any sense, that’s it. I had just signed my lease, late March for mid-April in 2020. The pandemic really took hold in those 2 weeks. I lost 60% of my work over night, I went from a 6 day week to 2.5 days at best, in a reduced capacity. All I had worked for and built was very abruptly pulled out from underneath me. The government assistance wasn’t yet very clear, and I spiralled. I ended up trying to end my life and was admitted to a public psychiatric facility South of the river. I remember on my second or third day at the hospital, the lead psychiatrist had an interview with me. I remember how glacial the room felt, my father sat in the room next to me- just in my peripheral vision. It feels like someone dripped the memory in honey, it feels slow and hazy and I cannot remember many details. Except one, one was crystal clear, it cut through me like a hot knife through butter. The psychiatrist asked me how I had tried to do it. I told him how I obtained such a large quantity of medication, how I had mixed it with alcohol. How disappointed I was when I woke up okay, how the nurse had been confused how I had survived my overdose when I shouldn’t have. He told me “If I ever see you in here again, or you attempt again, I will report you to AHPRA and the board as being unfit for practice”. I realised then how alone I was, how I could never speak about this again. How vulnerable I was in that moment, that it all could be taken from me before it had even begun.

I remember only being discharged into the care of my dad, with a prescription for the very medication I had tried to overdose on. I never dispensed it, it still sits in my bathroom cabinet, an eerie reminder of how close I got. I don’t think I can ever be rid of it. I remember my Dad had to pick up my apartment keys, as I still hadn’t been discharged. I went straight from hospital to my new home. The keys in my lap on the ride there, I kept clutching them. The weight of them in my hands, the feel of the cold metal. It was real, I had a home, mine. My name on the lease for a year, it was the closest thing to security I had felt in months. I posted a photo of the keys, and people had assumed I had bought the place from the way I was carrying on! It was a furnished place, on the 4th level, among the trees. It had a view of the city. It made me feel elevated but protected, like I couldn’t be touched anymore. The floorboards were that perfect tone of dark wood, and a sprawling large bed and triple wardrobe. It was on one of the most scenic streets in West Perth, a far cry from my reality in a small spare room with holes in the floorboards, and decades of rundown. I was scared to fill the apartment at first. To unpack the boxes, to settle. Even now, I have moved again, this time into a little house in South Perth. I have been there for a year – 2021- and I only just unpacked my books in March 2022. I always felt I couldn’t take up space, to ground, to root myself and say this is mine, and you will not take it from me.

I’d always felt like an imposter, weak, fragile, unworthy and undeserving. It wasn’t like my life experiences or anyone around me showed me anything different. I always felt unsure of who I was, and deeply anxious. Being a perfectionist, being thrown into homelessness caused me to need to escape in a multitude of ways. It fed into using and abusing prescription meds, as well as excessive alcohol usage and impulsive behaviours in my intimate relationships, both during and after my homelessness experiences. I even feel like an imposter saying I have experienced unstable living and homelessness. People are always surprised when I say I have these experiences and either do not believe me or praise me for where I am. The truth is much uglier than that, so many people you know, love, work with, and have in your lives have experienced homelessness and living instability. It doesn’t just look like sleeping rough. I struggle with the symptoms from the trauma every day. Feeling unable to spend money or splurge on myself, obsessing over having a safety net financially and hating working on commission even though I out-earn what I likely would on a fixed salary just because of the instability.

I panic whenever there is any tension in my house or between my housemates, it quickly escalates to me thinking I will be on the street in a matter of hours. Because it has in the past. Living with partners will always be a big struggle for me and not something I cope well with, because how will I get out, if it goes bad?

I can never fully unwind myself or relax, because the fear of ending up back there could be anything from a bad relationship to a very quiet month at work, or lockdowns and restrictions shutting down my sector or limiting my hours I can work. It caused me to work 6 days a week when I first graduated just from fear. Being stuck in a scarcity mindset, the paranoia, the fatigue, the burnout you can feel in your bones.

It’s being stuck in hyper-vigilance and feeling like, at the same time, I am disassociating through life. Like I am on autopilot, but still in survival mode. It feels like I am, at any point, only cycling through trauma response. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn on repeat.

I’ve grown resentful of everyone who had people they could lean on. Safe homes to return to if their job or relationship went south. People to call home, places that would feel secure. All I have ever wanted was security, and COVID took the last little bit I had. I realised that all my efforts could be thwarted in the blink of an eye. It has not made me a better person, it left me bitter and jaded.

People tell me how much they admire me, how the trauma made me strong and resilient. And it didn’t. It stole light from my eyes, energy I needed and could have been spending on other things. It made me weak, exhausted, distrustful, anxious and unwell. It broke me. Because who are you without a place to call home? When your belongings are scattered across 4 different locations and you forget what you even own because you have had to leave it all at once and run in the middle of the night. Where do you run to when you have nowhere to go but you cannot go back there- what was once home?

Homelessness affects you at your core, every single part of you, no part of your identity remains untouched. Shelter is not a privilege, it is a right, a need. Without it, how can you begin to hope or dream a life for yourself? My story might have different details, but it is by no means unique. Scores of our youth face the same risks, and will carry the trauma for many years, affecting every relationship, job, interaction they have for decades to come. I would not have made it by myself, community and friends were the only things I had. At times the only thing between me and the cliff edge of utter loss and rock bottom – was someone going above and beyond in their job.

I don’t have a happy ending for you. I don’t have a “it gets better” or that I overcame some huge battle. All I know is that tonight I have a roof over my head, but that could change if I am not careful. It is something I have to guard vigilantly, and whilst this may seem like an over-reaction, it is my most innate instinct. No amount of money saved, investments accrued, working hours accumulated will dispense with it. I know this is something I have to live with. I try to be grateful for where I am, soaking up the sweet moments in the comfort of my vintage couch on a sun drenched patio with a cup of tea. The feeling of my cats at my feet purring away. The feeling of giggles in the kitchen with my housemates, shared meals and tender conversations after long days. I try to remember that I am safe. Safe in bones, safe in my body, safe in my home. It’s all I can do to soothe myself, and continue trying to enjoy the present, using the past as a warning but not an anchor that keeps me submerged in fear.

Copyright © 2022 Zena Ibrahim

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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