Bellingham, WA

How I Ended Up Homeless in High School As a 4.0 Student in Bellingham, WA

Ryan Shannon

My Story of Trauma, Survival, and Redemption. Disclosure: I've included affiliate links in this story to the books I've mentioned, including my own. I earn a small commission if you make a purchase.

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Picture of me near Mt. Baker, WashingtonSee my website

In case you’re unfamiliar with the anatomy of a spoon, it contains three parts: The bowl, the stem, and the drop. The bowl, used for scooping liquids and rice for the chopstick illiterate, connects to the stem via the drop.

One afternoon, just after my 16th birthday, I went to pick out a spoon from the silverware drawer and noticed the drop (the curved part just under the bowl) was bent. Unlike most kids, I knew the spoon’s deformity was not from aggressive scooping or having been jammed into frozen-solid ice cream.

I knew it could only mean one thing: My brother was in the bathroom again cooking black tar heroin.

But it wasn’t just any bedroom in my grandparent’s middle-class house. It was the bathroom I used. My bathroom. If I couldn’t even breathe non-tainted air in my bathroom, where could I go to catch my breath? Where could I escape my chain-smoking, soon-to-be-diagnosed schizophrenic brother?

I just wanted to hit the pause button on life and find a place I could be me.

That place couldn’t be found in the house I lived in, so I left.

What Was Life at The PAD Like?

I remember hauling my laundry in brown paper bags on the city bus. One of the moistened handles started to rip, and my dirty laundry began to peek through the bag’s growing tear.

After crashing with friends, each day feeling more and more burdensome, and growing tired of regularly Google Mapping new routes to school, I knew bouncing around wasn’t going to work long-term. So I brought myself to search for “teen homeless shelter Bellingham” and found The PAD.

There were lots of new staff faces to learn and only one other teen who was almost always gone. Getting to school was convenient since the 331 to Squalicum passed nearby, and there was even a desk with a warm lamp in the room where I could maintain my studies.

The strangest thing was the counting of my each and every fish oil pill, as required by staff, and having to lock it away. And the hourly room checks. But rules are rules and I didn’t make them.

After settling into a routine, things changed (as they often do). The PAD moved across town to State Street. So I packed my clothes and textbooks into my backpack and sacks (thankfully not paper) and we left (thankfully not on the city bus).

The “new” PAD was full of light, and best of all, it was right downtown. I picked a street-facing room with bay windows and thought of how much money this would cost if it were for rent and how lucky I was that I was getting it free.

Ironically, I, a teen in a homeless shelter, felt almost rich when I discovered the donated hotel soaps and shampoos from luxury hotels in one of the bathrooms. Since there was more than one bathroom at the facility, I decided to be selfish: I showered for what felt like 30 minutes, and I even used hot water.

Using hot water when showering is the norm (interestingly, there are benefits to cold exposure: It tones the vagus nerve i.e. the nerve that controls the body’s fight-or-flight response), but it wasn’t for me. After I was taken away from dad’s house, I always felt guilty showering, as foreign as it may sound (my current self can’t digest the fact I ever thought this way). I never used warm water.

I overheard my dad wasn’t paying child support and my mom was long gone with the boyfriend she left her kids for, so I wanted to save my grandma money, as irrational as that may sound.

After a few nights of fogging up the mirrors with humid air, I finally tamed that demon and began to demystify some of the trapped trauma in my subconscious mind.

Common Thread

The PAD isn’t the place kids who come from white picket fence-lined, two-parent households end up at.

The PAD is a haven for kids born of moms who would trade their bodies for a place to sleep at night.

The PAD is the last resort for kids who are disowned by their parents for being gay.

The PAD is a refuge for runaways escaping abusive parents. Each story is unique yet woven of a common thread: Trauma. My trauma came in the flavor of abusive, drunk father and abandoning mother.

When I used to lie awake at night under the spell of insomnia, sometimes I’d think of my mom. I’d see random men in our apartment; countless nights being dumped off with babysitters; and being awoken by police one early school morning, shortly before being evicted from our section-8 apartment.

We’d later move in with my grandma until one morning I was awoken to the starting of my mom’s car, her closet empty. I ran downstairs hoping to plead with her to stay but her car was gone by the time I got to the front door. I hid under the staircase, my body overtaken by uncontrollable shivers and silent tears, prey to my anxious attachment style.

When I’d think of my dad, I’d see rage, an infinite pile of empty Coors Light cans, and feel the hands constricting my neck the evening I was finally taken away from him.

I’d see the girls in leotards peering out from the dance studio across the street as the police instructed me to remove my shirt and place my hands on the hood of the car to photograph my injuries.

I’d see the ensuing CPS interviews and doctor’s visits, and the fingerprint-shaped bruises around my neck, delaying my start at the new school I’d attend.

While The PAD wasn’t perfect, it became a stable place to come home to with a network of familiar staff members I could depend on. Some I even became close with.

One of the overnight staff would quietly play the guitar and talk with me to help me fall asleep. Another one commented to me that he always knew, without seeing me enter the building, it was me because I always went straight for the fridge.

In other words, I and my habitudes were being recognized. One was even willing to go with me to the neighboring Red Cedar Dharma Hall to attend a meditation session. Despite the impersonal protocols in place at the PAD, I began feeling connected with the staff there.

After around three months, I transitioned out.

Where Am I Going Now?

It took the chaos of the past year to finally ground me. I started Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), an off-shoot of the more widely known Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which helped me seal and heal childhood wounds.

Now, I sleep well most nights unless I work excessively or consume any amount of caffeine.

My transformation has encouraged me to change career paths. I completed my bachelor’s in Business and Management at the University of Turin in Italy. Now, instead of wanting to “get rich” and “climb the corporate ladder” I am focusing on pursuing a career in psychology and may go on to get a PhD.

I was accepted into the Work and Organizational Psychology program in Seville, Spain (taught entirely in Spanish). It’s a one and a half year-long master’s and I plan on getting a second master’s degree in counseling psychology from a US-based university online.

Where will this take me? Who knows! Maybe I’ll get a license in counseling, I’ll need 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

I can see myself completing those hours at The PAD where I’d practice ART and hold community yoga, qi gong, and breathwork classes to help regulate the central nervous system and foster social connection.

Currently, I’m working as a UX designer (www.ryanscottdesign.com). I also write and illustrate coffee table books and children's books (see my store).

Where’s The PAD Going Now?

Almost telepathically, everything I wish would have been different during my time at The PAD has been set in motion by Jason and Jenn and other staff. From establishing deeper, one-on-one connections between staff and teens, to relocating to a quieter, residential area, to providing counseling services, and even establishing a food garden.

The PAD no longer seems to be a last-resort crash pad but rather a launchpad. A solid foundation for teens with troubled pasts to gain a solid foothold, regulate their nervous systems, and carve out a plan for the future.

To learn more about The PAD, click here.

Ending Trauma at a Societal Level

In the future, I hope we live in a world where all high schoolers are faced with ordinary dilemmas like having to find the perfect outfit for homecoming, being overwhelmed by an abundance of elective classes and choosing the right college to attend.

Not struggling to find a place to sleep at.

Not choosing between working full-time to afford rent as a high schooler (which jeopardizes academic performance and graduation) and attending classes (which may entail sacrificing a safe living environment).

Not fending alone for food. Not lying awake with insomnia.

Not paralyzed by anxiety and flashbacks. Not coping, and grinning and bearing.

To get to this idealized future we must continue to support programs like The PAD. There’s so much potential under the layers of trauma in each homeless teen and young adult. Creativity, expression, sound reasoning, and self-actualization only occur in the presence of safety and connection which is offered at The PAD.

There are dormant Picassos and J.K. Rowlings, frozen in survival mode now with opportunities to revitalize themselves.

By choosing to support The PAD and investing in homeless teens today, we’re preventing the progression of homelessness into adulthood and igniting the spark in artists and creators and scientists and authors and boundless potential.

Resources

To beat trauma (or at least change the way trauma is responded to) at a societal level, it’s important for individuals to learn how it affects development, the mind, and the body.

Therefore, I’m providing a list of books and influential figures to help you better understand trauma: Both in those around you and perhaps in your own life.

Even if you don’t have “Big T” trauma, “Little T” trauma (e.g. primary caretakers ignoring your cries as a child, being made to feel your ideas aren’t important or valuable, etc.) can also impact the way you develop and your perception of the world (some of the following are affiliate links):

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Digital nomad, I/O psychology student, entrepreneur. Visited nearly 30 countries. Author of 5 books on freelancing, travel, mental health.

Bellingham, WA
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