The lesson I learnt from the homeless man I was meant to be helping

If you can do it for one day, you can do it for two

So, there I was, cooking a meal for the people living at a local homeless shelter, volunteering my time supposedly to help those more in need than myself. But in this rare attempt at exercising selflessness, what happens? They are the ones who end up helping me. They helped me more than I ever expected, more than I deserved, and more than a mere chicken pie could repay.

A few months ago, I signed up as a volunteer cook for a local homeless shelter. Once a fortnight, I go to the shelter and prepare a meal for twelve homeless people, each one working hard to better themselves, to get out of their bleak situations, cure their habits and addictions, sustain regular employment, and eventually find homes of their very own. I assure you, the irony is not lost on me that the only difference between them and me right now is that I just happened to be lucky enough to be born into a family which is both able and willing to support me 100% emotionally and financially. (I have made a mental note to work on expressing gratitude.)

CHICKEN-POT-PIEAs I was cooking my dinner menu of chicken pie, potatoes and apple crumble, I was chatting with one of the men living at the centre. Initially bitter towards my recipe options, which contained far too many vegetables for his liking, I had a breakthrough a few weeks back, converting him with my cooking of a shepherds pie filled with noticeable chunks of celery, carrots and peas.

“I hate shepherds pie,” he grumbled at me.

“Well, try it, I insisted, “you will like mine.” Blatant lie. I had no belief or confidence that he would like mine over any other that he had tried, but something about being there, surrounded by people with genuine issues and life struggles, as opposed to the fictionalised ones I create in my mind, makes me want to be more positive and optimistic. I’m sure they spend enough time with miserable, negative, horrid people, so the least I can do is pretend I’m not one of them.

He tried it. He liked it. He liked it a lot. He had seconds.

Since then he has spoken more and more words to me and is now openly friendly, and smiles when I come in to cook. On this day though, he was noticeably more joyous, making jokes and smiling a lot. He seemed to be very energised, like there was something bursting inside of him which he just couldn’t contain. Then, when he couldn’t stand to hold it in anymore, he shared with me, triumphant and proud that today marked a five full months of his sobriety.

“It goes to show,” he said, “that I can do it. And if I can last five months, then I can last five years!”

He was so proud of his achievement, and rightly so. I am awed by the strength he has in him, not wanting to contemplate how difficult those five months must have been, how that difficulty is by no means over. I began to wonder if I could stop binge eating for five months; or be able to leave the house every day for five months; or even have the strength to fight the urge to hide in my pit of despair and spend a full five months living each day consciously, awake in the real world and not in my fantasy one.

I don’t like my chances.

Even thinking about it frightened me, and in a pre-emptive self-sabotage to stop myself from doing something so stupid as to better myself, I went home and plunged into a binging session, hiding in my room and not leaving it all night except to fetch more food, and obsessed over tv shows, not sleeping and definitely not writing.

But in the morning, watching the day go by as I continued to lie in bed with no intention of leaving it, I could hear his words whispered in the gaps between the other morning sounds, a few birds, an early breeze softly rustling the leaves, my neighbour opening and closing his car door, off to work, agreeing to participate in life, and those words:

“I can do it.”

As I slowly got up and tried to join the day, I kept hearing the whispers. I can do it. I can do it.

Inspired by his actions as well as his words, I sat down and made a list of things I would like to do everyday:

  1. Get out of bed
  2. Write something, anything, even one sentence.
  3. Go outside for at least 15 minutes
  4. Eat three set, sensible meals

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to do them every day for five months, but I was determined to do them that day. And that’s what I did. “And if I can do it for one day,” I thought, “maybe I can do it for two … And if two, why not three?”

Well today is the start of my third day, and I am out of bed, I have written something, I have eaten one of my three meals, healthy and without starting a binge. Now I just need to continue the day, checking off my to-do list.

Lesson I learnt: If you can do it for one day, you can do it for two.

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