There I was stuck on a boat on the river Thames in a far western area of London. I flew from Denmark with only a couple hundred Euro in my pocket and the opportunity to work with a youth organization. I had arranged a volunteering position on this houseboat where I could trade a few hours of work a day for food and a place to sleep from a questionable website I typically didn’t use. I had known it was a sketchy decision but out of fear of losing more money I chose to not pay for a subscription from one of the more popular life and work internet platforms as this one was free.
The man sensed right off the bat from our phone conversation that I was in a pinch and told me to book an exit flight out of England just in case I got screened at the airport, something not uncommon to do if you’re backpacking Europe with no particular destination. Landing, I made my way to Kingston Upon Thames where we met at a bar for a drink and discussion about the boat and a chance to size each other up. I knew he was an alcoholic after glaring at his picture a second time before leaving Denmark. His face flushed red and sagging with hints of perspiration told a story.
There at the bar, the man ordered three pints for himself offering me one with no expectation. I politely refused having already had one before he arrived. After spending some time talking, I was ready to leave and head back to the boat while he stayed back at the bar to do some computer work. Despite his heavy drinking he seemed put together, little did I know the boat would tell quite a different story. Arriving at the boat along the riverbank in the dark the city gleamed across the water with its old brick buildings, restaurants, and church spires. It was a beautiful and then I saw it. The floating home looked more like a squat house.
Navigating my way from the shore up a step ladder lashed to its side I hoisted myself onto the front deck with my hiking pack and laptop bag. Maneuvering around a dolly and giant water cistern I found the front door. Peering in I was disappointed but more than that I was exhausted and ready to call it a night. Rapping on the door finally someone answered. Following him inside the man was much taller and weighed a considerable amount more. The doors and windows of the boat were plexiglass with cheap ragged black carpeting on the floor. Inside the main area of the boat lay the kitchen with half-eaten food and crumbs amidst random jars of minced meat on the counter. Dirty dishes sat in the sink as though they had lived there for ages. The cupboards and furniture were mismatched and dirty with oil residue from the stove.
Finding my way down a pair of clunky homemade wooden stairs I entered a narrow hallway with white-painted plywood walls just wide enough for one person. The room I had been given sat at the front of the boat directly below where I had entered. Opening the door to my room I found Sai. He was an Indian student living on the boat and now my bunkmate. With little more than a greeting, I set my bags down and made my way back up the hallway towards the staircase and up to the kitchen where I cleaned several of the dishes so I could have something to cook with. The boat had no refrigerator, and its electricity ran from solar power and a generator at the back of the boat.
There were no toilets, just a sink to pee in and coolers for number 2 that were eventually emptied into two sealed barrels at the back of the boat. The bathrooms wreaked of piss. It was a dump, to say the least and after finding the meat I had been instructed to cook for myself that had been left to stay cold in the grill outside I found myself at odds with a foul inedible dinner. Luckily one of the other housemates arrived on the boat and as we talked, we began to find common ground discussing mental health as he was in recovery for addiction. Warming up to each other he saw my plight. Offering me a few pieces of his pizza I gratefully retired to bed in the hull of the ship.
Waking up the next few mornings I would soon begin to acclimate myself to the fact that this was an unlivable situation. As I sat with my feelings and observations there was no way of flipping this situation around. I knew I needed to leave. Arriving in the bedroom I was staying in one evening I found Sai. Looking at him I told him in casual frustration, “I need to get the hell out of here.” Looking at me concerned he asked why. I told him, as if it were not obvious, the decrepit state of the boat had me concerned for my safety let alone having to deal with a manipulative alcoholic. I could feel the way the boat owner talked to me as though he were searching and trying to confirm my buy-in on the ship. One second he would be dominating and demanding and when he would feel me begin to set boundaries he would ease up and try to be accommodating to reel me back in. I could feel the situation was toxic but played along until I could get my head straight about what to do.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. One morning after waking up early I packed my bags. This was it I had to make a decision and now with only 150 Euro I walked upstairs with my gear and set it on the couch. This was it. I would leave and figure something out. Why? Because I loved myself enough to not stay stuck in the fear of the what if and I knew that when you make a change you show the world what you are willing to accept and what you will not put up with. You affirm your worth. This was me choosing love.
Finding my way over the course of the next few days I checked into a hostel near London tower the first night. Trodding through London’s rainy streets I followed my intuition from one hostel to the next as I planned to stop into meditation centers, and whatever other live and work situations I could think of. Making my way to Kensington Chelsea as the sun set the next evening I strolled past the Kadampa Meditation Center towards a cheap hostel I planned to check in at. A stroke of intuition hit me, “go back,” it told me. Turning around I entered the storefront of the building. Walking inside I met a man cleaning the toilets. Slowly as we began talking we realized we had conversed on the phone back when I was in Denmark as I had called asking about volunteering opportunities previously. He invited me to come with him by bus to a meditation center north of London that night. With all my gear there I sat debating. Maybe the meditation center would let me stay the night, maybe I would meet someone? It was around 7 pm, I thought to myself, the worst that could happen was that I catch the bus back to the hostel I was originally going to. The piece of me that wanted to dig its heels in was the piece of me, I was learning, that wanted to resist change, an old identity afraid to die even though nothing was at stake except something new.
That night I found myself in the silent presence of myself and others. It wasn’t just a change or something I begrudgingly decided to check out it was just what I needed. The atmosphere felt so relaxing, and I felt so present with my thoughts, truly grateful to be among other people who cared about their own well-being. My body relaxed. Afterward we all gathered in the lounge area of the center drinking tea and talking. The man I had come with introduced me to some of his friends as we talked, and I told them about my mental health project I had come to London for. A larger fellow with tattoos up his neck and arm several years older looked at my bag. “You need a place to sleep tonight?” he asked me. Looking back at him I told him, “Hey If you’re offering, I won’t say no.” Surprisingly he was on a date but neither of them minded. My friend and the couple now walked out of the center to the tube station, and I laughed out loud to myself at how seamless and easy life felt. It was such a gift.
The next day I would head out of my new mates’ apartment with a full belly from breakfast and a truckload of great conversations and serendipity I truly felt blessed. Making my way that night, back to where I had run into my friend cleaning the toilets, I decided to check back in on a hostel job where I eventually crossed paths with the manager and agreed upon a working position.
Love is a powerful emotion, often it elicits images of joy, ecstasy, intimacy, and ideas of perfection. In an ideal world, love reigns supreme but in all our dreams and fancy we tend to forget the cost which it takes to truly love. Love is not just a simple emotion but a commitment and a choice. It requires responsibility for ourselves first.
In life we are often faced with many decisions, so often we operate on autopilot running away from pain or tough choices and don’t realize just what we are actually saying no and yes to.
When we look at the world from the eyes of love, we become its student. Every situation is an opportunity to learn, every situation is an opportunity to choose ourselves and choose wholeness. So often this means seeing our own humanity in the reflection of someone else or in a life circumstance. When we turn to face the pain or discomfort, we begin to stop identifying with the fear that keeps us separate from those uncomfortable parts of ourselves. This allows us to address and integrate whatever social or personal judgments, stigmas, triggers, and or traumas we may have that keep us running from the acceptance of the parts of ourselves we’d rather not face. When we take full responsibility for ourselves, we make the conscious choice to not just see and feel the discomfort but be curious about it.
Only then can we learn the lessons of our pain and use it as a compass. This is where the real healing happens because only in our acceptance of a situation can we find forgiveness and consciously create the appropriate steps in our lives to transform and employ what we have learned toward a new way of relating to the world from a more whole experience. This is where patterns and choices and our life trajectories can change in powerful ways. When we choose to love we say yes to all of ourself.
So next time you’re faced with a tough decision, you’re triggered or emotional. Take a step back and get curious. Ask yourself where the discomfort is coming from. What lesson are can you lear and where can you take responsibility for your life in this situation Ask yourself, am I reacting out of fear or love and then make the adjustment and move forward.
Jeff Spiteri is an author of the unpublished book ‘The Bridge Within’ a memoir chronicling his experiences as a homeless young adult riding freight trains around the United States and the childhood trauma he uncovered along the way. Jeff is proud to use his voice as an instrument of influence, guidance and impact with young adults and educators sharing his experiences and tools for resilience and healing.