I know it’s easy to pretend I don’t exist. Most won’t even make eye contact or acknowledge my presence as we pass one another on the streets. I’m an annoyance, a nuisance, a plague littering your democratized, structured society. A problem no one wants to deal with. I’m also aware of the stigma, the label attached to my domestic condition. I’m an addict and I’m homeless. But it wasn’t always this way.

I enlisted in the Summer of ‘02, after the attacks on New York and Washington. Something internal drove my motives, my need to fight for this country after watching that horrible video footage. And it turns out, the Marines wanted me. They were looking for young, driven, obedient individuals seeking justice, vengeance. A Few Good Men. I fit the bill and signed up for eight years right after graduation.

Before I knew it, basic training ended, and I was on a carrier headed straight for Iraq. Can you believe it? A dumb nineteen-year-old, carrying an assault rifle at his side, fighting the good fight for America. For freedom. It wasn’t long before the mental problems started, though. Seeing what I saw, accepting what I did, and hearing the rumors and racist, violent stories from other members of the platoon. It became too much and my mind slowly splintered.

By the end of my third year overseas, I was discharged. Let go, sent home. Not honorably, if you were wondering. See, they don’t honor soldiers who fail to comply, conform, and follow orders. Medals aren’t given to those boiling with rage, or lashing out with fury, hate from endless nightmares. No, these soldiers are forgotten, thrown to the wind like a piece of trash, riding the saturated breeze of shame and isolation.

I tried to get help, the support I needed to deal with the PTSD, but failed. Every lengthy legal document, every benefit offered, wouldn’t stop the madness raging in my mind. Relief was imperative from the dark visions, the screams, the explosions that haunted my thoughts. Something had to change. I turned to booze initially, to numb the feelings, to create a facade of happiness and block the madness. Cheap vodka filled the void, delivering euphoric vibes in Solo Cup sized doses, but it didn’t last. Resistance grew, and before long, something stronger was needed; prescription painkillers.

By the time the drugs sunk their black, decrepit teeth in, smothering my petty ambitions and will, I had lost it all; my shitty job, my apartment, the party girl across the hall who used me for a good time when that late-night desire struck. Everything was gone. Now it’s just me and the streets, scraping by, slowly forgetting who I am, what I was.

The isolation and invisibility are the worst. I’m ignored, cast away, downtrodden by society. I feel like a lost spirit, shambling through limbo, unable to connect to life, the real world. Sure, there are moments of genuine humanity, when I’m given a sandwich, a bottle of spring water or the occasional crinkled dollar bill. Those moments of compassion and empathy are rare, though. Most wish I would just vanish, disappear, or leave their precious utopia. Life has disowned me, tossed me aside like an expired bagel, ready for decomposition. I really have nothing to live for, except him. Jake.

Four months into my new life, snuffing fragments of crushed, stolen pills, doing the unthinkable behind dumpsters, I found him. He was cast out as well, left to rot, to starve in the urban jungle. A small ball of fluff that could fit in my palm. When I first saw him quivering under a park bench, gluttony and greed took a grip, thinking I could flip this little thing for a few bucks, feed my addiction. Maybe search for its owner, demand a reward for being a model citizen. Boy, was I wrong.

Before I could get close enough to pick him up, he sauntered out into the gloom of winter, nipping at my heels, barking his melodic tune. Watching this little thing bounce around and circle my worn, weathered shoes delivered something that morning. Happiness.

Prior to Jake, happiness was erroneous, a sham, implemented chemically when the substances dissolved in my bloodstream. This was different, though. As I stared at him, this little creature, full of life and joy, something sparked in my core. There wasn’t judgement, detest returned my way. His light brown eyes didn’t present annoyance, disgust, or hate. He just wanted my attention, wanted me to care for him, play with him, love him. And that’s what I’ve done these past years. Jake’s my dog and he’s been by my side through it all.

I know, I know. I see the side glances, the loathsome leers, when we walk through the parking lot. You must think the same as most. How can an addict, a homeless burnout, care for an animal? A living, breathing thing requiring food, water, shelter? I’m not exactly the dependable, responsible type, but guess what? Jake comes first.

Since that blessed, frosty morning, I’ve had something to live for, something to cherish and protect, to feed and watch grow. I gave up on my life long ago, accepting the addiction, the disease, the infliction of misery and pain. Nothing will change me or mend my fractured mind at this point. The virus has burrowed too deep to scrape it clean.But don’t feel sorry for me, or show empathy. These were the cards that were dealt. I made my bed and I own up to my mistakes and choices. Just know, when you see me on the corner, whispering for spare change outside the market, that I’m alive, and the only reason is him. Jake.