For me, fantasy is not an escape from reality, but rather, a way of understanding it.
My life has had a lot of suffering, so people assume I imagine other realities to avoid the painful real world. I have done that before, but now I create worlds not to escape, but to be able to stay in this world without losing hope.
There I was, 15 years old, outside the subway in Brooklyn at 1 a.m. I was gathering courage to jump the turnstiles so I could sleep on the train. I felt different, separate from the people coming in and out of the station.
So I became the last human being on Earth, and all the other people I saw were aliens performing for me.
This was what I did under stress: imagine alternate realities. Some days I was an international spy whose smart-tech got bombed in a battle, and I had to survive in a foreign country.
Tonight, I was watching aliens. I suppose my mind was trying to make a terrible experience more fun, a game instead of reality.
What Really Happened
How had I come to be homeless in New York at 15? I grew up in Russia, where my family was wealthy. My older sisters and I went to private schools and rode in luxury cars.
But my father abused my mother, verbally and physically. In one of my earliest memories, when I was 5 or 6, my older sister and I were playing with our new mermaid Barbies when we heard loud arguing in the living room. Mother ran into our playroom and told us to lock ourselves in a room and not to come out, no matter what we heard.
We stood silent and nodded as she left. We were raised to not ask any questions.
This became a routine. Father wasn’t home much, but when he did come home, Mother instructed us to stay locked in the room until she came and told us he was gone.
Hearing fight noises and her screams of pain was terrifying. When I cried in fear, my sister would tell me to close my eyes and ears and sing a song with her. A tight hug from her while we sang helped me shut out the violence.
I wasn’t surprised when my parents got divorced. I was 12. I never saw my father again.
Two years later, my mom and I moved to Brooklyn, New York. She said, “It’s for a new, better life.”
Meanwhile my sisters were left in Russia to live independently and create their own families.
Many Places at Once
Brooklyn was so different from Russia. Seeing people of so many different ethnicities in the street made me feel like I was in Brazil one minute and China the next, then Jamaica and Germany, all in one place.
I spoke no English, and neither did Mom. I didn’t know why I was here and certainly didn’t see this “better life” in the small room we rented from an old, smelly guy.
My mother did have one friend in our new neighborhood, who knew someone we knew back in Russia. He helped her enroll me in 8th grade in a school about a 15-minute walk from our apartment.
“This is your school now. Forget about your father and your old life. Learn the language and start making some money,” my mother said.
Then she told me about a 14-year-old who sold postcards at school and became a millionaire by expanding that business.
Clearly, she was suggesting I also make a quick fortune after two weeks in the U.S. This was her fantasy, not mine, and it made me feel powerless and poor.
My sisters and I found an app that let us text for free. I looked for, but couldn’t find, my dad on it.
My sisters and I video chatted about everything going on in our lives. I didn’t want to worry them, so I described everything as nicer than it actually was.
I didn’t tell them that I couldn’t understand a word in my classes and felt lonely. The teachers had me copy lesson objectives and activities from the board, which I did even though I didn’t know what I was writing.
A Male Intruder
Every day I woke up in our small room, put on one of the three shirts and jeans I had washed, and walked to school early to get free breakfast in the cafeteria.
It frustrated me so much that when someone tried to say something to me, I couldn’t understand or reply.
Back in Russia I’d become a fan of Justin Bieber, and I’d fantasize about meeting him. But if I couldn’t speak English, we couldn’t have a conversation.
Picturing that imaginary encounter motivated me to study the language wherever I went. I learned from songs and books and in ESL class.
Isolation motivated me, and I became fluent in English in less than a year.
One day after my ESL after-school study, I came “home,” and our room was locked. I knocked, and a tall, skinny dark man with a huge smile on his face opened the door.
I was surprised and a little embarrassed that we had a guest over: Our room was so small, it barely held the two cots we slept on. I immediately guessed he and my mother had done the nasty.
He left right away, avoiding eye contact with me. My mother was wearing a silk robe. She asked if I wanted anything to eat. We walked to the kitchen we shared with other tenants. We were allowed one shelf for our groceries, and now it held fruits, sweets, pastries, and other expensive food.
I put two and two together: My mom had a new boyfriend. But who was he? How did she meet him? Why was he buying us all this food?
His name was Jay and I saw him more and more often. He would visit while I was at school and leave soon after I got home. He brought me any foods I wanted, which I took as payment for my accepting his presence. I felt like a boss.
But suddenly, his toiletries were taking up space in the bathroom. I told the two of them, “I don’t like that you are here trying to be my new dad when you aren’t, and I don’t like how you’re letting him, Mom.”
My mother didn’t stand up for me like I thought she would. She had protected me from my father, but not from Jay. Then one day, mama’s dearest accused me of scamming his bank account. I told them it wasn’t me. My mother called me a “liar” and a “whore,” and I ran out.
She yelled, “Don’t come back!” and locked the door behind me.
Surviving by My Wits
And that’s how I found myself with no clothes, no money, no food, and sleeping on the train.
When I was at school, I acted like nothing had happened. The rest of the time I walked around different boroughs looking for a job and shoplifting in shopping malls. I got the “five finger discount” on jewelry, brand-name sneakers, and clothes.
Then I met people who showed me how to scam credit cards and sell drugs. By the end of 9th grade, I decided that I didn’t need high school anymore.
My illegal activities only took about an hour or two a day, so the remaining time was free for me.
I found a website that posted housing for people with no documents. (Neither my mom nor I had green cards.)
I had managed to save up about $8,000, so I put down three months’ rent on a three-bedroom basement apartment in eastern Brooklyn.
Six rooms for me alone: It seemed my dream was coming true. I went shopping for furniture. I decided to decorate my bedroom all black, the living room all white, and the rest of the rooms their own color each.
Within a week, the place was furnished, walls were painted, and my friends had nagged a housewarming party out of me.
Though I was supporting myself financially, my life still felt aimless and lonely and often boring. I took a lot of drugs: weed, Adderall, and the most powerful escape—LSD.
When I was 16, my then-boyfriend and I went to see the action/fantasy movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. He had brought tiny paper squares he called “acid.” We did a Google search for “acid” and after reading the tips, we put it under our tongues as we bought our movie tickets.
Thirty minutes in, I forgot that I was at a movie. I felt like I was part of this world of aliens and spaceships. When the movie ended, we laughed and told each other, “I forgot you were here!”
Walking back to the train station that night was so disappointing. I felt stripped of something beautiful. I longed for the galaxy guardians to come rescue me and take me back to my true planet, where I could finally feel some sort of emotion. Where I could be sensitive.
I was so numb that I longed to feel something besides boredom.
I tried to self-medicate with drugs and then heavier drugs. Drugs made my reality seem changeable, when in reality I was stuck.
Trying Different Guys
Another escape was romance. Just as I’d learned English so I could talk to Justin Bieber, I thought that the guys I met on the street could make me feel a thrill.
Damien lasted the longest. He was a bit of a fantasy himself—charming, quick with words, and good at making me happy. I saw him as my protector, my home. I felt safe wherever he was.
Even though he wasn’t extra buff or super tall, he had a kind heart and passion. He made me feel special because he put me first, but in reality we were both in the prison of addiction.
Damien and I broke up several times, and I’d immediately take up with a new boyfriend. I hated being alone. But none of the replacements lasted, and Damien and I always ended up making up.
That’s how my 16th year passed.
When I was 17, I started dating a drug dealer who was 22. He was rich and people were afraid of him. I felt powerful beside him. At first he was super romantic and bought me anything I wanted.
But soon he controlled where I went, who I spoke to, what I wore, even what I ate. Then the physical abuse started.
We’d been dating a couple of months when he basically kidnapped me and drove me upstate in a stolen car. He accused me of cheating and punched me on my left side. I slipped out of his car at a gas station and called 911. I was taken to a hospital with bruises and broken ribs.
I was arrested in the hospital for violation of a court order I knew nothing about. I was sent to the same jail as my abusive “boyfriend.”
That night was cold, depressing, and terrible. The guards in the jail took my shoes and clothes and cut my sweatpants because they couldn’t remove the strings.
Worst of all, I could hear my boyfriend’s voice from where I sat in my cell. I felt like Anne Boleyn awaiting execution. I tried to warm myself up under the thin aluminum foil “blanket” they’d given me to sleep with, and cried.
Despite the harsh environment and the disaster my life had become, I noticed how the acoustics of my cell echoed my cries. I sang a couple of songs and my mind found another escape.
I landed in foster care and started my recovery from addiction. Since then, my mother has realized her mistakes and tries her hardest to communicate with me.
I returned to high school and I am starting college in a month. I joined a church in Brooklyn, and I volunteer there, helping out with internships and services for young adults and youth. I make music.
But I still have trouble facing the real world sometimes. People treating each other with cruelty is especially hard for me to bear.
When I need a break from reality, I imagine myself under a perfect moon by a river with beautiful birds and other creatures. The animals don’t eat me because they’re my friends. It’s safe, because there are no humans.