The cycle of homelessness is real. I used to call myself a clever homeless person, because I had to be with my four little ones – in 10 years we had 25 different types of accommodation.
Before I joined The Big Issue I gave up on life; I gave up on community. When I was really running on the streets, music helped me a lot. I listen to all kinds of music: Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Nick Cave, Tommy Emmanuel. For me, music is empathy – you’re walking in someone else’s sight. So when I was really lonely, it was a friend.
The Big Issue taught me that unique people can work together with their flaws. It wasn’t just one thing, but the community behind The Big Issue as a whole. It’s a foundation for me to build upon – it was up to me to do what I did from there. And walking in that door and getting asked your first name and do you want to work? The power in that one sentence did so much for me. It got me to uni. I enrolled in a music management course and completed the first year.
This is the hard part: a couple of years ago I was diagnosed with a brain injury, and I got epilepsy. So in the year that I was supposed to be flying overseas for Street Soccer and representing Australia at the Homeless World Cup, in the year I was supposed to be continuing with uni, I was having bad epileptic fits. But I was still a part of the community. I was still doing my talks with The Big Issue Classroom. I was still trying to finish university and I was still trying to do soccer here and there if the doctors said it was okay.
I started to get better – then, out of the blue, the doctors found a fast-growing aneurysm at the base of my skull. I was so glad that they found it. They said they couldn’t guarantee what would happen, but that without an operation the aneurysm could explode within five years. And for the first time in my life, I actually chose to live. Like, not just survive – really live. And six months later I had the operation.
Since then I’ve had to rebuild myself again, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that without community – I’ve realised I’m not me without a community. I even had customers sending me presents in hospital. That’s the power of my work.
Even though I haven’t been able to go back to uni yet; even though I haven’t been able to drive yet, the brain injury is going to get better. I know that.
You have to balance fear with love, I think. I’ve learned that life isn’t always about the good times – it’s about how you creatively try and fix conflict. You know, I’ve had all those things happen to my brain and look at me – I’m talking to you! And I shouldn’t be able to! I’ve done so much.
I still sometimes let words from the past get into my head, but then I get someone walk by and say hello, or smile, and that just makes me think that I’m selling a really good magazine, and that I’m alright. I’m just being me, and it’s okay to be me.
Rachel sells The Big Issue in Pyrmont, Sydney.
Interview by Melissa Fulton.
Photo by George Fetting.