Friday, May 8, 2009

A Safe Distance

The other day I saw a client who was recovering from an addiction to crack-cocaine and who also had bipolar disorder. He was getting ready to be discharged from a halfway house and had no family in Pennsylvania to live with. He received $102.50 a month in cash assistance and $200 a month in food stamps on which he was expected to live. I had to find him a recovery house where he could live with, one which would take most of his welfare for food and board. He was very nervous about relapsing giving these stresses. I couldn't tell him anything.

Another client I spoke with last week was in a similar situation, but with a wife and child. He didn't want to resort to hustling, but given his intensive outpatient treatment, he was not permitted to work, and had to rely on that $102.50 to live. He kept saying over and over, "I can't work, and I can't go back to my old ways. Rob, what do they expect me to do?"

How in God's good name is someone supposed to live on $100 a month? It is hard enough for non-offenders to get jobs in this economy...ex-offenders have it even worse. And trying to stay clean, stay off the streets, raise a family, find housing, be a productive member of society, given these circumstances? These guys did make choices in their lives, but compared to the hardships of trying to make a life in society, many of these guys figure it is easier to live in prison, and go back. It is such a broken system. These guys have been dealt a shitty hand in life. Some people emerge from such lives like weeds through cracks in the concrete, but many succumb to the environment. I feel like asking my boss, like my client, "What do they expect me to do?"

If you really care enough, it is enough to drive someone to despair. No wonder there is such high turnover and rates of burnout in social work. It's a heavy weight to bear on one's shoulders. That's why I give it to God, whose "yoke is easy, and burden light." I cannot save the world, I can only do what I can do. I try to maintain a safe distance between myself and these problems, for the sake of my own fragile mental health. It's a survival tactic. Or maybe it is just being realistic, and not giving in to emotional response that does no good. Whatever it is, I still marvel at how people weeds in the concrete.

That same man who asked me in disbelief what he was expected to do...I had nothing to tell him, nothing tangible to make his life better. But I did listen to him. I listened to him talk for almost a half an hour. And that had value for him. He told me so..."it just helps me to talk." So I guess I can do something. Listening doesn't cost anything, and you never know how far it will go. My friend Andy believes in people's stories. And stories, however mundane or tragic, deserve an ear.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Keeping your heart open in hell. How do you do that?

I heard a story once of a woman who passed a homeless man on the street for years. Over time she developed a budget for the man, about $2.50 a week. She realized one day though that in all the years she walked by him, she never actually acknowledged his existence as a human being. And she noticed that there was fear inside her.

When she finally explored that fear she realized that it wasn't fear of being attacked by him, or raped or anything like that. They passed each other in broad daylight. They were acquaintances to say the least. No. Instead, it was a fear that if she acknowledged his existence he would end up living with her.

Opening one's heart fully to the suffering of others takes a courage I don't yet know and maybe never will. I don't know what the world would look like from that vantage point. But I know that anytime to push against what is, it comes back to bite you.

So while I've neither had the compassion or patience in my life to do the work you do, and I'd certainly be keeping that safe distance if I were in your shoes because I'd have to armor my heart, from my privileged neutral position here I'd say there's something dissonant about maintaining that distance. There's some solution that would allow you to be fully broken-hearted in your work because of the fantastic predicament and pain of the lives of your patients, but remain somehow joyous. Not an "active" solution or one where you go out and lobby the state legislature or picket the governor's office, but an internal change in where you stand in relation to the people you help. I wish I had that solution, but it's one worth working toward.