Seeing Those Unseen

Youths-on-the-street-001

The walk through heavy double doors to the office in the rundown building is powered by my will to land a job. Voices careen through shadowy and inaccessible rooms, doors bang shut–or is that something being thrown against a wall? I sit in front of a supervisor of a residential alcohol and drug treatment center. In this place long-term services are provided to adolescents. I am wondering why I ever agreed to an interview. As moments tick by, I am riveted by the description of the job and answer questions with genuine enthusiasm even as there are people scuffling and two persons trading expletives. Yet I want to be here. I can feel their hunger, the electric life.

That was a vivid scene in my mind upon awakening recently. The halls and voices of my past still haunt me. They changed my life.

Lately I have been filled with unease and distracted by a related issue, the sort that seeps into each day and night as if bubbling up from a subterranean source. There are only a few weeks before I must re-certify my CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) which enables me to stay in this field. I’m also qualified to provide some mental health counseling.

I quit my last position because retirement was becoming more attractive. I experienced difficult ethics dilemmas regarding issues that can plague such organizations, especially non-profits, and felt they were not being well-addressed. And returning home at eight-thirty or nine p.m. after eleven hour days was tougher. But I also quit because I had spent too many years jotting down storylines in between clients, starting poems on sticky notes, then hiding them away. I was overdue to write full-time.

A daughter recently asked me: “Are you happy with your life as it is?” It seemed easy to answer: yes, I am glad to live this life! But I do miss working with the invisible ones at the fringes of society, challenged, changed or disabled by mental health and addictions problems.

Most people in this field burn out between three and five years. There are many who continue, but not too many for twenty years or more. For some reason, my committment and caring deepened and a restless compassion still fills me. I am not special; those who help others are everwhere, often unknown. So I am just one of those unwilling to give up on what (or whom) I love most. I’m not sure it is even a choice.

So let me take you way back to 1994, back to that interview scene I awakened with, for it was very real…

 ******************

It has been months since I suffered the consequences of downsizing. I am desperate. Despite sending out countless resumes and ending a couple of interviews on a high note, my efforts have come to naught. I did not coplete my Bachelor degree but before I left Detroit I’d been a home care department manager for a human services program providing for three counties. My 350 primarily homebound clients included younger people who had suffered a variety traumatic brain injuries, as well as those with other disabilities. I hired and trained 150 employees. Yet here in Oregon I am scrambling. Everyone seems more qualified than am I, at the top of the heap.

So when money runs out and I study the requirements for a “Residential Care Facilitator”, it seems folly to respond. I have never worked with disturbed or addicted youth; I am not a therapist. They want someone who is sober, can monitor and assist at-risk youth and develop better programing. I am living a recovery lifestyle, have raised five children and manage to convey indirectly that I am not easily intimidated. I have experience developing programs and providing practical support to high risk populations.

Just not teenagers who have been homeless or incarcerated. Traumatized. Mandated to residential alcohol and drug treatment. They are bound to be enraged and depressed. What am I to them? I am part of the barrier in their thinking.

The interview goes well. The supervisor likes my varied experience and passion to be of service to others. I get the idea he is interested in hiring someone more mature, older than twenty-something. At forty-two, my competence has been tested and deemed solid. But this time I am a neophyte. He explains the majority of youth here for three to six months are gang-affiliated or gang-affected, prone to violence against themselves and others. Girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, are in separate dorms but share activities. All have become addicted to multiple drugs including alcohol. They bear scars of physical and emotional abuse. They have mental health diagnoses, serious abandonment issues. A challenging group to watch over much less teach, inspire, and point in a healthier direction.

They also need someone to coordinate field trips, create outside educational activities, plan enjoyable physical recreation. The clients must be driven to parks and A.A. meetings. They require monitoring at all times. I might assist the teacher in the alternative school teacher at times. All for little pay.

“So, what do you think?” he asks, eyes lit up.

What I think is that my smile is straining my facial muscles. My heart rate increases every time a kid screams at someone or I glimpse a sullen face outside our door. I regret not learning excellent office skills so I can work at a dentist office; it might be so much easier. I’d taken a donut shop counter job. But completing college would have been the best idea. Instead, I married my first husband and he finished his Masters while I had (well-loved) babies. I have to turn my life around, escape another failed relationship and avoid looming poverty. A more fulfilled life is a goal; while joy isn’t critical, I at times dream about it.

“If that’s an informal offer, my answer is ‘yes’,” I say, shaking his hand.

My extended family wonders if I am scared to work with these troubled kids. (Yes! But no one else will know that.) How will I pull it off? (By paying attention. Following instructions. Getting to know the clients.) My partner, not who I hoped, thinks any paycheck in my name would be good. He is right, always. He can make this painfully clear. Little does he know of my hidden agenda: moving out with my teen-aged son and daughter when I save money.

I shrug. “It’s not like I’ll be working in a reform school or jail. I’ve had difficult clients before.”

“Sure. Elderly and disabled,” my youngest child reminds me.

The first day I enter the girls’ unit there are a number of sneers and questions. Heads pop out of rooms and eyes try to stare me down. I know how to not blink and act brave. I try memorizing the unit’s rules and my duties but at the end of the day I feel as though I have left a “hot spot” where a fragile truce has been called. I make it out intact due to my helpful co-workers, all under thirty yet oddly jaded. When I get home I don’t want to talk. I want to sleep a dreamless sleep and wake up a professional.

For a long week I watch and am watched. Not primarily by my boss, but the clients. They assess me better than I do them, as their instincts are well-honed and street smarts prepare them for anything. I know I look like someone just out of a Junior League meeting with coordinated slacks and blouse, hair and lipstick just so. It’s the casual version of my old work attire. But it isn’t just that other employees wear jeans and t-shirts to blend in, like camouflage in the wilderness. These kids are savvy and know I am green, not just new. They’re looking for my soft spot, the weakness that will allow them to get extra attention or more dessert, a later “lights out” or a good word put in with their therapists. Someone they can make a partner in crime.

I figure all this out when my supervisor informs me on the fifth day that the reason A., a thirteen year old client, is so friendly and flattering is that she needs good reports in order to not be “discharged incomplete” which means locked down somewhere else. She has hit a dorm mate once and threatened staff. Duly noted.

I return home at almost midnight, sit on the back stoop and cry without sound. How can I do the work if caught between a passionate impulse to be of service to those in need and noxious fear of the unknown and possible assault? I resolve to give it two months. Thoughts of failure makes me feel I am teetering on a scary precipice. I pull myself back and grit my teeth. I must succeed.

What the clients do not know is that I am not all I seem at first glance, just as they are not. I have gotten through treacherous times. Have my own survival skills. A will that holds fast and a deep-rooted desire to be useful in the world. I am driven and have have discipline, both of which were instilled during a somewhat privileged life that was soon scored with pain and loss.

It takes a couple of weeks, but I begin to see that beneath scars, bravado and bad words are the longing to belong, a dim hope of kindness, and vulnerability they fight to protect. They have been abandoned, beaten, sexually abused, thrown out on the street, supplied drugs by their families, locked in closets and reform schools. Many have been in multiple foster homes and found not one bearable. Many of the teens have been diagnosed with mental health disorders and are medicated, with uneven results.

I find my place as the kids make room for me. I work every shift and overtime, including graveyard, for the money but also the experience. I am good at staying calm so group counselors include me to encourage safe, effective dynamics. The alternative school teacher needs help so I start a writing group. They learn there is more to language than they imagined and discover words for nebulous, confounding feelings. I watch them change. A good way to connect with them is to provide experiences that are different than most are used to. I coordinate a recreation program that includes visits to the ballet and the art museum as well as barbeques and badminton in parks. Another is to pay attention when they need someone to bear witness to dark secrets and fragile dreams, most of which have been too long unspoken.

Or is just holding steady, as when one beleaguered young woman, stands in silence as she fires an imaginary .22 at every car in the parking lot. And then at me. I freeze. Then hold out my hands to her. She drops her phantom weapon, grabs on. Later, much later, we laugh. I immortalize her in a poem and pray she stays alive. As I do every one.

Without fail the person who learns the most is me. Resilience comes from the human need to keep living. Strength for the weakened arises from being comforted amid suffering and learning how to reach back. Hope sparks when even one small event clarifies possibilities for a better life. Sheer survival can transform into flourishing. It is astounding to behold. The result is freedom to create a better life. In the end, love does what it can.

*******************

Was it really so hard to take that job when I didn’t think I could do it or even wanted it? Only in the beginning. I worked at that facility for almost five years. In between working hours I returned to college, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, gained education in mental health counseling, and have served diverse populations. I discovered one of my callings–God offered me a chance I hadn’t expected–and it carried me along the next twenty years.

Can I leave it behind for good? I’m still uncertain. There are so many needs, some of which are mine. But I can share their stories, perhaps hold up lost ones and warriors with these words:

You are seen. Known. Remembered and honored by this woman.

Photograph by Joseph Szabo
Photograph by Joseph Szabo

 

 

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