Thursday, August 14, 2014

Seeing

I wish there were a way to teach common sense. And empathy...

It has been a trying week. Heartbreaking in several ways.

On the global front, the death of Robin Williams has deeply affected this country. He was a clown extraordinaire, making us laugh until we cried and when in a serious role, he twanged our heartstrings. He conveyed empathy, humanness and humaneness through his various character renderings.

But like many who struggle with darkness,  he couldn't find the light and in that darkest hour he sought escape from the pain and the demons with whom he had battled for years.  Many question "why?" "how could he do that?", not understanding the siren call of peace, the freedom from an internal, isolating pain that unless one has experienced it, one cannot understand.

Now his family seeks privacy while the world wants a piece of him. Not understanding there was a private person who lived and breathed and loved his own children, wife and friends. We devour our idols and demand more from them even in death...

On a more personal front there were two moments when I wished I could change the world.

One evening one of  my staff, my immediate directors and I met with a family at DCBS (Department of Community Based Services) to discuss the fate of a 15 year old black male. He and his family sat on one side of the huge conference table and we sat on the other. My staffer sat next to the kiddo to provide support.

I listened as the parents expressed their frustrations about their son. He lies. He steals. He breaks curfew. He smokes weed. He needs to be sent away. He is beyond control. He is a criminal. They have tried every type of punishment, even taking away Christmas 3 years in a row...

I sat there and began to wonder, "What has happened to him?" .  He and I locked eyes several times. He sat there, defiant, rigid. I kept remembering the first time I met him, when he entered the room and shook my hand, a polite respectful young man.

At some point, my director, stopped the parents talking and asked the young man what he wanted. In a room full of adults "dissing" him, we showed him respect and common courtesy.

He told his story. Looking at me, he spoke about his stepfather whipping him with an electric cord, until he bled and was left with scars. He told about this adult dumping ice water on him in bed and then beating him. He told about being backed into a corner and hit repeatedly, his curling into a ball to protect himself and being left with a gash on his forehead.

When asked the stepfather admitted he did this, but was not an "abusive parent". He stated this was how he was raised and he sees it as discipline, not abuse. Plus, he stated he never whips "his" sons, because they aren't like their half brother.

Sitting in a room of social workers and with no remorse, the stepfather admitted this. And the mother stated she hadn't realized that this had been going on for ten years...

I realized that THIS is what happened to the kiddo.

How, I wondered, HOW could the mother not realize what was happening? Where did she think the gashes and welts came from? Could she not sense the anger between the two? But she appeared done. Tired of this kid and just wanting him gone. This articulate, smart, kid was falling through the cracks. And my heart broke for him. At that moment I wished I could be his therapist, to help him heal, to explore the trauma he had survived but which had left him with both visible and invisible scars.

The staff and I are going to work to keep this kid out of jail, out of trouble and find a way to help him heal.

Later this week, I sat on the floor with a client. She has 5 children and has a progressive, degenerative disease that has rendered her practically immobile. We are trying to get her a wheelchair, home health services, an aide so that her children don't miss school to stay home to help mom.

The staff member on this case is young and green. She has led a sheltered life with her parents helping her with rent, buying a car and clothes. She came to me last week for help to write a check. She planned today's session around using "Value Cards", a tool that elicits conversation about one's values, goals and aspirations. She sat on the couch with her computer and asked the client questions while ignoring the fact that the client was sitting on the floor wrapped in a blanket where she most likely had been since the kids left for school that morning. She seemed oblivious to the odor emanating from the woman. As she sat there asking questions such as "How important is job training?" I marveled at the fact she seemed to not realize that this woman would never hold another job due to her progressive and terminal illness. Yet she plowed on asking questions which had no value to this particular client. The client was gracious and would say, "That doesn't pertain to me".
I think she realized she was training the young staffer.

As a supervisor, I was there to observe. But I am not a supervisor who can sit and watch. The week before when I was present, the client mentioned she wore adult diapers. I interrupted the session to inquire if she needed any supplies and what kind of diapers she wore. She gave me the brand and size. I left to get them. I called back to my staffer to see if the teenager needed pads or tampons. The mother reported no but could I get them some tissues? I picked those up as well as cleaning wipes and some roach control. As I walked through the store I wondered how to teach my staffer to put herself into the place of the client; to feel what it was like to sit in one's own waste with no diaper to change into, no ability to walk to a bathroom. To sit immobile and watch while roaches crawled across your blanket. To have to wait for your children to come home from middle and elementary school before you could eat or drink.  And I wondered if I had ever been that young and oblivious. I would like to think that I wasn't, but I cannot remember. I do remember, even at a young age, wanting to "save the world"; wanting to help others but at times being afraid to do so. I remember with shame, not standing up for a mentally retarded girl who was being teased by a boy. I remember the anger I felt and how I realized that although cute, he was cruel and I found him unattractive after that. But mostly I remembered feeling sad and ashamed that I didn't step in.

When I got back, the staffer had moved to the floor to sit near the client. I took that as a good sign. A sign that she could follow my lead and leave the relative safety of the couch.

I don't know how to teach empathy or common sense. I don't know how to teach parents that an electric cord is not discipline but abuse. I don't know how to get someone who is young and green to open their eyes and SEE. But I will try, to the best of my abilities I will try to save the world. One person at a time. God grant me the strength to never give up.

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