So, at the last minute, in the wee hours of Friday morning (after working until midnight Thursday), I finalized an outline of my presentation, got some stuff downloaded on a thumb drive, and packed my crap to head off into the bowels of Club Med (oops...heading down that metaphoric fecal talk again)...hoping only to NOT have to remove rotted vegetables from my hair/clothing after what I anticipated might be a *pelt fest* from a less than welcoming crowd. I must admit now, neither was true...Club Med was highly gracious/welcoming and ALL of their attendees were well-mannered and gave the appearance of interest (basically, no one fell asleep, so we'll call it "interest").
But THAT is NOT my "confessions of the most humbling kind" and this post is NOT about my interactions with Club Med yesterday...I only bring them into this post as a point of reference to explain my week and a circumstance that moved me to tears today.
You see, all last week I was riding DELIBERATELY a joyous ride. On the eve of the swearing in of our 44th President here in the States, I made a conscious decision to allow NOTHING to bum my voyage for an entire week. I know, I know...on the surface that does NOT sound like a lofty goal...to be "joyous" for 7 days. For many of you, that state of mind comes NATURALLY and there is nothing deliberate about being joyful. But for me, lately I have encountered far more reasons to feel more *joyless* than *joyful*, so this "voyage" contained some hidden LANDMINES in it's waters! And I was ever-watchful for something/someone trying to sink my battleship (I loved that game as a kid!).
OK...so I may have seriously FRIGHTENED some of my coworkers. A few referred to me as "manic", like that was a BAD thing. But I kept holding the mantra of our new President in my head: "We are the change we seek." And I managed to feel and remain pretty darned *joyous* throughout my week, in spite of a few scary sharks and underwater mines on my course. I even managed to truthfully convince MYSELF that I felt joy AND that I was physically feeling perhaps the best I have felt in 5 years (since going off all DMD meds for MS last month).
Now, back to Club Med and why I even referenced them here, in what is turning out to be a longer post than I anticipated (and I'm sure you thought scrolling down would have been over a LONG time ago, too!).
One of the points I brought up (and usually bring up whenever doing any kind of talk/inservice to health care staff) was my PERSONAL mantra I have always tried (or at least thought I had) to live by: "People will often not remember the words you say to them, but they will ALWAYS remember how you made them feel." I like to drive that home like a bulldozer smashing into a straw hut. If participants get NOTHING else out of listening to me blather, THAT is the one thing I genuinely ALWAYS want them to take home...so they can remember to be mindful of their presentation with patients. And, on the heels of that statement (yipping like a small dog), I often segue into how important it is to "SEE THE PERSON BEYOND THE _______". You can fill in that blank with words like *behavior*, *smell*, *nasty attitude*, etc., and to recognize there IS a person there (not just a patient/problem/behavior, etc.)...sometimes well-protected and hidden by attitude or behavior or diagnosis...but there is ALWAYS a person there, with a need.
I take great pride in my professional self in striving to daily live up to my own mantra...and I think "professionally", for the most part, I often do. When one works in the mental health field/social services, sometimes it's hard to set clear boundaries around WORK time and PERSONAL time. It's sort of like being a massage therapist and your friends always wanting you to "just rub this or work on that muscle a bit" (not mentioning any friends NAMES here, but YOU know who you are!)...one gets PAID to do that for a living and usually "one" doesn't want to do anything remotely resembling work when OFF DUTY. The same is true in mental health...I'll just say "I" typically don't want to resolve other people's conflicts, hear problems with requests for solutions (a difference between just talking amongst friends), solve crises, or offer some stranger advice about their crazy-a$$ed relative while flying on a plane! PAY SOMEBODY for this advice/ear please...unless I'm on duty and GETTING paid...then go ahead and ask me.
Often times, in my free time when wondering around the city, I bump into patients I recognize, see people in crisis, and pass the homeless on my way to this errand or that. I won't say I actually IGNORE these folks, but I also don't go out of my way to make my presence known. I tend to only give street panhandlers food rather than money (if anything at all...because too often I see them later intoxicated when I'm at WORK!) and look the other way when I see someone high on crack/ETOH/meth because I don't want to be involved...off duty.
There is a term called, "compassion fatigue", and this can happen very easily to someone who can't *shut off* their mental health radar when off duty...rendering them USELESS when ON duty because they've literally just given too much of themselves. Anyone working in social services knows there will ALWAYS be someone needing of food/shelter/clothing/time/money, etc., and it is impossible to end this societal dilemma...we simply try to make a dent in it when ON duty each day and preserve ourselves OFF duty so we can face life's harshest realities when at work.
Today was my day off. Saturday. Finally a day to sleep in and run necessary household management errands to maintain the hut and the P.O.D. (Princess O' Darkness, aka, my cat). And so it was, that I headed out this afternoon on a somewhat muted sunny day...to do a few things to take care of MYSELF on my day away from work.
I realized around 1:00PM (while walking errands..."running" is such a lie) that I had not eaten anything before I left the Hut Compound, and I was getting a bit hungry. So, I pulled into a small shopping area where I often stop to grab a quick sandwich or refreshing beverage...when I parked, I made note of a man sitting slumped over on the sidewalk, a hat turned over like a pocket, and he appeared to be soliciting change from anyone willing to notice him. He was on the left-hand side of the sidewalk and I was heading to the sub shop on the right.
I went into the sub shop and ordered my sandwich, sitting alone, away from a group of somewhat loud 20-something girls (they become "girls" versus "young women" by definition when they giggle too much), and freely associated whatever was on my mind. I ran through my talks at Club Med, some funny events that had happened during the week, the Inauguration of President Obama, and my deliberately *JOYOUS* week...I honestly can't recall any of the details of my freely associating mind, only that it was running wild with ideas and thoughts.
When I left the sub shop, I headed to the convenience store just down the sidewalk to the left, passing in front of the figure seated on the cold concrete, his head bowed, dressed in dirty clothing with a "funk" smell, and noted the small amount of change someone had thrown into his hat...a few pennies, a dime, and two nickels. He never looked up...I imagined he was used to people ignoring him or deliberately looking away and probably thought it too much of a bother to look up. I also thought perhaps he was intoxicated, either on alcohol or drugs. He might even be asleep. Or, worse yet, he could be one of the hundreds of homeless MENTALLY ILL individuals roaming the streets of Seattle.
Just as I stepped past this man, being careful to avoid stepping ON him, I was hit by something so strong, it felt as if someone had plunged a metaphoric knife into my gut. My own words screamed in my head: "See beyond the behavior/presentation and find the person". I was suddenly so intensely ashamed of myself for stepping over what was obviously a PERSON in my path that I couldn't even move. I was overcome with such horrible shamed by my own thinking/behaviors, I felt tears well up in my eyes...much like when a child knows they have done something displeasing to a parent. Often this FEELING alone is far more "punishing" than anything a parent might say or do in response to the child's bad behavior. I reached in my pocket, fiddling for loose change.
And, it happened again. My own voice shouted at me to "See the person beyond the behavior", followed by "We are the change we seek".
I was NOT being called to FIND loose change in my pocket for this man, but rather BECOME the "change". I felt forced to turn around, kneel down, and address this PERSON. Don't get me wrong here...I didn't WANT to...I was COMPELLED to. And this is where the "Confessions of the most humbling kind" come in.
Just as I was kneeling down (and trust me, "kneeling" isn't an easy thing for me anymore!) about three feet away from this man, he looked up abruptly. I had startled him...but he smiled through a dirty bearded face anyway. I managed to mumble something like, "Are you doing OK?"...to which he answered rather *joyously*, "Yes! The sun has even come out a bit today."
I noted this man was sitting in the shadow of some steps, well out of any sunlight (which wasn't exactly WARM anyway today...40 degrees), and I commented on this and asked if he was warm enough? He replied, "Oh sure. I have this coat on." It was a dirty, somewhat lined, jean's jacket.
I then asked if he had eaten today? He began to tell me all about having a "wonderful lunch of macaroni and cheese at the church" and launched into how the meals are always quite delicious there, but the church was planning on moving and selling their building sometime this spring, so he wasn't sure how much longer they would be serving meals for the "needy". He talked about how nice the people were at this church and that Saturday's meals were always really good.
I asked him if I could go inside the store and get him anything? He told me, "No, I just ate and anything you'd get would just spoil". He then proceeded to tell me how he has been staying in a friend's garage in a recliner with three sleeping bags..."One is good for up to 15 degrees and the other two are good for below freezing. I hardly want to get out of them at ALL sometimes, they're so nice"...he said his friend allows him to stay in his garage in a reclining chair to sleep and to "keep an eye on his Cadillac".
I asked him if he ever stayed in the shelters in town and he very adamantly told me he wouldn't EVER go there because too many people get "stolen from" and "if you want to catch something, stay in a shelter...half the people are sick with something". I had to admit, he was correct.
He went on to talk about President Obama taking office this week, and last week's airliner landing on the Hudson River, and I asked him where he gets his news?...he was clearly quite oriented, alert, non-intoxicated, and...*joyous*.
He told me he goes to the neighborhood library every day and reads the newspapers...in fact, he was sitting outside in this spot to try to collect enough change for bus money to get to the library in the University District today...he "liked" that library the best as opposed to the gorgeous downtown library...people were "nicer" to him in the U-District.
I asked him again if I could purchase anything for him from the store?...he replied, "no, I don't need anything" and thanked me for stopping to talk with him...and I started to walk away. My knees were hurting from squatting so long and I was growing colder by the minute.
I took about 3 steps away from this man, then reached inside my pocket, found two, loose one dollar bills, and turned around to give them to him. I asked him what it cost to ride the bus these days and he told me he thought it was "a dollar fifty". I apologized for not having correct change, but explained I wanted him to get out of the cold and to the library, where he could read the newspapers and warm up...still skeptical he would actually USE the two dollars for bus fare and going AGAINST my normal *I-don't-hand-out-money-to-the-homeless* tactic. He thanked me again for stopping to talk with him "on such a nice day".
I stood a moment longer pondering my words before telling this man, "No, thank YOU for stopping to talk with me" and that I enjoyed our conversation...he then told me, "that is the nicest thing I've heard today".
I watched him from inside the warm convenience store as he got up, walked down to the corner, and stood to wait at the bus stop. I paid for my purchases in the store and heard the sound of a bus sparking the wires overhead on the street...one of the many electrically wired bus paths in Seattle. When I emerged again from the store, he was gone, hopefully riding the bus on his way to the library north bound.
"We are the change we seek."
Sometimes life's lessons have a way of ironically turning the tables on us...today was such a day. In my *superior* and *righteous* attitude of somehow being "better than", my own words got twisted around and used to teach ME.
"See the person beyond the behavior."
Which is EXACTLY what this man, who's name I may never know, did for me...he saw ME beyond MY behavior...