Disclaimer: I have changed the name of the individual in this story in order to protect her privacy.
Three-and-a-half Lessons in Compassion
I know an attack is going to happen before it does.
There is something in her hand, but I don’t know what it is until is hits me.
I turn and run downstairs so I won’t be alone with her. More of it hits me. It’s flying through the air all around me. How can there be so much of it!? It’s warm through the shirt on my back and feels heavy in my hair. It makes splatting noises as it meets the wall behind me.
“Target!” I yell, our staff word that means one of the girls has “escalated.”
Aimee comes down the stairs quickly, her footsteps heavy with the weight of her body. She wants a fight, and though her hands are now empty of large globs of fecal matter, which she scooped out of the toilet, she smears what remains along the hallway’s white walls.
We wait for her at the bottom of the stairs. When she makes an uncoordinated move to grab my hair, we move in and restrain her.
It takes two of us because she is over 200 pounds, and remarkably strong. Another staff member grabs a plastic kitchen chair, and we assume the positions we are trained to take in order to avoid head butts or being spit on; we face Aimee’s palms in against the chair so that she can’t scratch our wrists with her fingernails.
We know her moves because we have done this dozens of times before.
The other two staff begin cleaning the brown scattered about the house.
I look at the floor, waiting out this tantrum as I kneel, holding her in place and listening as her breathing becomes slower, trying not to let the smell of human poop get to me as my coworker cleans it off my back and out of my hair.
It’s a bad day at work, but not an uncommon day. A window has already been shattered with a rock, a car damaged, staff clothes ripped; this might be the 12th time we’ve called out, “Target!”.
I work in one of the most high-risk homes in the state.
The house is run 24/7 with rotating shifts between a core staff of 10. We are always one staff per one girl except at night, when there are only two staff.
I came here because I wanted to help. I wanted to make a difference, but I learned that sometimes when someone is so broken all you can do is surrender and just show up. There’s no fixing something once the worst has happened to it.
Lesson #1 is that I have to give up.
Let the ego become roadkill; let it get run over multiple times. I have to wave goodbye to my expectations and agenda; my motivation can’t be about doing this type of work because it makes me feel good about myself.
On the other hand, I believe the ego is necessary to fuel our ambitions. We need it to get to the destination, but then we have to let the destination reshape it the way water reshapes rock. We have to listen to it and then let it go once we understand reality.
The reality is that each girl has her own unique story of survival. It comes in her case file, a white binder, the biggest you can think of, filled with stories that will make your heart break—every med. she has ever taken, neglect, physical abuse, arrests, and detailed diagnoses of mental and developmental disorders stacked up on top of each other like Jenga blocks, creating a very unsound structure.
Somehow though, between the lines, you can understand why this girl turned out the way she did, and after reading the histories, it’s hard to take the attacks personally. They’re just reactions to a history that unfolds and churns in these girls’ souls over and over again.Photo: kr428
Our role is to be the interruption in that history, the thing that changes a particular thought pattern, something that proves old beliefs and ways of being no longer valuable. It’s like digging and reshaping the shore so that the tides will flow differently. But sometimes it makes the waves crash even harder, and then we have to pull back and explore a different approach.
Lesson #2: Find humor and focus on the good moments.
We start putting sticky notes on the back of the office door of things the girls have said or done that we find endearing. One of my favorites is from the time Aimee said that when she grows up, she wants to do what we do.
Still, the nature of storms is that they don’t ever end for good. We go for several weeks of sunny weather and then several weeks of bad. One moment you think maybe things are getting better and the next moment, you’re sitting in the ER to have the human bite marks on your arm examined. (Refer back to Lesson #1 if you start thinking that things are getting better.)
Burn out here is high and we go through staff every couple of months.
My burnout eventually comes too, but it doesn’t burn; it makes me numb with cold. For a while I wrestle with not knowing whether I am honoring my own needs or simply running away from what is uncomfortable.
I do the self-care stuff. I practice tonglen and take baths after work. Time goes by, but I can feel the cold seeping in.
On my way home from work one night, I get pulled over for doing 20 over. One of our girls tried to strangle herself with the window curtains and then became violent. I’ll save the details, but I just wanted to be home.
After I get the ticket, I throw it in the backseat and cry. I breathe. I look out at the flat prairie land until it meets the foothills, and then look up to where the foothills meet the sky. “It’s not about me. It’s not about me,” I remind myself, but my soul feels starless like the night from standing in this crossfire, from trying to remove my emotions from these experiences, from trying to create change, but only spiraling through the same situations over and over again, from loving these girls and being terrified of them at the same time.
Lesson #3: Stop glamorizing compassion. It’s not all about heart. It’s about balancing heart and head and it’s okay to close your heart when you need to take care of yourself.
So I give my two weeks and I feel like a failure for deserting the girls. Am I just another hardship now in their lives? I wonder. The guilt likes to chew a bit at the corners of my sensitive, afflicted heart.
Three days before my final day, we gather in the living room for our daily sessions called, “Group.” I announce that I will no longer be working there. I try to pump the girls up by prefacing my statement with, “I know you are all strong young women and that you will be able to handle this…”
There is another escalation that night.
On my final day, Aimee attempts her last chance at connection with me. The 5’2, 200-pound 18-year-old—the girl who was raped by a family member as a child and abandoned by her mother over and over again, who struggles with aggression, depression, self-harm, disordered eating, you name it—the girl who has spit on me, pulled out chunks of my hair, thrown her own sh*t on me…gives me a gift.
She gives me a book that she picked out from the free book bin at the library. She’s written on the inside. It says, “good-by to bri and I will miss bri and good luck. From Aimee.”
The book is called, When Heaven and Earth Traded Places, and I think somehow that it has some significance, some message in it for me to take before I leave for good.
Aimee has such blue eyes and when ours meet, I know that we are not all that different. Given the same history, I would be exactly who she is, trapped in the nightmare of her own past, but trying, trying oh-so-hard to fight her own dark places—hoping to just be “normal” someday.
I know deeply that the places we stand are only circumstantial.
I haven’t seen Aimee since then, nor any of the girls for that matter. The last I heard was that the home was closing. There were too many violent incidents and the girls were all being transferred to new placements. I don’t know where.
Lesson #3.5: Separate pain from suffering.
I’ve learned that there’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain doesn’t necessarily have to lead towards suffering. In fact, suffering is only an interpretation of pain. This doesn’t mean that pain isn’t painful—it still hurts like hell, but pain only becomes suffering when we turn it into our personal story instead of letting it go.
When you work in the type of environment that constantly defeats your ego, you change. You soften up on the inside, but harden up on the outside. You have to decide what to let in and what to keep out in order to maintain sanity. But even through those little unconscious decisions, stuff gets in and twists itself into the edges of your heart, becoming part of your story before you even know it.
Lesson #3.5 then is about keeping an eye on everything that floats into your little soul so that you don’t become identified with it. It’s about learning to be surrounded by pain, how to feel it and work with it, and yet, not fall victim to personal suffering.
I am still in the process of learning what this really means.