Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Day at YANA (Almost Halloween)

Today, Heather, our volunteer psychologist, offered to lead a group discussion on anxieties and how to manage them. Unfortunately, I had the bright idea of starting the discussion off by announcing to an already very chatty group that we would talk about anxieties because it was almost Halloween. I said it because I was trying to get their attention, and in that I was certainly successful. The women were all electrified -- but not in the sense of animated debate so much as in the sense of hair standing on end, eyes throwing sparks, tossing information about the Halloween gang killings back and forth as if they were trying to get rid of a live hand grenade. According to the women, the gangs planned to shoot 31 women to death for the month of Halloween. They said that the shootings had already begun and that 13 women were dead so far.

Tina, who I believe has lived in the area all her life, was astonished. Almost all the other women seemed to be in the know, echoing the numbers of dead and soon-to-be-dead and reminding each other that there would also be a lot of rapes. They said the women were shot all over the city, and that anyone could be killed. They advised Heather and me to drive straight home, and they advised each other of where to hide and what to scream if the hiding wasn't successful. Heather, who turns out to be an impressively patient young woman, sympathized briefly, and asked what else, besides the possibility of being shot, made them feel anxious. A woman whose name I haven't bothered to learn yet, preferring instead to think of her as "the little mean woman," treated the room to a discourse on her fear of being shot while sitting with her aunt in the front row of church. She justified this by reference to a robbery in a different church something like a year ago. As I've written before, not many of our women go to church -- or maintain a particularly good relationship with their families for that matter. But at least they all got to know that the little mean woman did both.

"Worry about your safety in the street and in church!" Heather said kindly. She gently prodded for other causes of anxiety. Kiki began a rapid fire explanation of someone who owed her 7 dollars and who had the nerve to accuse her of having an attitude when she needed the money back, and she really needed the money, and she wouldn't have asked if she didn't, and . . ." "Worry about money," Heather said with grave sympathy. "A lot of people worry about that." The other women filled in eagerly with advice. "You're not getting the money back," Tina swiftly informed her. There was prompt and enthusiastic agreement on this point. Kiki still wanted to watch out for the debtor after he got his check, but, again, she was warmly and swiftly advised to let the matter go. Grudgingly, I will admit that even the little mean woman was helpful on that point. And as for Kiki, there really was nothing petty in her concerns. She's pregnant, collecting free baby clothes from our donors, and genuinely worried about her own ability to give and withhold. She was afraid of not having enough. She was afraid of becoming the sort of person who wouldn't give anything to a person in real need.

Somebody else said something about people who died in Pakistan and praying for them. We don't have the kind of group that talks about pet peeves and minor annoyances. It's gang killing, rape, robbery, betrayal, poverty, and war with them. Heather and I sort of had manageable little phobias in mind. Finally, in reference to I don't know what, Kiki said something about claustrophobia. I loudly (and truthfully) announced to the room that I'm very claustrophobic. Nearly all the other women said they were too. "How about fear of heights?" Heather asked. Another problem for most of the room. It rapidly became clear that murder, rape, and the rest don't preclude all the other fears. Mentions of snakes, spiders, mice had most of the women shuddering.

Heather began a discussion on how people's bodies feel when they're anxious (racing heart, shallow breathing and the like), then asked what we do when we get to that point. "I used to just sniff dope," Jennifer told us. "But I don't do that no more." Other people talked about going to their "happy place." Heather talked about deep breathing. Some women had to leave. Another woman, Lilian, came out of the bathroom wearing a very attractive pantsuit she'd found in the donations. The rest of the group burst into a frenzy of praise. "Now I have something to wear to church!" Lilian said. "Last week I wore jeans." At this point the group was divided between continuing to praise the church clothes and reassuring her that it didn't matter what she wore as long as she went. Not too much else got down in the anxiety discussion.

The little mean woman managed to tell me about a neighborhood woman who set fire to an abandominum, planning to kill one person and accidentally murdering a man who was asleep down stairs. The woman she mentioned was a YANA client who hasn't been around for a while. She was troubled. She was living in an abandominium. She was involved in some fires, and Liz told us months ago that the police were looking for her. I said nothing to the little mean woman. It's possible that the rumor is true.

Patient Heather was pleased with the initial discussion. She plans to hold further groups on how to implement some of the anxiety strategies. Pammy came in with her mother who is also named Pammy and with an elderly friend also named Pammy. The three women seemed fairly pleased with their names, and the eldest Pammy smiled in genuine amusement when asked if she was the great grandmother. The youngest Pammy (herself a grandmother) had been diagnosed with AIDS earlier this year because her t-cell count was so low. Apparently, it's back in the healthy range now, and her viral load is undetectable. She beamed as we exclaimed over her obvious health and well being. Lilian hugged me for a long time before she left and said that she thought of us often. Another woman, Sheri, came in just at closing, and I gave her a birthday card from Daniel (son in the pictures) and myself. I got a lot of hugs from her too. She said her birthday hadn't been very good and that she would "cherish" the card. Excitedly, she told she was making something for me and Daniel for Christmas. The women, especially Lilian and Tina, took it on themselves to clean the room and take out the trash, then filtered out for another day. As we left, Tina told us again how afraid of elevators she was. She said that the emergency phone in an elevator at a hospital didn't work, and when she got stuck she ripped it "down to the wires" trying to call somebody. People heard her screaming, though. She left for her sister's house before going back to a shelter. It was another day with pretty much the usual mix of women at YANA

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