Thursday, February 18, 2010

Our Client's Children, Part II

The storm closed YANA, trapped most of us in our homes, left the Washington/Baltimore area frustrated and out of sorts, but for Lilian it became a source of profound enjoyment. She used it to engineer an overnight visit with her children and grandchildren and was still glowing with the pleasure of it when she came back to YANA. Lilian, like the other women she lives with in her transitional home, is required to follow a strict schedule with curfews. She got up early the day our second storm was expected and took the long bus trip to her children's home. By the time she was "ready" to leave, there was no transportation, and she was forced to stay overnight.

"You engineered that!" Her house manager said when she finally returned at the end of her second day out. "Why else would you have gotten up so early to go out there?" I don't know how Lilian answered at the time, but she laughed gleefully when she told us the manager was absolutely right. She had engineered a long visit with her grandchildren, and it was wonderful. She even slept with the three of them and cooked for them the whole next day. Lilian also explained, quite offhandedly, that the five year old and six year old boys are "slow" because they're drug babies. The 11 month old daughter is smart, though, and fast, and "evil." And then Lilian went back to her grandmotherly pleasure in the baby's fat thighs and boisterous ways and how lovely it was to have a long visit with them at last.

I picked Diane up yesterday, and both of us waved to a little girl sweeping snow on a neighbor's porch. Diane told me that the girl, like other children from the area, visits her often. The visits were painful for Diane, though, because they make her more lonely for her own children, who live with Diane's sister. Diane does talk to them every couple days, though, and believes that she will get them back soon.

Annie went to jail recently for protecting her daughter. The daughter's boyfriend had managed to throw her and their children out of their apartment, but the daughter had returned with the help of the landlord and regained the apartment and gotten a restraining order against the father of her children. He broke back in while Annie was visiting.

You don't always know which stories you hear are true, but I thought, and Sid, with her many years of counseling expertise, also thought, that Annie was telling exactly what she remembered. Annie's eyes got big as she marveled over how fast the man moved, rushing through the door and straight at her pregnant daughter. He got his hands around her throat and was choking her when Annie's own vision began to falter. The room dimmed for Annie. She wasn't sure of all the things that happened next, but she knew they resulted in the boyfriend on the floor, his nose gushing blood, straddled by Annie. She also remembers thinking that it was her daughter who was pulling her away and only slowly realizing that it was actually the police. Annie, belligerent, hyper-aroused Annie, was the one who ended up being arrested. And within a few days, the daughter began letting the boyfriend back in for visits. "I'm not going to jail for her again," Annie announces in her flat, gravelly voice. "I've been there once. I'm not going again." The daughter still calls, though, and Annie still goes.

Tina spent a lonely Christmas in the hospital, but was cheered when someone brought her a picture of her daughter beside the tree. The little girl was smiling, surrounded by an enormous pile of presents for her and her cousin. Wisely, Tina has consented for her daughter to be raised by her paternal grandmother. The child visits with Tina often, and Tina can see that she is being well cared for. Tina explained that her daughter's father had ten brothers and sisters, and that they each were given only one present for Christmas. The women at the table all agreed that this was a reasonable decision on the parents' part and the children were probably happy to get that.

Tina didn't argue this point (though I'm not sure she agreed with it either). Apparently, however, the girl's father had at some point mentioned the possibility that one Christmas present would be enough for their child. Tina's usual monotone took on emotion at this. "Oh no," she said. "Oh no, oh hellll no." She shook her small head. "I told them this isn't the old days. My daughter can't get just one present." Tina's little girl gets all the presents her family can manage, and Tina contributes as much as she can. Whatever donated toys and clothes Tina can get her hands on at YANA (we don't have many, but Tina is actually quite gifted at acquiring whatever is in sight) go to that little girl. So does Tina's money from her small disability checks. Tina has never said anything about the toys and presents she got as a child, but she mentioned just recently that her godmother's son raped her when she was eight. Tina told the godmother, who responded by putting her over a chair and beating her with a belt. I doubt she even tried to tell her own mother.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Diane Update

The local snow storms have prevented Diane from beginning her GED program, but she is still planning to enroll. She's still interested in a number of things, and I am still reminded, from time to time, that her being interested in anything is a triumph. When I drove her home the other week, she mentioned, out of nowhere, that former Baltimore Mayor Dixon (recently driven from office by a conviction for stealing, of all things, gift cards meant for the poor) said she had no regrets. I told Diane that saying you have no regrets seems to be the fashion now days, and that I thought it was ridiculous. I said I certainly regretted some of the things I've done, or failed to do. Diane said she had regrets as well. She regretted a 20 year drug addiction. I had to admit that was a pretty big thing to have to look back on.

Diane went on to tell me about she began. Apparently, not until she was almost out of her teens. She was pregnant, living with the baby's father, who told her he was going out to a job every morning. The job turned out to be a) dealing and b) stealing drugs from higher up dealers. She discovered his actual occupation when she came out of the bedroom one morning to find him dead, in a pool of his own blood. When I murmured whatever banality I came up with ("Sorry to hear it. Must have been hard for you" or the like), she segued effortlessly into memories of having been raped repeatedly by her stepfather as a child, starting at about the age of eight.

As people who read this blog know, childhood sexual trauma, especially within the family, usually precedes our clients' entry into prostitution. I've heard about so many forms of child molestation, so many times, that all I typically register is the extent to which the woman is comfortable talking about it. Usually, though, I'm spared any of the details and the resulting mental images. It was painful to hear that Diane's stepfather "used to put vaseline on his private parts" before raping her and her sister. And it is always painful for me to hear whom the women blame, whom they absolve from all blame.

In Diane's case, there was her sister, mentioned in tones equally wistful, bitter, and confused, who left home without protecting Diane. It sounded as being abandoned by her older sister, the only other person in the world who shared in Diane's secret torture, might have been almost as painful as the rapes themselves. But, Diane volunteered twice, in tones of satisfaction, her mother never knew anything about it. She had no idea at all.

Being raped by the men in the family is bad enough. Having a mother who either consented to the abuse, or was so far removed from her daughter's life that her child knew better than to go to her for protection is simply unbearable. That is the thing that can never be acknowledged.

Liz, Again (No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

Liz was in, looking sick, distressed, pulling out an envelope full of medical forms for me to see. She showed me six prescriptions and gave me the copay amounts for each. They totaled about $21.00, which seemed reasonable to me. Liz often comes in needing copays. She stays a couple hours, washing up, picking out new clothes, weeping, and chatting, and bragging, always leaving in a visibly better mood. This time, however, one of Angela's community health care crew pulled me aside to talk about Liz.

Without giving any privileged medical information, the woman told me how badly Liz had acted out at the hospital. "Showing her tail" was the phrase used. I tried to believe that was a metaphor. Unfortunately, it was not.

I told her that of all our battered clients, Liz was the one most frequently beaten, that she goes through long periods in which she seems to suffer a serious physical trauma nearly every week. The woman nodded in ready comprehension, "Hmm hmm, with that mouth," she said. No argument there. This time Liz had been acting out with the health care providers who were trying to get her into the long term rehab she needed to save her life. "She doesn't want the prescriptions. She's dope sick," the woman concluded.

And there I was about to hand Liz enough cash for two hits of heroin at the same time that our group was swelling from its normal size of 5 to 15 to more like 30, when I needed to leave YANA to pick up a volunteer who had generously made lunch for the crowd, when a tired-looking middle aged woman who had been procrastinating for months over reentering the job market had finally decided that she was ready to work on her resume with me, and, when, oh, yes, Kimberly had shown up with her nephew (see the previous post). I took the coward's way out, got the health care worker to agree to take Liz to get the prescriptions filled, and hurried out the door to get the lunch and volunteer, stopping only to tell Liz that she was getting a ride to the drug store. Liz reacted with a lot of quick talk about how she didn't need a ride. She was in a hurry. Nobody needed to treat her like that. She needed her medicine right now -- in other words, with all the anger and agitation you would expect from a junkie being denied a fix. Whether Liz is on drugs again (likely) or whether she was that overwhelmed by a delay in getting her usual fifth of vodka (also entirely likely), she was in no shape for me to leave, and I was in no position to stay and try to -- I don't know -- talk her out of needing drugs or booze? I left. She was gone by the time I returned, and there were plenty of other things to do then.

It wasn't until the next week that I found out that Liz had sat in the open area of YANA loudly cursing the health care work in front of the other women, that she had screamed so much in the car that she was dropped off at the drugstore rather than supervised there, that the health care worker and Angela then had words about whether the rules even permitted her to drive a client anywhere. . . In other words, no good deed goes unpunished. You can't care about people's recovery more than they do. Some people can not be helped. Liz is Exhibit A for a whole host of truisms.

And yet, in frequent, but very short intervals, Liz can be loving and funny and kind. She holds on, holds on valiantly, to a kind of cowboy pride in her own sexy toughness. She also seems to go out looking for trouble, daring a world in which dares are answered with gun butts to the head, a pair of girls kicking her in the ribs and face once they've gotten her down, a boyfriend who hits her with his fists. Then she basks in whatever love she can get, gets back up and swaggers right out there again. Liz in other words, is still full of life, however twisted and self defeating that life may be. The next time I'll probably just put everything else on hold and go get the medicine myself.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Remember Kimberly, the cake-making YANA client who had so much to tell us about Liz's evil sister? Well, Kimberly herself is turning out to be more than a handful. She starts off upbeat and enthusiastic about her latest adventures; then, when she gets the usual YANA response of enthusiasm and approval, she rapidly becomes louder, more aggressive, more profane. It isn't long before she's flying around the room like a rickety but triumphant little World War I fighter plane, engine rumbling, spraying us all with equal parts contempt and self congratulation. If she's talking to someone like me, the contempt is in the intonation. If she's talking to another client, she can pretty much take leave of reality.

One time she found a client's coat slipping off the back of a chair. She picked it up and made a comment about straightening up someone else's clothes. There is a lot of doing small things for each other at YANA and then wanting, really needing, to be thanked. The other client thanked her. That was the first, modest little loop of the spiral. Then Kimberly expounded on the negligence of the slipped coat and explained she wasn't anyone's maid. Another crooked loop or two of Kimberly chasing her good deed and the other woman's failure, and suddenly Kimberly was off in the ozone, machine guns firing, loudly playing the part of the outraged mother, telling another middle aged woman that when she was in her own home she could make her own rules, but until she got her own home. . . etc. Thankfully, the woman being berated chose to ignore her.

On another day, when we were especially busy, Kimberly brought her nephew to YANA and then prepared to leave him while she ran an errand. I told her that under no circumstances could she leave a child unattended at YANA. After a little argument and what seemed like genuine disappointment, Kimberly agreed. I foolishly walked off to attend to the two or three other claims on my attention, and walked back in to discover the boy sitting alone, Kimberly nowhere in sight. She had walked off under the nose of a very good YANA volunteer, having coolly led her to believe that she had permission to do so. She did return in 45 minutes or so and listened politely as I explained that she was banned from YANA for the 10 days. Later I found out that she had first assailed another client for not having done enough to take care of the boy.

Although Sid approved -- very highly, in fact -- of the temporary YANA ban, I really don't know how to deal with Kimberly. YANA is a place where we encourage people. It's where we try to help women with a long, long history of abuse begin to feel good about themselves again. But when we show Kimberly approval, or warmth, or even basic respect, she takes it as permission to behave badly. Contain, repress, "take that woman down a peg," just isn't the way we do things at YANA. And I can't think of any client we've had who's been quite like this one.

Thinking about her more, though, I wonder why not. It would seem to me that grandiosity would be a natural enough counterbalance to shame, and shame is a constant theme in our clients' lives.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Lilian has gotten all her bottom teeth pulled. She was back at YANA looking well and making a valiant effort to eat tacos, shell and all, before settling for the meat alone.

Diane has signed up for a GED class! She should be in it right now. My hope is that the three of us -- Diane, Sid, and I -- can meet to form a sort of Team Diane to troubleshoot the problems she's likely to encounter. I can imagine quite a few, from learning disability to no money for the bus to depression to interference from that guy who persists in living with her. We can definitely give her bus money.

Helen came in briefly with her beautiful and probably overmedicated granddaughter. I saw the child twitching for a moment, but later she seemed o.k. I didn't get a chance to talk to her, just saw her eating a taco. Helen still lives with her daughter's family. The apartment she's had for months is sitting empty. I don't know if she doesn't have the energy and resources to get it furnished or if she just doesn't want to separate from her daughter and grandchildren. I gave her information another client brought in about a man who was giving away old furniture.

Love, Peace, and Hair Grease

That was what Liz had to say a while back at the end of another long session of crying and comforting. Once she was all cleaned up, with her jeans tucked into her knee-high leather boots and her hair looking good, she got tired of all the mushy talk. When somebody tried to float another homily about God and doors opening her way as she left, Liz struck a little pose, two fingers up in a peace symbol and all, and announced "You know what they say, Love, Peace, and Hair Grease!" I was pretty much with her on the whole shutting up the well wishers thing. Their platitudes are almost as threadbare as hers, and we hear a lot more of them. Still, "love, peace, and hair grease?" That was weak even when it first came out in her childhood. She didn't have anything catchier, more updated than that to say?

No, she did not. Liz, like almost all of our clients, uses decades-old slang for everyday talk and the most painfully overworked of Christian one-liners for encouragement. Any aging suburbanite who's ever watched cable is likely to use an edgier, more modern vocabulary than our urban prostitutes do. For our women, an ass might be an ass, or it might be a heiney or hind parts. A person who uses a lot of drugs is an addict, or maybe a dope fiend. A vegetarian eats "nare any meat." Dirty dogs do their dirty deeds.

And there's little or none of the language that glorifies street violence. You are not going to hear that a gangbanger rolled up on someone with a nine or a glock or whatever the expression for a powerful gun is now. You rarely even hear the term "driveby." You just hear that someone got shot or almost got shot. And more often than you'd like, you hear that the victim was the woman's cousin or nephew, or, sometimes, her son. Which, I suppose, is a pretty good reason for not using any of the more exciting and accepting words for killing people.

And women in recovery never seem to tire of telling one another that they are blessed, that God never closes a door without opening a window, that God will never give you a burden you can't carry, and that they wish us a blessed day. And though the sentiments are very old, they are delivered, time and time again, as if they are urgent, and astonishing, news. Which, I suppose, they generally are.

We do have "abandominium," though. It's what we all call the abandoned buildings that the homeless move into. I don't know if it's local to Baltimore, or if it's a nationwide term. Either way, it's a delightfully jaunty word, making the joking best of the place that most of our women have at some time in their lives called home.